Mentoring the Next Generation of GEFs

This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of getting to mentor another new class of Global Engagement Fellows. In meeting new fellows this semester, I was struck by the feeling that I am getting old (okay, I may be just shy of 22, but in the context of the average age of college students, that’s not young). I am a senior this year. At many points over the course of this semester, I’ve found myself thinking “this is my last September in Norman,” “this is my last homecoming as an undergrad,” and, most recently, “this is my last Halloween as an OU student.” To me, these are sobering thoughts – I have thoroughly enjoyed my time at this wonderful university for the past three and a half years, and Norman has come to be my home. I’ve built up a close community of friends, and don’t feel ready at all for that community to split up and scatter across the country. Similarly, I don’t feel ready to leave behind my peaceful afternoons on campus, reading in a lounge in Farzaneh or writing a lab report in the Great Reading Room of the Bizz. Fortunately, I still have several more months of doing all of these things, but in speaking with new fellows, I’m reminded of how much of my time at OU has already passed.

One of my favorite things to talk about with new fellows is their study abroad goals. I love hearing about all of the places that they want to go and the things that they want to do. Once again, I’m frequently saddened that my time studying abroad is over (I’ve said before and I’ll say it again – studying abroad was by far the best decision I’ve made in college), but I love getting to hear about all of the adventures that my mentees will get to go on.

It’s also awesome to get to share some of the knowledge I’ve acquired over the years with the new fellows. After navigating the harrowing waters of trying to find housing for half a year and avoiding paying for the other half, I’ve gained some key insights that I’ve gotten to share. I love knowing that I can hopefully help eliminate some of the only negative parts of studying abroad for new fellows by telling them my cautionary tales.

This program has a habit of attracting very bright and talented individuals, and, truth be told, none of my mentees need much mentoring at all. They are all incredibly capable and driven young women, and I could not be more excited to see where this program takes them. Even so, it still feels good to be a resource for them, and it’s nice to have new explorers that I can live vicariously through.

To sum up, I am absolutely loving getting to be a peer mentor in this program. The Global Engagement Fellowship, and the studying abroad that came with it, has been one of the highlights of my college career, and getting to share my passion for this program with new members is always a treat!

Summer-y Summary and Starting the Sophomore Slump

Well this post was supposed to happen a couple months back, but life has a funny way of ruining all of my carefully crafted plans and timelines.

This past weekend marked the end of my midterms this semester, and I am finding new levels of mental exhaustion. I am loving my classes for the most part, but hating Organic Chemistry with a fire that burns brighter than a thousand suns. It is through no fault of my professor, who is truly a nice guy and clearly loves what he is doing. I just do not harbor the same sentiment that he does towards any aspect of chemistry.

I know I said I would try to give a summer update sometime during the actual summer, but by the time anything interesting happened I was already having to change gears and prep for this semester. So I hope you will forgive me, but I want to use this post to go back and talk about my experiences this summer- specifically my trip OUT OF THE COUNTRY. FINALLY.

In July my family took a trip up north and visited Buffalo, New York; Toronto, Ontario, Canada; and Bruce Peninsula (a few hours north of Toronto). It was a really awesome vacation and we saw so many different things. We saw Niagara Falls from the US and Canada sides, which was an amazing experience; I would 100% recommend a trip there at least once in your lifetime. Then we spent some time in Toronto visiting the zoo, the aquarium, the CN tower, the Hockey Hall of Fame, St. Lawrence Market, the Royal Ontario Museum, Casa Loma, and a few other cool sights while exploring the city. We also drove up to Bruce Peninsula for a few days, and it was breathtaking. The views were amazing and the weather was perfect and I honestly just love hiking and being outdoors so it was a really fun excursion.

Since my dad’s family is from North Dakota and we spend quite a bit of time up there, a lot of Toronto just felt kind of like the northern US. There were definitely some notable cultural differences though. Some of the most prominent to me were:

Language: Canada is a bilingual country- its two official languages being French and English- so you are as likely to see things written in French as in English, even in the cities and near the border.

