I keep coming to these info sessions hoping for a stroke of genius on what I will ask to research on my own Fulbright application, and I keep coming back empty handed. Every time I go I hear about all these awesome research projects – video diaries about the effects of a polluted river on the lives of women, research on the lasting effects of the first school in Israel that mixed Jewish and Arab students together, and research on identity and urbanization in Chinese cities. As a chemistry major, I’m expected to choose either research or a graduate program for my Fulbright application (the English teaching route is not very open to me). However, I have struggled to find a research topic in my field that would actually require me to be in another country to manage my research (chemistry, unlike social sciences, works the same way pretty much everywhere), and this, along with the need for some kind of community-interaction element, makes choosing a research topic extremely difficult. This leaves me to look at research in biology, possibly to advance my future in zoological veterinary medicine, but again I have yet to figure out a thesis that doesn’t sound like I want to just go work for National Geographic. I have yet to hear from a Fulbright recipient that did research in physical or life sciences, and even on the Fulbright website, the list of people who completed research in zoology or ecology is remarkably short. The more research I do the more I feel that my only option is a graduate program, but I would much rather do original research. I suppose I have another year(ish) to figure this out, but the closer I get to application time, the more I worry about this.
I attended the STEM Abroad session at Global Engagement Day both this year and last year, and what I keep learning is that STEM majors basically have to forge our own way abroad. There’s just no way around it yet.
OU is trying, that’s for sure. O-Chem in Italy, Engineering programs in Arezzo, and now a Pre-Med program is being tried out in Arezzo (apparently all STEM majors want to go to Italy?) but the fact remains, we’re just really limited on our options. I heard horror stories about getting 12 hours credit for a full year of courses abroad, and frankly that sounded fairly lucky to me. STEMs just don’t have the elective freedom other majors have that allows them to go abroad and take all the courses that just come back as “transfer electives” without putting them off their graduation plan. Our major checksheets are too specific, our requirements are tuned to the university we’re at – even transferring within the US can be a pain.
STEMs have to fight to get transfer credit from study abroad, and often lose course equation requests because a course happens to be half of each of two OU courses, or a combination of multiple courses. Sometimes it’s hard just to find a university that offers a comparable degree plan in a language we speak that isn’t in England. And even when we manage all of that — or ignore it — we often end up drowning in courses once we’re abroad, sometimes to the point where we miss the great opportunities studying abroad is supposed to offer (see: all my regrets from O-Chem in Italy).
But none of that means we shouldn’t study abroad, or that we should just write off study abroad as a gap year/semester (although sometimes that can be the better option). Studying abroad offers its own set of advantages that, to me, make it worth risking my 4 year graduation plan on. I got the travel bug on my short summer study abroad, and I really want more. The independence, confidence, and adaptability I gained abroad just couldn’t have come from taking courses here in the US. There’s something different about being so far away in such a different place that really drives one to grow and change and open his or her eyes.
I really hope OU continues to try to create more opportunities to help STEM majors study abroad without wrecking our 4 year plans, but I don’t think anyone should pass up the opportunity in the mean time if they can avoid it. Studying abroad is its own credential on any resume, it’s worth taking an extra semester or year in college (in my opinion) where money allows, and it’s an experience I will never forget or regret.
I really enjoyed serving on the “Preparing for Your Adventure” panel this year, it really let me reminisce on my time abroad last summer, and at the same time it let me get some good advice for my next trip from the other panel members and even from the students there to listen.
The topic that just seemed to keep coming up was packing – how to pack, what to pack, and how much was too much. (Hint from personal experience: if you can’t carry the suitcase up and down two flights of stairs to take a pedestrian overpass over a highway, it’s too much). And packing really seems like the thing that can make or break your trip. Going out of the country for weeks or months at a time, it seems catastrophic to get there and realize you left one thing at home that you needed – but it definitely isn’t. Other countries have stores too, and short of prescription glasses and medicines, you can find almost anything you actually need wherever you are. (If you can’t find it, odds are pretty good that you can survive without it). The greater danger is over packing – as I learned the hard way. Having too much stuff just becomes an issue when you’re traveling. You’re likely moving from place to place pretty regularly – especially if you’re on a shorter study abroad, a few weeks to a month or so. The more stuff you have, the harder it is to move. You have to lug really heavy stuff around, and you might even have to take more expensive travel options (Ryan Air and Easy Jet don’t allow full sized suitcases). My rule now is to lay out what I need, cut it in half, and then think really really really hard about whether I still need that stuff, and try to cut it in half again. (The second part doesn’t always happen, but it’s a good goal to aim for, and it usually gets me down to a reasonable amount of stuff).
But the biggest thing to remember is that YOU’RE ABROAD. Over or under packed, you’re in a new country, probably on a new continent and maybe even in a new hemisphere of the world. You’re seeing and doing things you may never experience again in person. Over or under packing or forgetting something can be annoying, but ultimately it won’t take away from your overall experience. So once you’re on the plane, just take what comes. Make it work, and go with the flow – you learn that one fast abroad. Enjoy your trip, and don’t stress about your suitcase. You’re not abroad to show off your packing skills.
