My Bustling and Colorful Walk to Class

It blows my mind that I have already spent two weeks in Valparaíso, Chile. The time has flown thanks to my wonderful host family and my extremely colorful walk to class. Living in the middle of the city of Valparaíso – commonly referred to as Valpo by the locals – has introduced me to many unique experiences and allowed me to immerse myself in a culture brand new to me.

Every morning, I am awakened by flocks of birds chirping as they fight for their food and by hordes of locals shouting as they sell any and every item you could possibly need. My walk to PUCV, the university I am attending while here in Chile, takes a short five minutes and covers only three blocks of the city, but it always feels as if I am walking through a whole new world.

Culture overwhelms me from the moment I step out of my door as street vendors approach me continuously, shouting the names and prices of random items they hope to sell, to the end of my first block. Cultural encounters continue as I move to the second block of my journey to school, which is by far my favorite. This block consists of tables and tables showcasing mounds of shiny, ripe, and juicy fruits and vegetables. As I walk, everything around me becomes a blur of yellows, oranges, reds, and greens. The area teems with life as people hustle to complete their early morning shopping. Here in Chile, it is tradition to buy only enough for two days maximum so that the food is always fresh (quite the opposite of most American families who shop to fill their fridges for weeks at a time). The sunlight reflecting the vibrant colors of fruits and vegetables, the scents of fresh food, the shouts of local Spanish-speakers, and the feeling of Chileans hurriedly brushing up against me are some of the strongest sensations I experience as I attempt to scramble through the crowd. I eventually break through the masses and begin walking my third and final block.

The final block is flooded with college students passing time with friends between classes, soaking in the sun and breathing in the fresh air. I continue forward, approaching what seems to be an ancient castle, and find myself arriving at the beautiful Pontificia Universidad Católica de Valparaíso. The single building before me is the home of knowledge. Of growth. Of challenge. Of opportunity. It is a place that has already challenged and encouraged me in so many ways, and I know it will continue to do so.

I never imagined it would be possible to experience so much culture in three short blocks. I’ve recognized that my walk to class is more than just a walk; it is a journey through the most beautiful chaos that I have ever experienced. These few minutes allow me to forget everything else, to be present, and to soak in the beauty of Valpo’s culture as I prepare myself for another full day of classes and adventures awaiting. And to think, this is just the beginning…

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.

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.

The view on my walk to school
The view on my walk back home
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!

Arrive Down Under

One week has past since I have arrived in Cairns, Australia and it has been busier than I possibly could have imagined. Cairns is known as the “Adventure Capital of Australia,” and the city lives up to its reputation. The city itself is a northern coastal town surrounded by beaches, marinas, and water on one side and mountains on the other. The city has a similar feel to Florida beach towns in many ways with open air restaurants and bars right on the water, as well as a multitude of tourists. As I took evening walks downtown I passed groups of people speaking languages from across the globe, many of which I could not recognize. Unlike Florida, however, the people and tourists of Cairns do not go to the beach when they want to cool off, rather, they have a city lagoon which is similar to a massive public pool in which the residents of the city can swim. The reason for avoiding the beaches of Cairns is that they are filled with saltwater crocodiles, jellyfish of many varieties, including box jellys, stonefish, and sharks, just to name a few. Fortunately, Cairns has plenty to offer without going to the beach.
On my second day in Cairns we went out onto the Great Barrier Reef to go snorkeling and scuba diving. Never in my life have I been filled with so much awe and sadness at the same time. The reef was a thing of beauty with fish and coral of all shapes, sizes, and colors. Angelfish, parrot fish, regal blue tang fish looked like the glittering lights of a Christmas tree as they swam by me. Unfortunately, the reef also is no longer what it used to be as a result of environmental destruction. Reef bleaching has sucked out so much of the vibrant colors of the reef, and although there certainly were areas of breathtaking beauty, significant portions of the reef looked more skeletal with white coral being contrasted with a bright spot of nearby color. The marine biologist aboard our ship told us that it is projected that within the next five years there will be more plastic in the world’s’ oceans than there are fish, and that coral grows at the rate of centimeters per year so destruction to any portion of it could be the destruction of decades of natural growth. Even seemingly small things like sunscreen could damage the reef and we were instructed to apply sunscreen at least a half an hour before entering the water. It was humbling to realize that a living structure the size of Japan could be simultaneously so fragile, and it gave me a greater understanding of environmentalism.

