Progress

Just this week I finished my first six weeks of my semester in France and can I just say, wow. I know study abroad is an incredible experience to get out and see the world, but my classes have put the study in study abroad. This week we will be talking about the French education system, particularly the university system of which I am the most familiar.

For my program with CIEE, I am required to complete two six-week intensive grammar classes and three other classes taught in French, one of which has to be done at a local university. Since I am now six weeks in, I have just completed the first grammar class and also a French philosophy class. Being intensives, these classes meet frequently and for long periods of time. As an example, for my grammar class we meet Monday through Thursday for two and a half hours each day, ending with a grand total of sixty class hours over the span of six weeks.

This class is entitled Writing Workshop and it is essentially designed to help us succeed in our classes at French university. I actually really enjoyed it because this class is taught by probably one of my favorite human-beings in existence, Marie-Christine, who is a lifelong parisienne that probably stands no taller than five feet and is well into her sixties. If caffeine could take a human form then it would definitely be MC, she has so much energy which is exactly what you need at nine a.m. on a Monday morning.

Everyday after MC marches in and shouts a joyful “BONJOUR” to us, my class starts with a warm up called “quoi de neuf” which means “what’s new?” This is the time where my classmates and I can tell stories about our experiences in Paris and give each other recommendations on places to visit, gossip about our host families, and really just talk about anything so long as it is in French. I consider this my favorite part of class because I can recount a story about something incredibly mundane and normal but Marie-Christine will listen intently and after I’ve finished she will shout some exclamatory like “GENIAL” (great) or “FORMIDABLE” (wonderful). Honestly, this woman provides the kind of encouragement I need.

After our daily quoi de neuf, Marie-Christine moves on to teach important grammar points that will be important for refining our language, but her first mission was to teach the class how to do an exposé. You may be asking yourself: what is an exposé? Well let me tell you, it can be really fun and it can also be really not fun, but we’ll get to that later.

An exposé is essentially a twenty minute presentation, usually done in pairs, about a subject presented to you in the form of a research question, not really anything new or exciting. However, the French way of presenting is quite different. Here’s how I would explain it: Americans say what their subject is and make a claim about it, then they present information supporting their claim and refute counterarguments, ultimately ending with a brief summary of the argument and how it can be applied to different real-life situations. The French explain the context of their subject, state their research question, state their research question in different words, explain the order of what they will do, talk about their research, restate what they have talked about, and lastly state their argument. While my class was learning about this incredibly foreign and slightly nonsensical way of presenting, we were all completely blown away by how counterintuitive the entire process was from what we had been taught in the American system and it took us a while to fully understand the concept.

After we learned how to do an exposé, we were tasked with actually carrying one out on different subjects and people in the quarter of Paris called Montmartre. Since the concept was so strange to us, this first round of exposés was slightly awkward because we had never done them before. After that first round where we all presented our exposés for our class and the beloved Marie-Christine, we started a second round of exposés that went much smoother than the first on the subject of Montparnasse, another famous quarter in Paris.

When we aren’t working on our exposés in writing workshop we are learning grammar, and not normal grammar; this is upper level stuff that has definitely had my brain doing gymnastics. While it has been hard to learn and difficult to grasp certain concepts, I definitely feel like I’ve already learned so much and my French is much more fluid than it was six weeks ago.

One final piece of this class that I have yet to mention are our group outings. My class has done extensive research on two important quarters in Paris: Montmartre and Montparnasse. These two neighborhoods have been host to some of the greatest French and foreign artists to live in Paris. Characters such as Pablo Picasso, Sartre, Gertrude Stein, Saint Denis, Josephine Baker, Kiki de Montparnasse, are all people we have studied and after all of that research Marie Christine took us out on little field trips to explore the areas. It was on one of these tours that I got to see Bateau-Lavoir, the workshop of famous creatives linked to Pablo Picasso, Cimetière de Montparnasse where Jean-Paul Sartre and Man Ray are buried, and Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmartre.

The view from Montmartre
La Coupole, one of the most famous cafés in Montparnasse

The other requirement of my program is to take at least one class at a local university. For this, I was given the option between two schools within the University of Paris system, Sorbonne Nouvelle which is well known for its classes in cinema and literature, or Paris Diderot which is a largely humanities based school with broader options for classes. Not quite knowing what kinds of classes I wanted to take, I chose Diderot since it gave me greater variety.

In front of Diderot, excuse the wild hair

At Diderot I chose to take two classes, a history class about South Asia with a particular concentration on colonial India, and a sociology course about migration and globalization. These are both semester long courses taught in French (obviously) for French students. The one really great thing about these classes is that they aren’t intensive like my classes at CIEE so instead of meeting every day we only meet once a week for three hours.