Last night I got to go out one last time with my OU cousin. We went to Buffalo Wild Wings, shared some wings and amazing fries and talked about the year. Nok complained about how huge the US is, and how she had to choose between going to California and visiting the Northeast instead. She settled on touring New York City and Washington DC before returning to Thailand, but she wasn’t happy about it, and I was reminded of just how huge the US is. I’ve lived here for twenty years, but I’ve visited less than half of the states, seen almost none of the east coast, and have never been outside of the lower 48 with the exception of my trip to Italy last summer. Travel is such a different concept in the US than in other parts of the world. Where it takes us hours in a plane to cross the country, the same time can be used to cross several sovereign borders in Europe and parts of Asia, including the area that Nok is from. And in Europe’s case travel across all those borders is faster and cheaper than traveling from LA to Orlando is in the US. For a region that had to work across multiple governments, borders, sets of laws, and vastly different peoples, Europe still manages to encourage more mixing and interaction across its borders than the US seems to across its states. Life in Oregon is very different than life in Oklahoma, and because of that we focus on different issues and take different stands. That’s great, there’s nothing wrong with having different concerns, but when we forget how to relate to each other’s concerns we begin to create problems. In Europe, most people want to speak several languages, they wanted to be able to interact with different people. When I visited Italy, I hardly got to use what little Italian I knew because everyone there wanted to practice their English on me. In the US we can barely remember that members of other political parties are logical human beings too, especially those from different states. We’re such a huge group of people spread over so much land, we tend to forget about the other parts of the country and focus on our own county, state, region. We forget that those squares on the map represent other groups of people as different and as human as the people in our own little square, and that’s really a sad thing.
In the days following the election, I felt like I was watching some kind of crazy TV drama every time I checked the news or walked across campus. I heard about elementary school kids telling their Hispanic, Latinx, and Middle Eastern classmates horrible things, I saw videos of people getting beaten in the streets over who they voted for, I watched protesters take to the streets bearing signs that were aggressive, personal attacks against Melania Trump and others who really had nothing to do with the election or why these people were angry. I saw so much hate and fear that it really started to affect me in a way that I didn’t expect. I was among those who were scared by our country’s choice of a leader. I fear for myself and for those I care about who fall into the groups whose rights our president elect has threatened. But honestly, I’m more scared of the people walking down the street than I am of any upcoming legislation. I’m scared of the person who would rip a hijab off of a woman’s head in a grocery store and tell her to hang herself with it. I’m scared of the parents who teach their children that it’s okay to tell their classmates that Trump will send them back to Mexico. I’m scared of anyone who would physically attack others over a difference in political opinions.
I’ve seen so many people take their fear and anger and use it to justify treating others in horrible ways. It’s a mistake that humanity has made again and again throughout history, and it has never ended well. I get why people are scared, some fear the loss of their rights, others fear the current economic conditions, and others simply fear the uncertainty of the current state of the world. But none of this justifies treating others as less than human. These displays of hatred scare me more than anything else right now – more than the economy, the loss of my rights, or the state of the world. They encourage the same fear and hatred in others; they generate a cycle of choices and behaviors that will not fix anything. It won’t fix any of the sources of fear, and it won’t make the world a better place. It only hurts people.
I know there is a lot more behind these events and in peoples’ lives than what I’ve talked about here, but this is what I’ve seen around me over the course of the last couple weeks. I’m only aiming to understand and express my own feelings about these events.
I went to the opening performance of Who Am I to support my friend who was acting in it. As it turned out, that was the first time the play was ever performed on stage, and it was adapted by an OU professor from a novel. The plot was based on a mixture of Alice in Wonderland and Baba Yaga (a character from Slavic folklore), and it was completely absurdist. The combination of these two stories created an extremely chaotic and confusing storyline. Despite this, it was interesting how easily the two tales combined with the author’s (Dubravka Ugresic) own plot to create an interesting (although often baffling) story. The play raised many questions, especially relating to the nature of identity (who AM I?) without offering any solid answers. It left everyone in the audience laughing, but also considering deep questions about how we perceive ourselves and each other. During the talk back with the cast after the performance, audience members began asking the cast what answers they had come up with in response to these open questions. However, the cast gave very little away. Instead they urged the audience members to come up with their own answers – which, I think, was the entire point of both the play and the novel that it is based on. Identity is a universal source of questions. Everyone wonders about what defines them, what makes them who they are, and who they actually are. But there are no easy answers in life, so how can the play (or the novel) offer any easy answers either? We are all left to find our own answers both in the play and in real life. We can consult our friends and family and anyone else we like, but ultimately it is up to each of us to determine our own answers to those questions.
Last month I had the chance to see the group iDebate Rwanda hold a debate on OU campus about whether justice or forgiveness was more important in the wake of the Rwandan Genocide. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to hear the debate team speak to my perspectives class earlier that morning, and the background really helped me understand the ideas and feelings behind this debate. The Rwandan genocide happened before I was born, and before any of the debaters was born, so their perspective on the genocide is one from growing up in the aftermath. They told stories about loved ones they never met who died in the tragedy, and they described growing up not wanting to know which “ethnic” group they belonged to because it meant being labeled as either a victim or a perpetrator. Their stories really highlighted some of the worst effects of colonization – which was a direct catalyst to the genocide – while also highlighting how international relations can be both beneficial and harmful, especially in the wake of such a tragedy.
