Dreaming of Summer

Without a professor requiring weekly posts, my blog has clearly languished. My life at OU, however, has not. Since last writing in November, college has taken off, and I now feel comfortable calling Oklahoma home.

 

I originally intended to spend my first collegiate summer relaxing back in my hometown. After months away from family, friends, and the splendors of rural Wisconsin, I figured such a respite would be welcome. Christmas break, however, caused me to reevaluate this plan. Working at the local gas station thirty hours a week and coming home to my parents every evening quickly became maddening. It turns out that the constant stimulation and stress of school is difficult to leave behind, and I knew that I couldn’t pass my summer in a similar fashion to my winter.

 

After returning to school in January, I began looking for both an internship and a possible study abroad program. I ended up finding both. Thanks to some maternal nagging and a last-minute email from the Honors College, I spent June studying in France and July and August interning for Paul Ryan. How ridiculous my notion of a quiet summer now seems!

 

Since childhood, I have struggled with transitions. I have vivid memories of signing up for summer camp with gusto, looking forward to living in cabins in the Michigan wilderness in a few months, only to be hit with crippling dread as my departure loomed closer. Looking forward to an experience often seems to provide more satisfaction than the experience itself (are you surprised that I hate surprise parties?), so I always fear that events won’t live up to the idea that I’ve built up in my head. Often, they don’t; they turn out so differently than I’d imagined that my visions are neither fulfilled nor disappointed.

 

Packing for France was an anxious experience. While the first two weeks of summer that I’d passed at home had been far from satisfying, there is safety in the known, safety in remaining exactly where you are. As I purchased travel-size shampoo, I worried that I would somehow manage to find Europe disappointing, that I would spend a stressful and unsatisfying month abroad when I could be home making money and wasting excessive amounts of time with friends from high school. What if I were in Paris, longing for Jefferson?

 

Just as my middle school worries about summer camp never came to fruition, I found all my fears about studying abroad to be ludicrous basically as soon as the program began. Transitions are indeed difficult; staying in Jefferson would have been easier (and a heck of a lot cheaper) than going to France. But the difficulties that living in a foreign country causes turned out to be invigorating and instructive, and I’m satisfied to say my month in Europe was easily the happiest month of my life.

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My Digital Story

These past few weeks in my Becoming Globally Engaged Class, we’ve been working on creating digital stories. They can be about a wide range of things, as long as they’re related to some kind of international experience or cultural interaction. I’ve had the script for mine written for weeks. It’s an amalgamation of my very first blog post, “My American Story,” and some new writing, and it’s primarily about how I’ve learned to see beyond the ridiculous biases I had as a child, even as I’m just realizing how biased I really was.

I like my storyline: it’s personal but relevant, I hope, to a lot of people, and it’s just the right length. Read aloud, it comes to just about two and a half minutes. The story itself isn’t the problem, the digital component is. I’ve never been great with technology (my friends joke that I’m like an old woman, given my general abhorrence of computers and my fondness for oatmeal and phrases like “golly gee”), but the editing software we’re using, WeVideo, is fortunately easy to use. However, I’m struggling to illustrate my story.

My lovely father was so kind as to help me out by taking pictures around my hometown and emailing them to me, so I have plenty of shots to show where I come from. A large element of my story is my experience as an English a as  second language tutor, and I don’t have any pictures to go along with that. I’m hesitant to use stock photos, because the most impactful digital stories that I’ve seen have used really personal photos and videos. Using things taken off the internet just seems hollow. Currently, I’m uncertain what my project will look like, and how I’ll portray the things I’m talking about.

I’m looking at this as an opportunity to push my creativity a little bit. The digital stories are due in a week, so I’m going to have to come up with something! The fruits of my labor will be posted here as soon as I finish. Worst case scenario, I’ll just instruct people to appreciate my story with their eyes closed.

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My OU Cousin

Here at OU, there’s a program called OU Cousins wherein American students pair up with students who are in Oklahoma to study abroad. The initial matching process was very stressful. Girls have to pair with girls, and apparently us OU girls were quite eager to make foreign friends, because we vastly outnumbered the international students. It felt like speed dating; we shuffled awkwardly around the room and  chatted about trivial things like our favorite TV shows and ice cream flavors. I struggled to discern who the international girls were, and even when I found one, she was swiftly whisked away by another eager American. Going into the process, I was hoping for someone from France, so I could practice my French with her. I quickly realized that I couldn’t afford to be picky– my plan to find someone with common interests and expectations for the program went out the window. I just wanted to get paired with someone.