Right away I noticed some very distinct differences between French and American university:

  1. The professor is never on time. Both of my professors show up to class usually two or three minutes after the scheduled start time and don’t rush to start class even though they are late. Consequently, they don’t end on time either. This is especially unpleasant because three hours is long enough for a class, my attention span cannot be extended much longer than that so an extra fifteen minutes is not exactly my cup of tea.
  2. We have breaks. This is one of the differences that I actually like about French university. Because classes are three hours long (and sometimes even longer), the professors usually give us a 5-10 minute break around the middle to get up and move around so we don’t fall asleep.
  3. Grading system. The French university (and every other level of French education) is established not on a 100 point scale but a 20 point scale. This is something I’m still getting used to because when I get a paper back with a 14 out of 20 I freak out thinking I got a 70% on that assignment. The funny thing is that a 14 is actually considered a really good grade…let me explain. According to the university scale scores from 15-20 are an A, 14 is A-, 13 B+, 12 B, 11 B-, 10 C, and so on. From what I’ve been told, a 10 is the cutoff for passing or not so if a French student gets a 10 or higher, they’re really happy. Marie-Christine has told me that not many students even get a 15 and if you do then you’ve done really, really well. That being said, I’m still adjusting to this scale because I prefer the American 100-point scale since there isn’t such a steep drop-off between an A and failing.
  4. French students don’t know how to speak in public. Okay that’s only partially true, but hear me out. From my experience, I have never had a problem understanding a French professor because they all speak clearly and use good diction. Occasionally professors will start to speak a bit too fast and their words will run together but that hasn’t happened very frequently. The students, on the other hand, don’t speak like that at all. When they ask questions or speak in class they don’t raise their voices, speak clearly, or have any kind of gap between their words, yet somehow the professor manages to understand them perfectly! I noticed the same thing when they present their exposés. A lot of students will have scripts written out so they just read what they want to say and when they do that it’s even harder to understand because they read so fast and speak directly to their notes, not the class. Even if I try to read their lips or look at their powerpoints, I don’t really get a good sense of what’s going on.
  5. You get what you pay for. University is a lot less expensive in France than it is in the United States and it shows in the way that the university functions, particularly in the relationship between professor and student. In the U.S. I’ve had so many professors who are incredibly invested in the success of their students, so when I got to France I was shocked to find that this wasn’t the case. This isn’t to say that I have bad professors because I think both of them are fantastic, however they need you to tell them where you’re at with class subjects and lectures in order for them to better accommodate to your needs. They don’t have office hours so it’s important that you talk to them right away before or after class. If that doesn’t work, then an email will have to suffice, however they tend to take a long time to reply, if they do reply. As an international student, I can’t expect my professors to read my mind so if something is wrong I have to speak up.

One kind of funny example of this last point comes from my first day at French university. I was with a friend from my program and we had taken really good notes throughout the entire class, then the professor wanted to assign exposés before the class was over. Now my friend and I weren’t technically registered for the class and she and I had yet to do our exposés with Marie-Christine so we figured we would wait until we got officially enrolled in the class before we volunteered to do an exposé for it. Well wouldn’t you know, the professor assigned exposés to everyone in the class and then asked if there was anyone who hadn’t yet volunteered. It was clear at this point that it was down to just a select few people who hadn’t, my friend and I included. So I raised my hand and asked if I could speak to the professor after class. It all went downhill from there. Instead of saying that she’d talk to me, she assigned my friend and I the very first exposé to be presented in a week. It took a second for the information to sink in and then suddenly class was over and everyone was gone. I went up to the professor and explained to her that I was an international student and that I wasn’t yet registered for her class and could I please not do the exposé next week? She enrolled me in her class right there and told me she anticipated my presentation. I was in a bad way after that. I called my mom and talked her through the situation and she did her best to encourage me.

My friend and I worked tirelessly all week and consulted Marie-Christine on how to do it, by the time the next class came around we were nervous. The professor invited us up to present and just as I got out of my seat I knocked my Hydroflask (those huge metal water bottles you see all over campus at Hope) off my desk onto the tile floor and let me just say it was not quiet. I was mortified! I quickly pulled myself together and we got up to do our presentation. It was a little weird considering we were two foreign students presenting in a language and format that made sense to everyone else in the room but us, but we did it! We finished and I swear I left that class feeling two inches taller!

So this story doesn’t really have much of a moral, but if I could do it again, knowing what I know now, I would have had a longer conversation with my professor and told her my situation: I’m not only an international student who doesn’t speak French as a first language, but also I’ve never done a presentation in the French format before. If I would have done that I’m not sure what the result would have been, but at least the professor would have been more aware of my situation so that maybe she would have given us more guidance and let us learn from other students before we had to present ourselves.

In sum, school here is difficult. It’s difficult to summarize my entire six weeks of schooling in just a few pages of writing, but while it has been a challenge, I also know that I’m growing immensely. Just yesterday I went to an extra-curricular lecture and started talking to a professor in French, he thought I was in France for my masters degree and was shocked to find out that I was just here for a semester after only having visited the country once before. It’s moments like this that remind me that despite this program’s difficulty, I am making progress.

La Vie Française

Hello, world! I am back at it and this time not suffering from the negative effects of jet lag! I have now been in Paris for almost a month so I feel that I’m much more able to start posting about happenings and life in general in Paris now that I’m better acquainted with the city. This week we are talking about: the French home.

My study abroad program, French and Critical Studies with CIEE, is a language intensive program which means that everything that we do associated with CIEE is in French. What that means is that the program forces us to be fully immersed in the language ALL .THE. TIME. CIEE in Paris has two options for housing: student apartments or a homestay with a French family. The students in FCS, however, don’t have a choice; we are required to live in a home stay in order to keep us exposed to the French language.