Money: The Canadian dollar is worth about 78 cents US. They have color coded bills, which makes them easier to differentiate, and they honestly just look much cooler than our boring green money. Instead of having $1 and $2 bills, Canadians use coins called loonies and toonies. Most places accept debit/credit, and in border towns or more touristy areas American dollars are pretty widely accepted as well, so currency exchange isn’t too much of a hassle.

Government: Canada is a constitutional monarchy, which means that the Queen of Canada, Elizabeth II, is the formal head of state represented in Canada by the Governor General (currently David Johnston). Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is head of government, and in each province the Queen is represented by a Lieutenant-Governor appointed by the Governor General on the advice of the PM. There are three levels to their system of governance: federal, provincial, and municipal (local). I am far from an expert on Canada’s government, but this site has a lot of information about the parts that make up the whole and is pretty interesting for the curious mind.

https://www.canada.ca/en/government/system/structure.html

Health care: This topic provides as much controversy for Canada as it does for the US. Currently, Canada has a publicly funded health care system in which all citizens qualify for health coverage regardless of income, medical history, or standard of living. It is a mostly free single-payer system that is funded by the public and carried out by private doctors (not the government). If you look up “Canada health care” online, many articles pop up with very conflicting opinions on the topic. There are proponents of privatization who say it would cut down on the outrageous wait time for non-emergency visits and fix many of the perceived issues with the current healthcare plan while creating a more sustainable system, and others who strongly back the current system and believe privatization would be very detrimental to the country. It’s a really interesting topic, and many of the arguments parallel the health care debates that we are currently having in the United States.

National pride: Canadians on the whole seem to be much more proud to be Canadian than we are of being American. Almost every house we drove by had some form of the Canadian flag outside and we could tell when we talked to people that they were content with defining Canada as their home. Canadians possess a strong sense of uniquely Canadian identity, and are proud of their diversity and heritage. And a lot of these sentiments were heightened this year, since it marked Canada’s 150th anniversary.

Hockey: This one doesn’t really need a ton of explanation. Hockey is to Canada as football is to the US. Every kid grows up playing it, watching it, and living it, and every city has a team.

Tim Hortons: Like our northern neighbors’ version of a Dunkin’ Donuts or Starbucks with the popularity of Chick-Fil-A on a college campus, they serve coffee and pastries and specialize in Timbits, their version of donut holes that come in many different flavors. Especially maple.

…and bagged milk. Which I still don’t quite understand. Sounds to me like a recipe for milk spilled everywhere, but it’s also more ecologically friendly and cost effective, so good on you Canada.

Overall, my trip to Canada was a lot of fun and I would definitely go back. I feel like it has definitely helped me broaden my horizons at least a little bit, and I’m more than ready to take my travels further.

Above: one of our MANY Tim Horton’s runs, a painted building we walked past downtown, and me in front of Casa Loma

 

Above: the view of the falls from one of our hotel rooms, my mom and I at Bruce Peninsula, and a rainbow over Horseshoe Falls (the Canada side of Niagara Falls)

 

 

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A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture

Hi all,

Once again, it’s been a while since my last post! I had a wonderful summer interning as a business analyst with Capital One in Plano, and I’ve taken this first half of the semester to dive right into a very interesting, if hectic, start to senior year.

It’s a little crazy for me to think that this is the fourth year I’ve been keeping this blog! Time definitely flies by, and I’m having trouble believing that it will soon be time for me to leave the bubble that is college and make my way into the real world.

Fortunately, I still have some time left to enjoy OU, and part of what has made my time here great is attending various international events through this Global Engagement fellowship. My favorite events are often the lunchtime talks with different experts on various current events and areas of the world, but sadly, my class schedule this semester conflicts with all of these and I’ve had to get a little more creative.

The first event I attended this semester is a fantastic traveling exhibit in OU’s library called A is for Arab: Stereotypes in U.S. Popular Culture. This exhibit consists of a series of large displays with some photos of various negative representations of Arab people that have littered American popular culture for generations. Each large display is in the style of a children’s alphabet book, for, as the first display details, American stereotyping of Arabs can be found everywhere, including sources as seemingly-innocent as children’s books.

