United What Colleges?

There are international boarding schools which offer International Baccalaureate Diploma programs, primarily taught in English, located all around the world, under the banner of United World Colleges (UWC). Well known individuals such as Prince Charles and Nelson Mandela have served as the organization’s president. The system has over a dozen schools and over 50,000 alumni from more than 181 countries. And still, I had never heard of United World Colleges before I came to OU.

Once I arrived here I began making friends, and it turns out a lot of those friends were UWC students. Some were in my government class, some were in my calculus class, some were friends with the girl I met during the midnight Target event at the beginning of the year. On Thursdays, I would eat lunch with students from different countries including Egypt, Ukraine, India, and Paraguay, who were united by their common experience in UWC schools. Their perspectives in conversation have taught me a great deal about how different international viewpoints are from those of many US citizens. I could discuss our conversations at length but in this post, I would rather focus on one small curiosity I learned from international students.

Walking back to the dorms, I was discussing an upcoming test with one of my classmates, a UWC student from Bosnia and Herzegovina. He mentioned that he was “going to revise” for the exam. I was confused. He elaborated and I realized that he used “revise” in the way I would use “review”. I “review” the material for the exam, while he “revises” his knowledge of it. It was a strange turn of phrase for me, I had never heard such a statement before. I shrugged my shoulders and moved on, forgetting about it until a few weeks later when my German teacher used the same phrase when encouraging us to study for an upcoming quiz. My German teacher this semester is a Fulbright from Austria, a native German speaker fluent in English. I asked her about it after class, but she also claimed a similar meaning. I am still amazed that two different people, with different native language, ten years apart in age, would use both use an English word in a way I had never heard it used. Granted, I cannot claim to have heard every turn of phrase in the English language, but as a native speaker and an avid reader, I am quite surprised. Perhaps it is due to the region where I was raised, or perhaps it is a strange quirk that comes from learning English. I am very interested in finding out.

Study Abroad for STEM

I came to the University of Oklahoma with two broad goals to shape my path. Firstly, I wanted to pursue a Bachelors of Science in Mathematics. Secondly, I wanted to study abroad through the Global Engagement Fellowship. For the first goal, I had spent hours perusing degree sheets, taking online quizzes, and researching careers in order to find the one specific major that seemed the best fit. As for the second, I browsed OU’s study abroad page, read through the dozens of programs available, and dreamed of all the different places I could travel. I didn’t pick a particular place. The GEF program was not restricted by major and OU was keen giving everyone the opportunity to study abroad. As a result, I didn’t look closely at where I would go until shortly before the school year began.

As I dug into the details of my major, and OU’s study abroad programs, I began to realize that my path would be far from traditional. Put simply, there are very few math majors at OU. And almost no one goes abroad to study math. I took Latin throughout high school and thus my options for the near future are limited to programs which offer English courses. The GEF program requires two trips abroad. These are generally fulfilled by a summer and a semester abroad. The summer program is relatively straightforward; I am currently in the process of applying for a six-week intensive language program in Stuttgart, Germany this summer. The semester is a bit more tricky.

Several hours color coding spreadsheets and digging through gen ed requirements yielded two and a half potential options. The first option is to go wherever I want. If I arrange the rest of my classes just right, I could take a semester of electives, without worrying about degree requirements. This means the only restriction on my choice would be language barriers. I must admit, I find this option incredibly tempting. However, such a choice would limit my options in other semesters. I wouldn’t have the freedom to take a random interesting course without worrying about getting knocked off track. The second option would be to take an applicable math course abroad. This is a far more difficult task. I would have to find a program which offered undergraduate mathematics in English, find a math course which I need for my major, and get the math department to pre-equate the course for me. This shrinks my options drastically. So far, the two most promising programs I have found are in Austria and Romania. My developing German skills would be useful in Austria, while Romania would be far more different from Stuttgart. The half option I mentioned would be buckle down and develop basic fluency in German. Then I could go to any university exchange in Germany or Austria, as well as a few universities in other countries, and take math in German.