That being said, for the past month I have been living with my host mother, Katherine (pronounced Kat-rine with a nice French rgh) who, as I mentioned in the previous post, doesn’t speak a word of English. When I first learned this, I was terrified that she and I would struggle to relate with one another; I feared that I wouldn’t be able to express myself. However, we are nearly a month into living, speaking, and dining with each other every single day and I can confidently say that my fears were completely unfounded.

You see, Katherine loves, and I mean LOVES to talk. She sits with me at breakfast every morning and listens to the radio, but as soon as she hears something that sparks her interest the radio is forgotten and she is speaking, with a relatively high level of knowledge about the subject and flowing right on into the next one. This was especially great for me the first few days into living with her because there really wasn’t a need for me to talk and I could get used to the pace of speech from an actual French speaker. These days I’m much better able to interject with my own opinions on the subject and she and I can have more and more conversations which I think both she and I really appreciate.

As I’ve been able to communicate with Katherine, I’ve learned a lot more about her and her life. She is in her 70s with three grown daughters, two of whom live nearby and frequent the apartment. She started her professional life as a secretary but somehow got connected with someone in the art restoration business which led to her second and most favorite career as an art restorer. She told me that she’s worked on a team that has restored big pieces of art such a painted ceiling in the Louvre and another work in l’Assemblée Nationale. She still does some smaller pieces and I occasionally come home to the smell of some of her chemicals that she uses on the paintings.

Speaking of home, for Katherine and me home is a two bedroom apartment in the northwestern suburb of Paris called Neuilly-Sur-Seine. There I have my own room with a big window that looks out over our ally with those cute white Parisian window shutters. I also just have to mention: in the bathroom we have a heating rack for our towels! It’s pretty standard for French homes but I just find it amusing and also incredibly amazing when I get to wrap myself in a warm towel — it’s just great.

My bedroom

Our living room

A little bit about Neuilly: it’s smack dab in between l’Arc de Triomphe (that fancy Roman-looking arch that Napoleon built way back when) and La Defense which is just a gigantic hollow cube in the more business-y part of Paris. Neuilly, as I’m told, is rather chic, although I can’t say that stops people from letting their dogs “relieve” themselves on the sidewalks and not clean up after them. Yeah, watch your step.

Other than that, I’ve found that our apartment in Neuilly is actually in quite an ideal location. It takes me about four minutes to walk to the metro which will then take me straight into the city which can connect me to ten of the fourteen lines in the city. I am also just a ten minute walk away from the Bois de Boulogne which is to Paris what Central Park is to New York. Saturdays are especially hectic with runners and walkers everywhere, not to mention tons of adorable dogs out playing in the fields.

Bois de Boulogne
Some new friends I met in the park

Another essential part of my French home life is the food. Katherine is an amazing cook. She can turn anything into a delicious and nutritious meal. I remember my first night with her I was a little apprehensive when she put my first meal in front of me: cabbage wrapped in ham and covered in cheese. As far as looks went, I was strongly questioning whether what I was about to put into my body would even be worth it, but I was starving so I dug in and it was incredible! Also, leftover night at our place is not to be dreaded because she just whips something completely new together from the ingredients she used previously. I’m serious — carrot and mushroom in a creamy sauce over angel hair pasta…who would have thought?!

At times Paris can feel slightly exhausting and incredibly lonely; it’s hard to live in a place that you’re unfamiliar with around people who don’t know you or even speak your language. In a city where it is so easy to be anonymous sometimes you just want a taste of home. I’m sure every student who has studied in a foreign country understands exactly what I mean, but I have to remind myself how lucky I am to have this opportunity. When I get these kinds of feelings I’ve found that it’s best to talk to friends and family; they really are just a phone call away! Also, if you can find it, eat some of your favorite food. If you can’t find that, listen to some of your favorite songs or do the same activities you would at home. For me, I’ve found that going for a run helps me immensely because running has always been a very cathartic activity and it’s something that I’ve done first at home, then at school when I moved away from home, and now I can do it here!

No, things will not be exactly the same as they are at home but that’s precisely the purpose of study abroad: to gain a new perspective. Instead of being stuck on what I miss about my home in the U.S., I go out and explore to find new things that help me feel at home here.

Reporting from the Coldest Place on the Earth

Saturday officially marked the third week that I have been in Chicago. It seems like I’ve been here for so much longer than that already! As a small town girl, I imagined the transition to go much less smoothly, but public transit and getting around the city has been intuitive and fun. All the Chicago Semester students have settled into their schedules and internships, as well as I have!

I am at Mercy Hospital, which is just southeast of Chinatown (one of my favorite neighborhoods). My placement is in the operating room (OR), pre- and post-operating care units, and the recovery room. So far, I’ve only spent time in the operating room, but I am thoroughly enjoying every case in which I’ve watched and helped. A unique challenge has been that the OR’s atmosphere and nursing expectations are different to a regular hospital unit. There a technical skills and instruments I have never seen before. Now that it’s the third week in the OR, I’m finally getting used to the roles that are expected of me, multitasking well, and the unique oddities of the OR. I am learning so much and anticipate using these lessons in my future nursing career.

