IAS Involvement Fair: Fulbright

Last week, I volunteered to help out with the Fulbright informational table at the International and Area Studies Involvement Fair. Although the ~three hours was quite long, I am so glad I did.

After having gone through Fulbright the "wrong way" (beginning my application very late; changing my entire essay and plan a week before the deadline), I was fully equipped to give everyone who came to our table some solid advice.

First, I gave them the spiel; by the halfway point all their faces were beginning to meld together and I wasn't sure who I had said what to.

Next, though, I gave them what I hoped they couldn't get anywhere else: brutally honest advice from someone who's been there.

  1. Start researching... yesterday. Fulbright offers so many programs that their website can be extremely overwhelming at first glance. It will take several days just to get your bearings.
  2. As soon as you choose a program, start sending out emails. Having an affiliate in your host country is either required or highly encouraged, but (surprise!) people don't check their emails. Throw out as many darts as you can, and see what sticks.
  3. Draft, draft, draft. Don't leave your essays til the last minute. They're pretty much your entire application.

Speaking to students was super inspiring; many of these have already started their research about Fulbright, and some have great project proposals already. It was a really great afternoon, filled with good questions, great conversation, and an overall satisfaction from having helped a few of my peers down the scary but thrilling path that is applying for the Fulbright Scholarship.

International Involvement: Baccano

Although I have not been as involved in international life on campus as I would've liked to be, I told myself I would stay involved in Baccano.

A shortage of time this semester meant I was unfortunately unable to continue taking Italian language classes, a fact that pained me a lot. It was a reality I had to accept, that the importance of finishing my major-specific coursework meant that some things had to take a back seat. As is life.

Baccano was my escape this semester. From the Caffe e Conversazione event detailed here to our hour-long organizational meeting to plan a budget for the semester, I loved getting to hang out with the people who make this club amazing to be a part of.

It's truly a different breed. People believe in stereotypes for a reason - they usually arise from at least a grain of truth. Yes, they can go too far and be harmful, but they often turn out to be a teensy bit accurate. I have noticed this difference distinctly, being an internationally involved STEM major. The two parts of my personality are worlds apart. In the latter, I have become used to introversion and an overall awkward quietness. In the former, I simply have to accept that I may not get a word in edgewise - but only because every moment is filled with fascinating and lively conversation.

The members of Baccano personify this perfectly. They are excited by life itself, ready to speak a passionate and beautiful language, drink coffee in the smallest of glasses, and mull over dinner as a three-hour affair.

I absolutely love it, so I am happy to maintain this thread of a connection to Italian language and culture by participating in Baccano.

Distance, Time, and Choice

What I'll relay here is not new to any of you. Every human has experienced this feeling before, and countless have doubtless written about it.

I'll throw my thoughts out there regardless.

I have been fortunate in my life - in countless ways, but especially this one - to have acquired enough confidence to be comfortable speaking to new people. Don't get me wrong - all of these encounters terrify me to my core, and I still have to talk myself into them, each and every time. I see or hear someone doing or saying something interesting, enumerate the options in my head, and sometimes decide on putting myself in the most vulnerable position: reaching out for the first "Hello." More often than not, this strategy has allowed me to form a path to getting to know some of the most intelligent, kind-hearted, fascinating people I have ever met.

There's a caveat (isn't there always?). In the case that I meet these people in, say, another country, or on a short trip from one foreign land to another foreign land, maintaining our glorious new friendship presents some challenges.

I can speak about this on the micro and macro levels. I have friends in Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, England, Portland... and two miles from my apartment in Oklahoma. Both distances prove difficult to traverse, and why is this?

Our time is limited. Like, super limited. In fact, I belong to the group of people (we aren't well-formed; we don't have weekly meetings or anything) who are a little bit nihilistic, believing that not a single moment on this earth is guaranteed to us. So those hours watching Netflix or staring at the ceiling or napping in a coffee shop transform into something a lot more precious.*

*That, of course, doesn't mean I stop doing these seemingly pointless things, because relaxation is important too. 

