The Road Splits

Today, I sit at a crossroads. Tomorrow I return to this inn where I’ve spent so much of the past four years. However, for once, the friends I’ve made here are not returning with me. After years of studying, crying, and laughing together, we are saying goodbye. A few are going abroad, a few have jobs either here in Oklahoma or further afield, and then there’s me, still here for another semester before beginning my life as well.

I can’t imagine college without them. We’ve been together for so long. I’m happy for them, though. They’ve worked so hard to get to where they are today. I wish them the best of luck as they fly further and further away. I want to see them succeed. I want us all to meet again in five or ten years and hear stories of the incredible things they’ve accomplished. Even if we’re not physically together here by the warmth of this fire, I know they will always be with me. After so many years and memories, I hope even time herself cannot pull us apart.

So to all who are leaving this place and moving on to new roads, I wish you the best. I hope you find peace and safety and love. I hope you’ll continue to move forward, building off the lessons we learned here together. And more than anything, I hope you remember you’re never alone. Even if we no longer see each other every week and no longer speak most days, I will always be here for you. We walked the roads together this far. Never feel like you must walk difficult roads alone.

Finding Home–家に帰って

Another semester is coming to a close here at OU. That makes two since I returned from Japan. It’s started to hit me recently just how long it’s been since I got back. The Japanese language has three primary verbs for traveling: one for going, one for coming, and one for returning home. I thought I’d returned, but I don’t feel home. Don’t get me wrong, I love OU and my friends here. I love being able to communicate with almost everyone. I love eating cheese in ungodly amounts and being able to make tacos without breaking the bank. But despite all that, I don’t feel like I’m home. I miss Japan. I miss the mountains and the sakura in spring. I miss the smell of the ramen and curry shops along the streets by campus. I miss the friends that came to mean so much to me, even though we were only together for a short time. Mostly I miss the feeling of home that I got from my neighborhood with its quiet streets and the small bakery where I’d buy breakfast. I know it’s unrealistic to look back and see only the happy parts. I spent many lonely nights in Japan aching to be here with my friends. Well, they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I suppose it’s true.

As it drifts farther into the past, I’m trying to keep my experiences alive within me. I no longer respond to people automatically in Japanese, and I’ve lost the habit of converting all of my purchases into yen in my mind. But I don’t want to lose the part of me that loved and embraced living in Japan. I’m still studying Japanese, though I’m sure I’m not as good as I was a year ago. This semester I’ve also been attending the Japanese Club at OU as much as I can. I have friends there from Japan, and it’s so comforting to fall into discussions about which conbinis (convenience stores) we liked and our favorite parts of town. But for every happy memory there is a pang of longing. For every shared smile from an inside joke in Japanese there is an ache for the sights, sounds, and smells of Kyoto. When I boarded the plane to come back to America, I truly thought I was coming home. Now I’m not so sure.

As I approach the end of my college career, I will look for opportunities to go abroad again. I want to find my home. Perhaps it is somewhere here in the States. Perhaps I found it when I was living in Kyoto. Or perhaps it’s somewhere I have yet to go. Wherever it is, I won’t stop flying until I find it—the place I was meant return to. Home.

Mashrou’ Leila and Arab Culture

Music has always been deeply tied to a culture’s sense of identity, and it can simultaneously strengthen that identity and tear it down. A Middle Eastern group that seems to exemplify this sometimes contradictory nature of music is Mashrou’ Leila, a Lebanese band formed in 2008. The group has gained significant attention, mainly due to its openly gay singer Hamed Sinno and often controversial song topics, which range from corrupt government officials to homosexual relationships. In these songs, the group is able to reflect popular sentiments (such as anger and frustration at the government) and shine a light on overlooked or ignored issues (like the treatment of homosexual persons), often in the same album. They both reflect the culture and refract it, showing the pain and struggles as well as the beauty. One of their songs in particular, “For the Homeland,” highlights popular criticisms of the Lebanese government, although it can be applicable to many other governments in the Middle East. It includes lyrics such as “they quiet you with slogans about every plot” and “you sell your freedom,” emphasizing the coercive and oppressive nature of the state. The lyrics are highly critical of Arab governments, which makes sense since this song is from their 2013 album, their most recent after the Arab Spring.

