The 300th Post: 20 in 10

My 300th post on this blog seems like a very good time for a pause and some gratitude.

Why the “20 in 10?” That’s 20 countries in 10 years. My first international flight was in 2004, and as I cruise into my ten-year anniversary of studying abroad and changing my life forever, I’ve done a fair amount of reflecting.

  • Studying abroad shaped my career. Before finishing a BA in International Business Management & Spanish, I had this monumental experience that I immediately thought everyone needed access to. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that’s what education is all about. Improving access, overcoming barriers, and changing your perspective. It’s no surprise I turned myself toward education and kept my eye on the world at large.
  • Money spent on travel is money well spent. I have sounded off on this topic before, most notably in April 2012 asking readers to “Trade your latte for a plane ticket.” Many, many people will say, “Phew you’re lucky .. I don’t know how you afford all that travel!” It’s all in how you choose to spend your hard earned cash. This is how I spend mine.
  • The world is full of people you haven’t met yet. I shared a meal with a Canadian in Spain. I crossed the world and befriended a Chicago native in Istanbul. Take the cliché about friends leaving footprints in your life and amplify it by the thousands. You’ll never forget “that one time, in that one place…” or the people you shared it with. And now thanks to social media, it’s a whole lot easier not to.
  • Travel is hard. Travel is an extension of your whole self. It hurts, it can be difficult, it can be joyful and it can be simple. I got so sick in Nicaragua that I wasn’t sure I could board a plane let alone corral my group of eight students back to the U.S. But I did. I was so brokenhearted to leave my host family in Granada, but my taxi driver told me I’d be back. And he was right. You miss flights, your train never comes, but you are learning 100% of the time.
  • Paying it forward is easy. Traveling lends itself to helping others. Someone pays for your cafe con leche thanks to good conversation in another language. A departing traveler shares a guide book, a restaurant recommendation, a metro pass. A native Irishman who may or may not be a leprechaun leaves you with handwritten Gaelic to use on your journey. Travel karma is legit, and if an opportunity presents itself I’ve learned to take it, because I may need it back some day.

I’d be crazy if I didn’t make a list of favorites in a post like this. But that would take all day, all night and into the morning of next week. We’ll stick with images instead – also an almost impossible task, but a beautiful one for yours truly. So here you have 20 photos from those landmark 20 countries* in this past decade.

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*not including Gibraltar, a “British overseas territory” and Vatican City, a “sovereign city-state.”

London: 2004-2013

This week marks the big return to London, England – the first international location I traveled to, as a 20 year old. We started our semester in the UK, collecting all 84 Americans in our cohort in London for a 3 day weekend to start. I remember Texas accents, friendships formed in JFK airport and that first terrible shock at a London ATM where I withdrew British Pounds Sterling on a paltry exchange rate (where’s the rest of it?).

I have a few impressions of my time in London, but they are very superficial, and also – cold! It won’t be much warmer next week, but at least I can save room in the suitcase by not traveling with a winter coat.

Now here’s the kicker. Would you believe I only took .. 20 .. photos while I was in London in 2004? I don’t know about you, but this blows my mind. I can take 20 photos in 3 hours in a new city, let alone 3 days. Although I’m quite sure I had my camera with me nonstop, I was probably too excited to document every moment. Unlike now, I would not have been posting on Facebook, tweeting or sending video footage into the world with each step. Cell phone? Nope. Smart phone? Definitely not. What was this — the stone age? Only 2004.

As with any return trip, you’re destined to take some of the same photos, in the same places. Granted most of my 2004 snapshots involve a grinning gaggle of Americans, and sadly I won’t be able to re-create that .. but I’ll happily put myself through the same paces where I was some 9 years ago. Isn’t that the best way to revisit a memory?


“The Magic Wand of Immersion”

Last week in Chicago, a group of 1,400 international educators listened to the words of Dr. Lilli Engle on “What do we know now, and where do we go from here?” I’ll admit my mind wandered to the meetings I had coming up, the emails I had to get to. But several phrases and buzzwords stuck in my mind. One of these?