The fact that my internship has come into full-swing has definitely not hindered my adventurous spirit. From spontaneous taco nights to swing dancing, I have fallen in love with all the exciting events that happen daily in the city, which reflect it’s unique history. Even though I’ve been *social* swing dancing for almost three years now, it felt like I had been dancing for three months. The style and energy was high above my technical level, and I anticipate getting much better in my dancing skills. Here’s a video of these talented dancers. I mean, what was I supposed to expect of one of the cities where blues/jazz originated?

I attended a play at Court Theatre, “Photograph 51”, about Rosalind Franklin. Commonly known for their discoveries about the characteristics of DNA, Watson and Crick owe the credit to their concept of DNA’s double helix to Franklin’s x-ray images of DNA, who is far less-popularly known. The story was captivating, dynamic, and full of emotion. What’s really cool about the Chicago Semester is that they offer free art events for the students every week. From the Art Institute to operas, I plan to go to as many as I can! There’s not many times in life where you get to go to free events that showcase Chicago’s diverse culture and history.

Most of my hours and days off have been spent exploring random parts of the city. Google has been a beautiful tool with which I’ve discovered interesting venues with fantastic events. From free arcade games to Lakeshore runs to the Navy Pier, I continue to settle in my internship, growing and learning and enjoying the city more than I would’ve imagined.

My favorite part of the city is how the people are all so connected. Somehow we live separate lives that converge at random points in time. I like to think of them as magic moments in which two strangers can somehow connect at a pre-destined time. I had to leave exactly 2 minutes after my shift ended to meet Ron, the 90-year old Chinese man, on the subway. After moving here in the late 40s, he bought a house in a north Chicago neighborhood and has since lived there. This short 15 minute conversation reminded me of how small I am in the grand scheme of life (a good reminder).

Overall, the past few weeks have been filled with small victories: conquering public transit, exploring a new city, and braving -50 degree weather, which made life very interesting and full of layers. Weird to think that I was in the coldest place in the world last Wednesday. Thankfully, I was bundled up inside with a cup of hot tea and fuzzy socks. Thankfully, the turn-around of 50 degree weather (yes, you read that right. We had a 100-degree difference in three day’s span) has allowed my adventurous spirit to re-emerge.

My goal for the next couple weeks? Continue learning at my internship (Gosh, it’s felt weird to be so young in my workplace). Hear more people’s stories. Find new ways to be uncomfortable (’cause that’s how humans grow to be better humans). Keep an open mind to new experiences that come spontaneously. Embrace city life.

Oh right… you’re going to school there too

“How’s it going so far? I bet you’re having so much fun!” This is the content of nearly every message I’ve received over the past two weeks. While there is nothing wrong with this and I actually do appreciate the messages, I have to be honest in saying that I am not quite sure what to say.

In preparation to go abroad, I attended the mandatory orientation session given by the Center for Global Engagement at Hope. We were told that some of the things that students experience when they go abroad is difficulty in explaining how they are feeling because no one back home can really comprehend what you are experiencing. Another was that we would likely feel extreme emotions of lifetime highs and lows. Over these past two weeks, I can already say that this is so true. I have had some of the most incredible experiences in this short time already, but also have struggled with doubt and confusion.

Week two presented a new university, classes, professors, language, friends, culture. This too, was pretty overwhelming as the first week was for me, yet I loved it at the same time. The days I spent trying to picture what my school would be like when I came to Ecuador were finally given an illustration! The university campus is beautiful, the professors are very kind and patient, and the classes will challenge me. However, the best of all perks is that the university never has classes on Friday, making traveling on the weekends more of a reality!

It has been a frustrating and mentally defeating week as well. Each day this week I have had to change my class schedule at least one time, in attempt to figure out what will count for credits when I return. I spent this past fall detailing which classes I would take and emailing professors at Hope to get them all approved before I left. When I arrived and my program directors looked at my schedule, they told me that it was going to be way too hard. I was frustrated that they couldn’t have provided us with further information before we arrived, because I was not about to take a semester’s worth of classes that didn’t count for anything. After a lot more emailing and exploring every class that the university is offering this fall, I am getting close to having my full schedule set.

My mom said it best this week when she texted me,

“I’ve been thinking and praying about this and how these alterations, roadblocks, and detours cause you stress and make you doubt your choices, the things that you are doing, and make you wonder if it’s the right thing. Maybe this is a really simplistic view, but God knew that having everything approved beforehand would be your “confirmation/green light” to go [study abroad]. He may have specifically crafted that plan to you… yet when arriving in Ecuador, He has different plans and experiences for you. He is going to figure out a way for you to be in His plan, not yours. I know its hard and things going according to plan give us security and peace. God is going to use this experience to teach you a lot of things… not just school related. Being able to rest with the ups and downs and trust God is going to be vital to your experiences in life. Remember what I said to you as you left, even if things are not going according to how you thought they would or should, trust God… He will bring it all around for His good. His plans are for you, not against you!”

Here’s to a semester of taking the experiences that I am given as they come, growing through both the highs and lows, and believing that it is well no matter what!