How then, do I choose between all these beautiful people in my life? Our shared experiences form a web of memories that are brought to the forefront by the strangest of triggers, or sometimes wholly by chance. I'll send a text and tell that person I miss them and we'll reminisce and walk through a three-message catch up and promise to Skype. And then life happens, deadlines loom, and that Skype session gets delayed further and further.

It's not for lack of love, simply time and coordination. But there's another factor mixed in, and that's the idea that my self - my essence, my personality, my witty (cheesy?) quips, my love - sometimes feels like an exhaustible commodity. It takes energy, mental strength, and, most of all, time to build up those parts of myself that form a sociable human being.

We tell ourselves that the Internet and social media make it so easy to connect with others, stay in touch, share our lives with those we love. But what we didn't consider was what didn't change at all:

Us.

We're still human. We experience love and joy and euphoria on even the tiniest of scales. We also have pain and exhaustion and mental strain. No amount of Snapchatting can surmount the problem of stress and too little time and shifting lives. That last one is tough - the idea that not only do we just "get busy" but also drift apart in our most core similarities. People come to us when we most need them, and those shared experiences I spoke about bind us together in a manner that, at the time, seems unyielding and everlasting. But our paths diverge, be it by miles or continents, and gap widens before we even realize it.

I think reconnecting is possible and beautiful.

But the choice remains: when will be the last Snapchat be sent, seen, and go unreplied? Do we leave the ephemeral last "goodbye" to fade away when our phone reaches its storage limit? The state of technology makes us hyper-aware of a phenomenon that has always existed - the last goodbye (only now it's called "ghosting").

I argue that the last goodbye can be a beautiful thing, rather than a sad affair. Perhaps in twenty years you'll run into your old friend at an airport and know that the randomness of the universe brought you together again, and that's a lot more profound than maintaining a Snap streak just for the sake of it.

Caffè e Conversazione

Anyone who has gone through the process of learning a new language knows that it is a huge commitment. Even a week without practice can set you back a month in terms of understanding, so constant practice is necessary to improve and retain what you learn.

So, imagine me - strolling into a conversation group after 6 months of no Italian (aside from the occasional arbitrary thought in the language). As a member of Baccano Italian Club here on campus, I am expected to be a leader, a teacher, etc. But as I sat in Crimson & Whipped Cream sipping on hot tea, I could physically feel the mental strain of trying to remember vocabulary words and conjugations, piecing together thoughts in strange fragments. I found myself filling in gaps with words from Spanish, my second native language. I essentially created my own language, Spanglishtalian.

On the positive, I had a fabulous time. It was neat to reawaken the part of my brain associated with language learning, to refresh my memory by crowdsourcing knowledge from the new friends surrounding me. My own favorite part of conversation groups is the mix of people, everyone from native speakers and professors of Italian to those who haven't yet conjugated a verb in their beginner class. It fosters a great notion of collaboration, helpfulness, and the pure joy of learning and conversing with other humans.

We do our best, switch into English when necessary, and experience the odd sensation of telling familiar stories with new words.

The group at the most recent Coffee & Conversation event.

Different state of mind

A lesson I learned in Ireland: you can't escape your own head.

As much as you may wish that the presence of fresh baguettes or drizzling rain or cafes on every corner will free you of worry and woe, the truth is that it may - and probably will - not. I had this mindset. A change of scenery does you good, they say. And though this is certainly true for those who are simply bored of their well-traveled circumstances, it is not for those whose discomfort arises from their own inner demons. Maybe I didn't realize it till I was on the plane. Or till I laid in bed for three days straight during winter study week, surviving on biscuits and water.

This new bedroom, this new city, this "new me" (I had chosen a brand-new nickname with which to call myself) was not doing the trick. I still had the same negative thoughts as before, the same self-punishing mental tendencies. Just in a new place.

The world - in its purest sense, as a malformed sphere on which to exist - can't save you. Moving away and coming back nine months later helped me realize what I really needed to thrive. Motivation, companionship, sunshine. Talking out my thoughts on forums such as these (I'm bad at keeping a journal), decorating my room with everything that represents me (I couldn't accumulate stuff abroad - that would be silly), going for late night drives with an epic soundtrack (I didn't have a car in Ireland).