The exhibit strove to emphasize that even though anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise post-9/11, these ideas are far from novel in American culture. Comics from Archie to Tarzan to Dennis the Menace have included negative Arab stereotypes, and American movies and novels have utilized such stereotypes for generations. Several of the displays detailed specific pervasive stereotypes that American culture has had a difficult time shaking.

One panel, entitled H is for Harem, outlines the ways in which the American portrayal of Arabic women is often seriously flawed and marginalizing. Arab women are rarely portrayed in American media, and when they are, they are often either hyper-sexualized or depicted as flat victims of violent oppression. There is very little accuracy in the way American media views Arab women, and this is incredibly damaging because many Americans draw their views on foreign cultures and people directly from the media. By allowing these negative (and false) stereotypes to be perpetuated, American culture perpetuates misinformation and ignorance that are extremely harmful to both race relations within the United States and the relationship that our country has with others.

In a similarly harmful vein, another of the panels in this exhibit is entitled V is for Villain, and it outlines the ways in which Arab men are so often portrayed as violent, dangerous villains, rather than as actual people. Much of American media paints Arab men with the same broad brush that in paints the women, but the men are made out to be evil, greedy, and dangerous. This is concerning for the same reason that all negative stereotypes are concerning; it breeds ignorance and mistrust, and it counteracts any hope the United States has of pursuing truly productive international relationships with Arab countries. Within our own borders, the ignorance fueled by these stereotypes makes it difficult for Arab people to assimilate into our culture, and it reinforces the idea that American prejudice against and fear of Arab people is okay.

Hopefully by now I have made it clear that I think this prejudice and fear is far from acceptable. The United States needs to work much more on eliminating stereotypes and instead viewing Arab culture and Arab people with the complexity that they possess. Broad brushstrokes are damaging and unproductive. We as a society have painted Arabs as the “other” for years, and it is time to turn the page.

It is reassuring to see exhibits such as this one focusing on educating people to this issue. Shamefully, before viewing this exhibit, I had not realized just how pervasive the negative stereotypes of Arab people were in U.S. culture, though I’m sure that any Arab-American is painfully aware. Hopefully, this exhibit can combine with an increasing number of positive, realistic portrayals of Arabs in American media to produce a positive change in American society. I know that we can rise above this hatred and fear that we have allowed to brew for so long; what we need now is to start taking our first steps.

The themes of this exhibit have significant overlaps with my honors research this semester, in which I am looking into the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the U.S. It is important to note that not all Arabs are Muslim and that not all Muslims are Arabs; these groups are far from homogenous, but we very often fail to treat them accordingly. This semester, I have been doing a lot of reading and writing over the origins of Islamophobia and their modern manifestations, and I look forward to sharing much of this in another blog post!

The Roots and Rise of Islamophobia in the West

This semester, I have had the immense pleasure of doing honors research on the roots and rise of Islamophobia in the West under Dr. Charles Kimball. The semester is far from over, and I learn new things every day, but my research has many parallels to current events both in the United States and abroad, and I want to make a quick post sharing some of the things I’ve learned so far. This is a quick summary of my thoughts on what I’ve read so far.

Islam is the world’s second-largest religion and the fastest growing religion in the world. It was founded in 622 by a man named Muhammad, who Muslims believe is the messenger of God. The Quran, the central Islamic religious text, is believed to be God’s final revelation, a purification of the Torah and the Bible that came before it.

Islam shares many doctrinal similarities with Judaism and Christianity, and it even looks up to many of the same holy figures (the Quran mentions Jesus and Moses many more times than it mentions Muhammad). Yet, despite these similarities, many, many Americans and Europeans who are not Muslim view Islam to be a religion of violence and oppression, something far removed from so-called “Western values.” Post-9/11, both anti-terrorism efforts and anti-Islamic sentiments have been on the rise in the United States, but these prejudiced views of Islam are far from new. Rather, they date back to the earliest interactions between Islam and Christianity, and Western society has largely been unable to shake these biases that it formed so long ago.