Love from Quito,

Morgan

Take Some Time and Forget the Map

On day one of orientation here in London, our program put on the screen a list of several apps to help make sure we knew where we were going the next few days. There was a frantic rush as everyone grabbed their pen or pencil to scribble down the names, myself included. I was nervous and overwhelmed, terrified of showing up late to any of the meetings or required events. Honestly, I needed all the help I could get.

Going to and from school and our residences, we were constantly clutching on to our phones, double checking that we were entering the right tube station, turning the right direction, or getting on the correct bus. By about day three, we were slowly starting to get the hang of where we needed to go—that is if we were going to school or back.

The Saturday after we arrived, my roommate and I decided to get some lunch before heading out to get our groceries. We mapped our way back to what we thought was our street, only to discover that there’s a difference between Angel and Angel street. Angel street just happened to be near St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is about twenty minutes away from our home station. St. Paul’s was beautiful and ginormous, and it was a nice surprise to stumble on. After snapping a few pictures, we headed back to the bus using our trusted map app.

Bumping along the jammed London streets on the double decker bus, we got to see a lot more of London than we were expecting. Before we knew it, we were driving along Oxford street with all of its beautiful Christmas lights still up, and traveling through the West End, the bright marquees blinking furiously. We were so entranced by it all, we weren’t paying attention that our bus had crossed a bridge over the river Thames and onto the South Bank—definitely the opposite direction of where we needed to be. And there our bus stopped.

We ended up finding our way back to our residence, slowly but surely, and stopping to take pictures of the sun setting on the London skyline and the London eye in the process. It was quite an adventure. Almost two and a half hours in an attempt to get some measly groceries!

 

Since then, I’ve wandered into neighborhoods that are nowhere near where I live, found some great cafes and bakeries, turned the wrong way out of tube stations and discovered bookshops and theatres for shows I want to go see. Though I always have my map ready in case I need it, I’m starting to put it away and just explore, letting the city take me where it wants to.

 

On The Way to His True North – News from Hope Magazine

In case you missed this article on the recent News from Hope magazine, you don’t want to miss the story behind how Hope alumnus Danny Kosiba began his whale research journey during his semester in New Zealand, and where this has led thereafter!

“Study” and “Abroad”

When I first started looking into studying abroad, I repeatedly heard stories about the workload while abroad and how the “abroad” played a much bigger role than the “study.” Well, they fooled me. Now, my program is a unique one, because it focuses on the European Union and has three week-long trips throughout the semester that are designed to align with our studies. We just returned from the last of our trip, where our program split us into three groups, of which mine went to London, Belfast, Dublin, and Stockholm. These trips leave the rest of our class schedule packed, to say the least.

So what have I been learning? To start, I know much more about the European Union than I ever expected to. How it started as the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952 as an economic organization that could help prevent further conflict between the major powers in Europe of France and Germany. How it is now made up of 28 countries, but is likely losing a member state for the first time during finals week next semester on March 29 when the UK exits. That’s right, I can tell you just about everything you could ever hope to know about Brexit as well. Insider scoop – Britain is probably in trouble.

In Brussels, we visited several of the EU institutions, including the Council of the European Union.

The great part about this program is that we get to travel to the places where the most important decisions are made in the EU and talk to key officials. We have been to the parliament buildings of the EU, the UK, and Sweden, and talked to members of the EU and Swedish parliaments. Apparently the parliament members in Britain have other things to worry about currently…

Speaking of, my Brexit class and I got to meet with negotiators who have been working in overdrive to hammer out the details of Brexit deals on both the UK and EU sides. Additionally, the final project for our class was to meet with a class of students doing the IES program in London to present and debate our own terms for a Brexit deal.

The UK Parliament, where we got to go on a tour and see the House of Lords and the House of Commons.

My favorite parts of studying abroad come when ‘study’ and ‘abroad’ stop being mutually exclusive. Though much of our mornings or afternoons were filled with meetings, we had the opportunity to go on city tours and go off on our own. Our first night in London, I went to a friendly of the US men’s soccer team against England at Wembley Stadium, the largest in the UK.

The US lost 3-0, but it also happened to be the last international game for legend England’s Wayne Rooney.

I also got to meet up with a friend I made during an international leadership conference in Liverpool that I went on with a group of students from Hope College. We met up and went to see incredible artifacts like the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum.

This slab of rock had text from 3 languages inscribed on it, allowing scholars to decipher the meaning of ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs.

Thanks to my crazy network of friends and family spread out all over Europe, I also got to see many other people from different stages of my life:

My cousin who plays professional soccer in Einhoven (in the Netherlands) was able to come hang out with me for a day in Brussels.      
I randomly (almost literally) ran into Allie DeJongh, a class of 2018 Hope student who now is on a Fulbright scholarship and is teaching English in Brussels.
In London I also met up with one of my best childhood friends from Prague and his dad.

Yes, I have been very busy and I should probably get started on that 12 page paper due soon, but in the past month I truly have gotten to experience a great blend of both studying and being abroad. I am developing a much greater understanding of Europe as a collective whole – its problems and its functions. At the same time, seeing old friends during my travels is a good reminder of why we do it in the first place. To meet people from different places and share ideas and experiences with each other.