However, Mashrou’ Leila’s songs focus on cultural topics as well, such as the treatment and experiences of homosexuals in the Middle East. Some of their songs, specifically “Shim el-Yasmine” and “Kalam,” deal explicitly with homosexuality, with lyrics like “I would have liked to keep you near me, introduce you to my family…be your housewife.” While many Arabic songs seem like they are being sung to men, since they are often conjugated in the male form, “Shim el-Yasmine” emphasizes this relationship, making it clear that it is one man singing to another man about their relationship.

As Mashrou’ Leila’s songs deal with controversial subjects, such homosexuality, many Arab countries have sought to censor them or limit their influence. Jordan was one such country, as they repeatedly gave the band permission to perform, and then banned the group. Additionally, Egypt allowed the band to host a concert, but after images appeared on social media showing rainbow flags in the crowd, the Egyptian police arrested seven individuals who attended the concert. Egypt’s musician union also denounced the concert and stated that it was considering banning the group from the country. The treatment of Mashrou’ Leila and individual’s reactions to their music can serve to reflect how Arab culture writ large views these issues. Music often reflects society, and Mashrou’ Leila helps hold a mirror to Arab culture in particular.

Image result for mashrou leila

International Careers

Since I am about halfway through both of my majors, I feel pretty confident saying that I made the right choice in my studies. Other degrees still tempt me when I hear students discussing their projects, but it is always my math and German homework that hold my attention and spark my curiosity, even when I’m so frustrated I could throw my textbook across the room. Now that I am settled in my studies, so to speak, my thoughts have been turning to plans after college. The semesters flip by in a blink and I don’t want to be caught at the end of my senior year with no idea where I want to go and what I want to do.

In a way, the Global Engagement Fellowship has made my decision both easier and more difficult at the same time. My increasing language skills and experience with international cultures mean that I am not confined to working within the United States. Rather, I could work with international companies from anywhere in the world. Here is where the choice becomes more difficult. In the face of such diverse options, how can I begin even to consider them? If I decide to pursue a graduate degree, do I turn first to the U.S., Germany, or to another country entirely? Although my attention this time of year is almost fully devoted to my studies, these broader questions lingering in the back of my mind about the future will certainly receive plenty of attention this summer and this fall.

Well-Tread Paths

It's done - I've bought the tickets, made nearly all the plans. After two years, I'm coming back to Europe! Planning this trip has been special and difficult. I was fortunate enough to travel a good bit with family when I was young, but that also means that the meaning of travel has changed for me. I still enjoy the novelty of visiting a brand new place to explore, but I would now much rather go somewhere to see friends or family.

That, however, leaves me in a quandary - do I go somewhere new or rehash the same places with familiar faces? The former choice might be pricier, scarier, and disappointing - but it could also help me explore new places and therefore parts of myself. The latter choice is comfortable, predictable, and almost certainly cheaper - but the people I know have their own lives, and visiting someone's home during your vacation time can cause some strange disruptions and not meet expectations.

To get past this, I've been lucky enough to plan this trip to hit both points. One of my oldest friends lives in Holland but graciously invited me to tag along to her trip to the South of France. I'll be making a pitstop to visit old friends in Dublin, but will be slowing down along the way to explore more of England, the long lost home country that I never really got a chance to get to know. Hopefully somewhere in there I'll be seeing more of Holland itself and new places in Italy - again, to visit a friend. So, for the majority, I've found ways to combine new places with familiar faces - truly the best of both worlds.

Connections

As finals week quickly approaches, and with it the halfway mark of my college career, I am reminded of how much has changed in the past two years. During my first few semesters I met plenty of undergraduates, but the faculty seemed so mysterious and detached. My favorite part of college has been the people, hands down. OU has a broad student body pursuing such radically varied interests with great enthusiasm that the environment is unmatched in my experience. I fell in love with higher education my very first week here. Despite the papers and exams, the stress and the sleep-deprivation, this university is full of people learning, seeking to better themselves and to better the world. The man you bump into on the South Oval has worked with some of the greatest composers of the twentieth century, the woman you pass in the Union on your way to lunch speaks four languages, the man in line with you to get lunch is a professional ballet dancer, the woman next to you in class has just won a Fulbright. It’s both intimidating and incredibly inspiring.