I briefly talked to a girl who was from France, but before I could even broach the topic of becoming cousins, she flitted off to another group of girls. She cleared enjoyed being the hot commodity, and I couldn’t blame her. Eventually, however, just as the room was beginning to clear out and it appeared all hope was lost, she circled back to my friend Katy and me, and asked if we’d like to be her cousins. Of course, we said yes!

Ariane and I have only hung out a few times, but I’ve learned a lot from her. One of these realizations, to my dismay, was the reinforcement of the stereotype that French people are picky about how us foreigners butcher their language. Shocking, right? She’s not too enthusiastic about talking to me in French, and it certainly is easier to just use English. We’ve talked a lot about the differences between French and American school systems, both for high school and college. A few weeks ago we went to an event at the Union where we got dinner and painted pictures, all for free. There’s nothing like that at her university in France (though she was quick to point out that that’s one of many reasons schooling there is so much cheaper!), and we had a lot of fun.

Because of Ariane, I’ve also gotten to meet a lot of other international students. All students studying abroad here live in the same apartment complex, so they spend a lot of time together. Ariane invited me to a party hosted by one of her friends from the Netherlands, and I ended up being the only American student there. I found myself in this stranger’s kitchen at midnight, chatting with a circle of people from all over Europe about international politics. This was right before the presidential election, so they all had a lot to say about the United States. This is the beauty of the OU Cousins program: because I was connected with one international student, I became a part of a larger community, and so did she.

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GEF Life Lessons

I’ve learned a lot about myself this semester, and much of that is thanks to the Global Engagement Fellowship. As I’ve briefly discussed before, I’m imagining a completely different trajectory for my career now than I was before I started college.  Rather than just wanting to travel, I’m hoping to live somewhere abroad doing long-term service, whether that be through the Peace Corps, a Fulbright program, or just as a member of the normal workforce. After that, I’m hope I’ll move back to the United States to pursue my goal of becoming a children’s advocacy lawyer. Whatever I end up doing, there are several lessons I’ve learned so far that I know I’ll incorporate:

  1. Accept that you don’t know what the future holds. I had a lot of stress during my senior year of high school because I had no idea what the next year would bring. I’m a very goal-oriented person, so it was frustrating to not have a clear path laid out in my head. I had ideas of what I wanted, but making those things happen wasn’t entirely in my control, and now, looking back, I’m grateful I didn’t get exactly what I’d hoped for. As poet Robert Burns so adroitly put, “The best laid schemes of mice and men go often askew.” Though I am neither a man nor a mouse, this is overwhelmingly true. So many of the wonderful things in my life (being here at OU and joining the Global Engagement Program, for example) are result not of my careful planning, but of serendipity. Leave room in your life for chance. Work toward goals, certainly, but embrace the unknown.
  2. There are millions of ways to help people. We’ve spent a lot of class time talking about how to effectively give to charity, how to be a useful volunteer, and how to be an advocate for lesser-heard voices. Now, I can’t imagine having a career in which I don’t see myself making a tangible contribution to bettering people’s lives.
  3. Pursue things that interest you, even if you can’t see how they will immediately further your goals or tie-in to your career. While you can, give away your time and do things you enjoy. Coming to OU, I was excited to study abroad, but that seemed unrelated to my goal of becoming a lawyer. I thought the Global Engagement Fellowship was handy in that it made traveling more affordable, but I didn’t imagine it having a significant impact on my college career or life. Oh how wrong I was. Because of this program, I’ve met some of my best friends, and I’m now pursuing a dual degree in Letters and International Studies. In my career, I’m going to remember this experience. If I’m offered a job or a project that seems a bit out of left field, but sounds enticing nonetheless, I’ll seriously consider it.
  4.  Ask people out for coffee. While I didn’t learn this as a direct result of the Global Engagement Program, this is one of my favorite realizations of college. If there’s someone you want to get to know better (whether it be because they seem funky fresh and you want to befriend them, or because they could be a useful professional connection/mentor), offer to buy them some coffee. People love drinking overpriced things on someone else’s dime, so chances are, they’ll say yes. Need a killer letter of rec from a professor? Ask him out for coffee.Need to bribe someone? Ask them out for coffee. Want to woo a girl? Ask her out for coffee. Trying to connect with a new coworker? Ask them out for coffee. All the world’s problems could basically be solved if we all bought each other lattes a little more often.
  5. Most importantly, don’t be intimidated by people who are smarter and more successful than you. I’m friends with a lot of people now who, upon first meeting, I assumed wouldn’t want to hang out with me because they were so obviously cooler than I am. Many of the friends I made through this program are such talented and brilliant people, but they have no idea. Connect yourself to the people who scare you a little bit, because it’s an incredible thing to be able to genuinely look up to your best friends.
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Making Development Aid More Effective in Africa