The debate itself was extremely heated, with each side refusing to give the other any ground, but in the end even those debating in favor of the less popular side (that justice was more important than forgiveness) agreed that forgiveness was the most important thing to focus on in the wake of the genocide. It was hard to disagree with the debaters who supported that argument: Forgiveness brings closure and starts healing better than justice ever can, and in doing so it allows both sides to focus on rebuilding instead of on resenting each other. Somehow looking back on that debate in light of the current political climate, that argument seems especially relevant.
I had a great time carving pumpkins the week of Halloween with my OU cousin! I learned last year from my previous cousin Emma that pumpkins really don’t grow well outside of North America, so most international students have never even seen a pumpkin that would look “average” to an American. Pumpkin pies really don’t exist outside of the US, and jack-o-lanterns certainly don’t (the few pumpkins that do grow can’t handle being carved out). So it was really cool getting to help my cousin Nok carve a pumpkin for her apartment. It has been a few years since I’ve carved one myself, so it was a refresher for me too. Nok was surprised by how big and heavy the pumpkins were – she’d only ever seen relatively small ones before – and the amount of “guts” inside the pumpkin really caught us both off guard. We both dove into it anyway, and soon we were both scraping seeds out of the pumpkin with our bare hands. We got really messy, ate some candy, and managed to create a very respectable, smiling jack-o-lantern with hearts on its cheeks (Nok’s personal touch).
It was a great opportunity to talk to Nok a bit and get to know her better. As a student from Thailand who is a “permanent” international student at a Japanese university, Nok is by far the most well-traveled person I’ve ever met. She’s been to a dozen countries across Asia and Europe, and is working toward a degree in international relations with an emphasis on the Middle East (which was part of her motivation to come to OU, as her home university offered only a few courses relating to the Middle East). Her perspective on international events is really interesting, and her fluency in three languages is really making me feel like I need to brush up on my barely-conversational Spanish.
Our tour of Caffe River was far more comprehensive than either of our winery tours so far. Our guide, the company owner, took us through almost the entire process, from testing samples and shipments they get sent to the actual roasting, sorting, and blending sites. We even walked through the warehouse where they package and sort shipments to be sent out. The process of selecting and acquiring the beans was really different than anything I would have thought of. The new efforts to go straight to the farmers to find good beans are really interesting, and the complications with finding a reliable group in Ethiopia or India would make me far too nervous to try to run such a business. But the results are clearly worth it to the people involved in this industry (our host’s excitement at showing us each aspect of his business made that very clear).
Caffe River’s attitude toward coffee was very similar to the attitudes of the wineries we’ve visited toward their wine. Caffe River had their own strategies that they thought worked better than other coffee roasteries’ strategies. They would keep their beans sorted by type when they arrived, and roast each type individually so they could adjust the roasting time for the size and other characteristics of each. Then they would blend them after roasting. Our host talked about how other places liked to blend the beans before roasting because they thought it let them blend the flavors as they roasted. He argued that this didn’t work, that it just made it harder to roast all the beans evenly. While I knew there was a deep culture behind wine and wine production, I really had no idea that so much went into coffee production too, and I really enjoyed getting to see all of it.
I thought our tour of Fattoria La Vialla was both an interesting complement to our Bucchia Nera tour, and an interesting source of comparison to it. As a complement, we got to see the cellars and learn about the oaking and aging process, which filled in the next steps after the fermentation process that we talked about at Bucchia Nera. I was really interested in their use of different barrels of varying sizes, materials, and levels of burning on the inside to manipulate how the wine changes as it is aged. The coolest part of the tour was probably trying wine straight from the barrel. The white we tried was probably my favorite white so far. I’ve discovered over the course of this class that I definitely prefer reds, but that white was better to me than any we’d had up to that point. The red (Chianti) we tried was interesting. I really liked it, but it was very dry. When they said that wine had another year or so of aging to go, we had a really interesting conversation about how it may become sweeter by then because it may not be done with malolactic fermentation. That was surprisingly exciting, getting to apply our knowledge from class in an unexpected way like that.
As far as comparison, I noticed that both places started their tours by telling us what made each winery special or individual. Ironically, both claimed to be special because they were organic. La Vialla went the extra mile though, describing all the other farming and ranching processes that they run, and their biggest claim to individuality, their high quality unfiltered wine, was particularly fascinating. They argued that it protected the wine from oxidation, which let them use less sulfur as long as they kept the wine dry. The wines we tried were unfiltered, and I think that may be part of why I liked them better than the previous wines I’ve had. The presence of lees seemed to help cut the alcoholic bite enough that I could actually taste some vanilla and cinnamon in the white, which is more than I’ve managed so far. I had a similar experience with the Chianti; I detected pepper and even some tomato, which seemed unusual. Although this winery seemed a bit less prepared to host us – they selected wines for us as we were there and their vinter wasn’t available for long to talk to us – I actually enjoyed it overall more than I did the previous tour.