Distancing myself from what I thought were causes of my restlessness and lack of motivation also left me stranded from the very things that made me happy. And I was left a little bit broken, of my own doing. I suppose the lesson here is to firstly, count your blessings and secondly, realize that being in a new place will change you - just perhaps not in the way you expected or hoped for. Which is not to say you shouldn't do it; quite the contrary. Leaving parts of myself behind in Oklahoma meant I learned more about myself abroad than I thought I could've. And those parts were still waiting for me when I returned, ready to be pieced back together to make me whole again.

invASIAN Showcase

April 26 had quite the night in store for myself and my friend Janella. We didn't know much about the invASIAN showcase before attending, but were excited to find out more. Boy, did this event deliver!

Janella and I walked in to already-screaming crowds of people, all cheering for their buddies and evidently well-known members of this community. The atmosphere in Meacham Auditorium was infectious and bursting with energy. The event is held annually in order to give Asian-American students on campus the chance to show off their talents, and it certainly did that. In addition, the event came just days before the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, which runs through May.

Both Janella and I agreed that of all the acts we saw, our favorite was a dance routine held as a combo performance between members of two of the Asian-American sororities and fraternities on campus, Phi Delta Alpha & Tau Kappa Omega. The girls started off the show with an awesome routine, which was followed by the guys' response routine. We expected a dance battle; what we actually got was a third part of the performance where the two groups came together and danced once again.

I learned at this event that the Asian-American community on campus is much more active than I had even realized, and the amount of talent present in its members was really amazing to witness.  I will certainly attend in future years to get another taste of the excitement and enthusiasm the event is full of.

International Involvement: Baccano

My semester has been brightened by an Italian touch.

First off, my Intermediate Italian Continued course is full of amazing people, and each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday is made one hundred times more fun by our banter.

Secondly, I've gotten more heavily involved in Baccano, our campus's Italian conversation club. Out of curiosity, I attended its organizational meeting at the very start of the semester. The group of us, along with Dr. Daniela Busciglio, brainstormed ideas for events we could host. Movie nights, coffee meetups, bake sales, soccer tournaments, you name it! This group of guys and gals is so enthusiastic about Italian language and culture - it's absolutely infectious. What began as a simple interest in learning a beautiful-sounding language has grown into a love for what that language represents: the culture of a passionate, loving people.

Two events stand out to me as being especially exciting.

The first was our second Caffe e Conversazione for the semester. Anyone with any level of Italian who was interested could come to Crimson & Whipped Cream and chat away with other like-minded people. Along with some people from my own Italian class, I met several fun new folks and had awesome conversation about everything from our favorite foods to our romantic gossip - all in Italian. I remember thinking, this is real language learning. Not memorizing long lists of vocabulary you may never use, but rather putting all of it into practice and forcing yourself to think, speak, and breathe the language. Throwing yourself into the deep end and chatting away, drawing on the collective knowledge when you reach a roadblock or can't quite articulate a thought. It's embarrassing and scary and wholly thrilling.

The second event was quite exciting - the documentary filmmaker Fred Kuwornu came to OU for a day to speak. His films seek to enact social change, which creates an interesting middle ground between art and activism. Although I was not able to make it to his talk, I did attend the meet & greet and later accompanied Dr. Busciglio and Mr. Kuwornu to dinner, where I was able to ask millions of questions about his life's work.

I'm grateful to Baccano for providing opportunities for me to step out of my comfort zone and learn outside of the classroom. I can only expect my involvement to become more exciting over the coming weeks and semesters!

Professor Mustafa Bahran: The Yemeni Conundrum

Prior to attending the lecture given by Professor Mustafa Bahran on February 28th, I knew shamefully little about either the history of the country or the presently ongoing conflict. As was mentioned in the lecture, Western media tends to forget about this nation’s revolution amidst the larger players in the Arab Spring – namely, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria. However, Yemen is not a country to be forgotten. Professor Bahran gave his audience a sweeping yet thorough history of this ancient nation, reminding (or informing) us all of the rich culture to be found in Yemen.

