My First Few Weeks Abroad

Bonjour from Limoges! I left home on August 24th, so I’ve been in Europe for just short of a month. Before coming to France, I spent a week traveling with my best friend (another Global Engagement Fellow!), Hennessey. We flew into Amsterdam together and made the best of four rainy days eating lots of good food and going museum hopping. During a brief period of sunshine, we rented bikes and rode around the canals, an experience that left Henn with a sizeable thigh bruise from a minor collision.

From Amsterdam, we took a train to Brussels, where we stayed in a very cheap (and highly flawed) AirBnB. On our first night out, we were surprised to find that almost no restaurants served food on weeknights. When I went into one establishment and asked if they were serving dinner, the host said yes, “but no food, only beer.” Our few days in Brussels were marked by many struggles with finding food and using public transportation. We never ate dinner before 9 pm, and I was averaging about 20,000 steps a day. Still, we saw some wonderful things, including the Palais du Justice, which made Hennessey cry, and the Royal Museums of art.

The highlight of our time in Belgium was a day trip to Bruges, a city that seems to just be famous for being cute. We spent most of the day wandering the streets, looking at the beautiful architecture and eating chocolate. The weather was perfect, and I think I’ll remember the day forever.

After that, Hennessey and I went our separate ways– I got a train to Germany to visit some relatives, and she boarded a plane to Amaan, Jordan, where she is studying for the semester. I spent three lovely days with my Aunts Marita and Marlies and Uncle Werner in Aachen. We had only met once previously, but I could tell that we were family. My Aunt Marita reminds me so much of my mom, and we even look alike (rosy cheeks run in the family!).

Finally, I took a 15 hour bus ride from Aachen to Limoges, where I arrived on September 4th. The first couple weeks have been both more difficult and happier than I expected them to be, but I think this is the start of a wonderful semester!

 

Uncategorized

Conversations Between American and French Students

As I’ve previously written about, I spent a month last summer studying in Clermont-Ferrand, a small town in France. Norman and Clermont-Ferrand are sister cities, meaning university exchange is incredibly easy. This semester, there were several French students studying at OU. The College of Arts and Sciences Leadership Scholars program hosts a trip for its new members every year to Clermont, so the advisor for our organization invited the French students to come to an informal meeting to meet some of us and tell us about where they’re from.

I will not be going to Clermont again this summer, but I enjoyed chatting with the students about my favorite memories from my time abroad. While I got to know the town itself pretty well, my program was taught by OU professors, so I didn’t really get to see what being a student at the university there was like. I was most interested to hear about the different culture surrounding higher education. The French students said they were surprised by how the college experience in America includes not only taking classes but joining sororities or sports teams or other organizations. For us, the education one receives at a university is only a part of the experience. In France, university life is more simple, and there is much less emphasis on extracurriculars and involvement.

I appreciated hearing this perspective ahead of my semester abroad in France. The opportunities I have had outside of my coursework at OU have been wonderful. They’ve given me great real-world experience and helped me to make friends. However, doing so much can be exhausting, and I’ve always wondered what it would be like to focus more intently on classes without juggling so many other commitments. It looks like this fall I’ll find out!

Uncategorized

Bridging the Gap Between Student Government and the International Community

Besides the Global Engagement Program, the Student Government Association is the group on campus that has been most meaningful to me. As a freshman, I was a member of Sooner Freshman Council, a group for 30 freshmen who want to get more involved in student government as well as on campus in general. Through SFC I learned tons about SGA and, more importantly, made close friends and was mentored by older students. This year, I had the privilege of serving as one of the co-chairs for SFC and got to recruit 30 new freshmen and plan a year of meetings and activities for them. Overall, it was a wonderful experience. Many of my friends are involved in other parts of SGA like congress or the president’s cabinet.

Recently, an international student who was in SFC and congress pointed out that SGA doesn’t communicate very well with the international community at OU, as evidence by how few international students get involved in SGA or even know what SGA does. The head of the communications committee in congress decided to organize a mixer between SGA members and the International Advisory Committee.