Over the past two years, I’ve slowly been meeting more members of the faculty, particularly those within my major departments. Their complete mastery of the topics they are teaching makes me yearn to understand a subject in such depth. Although I will likely not pursue graduate school immediately after graduation, I highly suspect it to be in my future. There are so many fantastic schools filled with the brightest and most dedicated people, it would be a shame not to meet and learn from at least a few of them.

OK Teacher Walkout

On April 2nd, teachers from around the state of Oklahoma walked out of their classrooms and marched on the Oklahoma state capitol — protesting the last decade of cuts to education and demanding that Oklahoma legislatures provide adequate funding for public education, so as to allow teachers to give their students a quality education. The walkout has now continued for nearly two weeks, as tens of thousands of teachers return day after day to advocate for their students and for the future of our state.

I, too, have spent many days up at the capitol in support of educators in their endeavor and, initially, I wasn’t entirely sure as to why. After all, I haven’t been a student in the OK public school system for nearly 3 years now, I’m not a teacher, and I have no intention of becoming a teacher. It wasn’t until day 3 of the walkout during House session when Representative Scott Inman asked “Why are you here?”  to everyone sitting in the chamber’s gallery, that I really began to consider it. Was I just at the capitol to be a part of the hype — to be a part of the movement — or was I there for something more?

It was in that moment that I remembered something else that Representative Inman had said to me nearly four years ago, in the midst of a different education crisis, while I was paging in the House of Representatives. After sitting in on weeks worth of House floor meetings, listening to the GOP’s seemingly endless debate on the merits of 3rd grade testing (much to my distaste), my page group had the chance to talk to both representative Enns and Representative Inman.

Representative Enns spoke to our group first, explaining that our education was a top priority for the Oklahoma legislature and that the Department of Education was one of the most well-funded in the state. He said that I should be proud of the education I was receiving in the OK public school system and, at the time, I was. At the time, I didn’t realize that it was irregular not to have updated textbooks or, in some cases, any textbook at all. I was unaware, at the time, that it was out of the norm to have more than 22 students in a class. And, at the time, I only knew that I had excellent teachers — I did not realize that many of them were working 2+ jobs, and oftentimes struggling to make ends meet.

Representative Inman, on the other hand, was not so blindly optimistic (or blatantly deceitful). He, too, emphasized the importance of our educations and encouraged us all to work hard in school. However, he then went on to tell us some of the facts, like that the Department of Education had been cut annually for the previous five years. He ended the discussion by saying something that has stuck with me ever since. He said: “We are fighting for your education, and the time will come when you might have to fight for your education as well.” As a Senior in high school, I was not overly concerned by this statement. In fact, I disregarded it almost entirely when he said it.

However, two years later, as a student of Economics at the University of Oklahoma, I began to understand what he had meant. I began to understand that the best way to stimulate the economy was to increase government spending on social services like education, health care, transportation, and public security. After coming to this realization, it became increasingly difficult for me to understand why the legislator refused to stop handing out corporate tax breaks to the wealthy while simultaneously de-funding key services that benefit of middle- and low-income families.

I realize now that education is not merely a “teacher issue” or a “student issue;” it is a societal problem, and it impacts all of us. After all, if we fail to fund the education of Oklahoma’s youth today, we will most assuredly pay the price in the future.  This point is made perfectly by the fact that Oklahoma is ranked 48th in education funding and 1st in incarceration. We fail our children from the start, and then we lock them up as punishment for our mistakes. This is a fact that I am simply no longer willing to ignore.

That is why I have spent the last eight days up at the capitol — waiting for hours on end to speak with legislatures, researching tax policy, and reading proposed legislation. The time has come to fight — not for my own education, but for the educations of the thousands of children in Oklahoma that are still in the public schools system. The fight has been difficult, and at times discouraging, as Republican legislators continuously deny the requests of Oklahoma’s teachers to fund the future of our state (despite their obligation to represent the interests of their constituents).