Here are a couple of pictures from my scuba/snorkeling experience

Here you can see how low the tide got as the reef is actually beginning to come out of the water
This is a picture just outside of the hotel I was staying at while in Cairns

On day three, I had the opportunity to go canyoning in Crystal Cascades with a group of others and our tour guides which was wild! Admittedly, I felt a bit dorky at first as we pulled up into the park wearing wet suits, helmets, and harnesses, meanwhile we walk past little kids and their parents simply wearing bathing suits. Crystal Cascades is a waterfall and river system which provides the drinking water for the city of Cairns. At certain points in the river that becomes wider, deeper, with a weaker current and the locals use those places like an all natural swimming pool. After we passed all of the families, we arrived at a massive gate with barbed wire wrapping across the top. The guides led us through and we started a hike up an incredibly steep hill. Once we made it to the top of the hill we began canyoning down which consisted of abseiling, cliff jumping, swimming, and zip lining down the river/waterfall system to the bottom. The entire experience was simply amazing as we scaled down waterfalls in a gorge surrounded by the Australian rain forest. Needless to say, I was quite happy for the safety equipment that made me feel so foolish earlier, particularly helmet as I slipped going down one of the main waterfalls and slammed into the side of the cliff.

Here is a picture of the group after finishing the canyoning

Finally, on day four I went into Daintree Rainforest with an aboriginal tour guide as he taught us both about his culture and about his land. Before we started our hike, we were asked to join in a smoking ceremony where the guides made a small fire underneath a cover so that the smoke would billow out onto which we were told would protect us from any danger as we entered the forest. My guide, Skip, once again mentioned how the Daintree Rainforest is the world’s oldest rainforest and that it is the only rainforest that has never had any primates other than humans. As a result, the fruits in Daintree are far more toxic than the fruits found in other rainforests around the world. Skip also taught us about stinging plants in Australia and how they have tiny hairs on the leaves which is embed into your skin and sends four different toxins into your muscles (one of which scientists have yet to discover what it is!) when they are touched and the needles can stay embedded in your skin from anywhere between two weeks to two years! I made sure to take careful notes regarding what that plant looked like in order to avoid it in the future. Skip also told us about how the aboriginal people would use barbed vines as hooks and fishing line when they went fishing. He also told us about how the aboriginal people would use glowing mushrooms to allow them to see when hunting at night, which I thought sounded like something straight out of the movie Avatar. Skip then took us to a river which ran through the rainforest and he told us that this river was the water supply for the city and it was entirely safe to drink which naturally led to all of us students filling up our water bottles with the river water and I must say it was fantastic. After finishing our hike through the rainforest we went to a wildlife reserve where I was able to get up close and personal with a lot of animals native to Australia. I had the opportunity to feed wallabies and kangaroos, as well as pet a koala and see other animals like emus and cassowaries.
At the end of the week, all of the students who were apart of my program said our goodbyes and made our way to our respective universities across Australia. This first week has been busy, and action-packed, and it has felt like something out of a dream. As my plane took off to Sydney and I watched the mountains and rainforest shrink in the distance, I couldn’t help but feel tremendously grateful for the opportunity that I have been given to study abroad. At times it has been difficult for me to comprehend the reality of the whole situation because I am quite literally on the opposite side of the planet right now and having experiences that I have only previously dreamed of which have each been incredible! Now off to Sydney to see what Australia’s biggest city and the home of my new university has to offer!

The bus ride into the Daintree forest was pretty scenic too

This is the river which acts as the water supply for Cairns

This is Humphry, the Koala I got to meet
Feeding the kangaroos and wallabies was so cool

Paris Reflections!


Since I arrived back in Michigan, I have been thinking and reflecting on my summer semester in Paris. I kept a journal from the first day I arrived in Paris, and detailed every moment and funny memory. Looking back, I am so glad I did this because I was able to better understand what I learned and see how I adapted to a foreign culture. Studying abroad in Paris was undoubtedly the best adventure in my life so far. I met the most incredible group of people through IES, who became my close friends I am blessed to have lived in France over the summer. If I typed out everything I learned about living in a foreign country, we would be here for hours. So to save the trouble, here is a short list of the best lessons I learned while living and studying in Paris:

  1. “So much of who we are is where we have been.” -William Langewiesche. I found this quote written in graffiti on a wall in Paris near the Seine River, and it resonated with me as I progressed through studying abroad. I felt myself becoming more adventurous, where I traveled by myself to Belgium, Luxembourg, and Stonehenge. I felt myself becoming more comfortable speaking a language I had never studied before, where I was not afraid speaking French with locals. I felt myself falling in love with Paris. So much of who I am will remain in Paris.
  2. Bread will never be the same. When it comes to bakeries, the French have this perfected to an art. I probably ate my weight in croissants and baguettes, but French bread is incredibly delicious. My favorite dessert, and what I will miss the most about French food, is Pan du Chocolat (chocolate-filled croissant). Hopefully I can find an authentic French bakery in Michigan!
  3. Travel. Travel. Travel. Traveling within Europe is incredibly cheap and easy. When are you ever going to live in a foreign country again in your life? Take advantage of every opportunity and leave no stone unturned. My group and I went to London, England together, and I went to Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg by myself. My group was more interested in exploring Paris than traveling far, but I didn’t let that falter my plans. Even if you have to go alone, don’t regret not going somewhere. I had a blast both on my own and with my group. Also, I learned how to book travel accommodations and research places to go all on my own. When my flights were delayed and trains became cancelled due to strikes, I figured out alternate routes on my own last minute. How cool is that? Travel, and travel far.
  4. The Eiffel Tower never gets old. From the first time I saw the Iron Lady to the last night under the sparkling lights, I never grew tired of looking at how beautiful the tower is. Every Wednesday, my friends and I had a picnic under the tower to watch the sunset and sparkling lights. I always looked forward to every Wednesday, and could not get enough of the Eiffel Tower. The view from the top of the tower isn’t bad either, but I’d much rather watch the lights sparkle with a baguette and wine from our secret terrace we found.
  5. Take the leap and study abroad. I have to admit, I was a little nervous just before I left. I had never traveled on my own before and had never been to Europe. I would have to learn a new language and learn to navigate a foreign country. Luckily, the nerves went away the second I got to my apartment. I fell in love with Paris and made incredible friends in my study abroad group. I learned a ton in my classes that I know will take me far in the rest of my studies. I created internship connections through my professors. I tried food I never thought I would dare eat. I traveled alone to other countries. I saw Stonehenge. Nothing will ever compare to what I experienced, and most importantly, I learned that a classroom is much more than four white walls.

Take the leap and study abroad; you just might learn something about the world around you.

À bientôt, et je t’aime Paris!

-Alissa Smith

My Last Week in Paris!

Finals week finally arrived for all of us at IES Paris! While I feel like I’ve only been in Paris for one day, it’s been seven weeks of unforgettable experiences. Since our finals happened to be on the Fourth of July, the staff at IES Paris decorated the IES center with American flags and streamers. Our professors and staff have been incredible to work with, and we’ve all become extremely close. It’s hard to turn in our last final, but we’ve all learned so much and made great internship connections.

After we crammed for finals and turned in our exams, IES took everyone out to a fancy farewell lunch at a restaurant called Deuz. We were served fried eggplant rolls filled with goat cheese (sounds weird, but I promise it’s actually the best appetizer I’ve had), and some of the best duck in Paris with everyone at IES Paris. We were sad to say goodbye and we all hope to come back to Paris to visit everyone!

Even though it was the last week, we still had some exploring left to do. We visited the Paris Mosque, which is one of the most beautiful and intricately decorated buildings in Paris. The bright blue tile floors were gorgeous in the sunlight, and the mint tea served there changed my life. Tea will never be the same. The gardens were beautiful, and since the Mosque is a hidden gem of Paris, we were able to enjoy the gardens in peace with no tourists.


A few of my friends from Avondale (my high school in Michigan) happened to be in Paris while on their trip through Europe during my last week. I was super excited to meet up with them! I took them to my favorite crêpe place, La Crêperie de Josselin for lunch. We had a blast catching up and exchanging travel stories, all while enjoying some of the tastiest crêpes in Paris! (Shout out to the IES Paris staff for introducing me to this crêperie!)

Shortly after, I explored the city visiting some of the places I still needed to cross off my list. One of these places was the famous Love Lock Bridge. This bridge is an icon of Paris, but unfortunately Paris removes the locks each month to keep the bridge from collapsing. Although, I was not disappointed, as there were hundreds of locks on the bridge. I hope to come back one day and put a lock on the bridge, as this ranks pretty high on my bucket list!

For my last night in Paris, I decided to do something special for myself. I bought a ticket to the top of Montparnasse Tower, which is the tallest building in Paris. I stayed for the sunset and watched the Eiffel Tower sparkle at night. The view was breathtaking and I could see for miles beyond Paris. I enjoyed some fantastic chocolate mousse while watching the sunset from the skydeck, because when in Paris, why not?! It was a great way to close my summer semester in Paris and the view of the city is something I will never forget.