The mixer provided an opportunity for international students to hear more about how to join the Student Government Association if it interested them and also to give feedback to SGA and make their voices heard. There were pizza and chips and queso for everyone to snack on, and we began the evening by just doing icebreaker games and chatting, trying to learn everyone’s names. Then the heads of different branches of SGA gave short, informal presentations about what exactly they do and how one can get more information or join.

My co-chair Daniel gave our presentation. SFC is unique in that only freshmen can join, and applications are only open for the first couple weeks of the school year. Unfortunately, that meant that none of the international students at the mixer were eligible to join SFC. However, we asked them to reach out to students whom they knew were coming to OU in the fall, and give them information about SFC and encourage them to apply.

I think the SGA/IAC mixer was an important step in making student government at OU more inclusive. SGA is such a tight-knit community that it can appear intimidating to outsiders, when SGA’s whole purpose is to hear the concerns of and represent the university community. International students make up a significant portion of the student body, and they have unique perspectives and ideas. It would be a mistake not to include them in the conversation.

Uncategorized

Updates on ESL Tutoring

This semester, I have continued to work as an English as a Second Language tutor through the Norman Public Library. I am still with the same student, Maria, so we have been working together for close to 18 months! While we met pretty consistently last semester for two hours a week, we have struggled a bit more in the last few months to make our schedules work. We have only managed to meet a couple times a month, but our time together is still valuable.

I was surprised last semester about the depth of our conversations; that has only continued. Her life, like that of many immigrants, can be very difficult, and I get the impression that she looks forward to our lessons as not only a time to practice her English but also to vent and talk through problems. Her mother-in-law recently passed away, and her son has been struggling in school, so there is no shortage of things to talk about. I am glad to be her sounding board and her friend as well as a tutor.

While I think the quality of our conversations is ever-increasing, I worry that her vocab is building while her grammatical abilities are not. She knows enough words to express her thoughts on myriad issues, but I find myself pointing out the same grammar mistakes over and over. I have also started to realize that her listening comprehension is fairly weak in comparison to her speaking abilities. When I talk to her, she smiles and reacts appropriately, so I think she is understanding me, until I ask a direct question and she is unable to respond.

A few months ago, as we sat having our lesson at OU’s Union, a few of my friends walked by. I called them over to say hello, and when I introduced her, she completely clammed up. They asked her very simple questions that I knew she was able to answer, but she just apologized and said her English was very poor. I am glad she’s comfortable talking to me so frankly, but she has to be able to communicate with strangers, too!

In these situations, it is hard for me not to become frustrated. I have invested so much time into these lessons, and I know how desperately she wants to learn the language. Sometimes I worry that her own timidity and quest for perfection are insurmountable roadblocks to learning English, and I get upset with myself for not being able to help her more effectively. I have to remind myself that I, like her, cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good, and some progress is better than none at all.

I am sad that our relationship will be coming to an end since I will be home for the summer and in France for the fall. However, I know that she is in good hands: she has signed up for a formal English course through a community college. I look forward to reuniting with her when I return to see how her English has improved, and also catch up on the gossip I’ve missed!

Uncategorized

Goals and Challenges of Studying Abroad

Since finding out that I’ve been accepted to study in France this fall, I’ve begun thinking more about what I hope to get out of the experience. My primary goal this fall is to improve my French skills. While I’ve been studying the language since high school and feel comfortable reading and writing it, I struggle to speak to and understand French natives. My language classes at OU have given me more opportunities to practice speaking, but I often feel like I’ve hit a plateau. Unless I’m surrounded by the language and forced to speak constantly, I worry that my abilities will remain merely conversational rather than fluent. While I’m abroad, I am determined to conquer my fear of engaging with native speakers. I would rather make mistakes and embarrass myself, but ultimately improve, than remain quiet and safe and never become fluent.

I am also hoping to spend time relaxing and exploring alone. I love the life I’ve made for myself at the University of Oklahoma, but I am constantly busy and surrounded by people. Sometimes, I feel like the exhaustion of attempting to do so much drains the joy from my favorite things. In France, I want to slow down and savor the incredible opportunity to live abroad for four months. This goal is fairly abstract, but I think I can achieve it by learning to say no to things, by budgeting time to spend by myself, and by journaling. I hope that I will gain a sense of independence and a knowledge of how best to make myself happy that I can bring back to Oklahoma with me.