Today I attended a presentation entitled “How Can We Make African Development Aid More Effective?” There were four speakers on the panel, two who were from Africa. Each addressed different concerns with providing aid in Africa and offered potential solutions or their visions for reform. Several of them mentioned that the true concept of international aid didn’t emerge until after World War II, specifically with the Marshall plan to make reparations in Europe. Eventually, developed countries began using a similar model to help Africa, and we’ve funneled approximately $1 trillion dollars there since.

The most basic question is, has this aid actually helped? Results were mixed. If one uses Botswana as a case study, the answer would be yes. Since the 1950s, their economy has grown tremendously and standards of living are up. Similar progress has been made in Ghana and Uganda. However, Africa still has little infrastructure, generally high poverty, and poor human rights conditions. As these problems prevail, we must ask ourselves what the best way to give is, and assess what a reasonable timeline for helping is.

Governmental corruption often reduces the efficacy of foreign aid, as do the complications of bureaucracy. Dr. Aondover Tarhule talked about the current model of giving, referred to as “top-down.” People donate money to NGOs that then use that money in needy areas. The problem with this, he postulates, is that the NGOs have to be appealing to donors, meaning their projects must be geared toward quantifiable, feel-good results. Because of this, NGOs are great at emergency relief, but larger-scale endeavors often don’t have an impact. When there’s a natural disaster, famine, or other similar problem, donors are eager to support the NGOs’ work, and the results are clear. The most impactful projects, however, are the ones that seek to eliminate a country’s need for help down the line; Dr. Tarhule referred to these as “transformative” rather than “palliative.” Donors don’t necessarily see the appeal to these efforts as the results take years to become clear.

To solve this problem, Dr. Tarhule suggests flipping the system. In order to truly help a country, the country must want to be helped. He envisions a country outlining exactly what help it needs and allowing NGOs to assess what aid they are best equipped to give, partnering with donors to address the country’s specific concerns.

Of course, these issues are always much more complicated than anticipated. Dr. Daniel Mains presented another quandary: should foreign aid have strings attached? In Ethiopia, for example, the government is incredibly corrupt, and basic human rights violations run rampant. Is providing Ethiopia with money helping to ameliorate those problems, or is it rewarding the government’s shortcomings? George W. Bush had the opportunity during his presidency to provide millions of dollars to stop the spread of AIDS in Chad, but he offered the help with one major stipulation: Chad had to preach abstinence only. They rejected the help. This illustrates the difficulty of imposing moral judgments on other countries. For Dr. Mains, we need to give, sans strings.

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Avoiding the Voluntourism trap

Since coming to OU, I’ve been  surprised (both pleasantly and unpleasantly) to find that the vast majority of college stereotypes are true. I’ve gone to Taco Bell at two in the morning. I fret about money. I’ve encountered my fair share of inebriated individuals. I study constantly and feel like I never study enough. I’ve become friends with a very diverse group of people. I’ve had my dearly held political and religious beliefs challenged. And, most significantly, I’ve begun actively questioning what my place and purpose in the world are.

Coming into college, I knew I wanted to go to law school, specifically hoping to pursue a career in children’s advocacy. That hasn’t necessarily changed, but now I’m leaving my options more open. Thanks mostly to my Understanding the Global Community class, I’ve started feeling called not only to travel the world, but to serve the world as well. I recently wrote a paper on the transnational social movement for women’s rights to education in developing countries, and I found myself getting rather emotional. In studying international affairs and global politics, I think it’s easy to gloss over the raw, human side to problems. As staggering as statistics can be, individual stories are, at least for me, much more impactful.