When Islam first arrived on the scene, it definitely shook the status quo for the Christians at the time. Islam gained followers, power, and knowledge incredibly quickly, making the Western countries appear backwards by comparison. Thus, the first impressions that the West formed of Islam were formed in fear; Islam was the greatest threat to Christianity that Christians had ever seen, and in their fear, their initial assessment of Islam was incredibly inaccurate. They painted Muslims as godless villains and relied much more on their own imaginations than on research into what Islam is really like to form their first impressions. (Source: Western Views of Islam in the Middle Ages, R.W. Southern)

Over the years, when Islam ceased to be as much of a military threat, Western scholars began to conduct more accurate research on Islam, but an anti-Islamic sentiment still persisted throughout much of the Western world. Negative caricatures of the prophet Muhammad and damaging misunderstandings of Islamic law and practices were pervasive. Even as Western society as a whole gained more understanding of the actual text of the Quran and of the actual religious practices observed by many Muslims, the prejudice generated in the Middle Ages remained ingrained in their societies. Events like the Crusades underscored the fact that Islam was treated as the enemy, and though some in the Western world, most notably St. Francis, sought peace and interfaith dialogues between Christians and Muslims, this attitude was the exception, not the rule. (Sources: Islam and the West: The Making of an Image, Norman Daniel, and The Saint and the Sultan: The Crusades, Islam, and Francis of Assisi’s Mission of Peace, Paul Moses).

European colonialism threw yet another wrinkle into Islamic-Western relations. European powers dominated many majority-Muslim countries for many years, and when they left, propped up oppressive authoritarian regimes, choosing their own economic interests over the implementation of the democracy that they claimed to value. These actions led to many political tensions in Africa and the Middle East that have yet to evaporate, as well as, understandably, mistrust of Western powers in the eyes of many Muslims. Western countries left terrible governments in their wake and claimed to support democracy but failed to do this in practice. As a result, many Muslims looked to Islam as a framework that could guide their political lives in addition to their private religious ones. Many majority Muslim countries have sought to implement Islam in some way into their governments, and this is an uncomfortable idea to many European countries, and to America, who pride themselves on the separation of church and state. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

Some in Muslim countries have felt so oppressed by the West that they’ve lashed out in terror attacks. Many non-Muslims in the West are quick to equate these attacks with all Muslims, when in reality, many of these attacks are politically-motivated, using Islam to justify violence but born from fear of Western political and military intervention rather than from fear of Christianity. (Sources: Islam: The Straight Path, John Esposito, and The Future of Islam, John Esposito).

What all of this boils down to is that there is a great deal of fear and mistrust on both sides of this divide, and these emotions and sentiments are far from novel. The challenge now comes in cutting through the fear and focusing more on our similarities and less on our differences. I know that sounds incredibly idealistic, but it is an ideal that I would like to strive for in my life moving forward.

At this point in my semester, I’m turning my attention to the specific case studies of the United States and Great Britain, looking at the historical roots of Islamophobia in each country and the modern manifestations of it. So far, it seems to me that much of the problem arises with an inability for many non-Muslims to imagine Muslim society complexly. Many have difficulty distinguishing between Muslims and Arabs, and equate all Muslims with the violence and extremism demonstrated by only a few. With my research, I hope to shed even a little bit of light onto this complex issue, as well as to champion the idea that we can and should see Muslims as the diverse, multifaceted group that they are. The enemy of ignorance is knowledge, and I hope to share a bit of that with my community with this semester’s research.

That’s a Wrap, Freshman Year Edition

Well, I did it. I survived a year of dorm life, gen eds (chemistry, I’m looking at you), late nights and 5 AMs, procrastination on an Olympic level, and learning all sorts of new things. I talked to strangers, learned to row, got my car towed, j’ai appris un peu de français, and had more campus food than I could have ever wanted. Final grades haven’t come out yet, but I’m crossing my fingers for all As and have moved on to trying to figure out plans for this summer. I’m hoping to volunteer at one of the clinics in OKC and maybe use a little of my Spanish knowledge there, as well as getting a summer job with an actual income. I’ve finally got housing lined up for next semester along with 18 hours of classes that I’m equal parts excited about and terrified for. I’m still keeping my head above water and I honestly don’t think I would be happier anyplace else. So here’s to a somewhat successful first year (and hopefully 3 more to follow). I’ll try to update at least once or twice this summer when I get my plans figured out and get started working and/or if my mom follows through on her (semi-joking, I think) plans to whisk me away on vacation somewhere for a week or two because my dad “never takes her anywhere”. So good luck with wherever you are in your life, and thanks for catching a little glimpse of where I’m at in mine. ?