While this is a wonderful opportunity, I know it won’t come without difficulties.

As I know from my brief trip abroad last summer, doing anything in a foreign country is harder than it would be at home, mostly because of the language barrier. Something as fun and simple as ordering a drink at a cafe became stressful, and already confusing tasks like navigating public transport bordered on overwhelming. I think the greatest challenge I will face will be remaining adventurous and outgoing, when in many respects it would be easier just to stay back in my dorm. I will be taking classes in English, however, so that will provide some respite. Otherwise, I will have to embrace the possibility of making mistakes, sounding silly, getting lost, and being frustrated because navigating life in a foreign language is hard. This will be daunting at first, but I know that as I spend more time in France, French will become easier.

Another challenge I expect to face is being homesick. I’m from Wisconsin, so I’m used to being far away from my family while I’m at school. In France, however, I will be far away from my family, my friends, and the unique comforts of home that I take for granted. I want to get to know the French and other international students, and I hope to speak in French as much as possible, but I also plan to stay connected to things back home. I will call my parents regularly, and keep up contact with all my friends in Norman. Their support will make dealing with the stress of being so far from home much easier, and it will help me transition more easily back to life in America.

 

 

Uncategorized

Exciting Life Updates Woohoo

Exciting life update! My wildest dreams are coming true: I’m actually studying abroad for a semester. When looking for a study abroad destination, I had a couple basic criteria in mind. As a French minor, my primary goal in studying abroad is to have an immersive language experience, so I had to study in a Francophone country. I also wanted to be sure that whatever courses I took abroad would give me credit toward my major once I returned to OU.  The opportunities that the university in Limoges provides far exceed these expectations. As a small town, Limoges will provide me with more opportunities for speaking French than larger cities would as many of the locals will likely not know English. The European Studies program the university offers will not only allow me to take classes that will contribute to my Letters major, it will expand upon some of my greatest areas of interest. Courses on European history, literature, and art are necessary for my degree, but they’re also exciting; I’m looking forward to studying European culture from the Europeans’ perspective. I acknowledge that I could be immersed in the language and take relevant courses through other study abroad programs OU offers in France. What makes Limoges the best option is its rural location. While many students might want the thrill of taking on a foreign metropolis like Paris, I want the exact opposite. I want to settle into normal French life and claim a small city as my own. I hope to know Limoges, from its university to its people, intimately by the time my trip is over.

 

Uncategorized

Meeting Bosnian Author Adnan Mahmutovic

The second international event I attended this semester was also a part of the Neustadt Literature Festival. As a student in the affiliated course, I got a chance to talk with some of the authors individually, both in conversation and interviews. After the festival’s keynote address by African American poet Marylin Nelson, we got to have lunch with all the authors on the jury who come from all over the world.

I got to sit next to Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian refugee who wrote the short story collection How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, which I absolutely loved. The short stories feature primarily Bosnian refugees, and some of them are autobiographical. His rich depictions of his homeland particularly resonated with me, as did his realistic portrayals of women.

The primary way that Mahmutovic describes Bosnia is through smell, particularly in the story “The Myth of the Smell.” An old woman in a refugee camp says that the rich scents of Bosnia are like “the greeting arms of a father.” When a girl returns to the refugee camp from Bosnia and brings back a handful of soil, her fellow Bosnians marvel at its heady, superior smell. Yet as the name of the story implies, the dirt smells ordinary, and the refugees are aggrandizing it in order to cling to their homeland.

Other of the stories feature very young female protagonists, most of whom are Bosnian, who are escaping the violence of war; they are victims of rape and have seen their family members murdered. Mahmutovic’s descriptions of these women’s relationships with their bodies and lovers are so strikingly intimate that it’s difficult to believe they’re written by a man.

When another female student and I complimented him on his ability to write female characters and tackle delicate women’s issues, he blushed with pride. Growing up with many sisters and a close family, he said he felt like he has always understood women better than men, and he credits the women in his family as his inspiration.

Mahmutovic was funny and honest, and meeting him in person only made me appreciate his writing more. While How to Fare Well and Stay Fair provides insight into the weighty issue of the Bosnian refugee crisis, it’s also sweet, witty and uplifting, much like the author himself.