There is so much need in the world, yet, as I’ve been learning, having the desire to help isn’t enough. Despite having the best of intentions, a lot of volunteers don’t do a whole lot of good simply because they’re not qualified. That’s disheartening. My whole outlook on volunteering has changed. It’s easy to fall into the voluntourism trap– just by going to a poor country and hanging out with the malnourished natives I’m doing good, right? Not so much. While I would love to hop on a plane right now and go save some lives, that’s not how the world works. If I truly want to help people and make the world a better place, I need to develop a skill set first.

That being said, college is my time to do that.  I’ve decided to get dual degrees in International Development and Letters so I’ll be well prepared for law school and foreign service work. I’m about to start volunteering with the the Norman Public Library’s English as a second language program, and I’m also getting involved with Autism Speaks here on campus. At the end of my four years, I want to feel like I’m capable of actually helping other people, rather than just experiencing other cultures and making myself feel good. In the mean time, I’m focusing on the positive impact I can have here in Oklahoma. While local service work doesn’t have the same glamour as volunteering abroad, it’s just as important. Need is need, and I want to do everything I can to serve the community I’m in.

 

 

 

 

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Is “effective altruism” actually effective or altruistic?

In philosopher Peter Singer’s TEDtalk , the why and how of effective altruism, he discusses the pitfalls of modern charity efforts and how one can do good in the most impactful way possible. He presents interesting points: while most people agree without question that donating and volunteering is always a good thing, sometimes one’s efforts just aren’t effective. Bill and Melinda Gates are his primary example of truly effective altruists; it’s estimated that the work of the Gates Foundation has saved over 5.8 millions lives. Where intellect and a desire to serve intersect, the most good can occur. There are four questions, he postulates, that stand in the way of people giving: 1. How much of a difference can I make? 2. Am I expected to abandon my career? 3. Isn’t charity bureaucratic and ineffective anyway? 4. Isn’t it a burden to give up so much?

In addressing these four quandaries, Singer’s attitude seems a bit negative. His points are excellent: why spend $40,000 to pay for training a seeing-eye-dog for a blind person in America when that same amount could correct vision problems for a few hundred people in a developing country? Certainly, in giving we should be thoughtful. But his attitude borders on condescending, as if those of us who have unknowingly funneled our resources into less-than-perfect charities should be ashamed, or as if there’s no merit in spending that $40,000 for the seeing-eye-dog.

“Some charities are literally hundreds or thousands of times more effective than others,” he says. How exactly does one measure that? Giving should be qualitative rather than quantitative. Most of his arguments center around the monetary side of different types of charity and remove the humanitarian aspect of altruism. A good career to consider, he says, if you wish to help fix worldwide problems, is banking or finance. Why? People in these fields make a lot of money, meaning they have a lot of money to give away. Instead of dedicating your life to service, rake in the cash and donate enough so that service organizations can hire five employees. In his words, “quintuple the impact.” That’s an interesting take on how to center a life around the needs of others.

Is this really altruistic? In breaking things down by the numbers and giving in order to feel fulfilled, a true sense of selflessness is lost. That’s not necessarily bad, though. If people are benefitting from the efforts, does it matter if you’re only giving to eradicate the guilt that goes hand-in-hand with privilege? He speaks about altruism, but says, “I’ve enjoyed giving since I was a graduate student. It’s something fulfilling for me.” Effective, yes. Altruistic, no.

Despite these flaws, I agree with his primary intention in speaking: we have a moral obligation to help others. That’s a weighty issue, of course. To what extent are we obligated? Whether you want to dedicate 10% of your income to charity or choose to be benevolent in another fashion, I believe every person has a right to ample food, clean water, adequate shelter, healthcare, and an education. People should live without fear of violence or persecution. And those of us who have resources to give, should give them. Whether you choose to buy into Singer’s analytical charity game or you just give to organizations that speak to you, give what you can.

 

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The Halfway Point

As I was preparing to leave for college, all I could think about was how similar it felt to going off to camp as I had done for the previous six summers. Since middle school, I had attended a fine arts camp in the woods of Michigan for two weeks every July.  As much as I made wonderful friends and loved being there, I also had a countdown in my head of how many days were left until I got to come home.  I was afraid that being at OU would feel the same way. If fourteen days seemed daunting to count down while I was away at camp, how insurmountable would the approximately 120 days between start of the semester and Christmas break feel?