Knowing Your Nature

Branches whip madly above my head as we walk along a mountainside that’s alternately damp, earthy forest and golden-haired meadows. With his growth potion (aka me – he’s on my shoulders) my young friend Kylan is among the trees. Kylan, when not making the most of his childhood, is an alchemist, who happens to make magic potions in lieu of gold. Today, he and I are working on a growth potion, presumably so he can be tall even without me around, which I guess means I’m making my replacement. Regardless, after seeing the results of his speed potion, which left me realizing how badly I’ve let myself go, I asked Kylan to teach me some alchemy. In the meantime, newly an apprentice, I scoured the forest floor for duckweed and pine needles and mysterious white berries.

As I worked, shuffling along the damp ground, I found out how much I normally missed, little duckweed (which I found out later wasn’t really duck weed) hid below shrubs and among moss, wolf lichen clung desperately to trees, and frail spiderwebs tied themselves to fragrant pine. This newfound attention to nature intrigued me and, eager to learn more about the alchemy that inspired this attentiveness, I checked out Gillot de Givry’s tome about the science called the Illustrated Anthology of Sorcery, Magic, and Alchemy. Upon leafing through musty pages right out of a Harry Potter movie, I was surprised to find a science deeply respectful of nature, a science which echoed my lessons from Kylan. The goal of alchemy was, “to penetrate the mystery of life” by looking to nature and imitating (De Givry 1973). What I learned from De Givry sounded more mystical than I’d previously imagined, not at all what usually comes to mind when I think of alchemy: “man’s vain endeavor to make artificial gold” (De Givry 1973). Alchemy of old, respected nature as teacher: “all the alchemists stubbornly repeat so often that their sole master is Nature,” says De Givry (De Givry 1973). Alchemists even went so far as to say that books aren’t necessary for learning from alchemy, one merely needs an upright soul and ears open to nature (De Givry 1973). Far from hermits crouched over bubbling pots with dreams of riches beyond belief, it seems alchemists respected and knew nature in a deep, almost spiritual way. After my time as an apprentice alchemist, I started asking this question over and over again: How can I get to know nature? What follows are a collection of stories that attempt to answer that question.

Back in the day, alchemists claimed to use ‘A single substance, a single vase’ to plumb the secrets of the natural world. In my time as a computer “alchemist”, things were a tad more extravagant. As modern-day Puffers (alchemists name for chemists), we used supercomputers and the buzzword of all buzzwords ‘machine learning’ to pick at the secrets held so jealously by the material world. The goal of our project was to predict what material combos were most promising for research, saving material scientists the work (and cost) of getting to know nature’s materials first hand. That was the goal. The reality was that we were a bunch of undergrads who barely knew what machine learning was and ran random models with data we didn’t collect about materials we’d never seen. Our models appeared to be predictive of something in the end, but none of us knew what, other than the fact a line followed a curve pretty damn well. We thought that computers could make our work fast and “know” nature for us, but it turns out they only disconnected us from the nature the alchemists imitated.

My experience as a computer alchemist shouldn’t be surprising. In our culture we glorify experimentation as the way of all ways and machine learning is the holy grail of experimentation. Computers can try so many hypotheses so fast, they guarantee a golden ticket to understanding. After all, the scientific method can solve everything right? I don’t think we verbalize this belief – nor the underlying belief that all our experimentation comes without consequences. The great experiments of our time – social media, cell phones, fossil fuels – have bit us hard and it makes me wonder whether the scientific method couldn’t use some of the funky reverence of the alchemists. If alchemists were lovers of nature, us Puffers were creepy weirdos who watched her from a distance with a calculator, converting our “love” into numbers we could easily understand from behind the safety of a screen. In our disconnection from nature, we hurt ourselves. In my case, we not only wasted time staring at screens and crunching numbers, we missed out on what Kylan and I discovered in the forest that day: a sense of wonder and the care that is listening. After all this, I can’t help but think our time wouldn’t have been better spent out picking what we thought was duckweed to make a fragrant potion, whose magic would teach us to notice the world around us. In that class we might have discovered less, but more worthwhile things.

I’m checking over the gray, cold body when I see he has a tiny penis, I think. I’m serious, it’s like the size of my thumb. Which I guess might actually be big for a poor little squirrel. Right above his tiny appendage, I grab a chunk of skin and saw away with my knife. This little dude’s life left him just a few hours ago. A big truck clocked him and his friend as they tried to cross the road. My friend here came out ok other than his head, which suffice to say, did not come out ok. His bushy tail jitters with false life as I slice up his gray abdomen to slip still warm organs out. With them gone, I start skinning him, laboriously pulling pelt away from muscle and bone. As his skin slips off like a well fit suit, I see an eerie resemblance between myself and him. We both have puny biceps and are sewn together with tendons and muscles which cover lungs and a heart, which precariously beats along. With the skin nearly off now I have to break off hands and feet and head and again I’m struck with a sense of déjà vu. My fingers search along the knee for tendons, tendons I later absentmindedly touch on my own leg, that is until I remember his. With all his appendages gone and clean, the pink headless squirrel does not look so different than I. I’m chilled by how accurate a picture of my own body I see below me. In this little life there is an odd resonance between my mortality and his. Annie Dillard once said, “You see the creatures die, and you know you will die.” I didn’t see this guy die, but I saw him dead and I knew him. More, I saw me in him. I am spooked.