Nonetheless, witnessing OK teachers’ unwavering tenacity in the face of a near-total lack of action by legislatures during these challenging days has been one of the most inspiring and life-changing events of my life. Seeing teachers arrive to the Capitol day after day at the break of dawn, even before their legislators, crowding the halls of the capitol to max capacity and surrounding the building with signs in hand no matter rain, shine, or snow, has given me a renewed sense of faith in the future of our state. I am confident, for the first in years, that our state is on the path to prosperity. I am confident that we will no longer allow our elected officials to place their loyalty to corporate interests and the 1% above their civic responsibility to their constituents. And, if our legislatures refuse to represent our interests, I am now confident that we will have the courage and the resolution to replace them with others who do.

I, like many others I know, was deeply disappointed to hear that the Oklahoma Education Association had pulled their support for the teacher walkout despite our legislator’s and governor’s outright refusal to address (or even consider) our concerns about common education. Certainly, in passing HB 1010xx the legislator took a monumental step in the right direction, but it would be a severe overstatement to assume that this step was enough of an investment into public education. On the contrary, since the beginning of the walkout on April 2nd the legislator has not raised any additional funds for education — only repealed the Hotel/Motel tax that would have raised ~$50M and replaced it with an Amazon tax that is estimated to raise only ~$20M, resulting in a net loss of $3oM for teachers and students.

Despite this obvious funding discrepancy, some Republican legislators and the governor have been adamant in their claims that, by continuing the walkout and demanding additional funding, teachers are being selfish and behaving like “teenagers” that want a better car. Choosing to shut their eyes to reality, these legislators insist upon ignoring the hard facts: that educators were never fighting for a higher pay raise, but for a better future for the state of Oklahoma. Republican legislators have made the same promise day after day: that there is no budget hole and that any revenue reallocated in year 2 will be substituted with new growth revenue, knowing full well that it would be infinitely better to fully fund education now and allocate any additional growth revenue towards the multitude of other departments that have been similarly cut throughout the last decade, as opposed to relying on a revenue that may or may not be generated in the next fiscal year.

For this reason, I will not be reverting back to business as usual on Monday. I, alongside hundreds of parents, concerned community members, and teacher delegations, will continue to pressure my legislators to pass either the capital gains repeal or 0.25% income tax increase as well as a Wind GPT for as long as it takes. And, if at the end of our efforts, legislators are still intent on obstinacy and unwilling to compromise, I am prepared to work with educators to file initiative petitions to allow the electorate to vote on the issues that the legislator refuses to. Furthermore, I am fully intent on campaigning against those legislators whom have proven themselves to be unwilling to represent their constituents’ best interest.

I believe in the Oklahoma public education system. I believe in Oklahoma students and educators. And, more than anything, I believe in the future of this once-great state. That is why I have spent my last eight days at the capital, that is why I will continue to protest come next week, and that is why I will continue to fight for as long as it takes to restore Oklahoma to greatness. That is why I am here.

My Last Global Engagement Day

Today I attended my very last Global Engagement Day, and it was a wonderful way to end my time as a GEF. Every year, fellows get together to lead panels on all sorts of things, from what to pack, to where to study abroad, to telling stories (a panel I participated in last year), to the talk I attended today: women, minorities, and LGBTQ+ students abroad.

As a straight, white woman, 1/3 of these descriptors apply to me, but I found it so valuable to hear the perspectives from everyone on the panel. It was fascinating, and times heartbreaking, and often empowering to hear fellow students tell the stories of how they lived and were treated in places outside the U.S. It’s no secret that our own country often doesn’t treat anyone in these three groups with kindness, but the fact remains that the United States is a fairly liberal country, while some that GEFs travel to (Morocco and Uganda were mentioned in the talks) are not.

