So much of senior year seems to be a waiting game. The first three months (and the preceding summer) were a frantic blur of filling out applications, writing essays, interviewing, then re-writing essays to apply to vet schools (or for others med or grad schools or even jobs) and Fulbright. Then the next several months are just… waiting. Waiting for any hint, any word of how those applications were received. I sent out five vet school apps around the same time as my Fulbright application, and every time I got a newsletter email from one of those schools I at first thought it was news on my application. So few plans can be made until most of the information is in, so waiting is all we can do. I’m particularly anxious, because national decision day for vet schools is in April, and some Fulbright countries don’t even notify their chosen grantees until May. So I’m left hoping that Spain decides to notify earlier. I actually got so nervous about this I found a spreadsheet someone made online with notification dates for every Fulbright country dating back nearly fifteen years to see how Spain usually does – the last few years they’ve notified in March, which is good news for me, as long as they stick to that pattern… But until then the waiting game continues. They dangle a carrot in January by telling you whether you passed initial application screenings (both Fulbright and most vet/med schools), then it’s two more months of the waiting game before we know anything about our (immediate) options for our futures.
As graduation approaches, I find that I’m even less willing to believe that this chapter of my life is closing than I was in high school. The idea that the friends I’ve made will scatter across the country and that the experiences I’ve had will fade into my past is something I can’t fully process yet in the chaos of completing my senior year. I can’t even begin to make plans for the next year of my life yet either, as I am still waiting for multiple applications to come back to assess my options. This only makes it harder to process the closing of my undergraduate career, because there is so much uncertainty in where I will be this time next year I keep clinging to the certainty and familiarity of college. I know what is happening (as much as any student does anyway) and where I am and what to expect in the next few hours, days, and weeks. But beyond that, beyond convocation, I still have no idea. So instead of mentally preparing myself for the next step I find myself sinking further into the rhythm and familiarity of my life as an undergraduate, unsure of what will happen when it ends, unsure of whether it can end.
After my summer in Arezzo it’s hard for me to miss out on Italy week at OU. I know it’s largely promotional to get more students to go to OUA, but for me it’s a trip down memory lane. I swing by the oval on my way to class and pick up a piece of biscotti, and I flash back to having Vin Santo and biscotti with my classmates in Cinque Terre on our weekend off, or I’ll taste test American and Italian Nutella and recall having Nutella crepes and gelato after class in Arezzo – and yes, I can tell American and Italian Nutellas apart. The more I recall, the more I want to go back and do it all again and see even more of Italy. I fully intend to make it back to Europe someday, whether it’s on a Fulbright or otherwise, and when I do I’ll definitely be stopping back by a few of my favorite haunts in Arezzo. It was there that I caught the travel bug in the first place, I won’t miss a chance to go back now.
I have only missed this festival once since coming to OU, and it was while I was in Australia last year. It seems to improve each year too, which makes me sad that I won’t get to go to another one (at least for a few years). This year they had more rides (all of which were free) and far more food trucks around than ever before, although the increase in food trucks may say more about Norman’s changing dining options than about the festival itself. In keeping with the culture of the night, I did get homemade tamales from a food truck at the edge of the festival, and I have to say they were probably the best tamales I’ve ever had (and I have had homemade tamales several times before). The vendors were also more numerous and diverse than in previous years. My friend Liz and I passed booths selling amazing art – decorated Day of the Dead skulls, wall hangings, and jewelry, as well as a variety of less related items from crystals and stones to children’s souvenirs, even self defense equipment like tasers and mace. The festival had live performers too, including several acts in Spanish and Spanish cultural dances. Unfortunately I got there after the cultural acts were done, but I did get to hear a fantastic pop music performance in Spanish. Possibly my favorite part of the festival though was the altars that were set up in the entrance. A couple appeared to be set up for specific people, with photos of individuals – maybe relatives of members of the clubs that put on the event – and items that seemed a bit more specific than the general altar offerings of bread, marigolds, and bright decorations. Others were more general, with no photos and only the basic elements present in most altars. They all seemed well done though, carefully arranged and beautifully decorated, they were a reminder amid all the carnival-like rides and booths of the cultural significance of the holiday.