The conflict in Yemen seems extremely complicated, with many intertwined actors. No one entity involved is entirely without agenda, and seeming enemies are often in each other’s pockets. Although the typical war is certainly complicated, this one in particular involves numerous factions that are not entirely separable – nor is there a clear division of right from wrong in terms of different actors’ motivations for violence. The sheer amount of confusion to simply comprehend and categorize the participants makes understanding the war extremely difficult. And this is before we even begin to factor in the wider context and analyze how the economic, social, and political state of Yemen could have shaped the war into the seemingly hopeless conflict it is today.

The lecture made its audience think. Not only did Professor Bahran include a plethora of facts and vital details in his analysis of the war, but he did not hold back the expression of his own emotional investment in the conflict’s outcome. Having lost a brother-in-law in the violence, Professor Bahran certainly succeeded in portraying the urgency with which he and other Yemenis hope for a quick resolution. This added emotion turned what could have been a purely academic lecture into a call to action and a push for all of us to become invested in peace.

Look Beyond Yourself

This semester, I decided to step out of the comfort of my own sheltered existence. For years, I was obsessed with Europe - my homeland, my calling, the place where one can walk around any city and experience a million marvels of architecture and culture in a single day.

To be frank, I never felt the urge to venture beyond, to experience or learn much about the rest of the world. It felt so unfamiliar - and foreignness is scary. I dove into my high-school level world history and human geography courses, reveling in the beauty of historical and socioeconomic trends. It was all very academic. Genghis Khan did such and such, killed a bunch of people. History from a distance - these people didn't feel much like people. Their story was a collective one, and thus abstracted beyond emotion.

Enter the course Arab Spring. Already I was intensely invested, because my sister had lived in Egypt in the year before and the year after the 2011 revolution. Her normal updates at the time morphed into reassurances that she hadn't been in the metro when security forces let off tear gas, that she had stayed in her apartment while a protest went on in the square just a few meters below. My own blood's tangential involvement meant I was more personally invested in the outcome of the history being set in motion. I followed closely on social media, watched in horror as I saw photos of bloodied protesters and read about their struggles to take back control of their own beloved country.

And, this semester, I decided to jump back in academically. The class 'Arab Spring,' taught by Dr. Joshua Landis, utilizes all sorts of perspectives with which to see this important period in Middle Eastern history. Viewing the events through economic, historic, social, and personal lenses (the result of reading academic journals, memoir-like books authored by seasoned journalists, and first-person accounts alike) weaves a series of frames into one larger story of the struggle of a people. Perhaps it is the addition of social media as a crucial narrator for the revolutions, a medium through which the very people involved can offer their thoughts, unfiltered. Or the fact that it is people my age who are putting their lives at risk to overthrow the propagators of autocracy and oppression. But the course has resulted in a strange amalgamation of academic study and personal investment in the future of the region.

I encourage us all to look beyond - if all you check each day is your social media feeds, make an effort to also read the news. And if you read the news, follow social media feeds that put another layer onto the often tragic but sometimes faceless events that occur everyday around us. Become invested in knowing your world. And when a chance comes for you to change it, do your part.

Letters

An archaic form of communication, it’s charming nonetheless. Somehow, opening a Snapchat never quite measures up to the pleasant surprise of receiving a handwritten letter in the mail. Torn at the corner, slightly muddied, and stamped multiple times over with details of its journey, this flimsy envelope and its precious contents went through so much more to find itself in your mailbox. No puppy ears filters, no instantaneous reply.

A letter is free of time, free of anxiety. You send it off and wait. And if you’re lucky, a reply will find its way to you in a month or so. Freed from the worries of the modern age – why hasn’t he opened the snapchat I sent? Why didn’t she reply? She saw my message an hour ago – is she angry at me or just forgot to send one back?

With a letter, there are no accusations or fears. Almost as a diary entry, I scribble down my thoughts for as long as they come, wipe off the ring of moisture from my coffee cup, fold it up, and stuff it into an envelope. Collecting my thoughts for a month or so allows for a long and winding tale of life as it happened, which is often more interesting than watching it live on social media. The intense and personal bits are reserved for this much more intimate form of communication.

No back-and-forth messages to work out a good time to Skype, since time differences and busy schedules alike may mean this happens all too late. Instead, a promise to keep up this common thread of conversation, even if months separate replies.

In an excessively connected world, sometimes the old ways are the best.