It was interesting to hear where these students drew the line between standing up for themselves when they were being oppressed (overtly or covertly) and between staying quiet to avoid making too many waves. As one of them stated, “you’re not there to cause a culture war.” The idea of dressing much more conservatively, or of hiding homosexuality, in a country that basically requires it has always been interesting to me. On the one hand, it’s important to respect cultures you are a guest in. But on the other, shouldn’t you say something if you’re being catcalled, or you are admonished for your homosexuality or your style of dressing? Here in the U.S., we very much have a culture of speaking up (if you feel safe doing so) when you are not being respected. But the dynamic changes significantly when you study abroad.

Ultimately, I have the utmost respect for these students. To hear comments about yourself that make you bristle and to stay calm and respectful is a really admirable course of action. I think they all served as excellent cultural ambassadors for the United States, and I am proud to be a Global Engagement Fellow with them.

It was an excellent panel, and it made my last Global Engagement Day one for the books!

Exclusion or Inclusion? Disability and Community in Late Medieval France

I recently had the opportunity to leave my comfort zone a bit and attend a history of science lecture. Typically, the lectures that I attend are focused on current international events, so it was an exciting change of pace to attend an event focused more on history.

The talk I attended was given by Dr. Sasha Pfau, an associate professor from Hendrix College. I was not sure what exactly to expect from such a lecture, but I found myself quickly fascinated with Dr. Pfau’s research. Her study’s goal was to investigate the treatment of disability in Medieval France. Whenever I think about disability in the Middle Ages, I, like many people think of people locked away from society in mental institutions or shunned in leper colonies. During this talk, I was surprised to learn that this was often not the case.

Dr. Pfau found her evidence by pouring through thousands of pardon letters. These letters were written to the king of France by either convicted criminals or their families or friends requesting pardon. The king granted these pardons as a show of power; he was above the law, and excused people’s crimes in an attempt to flaunt it. Those seeking pardon worked with court scribes and paid a fee to write the letters, and if the king granted the pardon, they could pay extra to have it transcribed in the official books. These approved, transcribed pardons are all that survive, so today, we have no way of knowing how many pardons were approved or what an unapproved pardon looked like, but the letters give modern historians insight into ordinary life at the time.

Each letter included the story of the crime with a justification. It is these stories that Dr. Pfau was interested in; though the stories may have been embellished, they reflected plausible, normal events at the time. Thus, any treatment of disability that came up in the letters was likely indicative of how disability was regularly treated in those days. Dr. Pfau said that most letters did not contain any mention of disability; she had to read hundreds of letters to find what she was looking for. However, the letters she did come up with painted a picture of disability treatment that looks very different from my assumptions. From these letters, it is apparent that those living in late Medieval France included disabled people as members of society and practiced a great deal of familial care. Rather than casting the disabled out, they were brought into the fold and included as much as possible.

Her case studies varied from a disabled man who participated with his friends in a bar fight to a blind man who was killed by his wife for intentionally sabotaging her work. In each case, the disability was never the focus of the letter, but the reader could see that it was often treated very differently to what many have previously imagined. When the disabled were mistreated, it was due to their own negative actions, rather than their disabilities. Their families felt and upheld the responsibility to care for their disabled family members, and the disabled were as integrated into society as possible.

I was impressed with Dr. Pfau’s ability to make such a strong case for something so surprising to me, as well as her method of obtaining it. Before this talk, I had never heard of pardon letters, nor had I given much thought to the treatment of disability throughout history. The lecture was a fascinating reminder that often, dominant historical narratives are not accurate; they are shaped by biased historians choosing the version of history that they want to pass down. I learned some interesting things about Medieval France and had some of my preconceived notions of history shattered. It was a nice reminder that, while studying current events is immensely important, studying historical events can be equally so.

Nuclear War versus Diplomacy

Last week, a diverse group of OU students and faculty as well as members of the Norman community gathered for a lecture by Dr. Trita Parsi, one of America’s leading experts on the Middle East and particularly US-Iran relations. In an era increasingly defined by fake news and bigotry, Dr. Parsi brought a message of hope, describing how diplomacy had prevented a war and allowed two very different nations to reach a tentative peace. Having worked in Washington throughout this process, Dr. Parsi brought a behind-the-scenes view of this profound diplomatic victory. According to Dr. Parsi, the current political landscape in the Middle East, especially in regards to US-Arab relations, was not inevitable. Over the decades, there have been many opportunities for diplomacy to bridge gaps and forge strong and lasting connections between the Middle East and the West. However, these opportunities have been systematically misused or neglected, particularly by the United States. However, under President Obama, diplomacy won the day and nuclear war was averted. Dr. Parsi’s lecture aimed to explain how this unthinkable peaceful solution was attained.