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Remand

  1. Remand ri-ˈmand (verb): to send (an accused) back into custody by court order (as pending trial) :  turn (a prisoner) over for continued detention : the sending of a prisoner or accused person back into custody (or sometimes admitting him or her to bail) to await trial or continuation of his or her trial
  2. Remand ri-ˈmand (noun): a powerful documentary that everyone should watch before they die

 

At the end of May, I attended a screening of the short documentary “Remand” with the OU College of Law as an international event.  The documentary was a beautifully executed, unsettling, and candid look at the injustice and abysmal conditions in the prison system of many countries. Remand takes its viewers into the prison system of Uganda through the eyes of an American lawyer Jim Gash, a group of law students from Pepperdine University, and Henry, an African boy placed on trial for two crimes he did not commit and forced to remain on remand for years.

The next part of this is going to be a summary/ things that I learned section, and will undoubtedly include spoilers, so this is your warning; if you need to, close your eyes and scroll to the end ?

Henry ended up on remand after his family was robbed by a herdsman who was later found by the mob, brought to Henry’s family’s house, and beaten to death. Henry, his father, and his brother were all arrested even though they asked the mob to show the man mercy and did not have any part in his killing. They were sent to Luzira Upper prison, a facility for prisoners who have committed serious offences. The prisoners there are split by the colors of their clothes: white for death row,  yellow for remand, and orange for the lifers. The amount of people in yellow in the film was overwhelming. Luzira Upper Prison, at the time Henry was there, held 3,000 inmates. It was built for 600. The overcrowding caused issues with sleeping, feeding, and meeting medical requirements, and the terrible system lead to many misplaced files and files losing their position in the order they were to be seen by the judges. Prisoners, under Uganda’s justice system, wait years for their day in court, though many want to confess to their crimes and even believe they deserve their sentence. These people had been convicted of crimes including rape, murder, treason, terrorism, and aggravated robbery/defilement. And Henry was among them, innocent.

While he was on remand, he was sent with some of the other prisoners to a work camp. The camp’s boss, Rose, ordered Henry to beat a young prisoner, and when he tried to show the boy mercy, was ordered to bury him alive. Henry and a few other prisoners, unable to disobey orders but still wanting to show him mercy, only buried him to the neck then freed him after a few hours. The next day, the young boy tried to escape the camp and Rose ordered 4 different prisoners to beat him. The boy was beaten 40 strokes with a stick and he died. Rose and Henry were charged with murder. When their case was brought to court, 1 lawyer was called to defend both Rose and Henry and none of the juveniles at the camp or Henry were allowed to testify, so even though Henry was completely innocent, he was convicted after the lawyer chose to defend Rose and blame him. But in May 2013, Jim Gash was given special permission to represent Henry as the first American to appear as an advocate in Ugandan court. After 2 years of work to prove his innocence, Henry was exonerated on June 19, 2015 and allowed to walk free.

Along with Jim’s work with Henry, he and the law students form Pepperdine who traveled to Uganda over their summer vacation in 2014 were paired with Ugandan lawyers and students to help solve cases and implement a plea bargaining system in Uganda. One  of the students, James Brown, said, “You’re hearing about the worst days of someone’s life and they’re taking you through it from when they woke up to when they went to bed, and it’s rough.” They began working through the 8,500 committed remands and motivating prisoners to plead guilty to manslaughter charges, which do not necessitate capital punishment, so they could get out of remand and begin serving their sentences. Their reform efforts worked, and in the summer of 2015, Uganda had its first national plea bargaining conference. The system credited all of the prisoners with their time on remand, leading some prisoners to be released. This plea bargaining system has allowed the courts to hear cases at 1/5 the cost of the remand system, and Uganda has already set the example for many other African countries that have begun to begin work towards implementing plea bargains with their help. The documentary ended by saying that Henry is now a medical student.