The Magic Wand of Immersion

Sounds ominous, right? It is. This is not your fairy godmother sent from beyond the veil to turn your pumpkin into a coach. Neither is it the genie in a bottle, which you first rubbed in your office of study abroad, promising you untold fame, fortune and a spouse overseas.

The word immersion is a throw-away term used in brochures, next to skydiving photos and a white student hugging non-white local children. Is that immersion? Many schools and their students struggle to identify the proper definition, and continuing research is showing that some students never do. As educators, we cannot promise that your 6 weeks or 6 months in a foreign country will immerse you in a new culture. Immersion is not osmosis. You cannot achieve immersion by just being there.

In December 2012, at the culmination of a study conducted by myself and my American Institute of Foreign Study colleagues, we shared with a group in Dublin the following findings: Based on a survey with 170 respondents, 100 in Europe and 70 in the U.S., we found that access and use of technology remains almost entirely the same whether a student is at home, or abroad. That made me want to use my magic wand to bop them over the head and turn them into cobblestones. And so we continue to study both tools and roadblocks that assist and deter our students from this mythical immersion experience.

How many times I have wished for a casual swish & flick to turn the tides of a travel experience, or that of my students. I am often found saying to my students, “study abroad is not a singular event.” Well here’s another gem for you: “study abroad is not a one-way street.” We drop that one in pre-departure orientation meetings, most often at the beginning of the session when my staff and I are talking about being an ambassador for the U.S., for our university, and for themselves. Here, I’ll set the stage:

Imagine yourself in a rural area. It’s hot, you’re tired, you’re probably lost and if you have to speak one more word of Spanish you’re going to freak. Then comes a barista, talkative, gracious. It takes a second or two in this god awful heat but you realize – he’s not pandering for tips or blowing you off as the dumb American. He has questions. Where are you from? How is your home? Do you like it here? Your one word answers blossom into longer explanations. He excuses himself to get your Fanta and ice, and upon return, peppers you with more questions: is your city very crowded? do you live with your parents? have you been to university? You’re charmed, even through your exhaustion. Several minutes later when you make your excuses to leave, he offers to take a photo of you in this place. You say, let’s take a photo of YOU in this place, so I can remember it. He is delighted and happy to oblige. When you tuck your chair back into the table and readjust your bag on your shoulder, he puts his hand on your arm and says, “do you know, I’ve never met an American before. I will tell my friends that they are wrong about you. Que dios te bendiga.”

The magic wand of immersion never could have touched that scene. The distance between two people changes in every foreign country, where the bubble of personal space expands and contracts. So what’s immersion? Reaching outside of that bubble and impacting another person. Sharing your culture. Sharing yourself. An active approach that calls on you, the traveler, to initiate the experience.

Our advice to our students, and my advice to you: Don’t sit back and wait for this to happen. Create these opportunities for yourself. It will make your experience far richer, and your purpose even clearer. Keep your magic wand for physics class, and use your own magic to find this elusive “immersion,” where others may never think to look.

Anything for scholarship

So, the day after this godforsaken election, I will head to one of the reddest states in the Union: TEXAS.

What for? Benjamin A. Gilman. Specifically, his scholarship. The Benjamin A. Gilman International scholarship program “provides awards for U.S. undergraduate students who are receiving Federal Pell Grant funding at a two-year or four-year college or university to participate in study abroad programs worldwide.”

So what does that mean? Pell Grants “provides need-based grants to low-income undergraduate and certain postbaccalaureate students to promote access to postsecondary education.” These are students who simply cannot afford an education, as determined by their financial aid status with the federal government. The Gilman is the government’s way of saying, let us help you go abroad.