After the Persian Gulf War ended, the Israelis and Iranians who had fought together against Iraqi power in the region turned against one another. Israel convinced the US to broaden its containment of Iraq to include Iran as well, devastating Iran. In attempts to be released from containment and recognized as a major power in the Middle East by the US, Iran began its nuclear program. After containment was broken by the US instigation of the Iraq War, Iran redoubled its efforts to gain recognition, while Israel took a hardline position against uranium enrichment in Iran. Knowing Iran could never accept such a deal, Israel hoped to force the US and Iran into armed conflict, which would shatter Iranian power and influence throughout the region. Meanwhile, the US had an impossible set of goals to achieve: prevent war, prevent nuclear development in Iran, prevent Israel from embroiling itself in war (which would require the US to also go to war), and prevent Iran from defining the new geopolitical order of the Middle East.

Presidents Bush and Obama originally pursued similar strategies of embargoes, sanctions, and cyberwarfare. President Obama even convinced the EU and other developed nations to partner with the US in the worst sanctions imposed on any country in history, causing Iranian GDP to contract by 25% in 3 years and devastating the national economy. In response, Iran did the only thing they could see to do—further expand the nuclear program until the US broke. US-Iranian relations had dissolved into a global game of chicken composed of nukes versus sanctions with the addition of the Israeli wildcard.

In early 2012, John Kerry approached President Obama to convince him that a secret negotiation channel was needed between the US and Iran to provide the possibility of a diplomatic solution, since the official channels were simply feelers to see if the other party was close to breaking. The country of Oman, long friends with both the US and Iran, volunteered to host these secret meetings, with the first taking place in July of 2012. After two years of tense negotiations, riddled with distrust on both sides, the Sultan of Oman carried the US deal to Tehran, where the Iranian government accepted the terms. Iran would be allowed to maintain a modest stockpile of low-enrichment uranium but would cease increased enrichment. In return, the US and its allies would lift the sanctions.

Unfortunately, this hopeful end has not been stable. President Trump has consistently threatened to break the deal with Iran and impose new sanctions. This uncertainty has prevented businesses from returning to Iran and stymied economic growth. At the same time, the President has offended many international allies, further eroding the US’s influence globally. Lastly, funding cuts to the state department have left many key embassies understaffed. South Korea, our main buffer against possible North Korean aggression, does not currently have a US ambassador. Such actions make future diplomatic negotiations by the US nearly impossible. The Iranian Nuclear Deal is precarious and ready to fall. Unfortunately it may only be a precursor to what is to come.

I really enjoyed Dr. Parsi’s lecture. His credentials working alongside both parties in the Iranian Nuclear Deal gave him a fascinating perspective. He also was able to flesh out the underlying motives of all parties involved. I had never really studied Iran and the nuclear deal before now, but I feel like I have a working understanding of the situation after the lecture. Yes, the US could have gotten a better deal. However, by the time the US was willing to engage with the Iranians, the nuclear program was much too far along for a better deal than what we got. Therefore, one of the key takeaways from this lecture was to start diplomacy early. If we had opened negotiations with Tehran when the Iranians first sought a diplomatic solution, Iran may not have had nuclear capabilities today. The second key takeaway is that America needs allies. The nuclear deal could not have been concluded without Oman, an Arab Muslim state that made an active effort to see diplomacy rule the day. We could not have negotiated on our own. Lastly, I think this situation serves as a reminder of the importance of empathy and perspective. Each party had its own needs and objectives. However, it is very possible that all three countries could have seen their objectives fulfilled years earlier if they had only been willing to honestly and transparently deal with one another. These three lessons are the most important in my opinion from the lecture and the US-Iran Nuclear Deal.