After the documentary, we were lucky enough to have a Q & A session with Jim Gash. He was very down to earth and his passion for his work was immediately visible. He has made 20 trips to Uganda since 2010 and has done amazing work there every time he goes. He told us that the waiting time for juveniles on remand has gone from 2 years to 6 months, and that the Ugandan system had been through over 7,000 plea bargains since they left. He will return sometime this month for a women and leadership conference, anti-trafficking work, and more prison trips. He and Henry have weekly Skype calls, and Henry wanted to call and talk with us after the documentary but it was around 4 a.m. in Uganda and his alarm didn’t wake him up in time unfortunately. He is in his third year of medical school studying to be a cardiologist, and the younger brother who was convicted with him has also been exonerated is now in law school.

 

I have a notebook with two pages full of notes and comments about the documentary; it was informative, gripping, frustrating, and heartwarming, and it reignited my desire to do work similar to the work that Jim Gaff does, but in a more medical or mission- focused setting rather than a law setting. I love seeing the amazing changes that can be made when people work together to solve problems. One of the best parts of the documentary for me was seeing the process the Americans took with the Ugandans to reform their system and implement plea bargaining. They came in to the situation with a focus on developing relationships and asking “What do you need and how can we help you accomplish it?” rather than “Here is what you need and we’re going to fix it our way because we’re more developed so we know better.” It was refreshing to see the Americans working with the Ugandans to find solutions that would actually work for them and to implement these solutions in such a way that Uganda could continue to improve its system after the Americans left.

I would 100% recommend this documentary to anyone and everyone, especially anyone with even a remote interest in law. Its commentary on the power of ideas and of people who are willing to work for each other leaves a lasting mark and proves that with just those two things we can make dramatic and enduring changes.

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OU Cousins Update/ Spanish Club?

So my international organizations for this year were a little unconventional. If you’ve been following, my OU Cousin Anita was supposed to go back to Taiwan after spending Christmas in Boston over the break. Instead, she ended up visiting an aunt in Canada, then came back to Oklahoma where she *heart eyes, clasps chest* met a boy. He was from Spain and they had met during the year when they were both filling out paperwork to apply to extend their study abroad term at OU. He got approved, but she did not and that seemed to be the end of it.

But since she was finished with all of the classes she needed for her degree and would just be going back and finding a job when she returned home, Anita decided to come back to Oklahoma and stay with some friends for a little while, then ended up in a fairytale romance with the Spanish boy and decided to stay even LONGER. We met up a while back to get food and she told me about him, showed me all of their cute pictures, and explained how she definitely hadn’t told her parents the reason why she was extending her stay again. A few days after we met up, she jetted off to Las Vegas, then the Grand Canyon, and then to Los Angeles. All of the pictures she sent me were amazing, and since I haven’t been to any of the places she got to travel to, I was quite envious as she told me about walking the strip in Vegas, taking in the sheer enormity of the Grand Canyon, and falling asleep on the beach in California. But my envy was in a way that was also full of excitement for her, and I am so glad she was able to have all of the amazing experiences she had while she was here. Anita is finally actually gone now (…I think), and I tried to text her a few weeks back but I think we may have to switch to email or Skype now that she’s off of her international phone plan. It was a happy surprise for me to get to see her one last time though, and I hope that I can have just as great of an experience next semester with OU Cousins.

