On Global Engagement Day I attended the Fulbright/Peace Corps Prep session. I’ve been to so many Fulbright sessions that unfortunately, I didn’t get much new information from it, although the first-hand account from the speaker definitely got me excited to go (if I get accepted). The Peace Corps talk however, really interested me. I’m not sure it’ll work for me in the long run – I doubt I have a skill set that would work for them now, and I want to get my veterinary doctorate before I make a larger commitment like that anyway. But if there is a way I can swing going after vet school I’d love to. Had I known about the prep program sooner (or rather, had it been started earlier in my college career) I probably would have done it. Having a marketable set of skills like that in addition to my somewhat less “practical” four year degree would definitely have appealed.
For some reason I found myself less willing to consider a Peace Corps stint right after my undergraduate program than I am to consider Fulbright. The extra year commitment in Peace Corps for some reason seems like a huge difference to me, although another part of me wonders how big the difference really is. A year is already a long time, a full round of missed holidays and birthdays, at that point a second year seems relatively small and at the same time incredibly long. I already know how easy it is to get drawn into a good program abroad. Once I was settled in Australia I felt like I could stay there far longer than I did. It was only the continuous travel at the end that really wore me down and made me ready to go home. I wonder if Peace Corps wouldn’t be the same, just settling into a place for the long haul, making another semi-permanent home that I can really relax at, the way I could at my apartment in Australia, and the way I couldn’t when I was switching hostels every other night while backpacking. But somehow I’m reluctant to jump right into that, I feel that I’d rather try for the Fulbright first. It seems like I want to work my way up to such a long stay – a month in Italy, five months in Australia, a year on Fulbright… baby steps, I suppose, is what I’m going for. Even after so long abroad I still feel very new to that kind of travel, and I want to be sure I’m ready for that kind of commitment.
When I arrived at the Confucius Institute open house, I accidentally walked in behind a dance performance, as in on the back of what they were using as the stage. To be fair, the “stage” was the entryway, and I walked in what they were using as the main entrance. The open house was really cool, I got to watch a solo dancer (from behind), a martial arts demonstration, and a fan/tai chi demonstration. In between performances I wandered among the stations they had set up. They were doing calligraphy characters for kids, as well as a couple other art stations and a free dinner. The last station I visited before leaving was the tea tasting, which was by far the most interesting to me. They had black and green teas, each from a region in Southeast China. I’m not exactly a tea connoisseur, but that green tea was probably the best I’ve had, and I enjoyed getting to chat up the guy running the tasting too. While I lost the notes I took on what he said, he explained more precisely where each tea came from and talked about some other events the Confucius institute would be putting on. I had a great time overall, and next year I’ll try to get there earlier, or at least not walk in behind the ongoing performances.
For one of my events this spring I went to the ice cream social held by CIS, because who is going to pass up free ice cream anyway? I have to admit, I wasn’t feeling overly social at the time though having just finished a biochemistry exam and not having slept much the night before, so I lurked in a corner and people watched while nursing a bowl of chocolate and vanilla. What I noticed was an interesting lack of interaction between US students and international students. I know that OU tends to group its international students at Traditions West and on the international dorm floor, while most US students live elsewhere (with the exception of those who opt for international floor/housing).
The effects of this were fairly obvious, as it was clear that the international students had all befriended each other, while most US students hadn’t entered those circles and were socializing amongst themselves. I was in a similar situation in Australia, where a series of unintentional barriers between exchange and new international students and the Australian students left international and exchange students to mostly befriend each other. In Australia it seemed to be partly due to many of us arriving second semester, after all the other students had already formed their friend groups and stopped attending social events looking to make new friends.
Here at OU I think a big part of it is the policy of grouping international students into housing together. I can see some of the reasoning behind this (putting “very” new students together to figure out the new country, for example) and I know OU has some awesome programs like OU Cousins that try to counter this trend of international students and US students not mixing, but I would be interested to see what would change if US and international students were mixed evenly together in housing. I suspect there would be a lot more interaction between the two groups, which is really a huge part of why OU takes exchange and international students in the first place after all.
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.
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.
Even halfway into my second semester as a GEF I had almost no idea what the Fulbright program was really about. I knew it sent students abroad for about a year after college, but that was pretty much it. Even the website didn’t give me a good idea of what it was really about, so attending an info session seemed like my next best option for figuring out what I’m really signed up for.
The info session was extremely helpful. Having my options for how to participate in this program explained in a plain conversation made Fulbright much easier to understand. However it’s going to take me a long time to decide how exactly I would want to participate. Graduate school probably wouldn’t be a good option for me as I’ll be going to vet school either after college or after this program, and I really don’t need a master’s degree in the middle. That leaves either research or English teaching, and I’m not sure which is more appealing to me. As a chemistry/pre-veterinary major research might be the more practical option, but I really don’t know what I would want to research. English teaching sounds amazing to me, but I have no idea where I would want to go or if I would even have a good chance in this program since I’m really only proficient in Spanish (and probably not enough so to compete with other applicants applying to Spanish speaking countries).
Although the application process is still at least two years away for me, I’m glad I went to this information session so early. This way I know what my options are and I have plenty of time to consider them and come to a decision early enough to create a really good application. The best part is that I went before my first trip abroad, so now when I go I can keep a look out for research I might want to do.
Last week I went to the Journey Programs Launch Party to hear about the journey study abroad programs. I’d already selected my short study abroad trip, but I wanted to hear about other options just to see if I did want to go somewhere else. The problem arose when I realized that I did want to go somewhere else, or more accurately, everywhere else. I walked into the meeting mostly interested in the Italy program, and left desperately wanting to go on every single program! I felt like the travel bug got me a long time ago, but the descriptions of those programs just highlighted how fascinating every part of the world can be. I never really considered visiting Peru or Tunisia, but after listening to professors and students talk about those programs I was completely sold. I realized that when looking for study abroad programs, it is best to keep an open mind. So far I’ve been researching and selecting programs based mostly on how they’ll help me get my degree or help with my future career. Maybe I shouldn’t worry quite so much about that though. Just being able to put “studied abroad in ___” is a huge bonus on a resume, so why worry about making the trip fit exactly with my future plans? I’ve been told to take some classes that interest me, whether they help with my degree or not. Maybe I should approach study abroad in the same way, because in reality I’ll probably get more out of it that way.