Au revoir, Paris!

-Alissa Smith

Street Festivals in Germany

America certainly has a culture of summer festivals: every summer at home, my town puts on a big 3-day summer festival with food stalls, cultural displays, carnivals rides, fireworks, and more. But in Germany, there’s an entirely different culture built up around it. Not all the festivals happen during the summer, either. Even in winter, Christmas festivals brighten up dark evenings and fill the air with the smell of spices and cakes.

The Christmas markets brighten up German town squares during the darkest weeks of the year. (Dresden)

Even when I first arrived in Freiburg in February, the weekly market that takes place in the main square of Freiburg every day except Sunday way selling bratwursts, spices, and even flowers! Freiburg has had a market in the square around the Munster for about 700 years, and this traditional is still thriving today- on sunny summer Saturdays, the market is thick with tourists and locals.

Now that it’s summer, though, there’s even more festivals and markets than ever! On any given evening, you can expect to stumble across a festival if you wander around long enough.

While trying to go for a quiet evening stroll along the river, I came across a festival with rollercoasters! (Trier)

These festivals pop up all over town — in squares, along streets, on the banks of the city river. I’ve even been to one festival along a street in Freiburg where every few minutes everyone had to clear a path through the crowd for the street cars to pass through!

The long summer evenings are best spent hanging out at festivals until the sun sets — you can see that the street car tracks run right through the middle of this festival. Every once in a while, a street car would have to cautiously crawl through the crowd. The famous Munster spire can be seen rising over the city. (Freiburg)

One thing that surprised me was just how centrally alcoholic beverages figure into some of the festivals. Freiburg has a wine fest that’s one of the largest festivals in town, because Freiburg sits in the wine region of Germany. In Trier, I stumbled across a festival where every other stall was serving the regional beer, and the stage was covered in ads for the beer company.

This beer cap celebrates that this producer — Andech’s Monastery — has been selling beer since 1455. (Munich)

The oldest continuously operating companies in Germany date back to the 11th century, and all of them are breweries. The oldest effective law is the Beer Purity Regulations, instated 500 years ago, and Germans are very excited to share this fun fact with foreigners. The culture and tradition of brewing and vinting are important to Germans, and each region has its own take on fermented drinks to celebrate.

This stage — on the banks of the Mosul River — is decorated with ads for the regional beer producer, including massive cardboard cutouts of beer bottles. The band was also very regional — their ensemble included an accordion, and their outfits were polka-dotted vests. Most of their songs were crooning about the beautiful locality and its history. (Trier)
These large, heart-shaped cookies are everywhere at German street fairs. I believe they’re the German version of Gingerbread (Lebkuchen), which has citrus in addition to spice.


Brussels, Belgium and Luxembourg City, Luxembourg!

For a weekend trip, I decided to take the train from Paris into Brussels and Luxembourg City. Immediately entering the Grand Place city square of Brussels, I was greeted with intense smells of chocolate. I bought authentic Belgian chocolate from Mary’s, who are the chocolate suppliers of the Belgian royal family, and it was 100% the best chocolate I have ever tasted! I also had Belgian street waffles, which were piled high with tons of toppings. Later on, I stopped for frites (fries), and there is a huge feud between France and Belgium over where frites originated. I personally think Belgium had the better tasting frites!

Brussels is the most famous for the Manneken Pis statue, which occasionally gets dressed up in costumes for special events. I was lucky enough to be in Brussels on a national holiday dedicated to Manneken Pis, so I was able to watch a parade dedicated to the statue and see Manneken Pis in two different outfits!

After Brussels, I headed to Luxembourg City, Luxembourg for another day trip. Luxembourg City is full of history and castles. I toured the Bock Casemates, which is a fortress carved into the Luxembourg cliffs dating back to 963. This was one of the most interesting places I have seen in Europe. The fortress is entirely carved into caves and tunnels throughout the cliff side. The cave system is so large that I walked through for hours and did not see any other people. Bock Casemates border the city of Luxembourg, and it was beautiful to look out over the entire city from the fortress.




After touring Bock Casemates, I followed a hiking trail along the cliffs and forest of the city. The trail leads to a point called Chemin de la Corniche, also known as “the most beautiful balcony in Europe”. I can definitely agree that this view is the most beautiful balcony in Europe, as I have never seen anything like it! Luxembourg was my favorite country I visited in Europe, and I hope to visit again soon!


-Alissa Smith