I also joined and attended a meeting of the Spanish Club on campus, which turned out to be nothing like I expected. First of all, there was not a single word of Spanish spoken during the meeting. I was kind of under the impression that it would be a culture and conversation club, but I guess it’s more just culture. The meeting featured the University’s Diplomat in Residence, Rob Andrews. He is a Senior Foreign Service Officer who was assigned a term as the Diplomat in Residence for the Central Region of the US as well as being an adjunct professor at OU. He came and talked to the Spanish Club about career and internship opportunities with the US Department of State, specifically about becoming Consular Fellows. A Consular Fellow, for all of the non-foreign service experts out there, serves overseas in US embassies or consulates and carries out many of the same duties as Foreign Service Officers- interviewing visa/passport applicants, adjudicating (approving or denying) visa/passport applications, fielding questions from and providing protection for people in their specific country and the US, and other similar tasks- but in a 4-5 year non-career appointment rather than a long term job. Mr. Andrews described the major tasks and everyday duties of a Consular Fellow, the application process, and the 6 languages that the State Department is looking for (one of which, not-so-coincidentally, is Spanish). The presentation was super informative, and the job actually seemed really cool. If I wasn’t trying to get into medical school I would probably seriously consider applying for it. But the club itself wasn’t what I was expecting, and I didn’t have the time to attend another meeting to see what else Spanish club had to offer. I’m not sure if I will try it out again next year or try to find something a little different. The university has just started a model World Health Organization, and I’ve heard from a few people that the model UN group on campus is also a lot of fun. But I’ve got a whole summer between me and the next organization I decide to dip my toes into, so I’ll cross that proverbial bridge when I get there. For now I’m just content with my interesting, unconventional, and  unexpected first year of experiences with international organizations.

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Wanderlust and Nostalgia

Almost exactly one year ago today, I left my beloved Alcalá de Henares and headed home. It was the end of a magnificent and life-altering four month stay, and though I was excited to reunite with family and friends, I was devastated to leave. These seem like very dramatic words, and they are, but it’s difficult for me to avoid bold terms when describing this particular adventure of mine. I had been dreaming of studying abroad in Spain and living with a host family for YEARS before I did it, and when the time finally came to actually get on a plane and go live the dream, I was terrified. It seemed like an insane leap of faith, and I was not at all confident that it would be as awesome as I’d been dreaming it would.

However, faithful readers of the blog (if any exist!) will know that I faced my fears, got on the plane, and lived the dream. And it really was like living a dream – during that semester, I saw incredible places, met incredible people, and created memories that I will forever cherish. It is one of my accomplishments that I’m most proud of. I realize that seems odd – getting to live in Europe and travel the continent for four months in a country that values siestas doesn’t sound particularly difficult. However, in going, I overcame a great deal of personal trepidation and reached way outside of my comfort zone. I crossed the ocean, made friends, took challenging classes during which I debated interesting current events and learned a great deal, all in Spanish, built a relationship with my host family, also in Spanish, made great friends, became a more capable traveler, and got a great deal bolder and more confident.

My time in Spain was a time filled with learning. The joy of the trip was interspersed with mistakes and stress. To say that every moment was enjoyable would be a lie, but to say that every moment was valuable is the complete truth. Studying abroad taught me so much, about the world around me and about myself. I fell in love with the city of Alcalá and the country of Spain, and it all still feels as though it happened yesterday.

Ever since I returned, I’ve felt periodic pangs of missing Alcalá, but this semester has been particularly hard. Many times, I look at the calendar and think, “This time last year, I was roaming the medina in Rabat (Morocco).” “This time last year I was watching the sun set over La Alhambra while I listened to beautiful music and was engulfed in dancing and merriment.” “This time last year I was exploring the Sunday market in Madrid.” I absolutely love my life in Norman, but it’s impossible for me not to miss the grand and glittering adventure that was my semester in Spain.

What all this boils down to is that I’m itching to go back. A large part of me wants to continue to branch out and see more of the world that I haven’t yet, but another large part aches to return to my second home in Spain. I would love to get to hug my host mom, eat tortilla and drink some tinto in Indalo, to paddle across the lake in el Parque Retiro, and to get to revisit all the places that are so close to my heart.

Sadly, my days studying abroad may be over, but there is a silver lining – graduation is coming soon, and once I get a job and start saving, I can begin to save and scheme my way back to Alcalá. If anyone is reading this who hasn’t studied abroad yet, please do me a favor and seriously consider it. Everyone who has studied abroad sings its praises, and they are absolutely telling the truth. Go, explore, learn, and don’t be surprised when you come home and immediately want to go back.

Islamaphobia and the West

Throughout the past several months, I have been disheartened to see that the fear of Islam, and of its practitioners, seems to be getting stronger and stronger in the United States. We like to think of our country as a cultural melting pot, accepting of people from all races and religions. Anyone willing to work hard who dreams of a better start will be embraced. Except that they definitely won’t, especially not if they’re wearing a hijab, it seems.