My problem is hardly unique, most STEM majors struggle to balance the demands of their studies with the draw of study abroad. Several take advantage of summer programs, others sift through options relentlessly to make one work with their classes, and some even choose to take a fifth year. Looking back into OU’s history, President Boren has made tremendous strides in the university’s study abroad offerings. If I recall the number correctly, one in three OU students studies abroad. That is an amazing statistic and one of the reasons DBo is so fiercely admired and loved. Looking into the future, a fantastic space for growth would be more study abroad options that work with STEM majors. OU has no control over other universities, but perhaps within our own study centers, we could create opportunity for these technical students who need this broader outlook and world experience as much as, if not more than the rest of the students here.

My Experience with OU Cousins

“The OU Cousins program was created in 1996 by President and Mrs. David Boren as a way of developing understanding, friendship, and unity among U.S., International, and exchange students at the University of Oklahoma.”

As part of the GEF program, we are expected to participate in an international group on campus every semester. Like many of my friends, I chose to join OU Cousins. For those of you unfamiliar with the program, OU Cousins matches US students with international students studying at OU. Once students have been matched, the group hosts regular events to facilitate friendship and bonding between the students and encourages “cousins” to socialize outside of the events.

Even before I applied to OU, I was excited to participate in this program. My best friend from high school is a grade above me, and during her freshman year of college she many friends among the international students at her university. Over Thanksgiving break during my senior year of high school, she brought five of them home with her, introducing them to Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and showing them around St. Louis.

Seeing her interact with these college students from China, Japan, and Brazil was fantastic. They shared their knowledge of their home, and she explained our strange American ways and quirks of the English language. In the picture above, we were ice skating at a seasonal rink and one of the girls asked if this was “gliding”. I was surprised by how difficult it was to define the term, to explain “gliding”. Primarily because of that break, I went into my first semester at college excited to be matched with my international cousin and to spend time with them throughout the semester.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go quite as planned. I signed up and went to the matching party, nervous and enthusiastic. The first thing I noticed was the ratio between US students and international students was terribly skewed. As the groups intermingled, every international student had a cluster of US students around them, and there were some groups of just US students chatting together to pass the time. Furthermore, in the small amount of time, it was difficult for students to find a cousin they clicked with. I know a few people who get along with their cousins amazingly, but I also know several who do not.

My cousin and I were matched primarily by chance. We spent a lot of time together at the beginning of the semester, but our interests and personalities are so different that it is a struggle to make conversation. We often ended up eating or studying together in silence. As time went on, we drifted and now only see each other occasionally.

It pains me that this is my experience with OU Cousins. I think the program is a wonderful idea, and I have personally seen a lot of good come from it. However, the way the matching process is organized now there are many students who are rushed through and find themselves paired with a cousin with whom they have nothing in common. OU has a great organization on their hands, but OU Cousins needs to learn how to prevent its participants from falling through the cracks.

Music: A Capsule of Culture

At the beginning of October, I went as a guest of the Honors College to a Syrian music concert hosted in Sharp Concert Hall here on campus. There were two musicians, Kenan Adnawi, who played the oud, and Tareq Rantisi, who played percussion. While I have seen an oud in person, as well as depicted in media and entertainment, this was my first time hearing one played in person.
It was nothing short of amazing.
At first, it reminded me of the stereotypical Middle-Eastern music you hear in movies and TV shows, that short song played to transition our adventurers from their western local to a place more “foreign”. As I kept listening, however, I realized two things. First, Hollywood soundtracks fall far short in comparison. Second, I understand why such music is used to set the scene. Sitting there, in an auditorium chair in the middle of Oklahoma, USA, I was both entranced and transported. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The skill with which the musicians handled their instruments was apparent, even though their manner of playing was unique in my eyes. Mr. Adnawi tuned his oud anew for every song, and sometimes in the middle of a song. Mr. Rantisi, the percussionist, wore an ankle of bells, which he did not shake, but which would shiver and ring ever so quietly from the vibrations of his playing. The passion of both musicians was undeniable. Mr. Adnawi grew up in Syria and would give the title of every song, along with a short explanation of the meaning behind the title and behind the piece itself.
I am sad to say that I probably would have walked away from the concert, having enjoyed it but giving it no more thought, were it not for a song played near the end. As usual, Mr. Adnawi announced the title, and this time, he welcomed the audience to sing along. The reaction was near palpable. I was sitting in the balcony section, off to the side but still close to the stage. Below me, most of the audience was clustered in the first five or six rows, with the rest scattered around the auditorium. When this particular song was announced, a wave of excitement rippled through those first few rows. This was not a song he had written, but a classic, one well know. It irks me that I am unable to recall the title, I would have loved to learn more about the piece. As the song flowed forth, those rows clapped with the rhythm and sang along where they could. I could not recognize the language, although I would guess Arabic. Some knew more words than others, but most would join in for the chorus at least. It was strange to see a group of strangers, united in their appreciation for one song, a song that rang with tradition and history. Furthermore, it was strange to realize that I could not relate it to a potential example in American culture. A group of US students might unite in Europe after turning on “Cha Cha Slide” or some similar piece of pop culture, but that is hardly comparable. Aside from “The Star Spangled Banner” and the like, what music carries the culture of the United States? A few hundred years from now, will parents play today’s pop and rap and country for their children to connect them with the past? What will be the US’ musical legacy?