 

Uncategorized

Meeting Russian Author Alisa Ganieva

This past November, I got to attend a lecture by the Russian author Alisa Ganieva. After reading her novel The Mountain and the Wall and excerpts from The Bride and the Bridegroom, I was particularly interested in both her perspective as a writer from the little-known region of Dagestan and as a Muslim woman.

The Republic of Dagestan is a federal republic of Russia in the Northern Caucasus region. With a population of under three million people, it’s a predominantly Muslim territory. In The Mountain and the Wall, Ganieva creates a quasi-apocalyptic yet not unimaginable future in which Dagestan is cut off from the rest of Russia. As the Dagestani people in general are oppressed by the larger Russian government, the women within Dagestan seemed to be oppressed by Islam. They are simultaneously rewarded and condemned for conservative and provocative behavior, showing that the men use religion as a means to control the female characters.

In her own literary career, Ganieva struggled to write as a woman. She initially submitted her first novella into a writing competition under a male pseudonym, and, so relatable was the male protagonist, readers assumed the work was largely autobiographical. When she won the award and subsequently mounted the stage to accept it, the audience was stunned. In Ganieva’s own words, “They were expecting some brutal, unshaven guy from the mountains.” 

I really enjoyed getting to hear Ganieva speak, especially since I had just read one of her books. It was also interesting to interact with someone from Russia; given the recent political turmoil between America and Russia, it’s easy to forget that it’s a massive country with normal, productive citizens who have nothing to do with the corrupt government. Ganieva was bright and personable, and she offered me a completely new perspective on Russia.

Uncategorized

A review for The Tower of The Antilles

This semester, I took a world literature class and got to read some really funky modern authors whom I wouldn’t have touched on my own. The short story collection The Tower of the Antilles by Achy Obejas particularly stood out to me, so I thought I’d write a review!

In the opening story of Achy Obejas’ collection The Tower of the Antilles, a tiny boat floats onto the shore of an unnamed island. A man picks it up and takes it home; when he returns to the beach the following day, a larger, more complex craft is in its place. Soon the man has accumulated dozens of boats, hundreds, so many that his yard and house are filled and he has to rent a storage locker and an airplane hangar. In the book’s final chapter, this process undergoes a transformation. Boats appear on the shore of the island, yet they are not dispersed. Rather, they are stacked with “nothing between the vessels, each one perfectly balanced on top of the other.”

As her characters curate these boats, Obejas curates her individual stories. Each can sail independently, yet she uses them artfully in concert with each other. Like the boats nesting in a swaying tower, the stories are interrelated, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

The Tower of Antilles initially appears to be an exploration of Cuban identity, but its scope quickly widens. Her diverse panoply of characters is not just searching for a place to call home or a background with which they can identify. They independently grapple with their sexuality, with poverty, with familial relationships, with revolution, and they all happen to be Cuban.

In “Kimberle,” the unnamed protagonist’s Cuban heritage is little more than a passing reference. A twenty-something employee at a smokehouse, she has recently acquired a suicidal roommate (for whom the story is named) who may or may not be stealing from her collection of rare books. Kimberle’s adventurous sexual predilections eventually ensnare the protagonist, and together they host a vivid series of menages à trois all while dodging their romantic feelings for each other. In the background of this personal drama, their small town waits for the inevitable strike of a serial killer who murders a young woman every fall. These seemingly disparate elements culminate in a chilling and wholly unexpected ending. Upon a second reading, I could trace how each individual thread was precisely designed to lead to the climax. Her writing is airtight.