I joined Spanish Club this semester to practice my language skills in preparation for my hoped for stint as a Fulbright ETA, and I have to say I wish I’d joined years ago. I had a great time practicing my Spanish during conversation hours and bingo games with the other club members, but the events and activities were also a great way to get exposure to the culture and history of Spanish speaking countries. Unfortunately for me most of the emphasis was on Latin American culture – understandable given our relative proximity to Latin America vs. Spain – but it was still fun to learn about these other cultures. We got to talk about Dia de los Muertos and helped make decorations for altars, and we learned how to make horchata from scratch, to name just a few fun activities from this semester. While this isn’t helping with my Spanish history and culture education, I found that much of the Spanish vocabulary and grammar I lost from years of disuse has come flooding back from conversing with others in the language. I hope sticking with the club next semester (along with the studying I’m doing on my own) will leave me at least sufficiently functional in Spanish by next fall should I get lucky enough to go to Spain.
Mentoring this year has been an interesting experience. Our mentees were allowed to choose their mentors, so I was honestly surprised when five new GEFs chose me to mentor them, mainly because they were made aware in my bio that I would be abroad in Australia during their first semester at OU. I was super excited to have them though, and I spent the first part of my shortened summer emailing them some basic info about the program and myself and OU, and then exchanging more individual emails with two of them as they were trying to plan ahead for their trips abroad. That was the best part for me, getting to talk with my new mentees. I did two mentoring programs the year before, and among nearly twenty total mentees I had, almost none of them ever contacted me or responded to any of my emails or other attempts to interact with them.
However, as seems to happen with the mentoring programs I’ve done, I largely lost contact with them after the semester started. I can’t say I blame them, I know when I was a freshman I preferred figuring things out for myself, but I liked being a resource whenever they would let me. I got to help one mentee start her search for a study abroad program that was a good fit and another decide whether to stay with the program, as he was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to meet all the requirements while keeping up with his classes and graduating on time. Even if I never hear from those freshmen again it’s cool to have been able to help a little bit with their first year of college.
On Global Engagement Day I attended the Fulbright/Peace Corps Prep session. I’ve been to so many Fulbright sessions that unfortunately, I didn’t get much new information from it, although the first-hand account from the speaker definitely got me excited to go (if I get accepted). The Peace Corps talk however, really interested me. I’m not sure it’ll work for me in the long run – I doubt I have a skill set that would work for them now, and I want to get my veterinary doctorate before I make a larger commitment like that anyway. But if there is a way I can swing going after vet school I’d love to. Had I known about the prep program sooner (or rather, had it been started earlier in my college career) I probably would have done it. Having a marketable set of skills like that in addition to my somewhat less “practical” four year degree would definitely have appealed.
For some reason I found myself less willing to consider a Peace Corps stint right after my undergraduate program than I am to consider Fulbright. The extra year commitment in Peace Corps for some reason seems like a huge difference to me, although another part of me wonders how big the difference really is. A year is already a long time, a full round of missed holidays and birthdays, at that point a second year seems relatively small and at the same time incredibly long. I already know how easy it is to get drawn into a good program abroad. Once I was settled in Australia I felt like I could stay there far longer than I did. It was only the continuous travel at the end that really wore me down and made me ready to go home. I wonder if Peace Corps wouldn’t be the same, just settling into a place for the long haul, making another semi-permanent home that I can really relax at, the way I could at my apartment in Australia, and the way I couldn’t when I was switching hostels every other night while backpacking. But somehow I’m reluctant to jump right into that, I feel that I’d rather try for the Fulbright first. It seems like I want to work my way up to such a long stay – a month in Italy, five months in Australia, a year on Fulbright… baby steps, I suppose, is what I’m going for. Even after so long abroad I still feel very new to that kind of travel, and I want to be sure I’m ready for that kind of commitment.