Later I’m in the woods again, trying to wrap my head around another way of knowing nature, this time in the “sit and observe” way Dillard is so fond of. I try to sit and observe, I really do, but shortly after the sitting part begins an uprooted tree catches my eye and I’m drawn to it like a moth. The upturned roots speak of a hidden world below, a dark mirror of the one above. Tendrils of wood grasp vainly at the sky and a mass of little roots tumble from the tendrils like thick hair. I step into the hollow below and look up. I’m not used to looking up, being 6’ 4’’. It always comes as a shock, but here it’s extra bizarre because I’m used to looking up to tree tops, not tree bottoms. These roots feel like the underwear of trees, they tell you tons about them but it’s really not your business to know what goes on down there. I just kind of stare at the roots for a while, lost in wonder and feeling lucky and sad the tree had to fall.

Then I ask a rather obvious question: What the hell could topple a tree like this? Whatever it was I’m glad it’s gone. In another part of the forest I saw trees missing tops and imagined an immature giant running around with a sword, leveling trees in a tantrum. In reality, it was probably the wind, but that’s rather boring. Being a bit bored myself, I climb out of the hollow and onto the trunk of the tree where I decide to meditate. I slow my breathing and feel foolish for doing this standing up, but that thought flees in the fright of another one. I can feel breath on my face, though I’m alone. A breeze from roots long dead, cold and moist, mirrors my own breath. I know it’s probably just old wind at it once again, but I can’t help but feel spooked. As is usually the case when I try to meditate, I’m quickly bored, and the tree changes tones and beckons me down its length, which hangs suspended above the ground. With a shoelace hanging precariously untied, I make my way across in fits and starts. My terrible balance feeds grotesque visions of impalement on the many branches shooting up from below. Mercifully, I forgot these visions as I begin to bounce. Well, not at first do I forget. My first reaction is cold fear as I think the tree is trying to throw me off to be stabbed by his friends below. After I realize this isn’t what’s happening, I start to lean into this bounce. Slowly, a rhythm begins to reverberate between me and the tree. Before long the tree and I are in sync and what looked long dead seems to have new life. It’s like my bounces are a CPR that animates the tree for a moment, returning it to vibrant, exuberant life. It’s whole hundred-foot length is vibrating now, looking like a plucked string. My friend comes over and joins the rhythm and now we are really bouncing, shivering up and down with this tree we thought was dead but was actually slumbering, waiting to be awoken. The soles of my feet seemed to connect with that tree and I felt sure it was having fun, too. Life multiplied between us in a beautiful resonance. Here, with this tree, I felt a sense of life, even in death.

A day after my time as an apprentice to Kylan and a few days before I met my tree friend, our potion had sat overnight and finished. Walking to the back porch where it lay, Kylan was a wonderful mix of excited and serious and I was just plain curious. I’m shocked back into the childhood wonder I lost when I grew tall after I get a whiff of the pungent lemony potion. All those ingredients distilled into a smell to savor. It’s not gold, but it’s still remarkable. These plants, a random mishmash of things incorrectly named or nameless, came together to form an experience I will treasure. I can never look at the forest floor the same and while that also isn’t gold, it is priceless. Just as valuable are the lessons I learned: to listen and keep it simple. Through said lessons I heard a lively dead tree with fun on offer, a deadly resonance in roadkill, and the true sound of that artificial buzz of screens. Knowing nature is not easy, but important. Now I ask you: How do you get to know nature? I hope for your sake it doesn’t involve male roadkill.

 

SHAWCO Health

As part of my Community Health in Context course, I am required to participate at a service learning site to complete 40 service hours. Since this is a health related course, our service learning site is supposed to help us experience aspects of health care system in Cape Town. I am volunteering with a program at UCT called SHAWCO Health. SHAWCO stands for “Students’ Health and Welfare Centres Organisation” (and yes, they use British English spellings here, which has taken some getting used to when writing essays).

SHAWCO Health is a program mostly for med school students and pre-med school students to have an opportunity to use their clinical skills and learn from a licensed doctor. Every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday night, a group of UCT students will take a mobile clinic to a township and provide primary health care for people in that township who cannot afford a private health care doctor or who do not have the time to go to a public health care doctor. In South Africa, there is free public health care for all South African citizens. However, the system is not well structured, so in order to see a doctor it is first come first serve. Doctors see patients daily from 7:30-4:30, but patients will start lining up outside of the clinics hours before opening in order to ensure they are able to be seen. This can be problematic for South Africans who can’t afford private clinics and don’t have the time to spare waiting in line all day at a public clinic. If they work, they may not be able to spare a day at work to come stand in line.

That’s where SHAWCO comes in! SHAWCO clinics visit the townships at night around 6:30pm so that patients who may not be able to take off work to go to the public health clinics or who may not be able to transport themselves to a public clinic then have easier access to health care. A licensed doctor also accompanies all of the med school students to the site to sign off on the final diagnoses, referrals, and prescriptions for the patients.

Photos by Jim Witmer
A typical township street in Cape Town
Shawco
What a mobile clinic looks like

The past two weeks I have gone with SHAWCO to the township Browns Farm. Here, I am partnered with a UCT medical student and help them take notes and ask the patient questions about their condition. After the med student completes their evaluation and performs any tests necessary (HIV, urine glucose, pregnancy, etc.), they call in the doctor and explain the condition and any findings in order for the doctor to make the final diagnosis of the patient. Once the final diagnosis is made, the doctor prescribes any medication or referrals needed and the next patient is called in.