In reality, Islam is quite similar to Christianity. In my eyes, the moral basis of both religions appears to be very similar, and the Qur’an contains much of the Bible within it. Much as Christianity considers itself to be a continuation of Judaism, Islam considers itself to be an extension and perfection of Christianity. All three of these religions are Abrahamic, and I believe that if you look their past practices and into their specific beliefs, you will find many similarities – I certainly have.

None of this is to say that two groups need to be similar in order to get along. Mutual respect should not hinge upon similarity. However, it does make it look to me as though Christians and Muslims have much more to commune about than to fight about. It feels as though it should be easy for the two groups to get along, considering how much they have in common.

And yet. So many Americans, many of them Christians, fear and are threatened by Islam. More and more lately, I’ve been pondering this and questioning why. Part of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that people feel comfortable pitting another group against their own – you feel closer to your ingroup when you belittle an outgroup. However, I think that a lot of it comes from politicians and public figures playing up the fear of Islam in order to make themselves seem more powerful and to get themselves elected.

I’ve had several conversations with a professor of mine, and we both agree that there’s more here than even meets the eye. I do not believe by any means that these politicians are creating this fear of Islam in many Americans. I think that this fear has existed all along, and they are simply stirring it up. Mistrust of Islam runs very deep, and I would like to investigate how exactly it all began. Because of this, I have decided to conduct my honors research project next semester on the roots and contemporary manifestations of Islamaphobia in the west. I would love to educate others, and myself, on the fact that Islam should be respected, and not feared, and that Muslims are just as valuable a part of this American melting pot as everyone else.

With many good books and articles by talented, engaged people, I hope to get at the roots of this problem. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge, I can put a good foot forward and start combating Islamaphobia in any way that I can.

Epcot: the World Showcase

Over this spring break, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Disney World with my family. It’s funny, because I pride myself on going off-the-beaten-path and taking care to experience more than just the touristy side of new places. I want to immerse myself in the real culture and to blend in, not to stand at-odds with the amazing places I visit. Walt Disney World, in all honestly, stands a little at-odds with these tendencies: as vacations go, it’s up there on the touristy scale.

However, despite it’s cheese factor, to me, Disney really is magical. For one thing, I’m a fairly high-stress person, and the opportunity to spend a week at Disney with my family and best friend meant getting to take a week off of responsibility and to just focus on fun. That’s rare for me. For another thing, I think there’s something admirable about a place dedicated entirely to bringing people joy. From the perfectly engineered details of the place to the friendly employees to the massive media presence that they whole place is founded upon, it’s clear that Disney is carrying out their mission well. It was an amazing week, and it gave me some wonderful memories.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve decided to ramble on about the wonders of Disney and what exactly this has to do with international events. We’re getting there! Because my favorite Disney park has always been Epcot, and my favorite part of Epcot has always been the World Showcase. If you haven’t been, the World Showcase is a long, circular walkway around a lake that features miniature versions of eleven countries from around the world. Each country’s area is themed to that country, filled with its cuisine, music, and even employees from that country. Walking through the showcase is like taking a mini trip around the world, all in a day. Obviously, it doesn’t beat experiencing these countries in real life, but there is something so cool about strolling from country to country and feeling immersed in so many exotic places so close together.

Some could, justifiably, argue that this showcase is guilty of reducing massive and diverse countries into a limited number of their most famous traits. This is true, but I like to think that Epcot is celebrating what makes each of the eleven countries they’ve chosen unique in the world. After having been to the U.K., Canada, France, Italy, and Morocco, I can honestly say that Disney does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of these places, and the fact that the employees in each country’s section are residents of that country makes it all the more awesome. Many people don’t have the means or opportunity to get to places like Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but a trip to Epcot can help them better appreciate all of these places, as well as getting to meet people who’ve lived there.

One of my biggest passions has always been learning about other cultures and traveling to new cities and countries. I love my own culture, but I’ve always been hungry to experience others. To me, Epcot is the best of this – it gives people a taste of what lies outside the U.S. and celebrates foreign countries for being uniquely great. I like to think that Epcot inspires other people to love and celebrate the international community. I know it inspires me.