German Poetry for an English Speaker

For those of us more scientifically and analytically inclined, poetry can difficult. Poems are a tricky art; rather than painting canvases or modeling clay, poets craft their masterpieces from the selfsame words used to email a co-worker or write a shopping list. As a mathematics major, I like my ideas to be clean and clear. I like exact answers and definitions. In my experience, that does not mesh well with poetry. I cannot clearly define poetry, I cannot list the criteria for a text to be considered a poem. Poetry is a form of artistic expression and therefore fights such restraints. Despite this, I am fairly decent at recognizing the poetry I do encounter. Sometimes it is the rhyming scheme, sometimes the ebb and flow of emphasized syllables, but generally, one thing or another will tip me off, so to speak, that I am reading or listening to a piece of art. That is, provided the poem is in English.

A few weeks ago I attended a German poetry night at the urging of my German instructor. Having never studied German before college, I could only understand bits and pieces of the recitations. In Jabberwocky, Lewis Carroll wrote nonsensical verses, stuffing them with made-up words. To my ears, German poetry sounds much like Jabberwocky, a few basic words are clear, but the others are undefined. One thing that surprised me about the event was that I frequently had trouble recognizing the rhythm of the poems. I could pick out instances of basic alternate rhyming schemes, but the other forms of poetry, especially those relying on the meaning of certain words, sounded merely to be choppy nonsense sentences. It made me begin to consider how a different culture would draft epics and convey sweeping grandeur with a different language.

Those who have studied a language know that literal translations only work for basic sentences. Before very long the literal translation becomes jagged and crude. It becomes necessary to paraphrase if you will, the meaning being conveyed. In German, I can say I am doing well with the phrase “Mir geht es gut.” Translated word for word, it would be along the lines of “To me goes it good.” German, like all languages, has its own quirks, idioms, and “strange” structures. It only makes sense that German poetry would reflect these. In fact, this particular phenomenon came into play when translating the Harry Potter series. Translators ran into great difficulty replicating the rhymes and puns J.K. Rowling had worked into the text. A German translator, Klaus Fritz, was forced to call Diagon Alley” simply by the name of Winklegasse, or “Corner Alley,” thereby losing the play on words. Interestingly enough, he manipulated the text slightly to achieve the same humorous feel, as he could not directly replicate the jokes.

I attended the poetry reading out of curiosity, not expecting to get much out of it. In one sense I did not; I listened for over an hour to words I did not understand, spoken with passion but with masked meaning. In a different sense, however, it was time well spent. I walked away with a question that asked me to take a closer look at the assumptions I held with certainty. As students, limited in our current knowledge, is that not what we should expect from the international events on campus? Are they not only for our entertainment but also another opportunity for us to learn?

(In looking up the name of the German Harry Potter translator, I stumbled across this article about translating the series. It touches briefly on the issues and approaches of translating the books into various different languages. It is not an in-depth analysis, but if you are a fan of Harry Potter, you may find it an interesting read: http://bytelevel.com/global/translating_harry_potter.html)