This has been a really eye-opening experience so far. Being able to learn about the brokenness in the government and public health care system is hard to see. Knowing that the majority of South Africans live under the poverty line, can’t afford to get the health care they deserve, and don’t have easy access to the health care that they can afford is hard to wrap my mind around, but SHAWCO is helping make health care a little more accessible for those who need it. Its also a great exposure to what goes into diagnosing a patient and how the med students communicate with the patients. Although I am not going into general medicine, I will still need to learn these skills for physical therapy. SHAWCO also helps me learn about and experience all aspects of Cape Town during my semester here, instead of only doing “touristy” activities. I am able to learn about the parts of Cape Town that aren’t as picturesque, experience the culture of townships, and meet the people. I am getting a feel for the less well off parts of the city and seeing for myself the stark contrast between the rich and poor. Cape Town is a beautiful city, but some of its history is not so much, and the ramifications are still very present today, affecting the poor and their access to health care. I’ve still got 32 hours of service left to go, and am ready to keep learning about these issues that South Africa, and Cape Town especially, are facing.

UCT Academics

One of the biggest culture shocks I’ve had so far would have to be school at UCT. Even starting out at orientation and registration it was much different. In the US most schools have an online registration process near the end of the previous semester in order to sign up for classes and figure out your schedule. At UCT, however, the registration process involves various steps and needs to be completed in person after waiting in multiple lines. So, coming into the semester I didn’t know what classes I would end up taking. After standing in line to talk to an academic advisor and present what classes I was interested in taking, I was able to register for two courses and had to wait to seek approval from a faculty member for my third course. Then on the first day of class, I had to find the course convener for the psychology course I wanted to add, have her sign the course addition document, go stand in a line for 45 minutes to have an academic advisor approve the course, and finally go stand in another line to have someone manually input the course into my schedule. Although registration at Hope can be stressful, this experience made me very appreciative of registration at Hope and how quick and easy it is.

Now, after the first week of classes, I have a set schedule including three courses at UCT and one through the IES program. At first when deciding to go abroad, I figured I would be able to have a schedule that would allow me to have class fewer days each week and longer weekends, but little did I know that classes at UCT can meet up to 4 days a week and include an additional tutorial session. My Cognitive Neuroscience and Abnormal Psychology course has four 45-minute lectures and one 45-minute tutorial every week. The lectures are taught by the professor and have about 500 students, whereas the tutorials are taught by an assistant professor or post-graduate student and only include about 20 students. Being in a lecture this large will definitely take some getting used to since the largest class I’ve been a part of before at Hope was only 60 students. Having the tutorials is really helpful though because we are able to go over lecture material in a smaller group, making it easier to ask questions and get to know class mates.

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My 500 student psychology lecture

The way professors and assistant professors grade in South Africa is something I will have to get used to as well. In the US, we are used to having points taken off for getting an answer wrong or not writing enough detail about something in a paper, for example. Here, however, points are awarded for doing something right or doing what the professor expects. Because of that, it is much harder to get a 100% on something here. Anything between a 75% and 100% here is equivalent to an A, and A’s are hard to come by at UCT. So, I will have to adjust my brain to not freak out if I get a 68% on a quiz or test because that would be a B+, not a D.

The size of UCT has also been an adjustment for me, as it has about 30,000 undergraduate students and much larger campus than I am used to. UCT campus is on the side of Table Mountain, which means it is uphill and has three different levels: lower, middle, and upper campus. To walk from my house on lower campus to upper campus can take about 20 minutes, and it’s not always a leisurely walk. They also have a Jammie shuttle that takes students from lower campus up, but you have to get to the stop pretty early in order to ensure you’ll get a spot on the bus. So, I usually just opt for making the walk up to class.

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The view on my walk to school
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The view on my walk back home
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Part of Middle Campus on my walk back home

Even though there have been a lot of challenges in adjusting to this new learning environment, I am very excited for this semester and the courses I am taking. Three out of the four courses I am taking are focused on African culture or society. Probably the course I am most looking forward to is African Instrument, where I will be learning different African drumming styles and techniques along with other traditional African instruments! I am also taking an African Religious Traditions course which focuses on Indigenous religions, African Islam, and African Christianity. It will be interesting to see the similarities and differences between religion in Africa and in the US throughout this course. The third African focused class I am taking is through the IES program and is called Community Health in Context. This course focuses on the health care system in South Africa and how it has progressed and affected the community. This course also involves a service learning component, where I will complete 40 hours of service at a volunteer site and complete 20 hours of research throughout the semester related to my volunteer site and the health care system in South Africa. I will be volunteering with a UCT organization called SHAWCO Health where I will assist UCT Medical Students at mobile clinics that travel to townships around Cape Town. I am very excited and eager to be a part of this organization and not only experience medical care in South Africa but to meet individuals from various townships as well and be able to learn from them.

Academically, I think this semester will be challenging and something I have to adjust to, but I am looking forward to learning about South Africa in the class room!