Returning to the US after being abroad for several months was an odd experience. To make it even stranger, I woke up sick the morning of my flight back to the US, and after a full day of flying and airports with an eye infection and a nasty cold, I spent the first week I was home holed up recovering. By the time I got back out into the “real world,” it had already started to feel like the entire “Australia experience” had been some hazy fever dream. It still amazes me how distance from a place can make experiences there seem surreal, especially when you’re also removed from the people you shared those experiences with. The only person in the US who was in Australia with me was Tasha, another OU student who stayed at the same apartment complex as me during our semester there. I meet her occasionally now for lunch so we can reminisce together and feel a little less alone and distant from all those experiences, because spending half a year abroad like that leaves a lot of memories that are really worth remembering and revisiting, but it’s hard to do that without someone else to share the memories with. That may be the hardest part of coming back, you’re left with all these incredible experiences and memories, but few if any people to share them with. No matter how well you can tell the stories to your friends or parents back home, they’ll never really know what it was like. It’s like telling a joke out of context, the distance just makes it lose something in translation, and I really struggled with that my first few weeks back. Even now, six months later, it feels even more like Australia was just a dream. It seems like time just skipped, I missed OU in the fall, a full semester of classes – this entire semester I referred to last spring as “last semester,” as though fall never happened. I fell right back in with my friends, which was great, but it also made that semester abroad seem even more surreal. How could I see and do and learn so much, then come back and find everything almost exactly as I left it? I’m completely adjusted to being home by now – I have been for months – but every once in a while the strangeness of the whole situation still stirs in the back of my mind. I’m sure as time passes that will happen less and less, but it makes me sad that all those memories are fading so fast, and will likely continue to do so. Hopefully I can go back someday and refresh some of them.
When I arrived at the Confucius Institute open house, I accidentally walked in behind a dance performance, as in on the back of what they were using as the stage. To be fair, the “stage” was the entryway, and I walked in what they were using as the main entrance. The open house was really cool, I got to watch a solo dancer (from behind), a martial arts demonstration, and a fan/tai chi demonstration. In between performances I wandered among the stations they had set up. They were doing calligraphy characters for kids, as well as a couple other art stations and a free dinner. The last station I visited before leaving was the tea tasting, which was by far the most interesting to me. They had black and green teas, each from a region in Southeast China. I’m not exactly a tea connoisseur, but that green tea was probably the best I’ve had, and I enjoyed getting to chat up the guy running the tasting too. While I lost the notes I took on what he said, he explained more precisely where each tea came from and talked about some other events the Confucius institute would be putting on. I had a great time overall, and next year I’ll try to get there earlier, or at least not walk in behind the ongoing performances.
For one of my events this spring I went to the ice cream social held by CIS, because who is going to pass up free ice cream anyway? I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling overly social at the time though having just finished a biochemistry exam and not having slept much the night before, so I lurked in a corner and people watched while nursing a bowl of chocolate and vanilla. What I noticed was an interesting lack of interaction between US students and international students. I know that OU tends to group its international students at Traditions West and on the international dorm floor, while most US students live elsewhere (with the exception of those who opt for international floor/housing).
The effects of this were fairly obvious, as it was clear that the international students had all befriended each other, while most US students hadn’t entered those circles and were socializing amongst themselves. I was in a similar situation in Australia, where a series of unintentional barriers between exchange and new international students and the Australian students left international and exchange students to mostly befriend each other. In Australia it seemed to be partly due to many of us arriving second semester, after all the other students had already formed their friend groups and stopped attending social events looking to make new friends.
Here at OU I think a big part of it is the policy of grouping international students into housing together. I can see some of the reasoning behind this (putting “very” new students together to figure out the new country, for example) and I know OU has some awesome programs like OU Cousins that try to counter this trend of international students and US students not mixing, but I would be interested to see what would change if US and international students were mixed evenly together in housing. I suspect there would be a lot more interaction between the two groups, which is really a huge part of why OU takes exchange and international students in the first place after all.