The Gilman is funded through the International Academic Opportunity Act of 2000 and is sponsored by the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. So this is real. So real, in fact, that since 2001: 31,462 applications have been received and 9,796 scholarships have been awarded to students participating in study abroad programs around the world.*

I volunteered to be a “reader” or more formally “selection panelist.” I just read 68 applicants from all over the U.S. with students headed to destinations all over the world. I scored them based on a rating system, and will fly to Houston to meet with a co-panelist to deliberate over the group. Literally thousands of students apply in each term, so although my 68 took 2 solid days to read, it’s only a small batch!

So off to Houston, the International Institute for Education offices and the heat.

All in the name of scholarship.


Volver: To Return, to Go Back

[Friday, June 15]: Catching up on posts from last week!

Tienes hermanos, Kelly? Yo no. Soy la unica. Eres hija unica?!
Do you have brothers or sisters? Nope, I’m an only child. The only child??

Regardless of the language being spoken, after my admission of a solo childhood, there usually follows an expression of surprise. Some people ask if I enjoyed my only childhood, did I wish I had siblings. I usually tell the story that my parents told me: when I was 2 and people starting pestering me about my sibling status (“are you ready for a baby brother?”), I shook my head definitively and declared, “No, I’m quite enough.” Sometimes I crack a joke about not being able to blame the dog for any household wrongdoing, or refer to my common practice of borrowing other people’s siblings.

For those that know me, my parents and I are quite close. My friends also think of my parents as an extension of me; likewise, my parents adopt my friends. There are emails, letters, gifts, hospitality. What a compliment to have these two people that accept everyone I love, and automatically love them, too.

When I went abroad for the first time – age 20, hija unica – it was terrifying for my parents. They were pretty good about hiding it under a veil of excitement, only confessing to me upon my return that it was deeply and profoundly scary. Their only daughter spending six months overseas in a place they didn’t know, a language I kind of knew… I can understand the anxiety. But one small comfort, a silver lining – there would be a family.

Six months later, I would be sobbing hysterically in my Spanish apartment, clinging to my señora, torn between going home and leaving a place that had also become home. The cab driver telling me I would come back, “they always come back.”

Family 2010

Juan, Josefina, Kelly, Esther, Juani: 2010

Six years later, I prove him right, returning to the same apartment, visiting during my year teaching English abroad. As if no time had passed at all, the family sits down for lunch together and the sound of Castellano bounces around the room, bouyant, full of the joy of return. With every mouthful of paella, I am grinning, telling stories and recounting the last few years.

Eight years later, I will direct my taxi driver to the same apartment. I recall a train ride in from Sevilla two years earlier. Americans, gathering like they do, exchanging plans and stories. A girl several years younger than I, referring to her semester in Granada a few years back. I ask immediately about her living situation, and she mentions that she stayed with a host family. I ask where she lived, and she shakes her head – she can’t remember – and she returns the question. Startled, I repeat my host family’s address and explain the general direction. She shrugs and nods. This is my first true recognition that not all host family experiences are created equal.

Josefina Esther

Josefina & Esther: 2004

For me, a señora who loved to cook. Who always had “her face” on, who made me special meals when I was sick. She let me cook in her kitchen, and she comforted me when my grandmother died. Host to more than two decades of American girls, a most generous soul. A father, who worked hard on the family property and loved jokes and sweets. Extraordinarily shorter than his American daughter, and equally proud to escort me to the plaza on my first day in town. Two siblings already moving on with their lives: a handsome older son working in Madrid, a kind woman with a five year old princess who let me plan an Easter egg hunt for her.

Most notably, a sister. Gorgeous, model thin, incredibly Spanish. She quizzed me about my days at university, shuffled around in silly slippers, taught me Sevillanas (kind of) in the marble hallway. Inquired about boys, America and my future plans. Entertained my friends, praised the cultivation of an Andaluza accent and baked a birthday cake for my roommate. Quick to laugh, an expert at an American-Spanish accent and so animated, so Granadina.

And so tomorrow, a wedding. Her wedding. Tradition, fun, finery and .. family. A triumphant return to a beautiful city that I think about all the time. A seat at the table with a family not my own, a series of American sisters celebrating a sister not mine, or theirs. Olé.