The tenor of Obejas’ stories varies widely. Where “Kimberle” is visceral and frank, “The Sound Catalog” is lilting and joyful. Dulce, a Cuban immigrant to the United States, describes her new life in comparison to her old one, framing the tumult of Cuba against the newfound pleasure of her life as an American hairstylist. Partially deaf, she revels in subtle noises when she is able to hear them, giving Obejas great latitude to exercise her descriptive muscle. Dulce and her girlfriend, only referred to as her Cuban Ex-Lover, search for a community in Chicago, trying on and rejecting the Latina Lesbians, and eventually settling in with other Cubans, though she notes that “she didn’t recognize the Cuba they longed for.” Here, Obejas shows the multitudes that one national identity can contain.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 These stories, and the few others that also closely follow a small cast of people, are the collection’s strongest. While Obejas deftly crafts full narrative arcs and rich characters in limited pages, she falters when she strays from more focused plots. “North/South” features five short vignettes, three of which are about the same woman, Mari. Reading each one feels like walking into the middle of a conversation between old friends– the dialogue is pleasant and interesting, but seems largely meaningless without context. While the details in “Kimberle” eventually form a coherent picture, the ending of “North/South” provides no clarity.

The Tower of the Antilles is a remarkable work both for its diversity of narrative voices and its careful balance of heavy themes and playful imagery. Like the boats that bookend the collection, her stories float easily on dark water.

Uncategorized

Sharing a Language and a Life

For the past two semesters, instead of participating in an official OU student organization, I’ve been doing something a little different to fulfill  my international activity requirement. For about two hours a week, I volunteer through the Norman Public Library as an English as a Second Language Tutor. The summer before I came to college, I co-taught ESL classes for a group of eight adults. While I felt like I had no clue what I was doing, I learned a lot alongside the more experienced teacher, and I knew we were doing valuable work. Once I got to OU, I looked for a similar opportunity.

 

I’ve been working with my student, Maria, since January. She’s in her early fifties, and moved to Oklahoma from Columbia about two years ago. Her story is  a perfect illustration of the immigrant experience, yet it’s also really lovely and unique. Maria and her husband divorced several years ago, when her two children were middle schoolers. She came to Norman with her son when he was seventeen, leaving behind her ex-husband and college-age daughter, and her career in fashion. While she has a college degree, her English wasn’t good enough for her to apply for a job in her field, so she’s been working as a cleaning woman at a gym.

 

Her son assimilated to life here very quickly. After just a year in public school, he became nearly fluent in English. Maria quickly met an American man who spent the majority of his childhood living in Mexico– he has a lilting Oklahoma accent and his Spanish is impeccable. After dating for just three weeks, they decided to get married.

 

Maria has relayed all this to me in our weekly lessons. I initially started by trying to teach her formal grammar and vocab. We did activities using words I thought would be most helpful for her, so she’d be able to talk about her job and family in English, and navigate some basic situations like eating out and grocery shopping. Just because I implicitly understand how to use correct grammar, however, doesn’t mean that I’m good at teaching it. I started to fully grasp how stupidly complicated English is, and how woefully unprepared I was to explain why things are the way they are.

 

Since our first few difficult lessons, my mode of teaching has shifted. I’ve realized that Maria’s biggest barrier to learning English (besides living with other Spanish speakers and not being able to practice) is her own expectations for herself. She wants to be completely fluent so she can once again work in fashion, so she’s not satisfied with just being understandable. But for now, I’m reminding her that she can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Rather than doing grammar worksheets and reviewing vocab flashcards, we sit and talk for two hours, making the most of what English abilities she already has. Anytime we have a coherent conversation, we call it a success.

 

She’s told me stories about her huge family back home, proudly listing all her sisters and their husbands and children, drawing out family trees on scratch paper so she doesn’t forget anyone. Every week she updates me about the drama at work, and I tell her about what I’m learning in my classes. She often doesn’t know the precise word she’s looking for, and we laugh a lot as she circumvents elusive vocab and just uses what she can remember. She makes the same grammar mistakes over and over again, and I gently correct her every time. Still, I’m amazed by the depth of our conversations. When her mother-in-law fell ill in October, we spent hours talking about her health and how worried Maria was. She’s talked about her frustrations that her husband prefers not to practice English with her, since he’s impatient and using Spanish is so much easier. We gossipped together when I first started dating my boyfriend, and she told me all about her whirlwind romance with her current husband.

 

For our last lesson of the semester, she invited me over to her house and cooked Columbian food for dinner. I met her four feisty dogs that she’s constantly talking about, and she pulled out photos from her wedding. I love the time we spend together, and I know our relationship has gone beyond that of a tutor and a student;  In two hours a week, I think I’ve shared not only the English  language with her, but my life.

Uncategorized