This week marks the halfway point in my first semester of college, and I’m quite happy to report that I have no idea exactly how many days I’ve been here, nor do I know how many days it is until I go back to Wisconsin. My first two months have been much happier and more comfortable than I could’ve possibly hoped. I was amazed by how quickly I started referring to my little ol’ dorm room as “home,” mostly thanks to my lovely roommate and new friends that truly feel like family. (I hate that all the college clichés are coming true!)

I’m continually amazed by how much autonomy I have here. Besides the obvious being able to stay out until all hours or skip class whenever I feel like it, I’m now an adult in the sense that I am responsible for planning for my future. My parents are still helping me pay the bills, but it’s ultimately my decision on what classes to take and what opportunities to seek out in order to be successful, and plenty of the decisions I make now could have serious ramifications a few years down the line. Thus far, I don’t think I’ve screwed up too monumentally.

My biggest struggle has been with trying not to be overwhelmed by the sheer amount of opportunities here. I’ve written about it before, and I’m sure I’ll write about it again. Being an aspirational person comes with a lot of anxiety about not being involved or connected enough, and it’s difficult to just enjoy the moment. That being said, I think since coming to college I’ve thought more about what I want for my future and what kind of person I want to be than I had ever previously.

My goals for the rest of the semester are pretty simple. In order from least complicated to most complicated, I’m hoping to have a 4.0, make even more friends, and continue solidifying my general life plan. “My general life plan” is where study abroad comes in. Since meeting with my fabulous instructor/life coach Jaci last week (that was a shameless plug, she grades these blog posts), some of my plans for study abroad have changed. I’m now hoping to do two semesters abroad in separate places, rather than just doing a semester in France and a shorter summer program somewhere else. While going to France is still a priority, I’m also hoping to study in South Africa. It’s not a Francophone region, but it seems to be the most accessible part of Africa, and the culture is incredibly interesting. Because of the apartheid, there’s a strange juxtaposition between the incredibly western-looking cities of Pretoria and Johannesburg and the more than six million citizens who have HIV.

I tend to be sort of a last-minute person, but if I hope to coordinate such an elaborate plan for study abroad I’m going to have to be thinking ahead. Now is the time to be meeting with people who can help make these dreams a tangible, affordable reality that won’t deter my plans to graduate in four years.

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A Little Thing Called Brexit

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go to a presentation about Britain’s exit from the European Union, given by Mitchell Smith, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs in the College of International Studies. My knowledge beforehand about Brexit was pretty limited; I knew there had been a referendum, and the people had voted to leave.

My friend Ben is from England, and I have a cousin currently living there. Asking about Brexit resulted in eye rolls and shrugs. To them, it seemed unnecessary, and not terribly consequential. My general impression after hearing Dr. Smith talk is that the people’s choice to leave was a bit unnecessary, and the gravity of the decision is yet to be determined.

The presentation mostly focused on the two sides’ campaigns to convince voters to stay in the EU or to leave. Nigel Farage and the rest of the UK Independence party mostly appealed to the British sense of nationalism and identity, one poster displaying the choice being “what’s best for the EU vs. What’s best for Britain.” They also cited monetary and security concerns. Besides costing about 350 million euros a week, being in the European Union dictates that they allow free movement across borders for other members. In light of recent terrorism in Europe and worldwide, border control is a growing concern.

These arguments were evidently more compelling than the opposition’s, though those in favor of remaining a member claimed that leaving would dissolve the largest peace project in human history, support a right-wing movement, and undo trade agreements. Despite even then-prime minister David Cameron backing the call to remain a member, the final vote was 51.9% in favor to exit, a rather unexpected outcome.

The consequences of the decision remain unclear. A rather important tidbit of information that I was unaware of is that the vote didn’t automatically expel Britain from the EU. They get to decide when exactly to exit (current plans are for Spring 2017), after which point there will be a two-year negotiation period for the particulars to be worked out. Britain also has to decide between a “hard exit” and “soft exit,” a hard exit being a complete departure from the open market. While staying in the open market is probably in their best interest financially, to do so would require them to leave their borders open, negating one of the driving arguments behind Brexit.

As with most things, the more I learn, the more I realize I don’t know. The better informed I become, the more complicated I realize the issues are. Alas. Welcome to college.

 

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