Jess en France: Nerves (the Good Kind?)

August 25, 2017

It’s a few days before I fly to Paris, and my hyper-active mind has presented me with a mixed-bag of emotions. I find myself reminiscing the days before I made my move across the country, from southern California, to start my college career at University of Richmond. But as I now face the new prospect of moving across the world, to one of the most gushed about destinations on our planet, the sentiment of these last few days feel similar, yet altogether different than that before I came to Richmond. If you’re like me, you like to plan and over-plan, going over minutiae in your head until planning becomes superfluous (and even unhelpful). But if there’s anything I learned from my move just a few years ago it’s that there’s a finite extent to which planning is actually going to help—especially when you’re travelling and taking root in an entirely new place. This isn’t to say you should “wing it”—travelling can be logistically challenging. However, one of the greatest parts about travelling is letting yourself be surprised by what you find and allowing it to paint your experience, rather than you painstakingly painting it for yourself. And this is where my anxieties fortunately drop-off, at the point where I let myself “be” and let what will come, come.

Hi, I’m Jess. I’m a UR student majoring in International Studies: World Politics and Diplomacy, and I’m spending my first of two semesters abroad studying at Sciences Po in Paris, France. I chose to study abroad in France for two main reasons—to work on my French language skills and to study at Sciences Po, which offers one of the best International Politics programs in higher education. I will be staying with a host family in Montmartre, which is a large hill in the eighteenth arrondissement (i.e. the outer district of the city) as well as a historically renowned part of Paris that artists have flocked to throughout the years, particularly in the nineteenth century. As someone who loves to write, I can’t wait to scope out a “writers spot” and bask in the wonderment this corner of the city has to offer. So I would definitely be remiss not to mention that Paris is a melting-pot of cultural, artistic, as well as musical, and gastronomical prominence! There is quite a lot to look forward to.

I’ve been truly blessed with such a wonderful opportunity to study here, and there are many people to thank—professors and friends who have supported me, but also the Office of International Education and Chris Klein, my study abroad adviser. Without them, I wouldn’t have been afforded such a life-altering adventure. I cannot wait to share my experiences with you and any tips or words of wisdom I may be able to impart as I venture off into Europe.  I will be posting weekly, so stay tuned!

À la prochaine (Until next time),



Meghann in Argentina: Porteño Politics

July 21, 2017

One thing that I learned very quickly here is that los porteños (what people in Buenos Aires call themselves) love their politics. Most extensive conversations that I have here eventually turn to politics in one way or another—especially with my host parents! After informing them that I am a Political Science major, they always love to hear my opinion on certain topics and express theirs in turn. My host dad told me that here in Buenos Aires it is “common to hear two best friends in a restaurant turn to enemies while discussing politics, and then turn right back into friends when the wine comes out.”


The importance of political activism is not only apparent in conversation, but also in daily public life. There are always small, peaceful manifestaciónes (protests or rallies) going on at street corners, but even more interesting to witness are the big rallies that occur every week in front of la Casa Rosada, a famous government building that contains the President’s office.


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My classmates and I went and saw the famous Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, a group (composed historically of women) that march in a circle every Thursday in front of la Casa Rosada in memory of los desaparecidos (Argentines that were “disappeared” by the military dictatorship in the late 70’s).


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Social activism is also commonly witnessed in the streets. Here, a group supports the right to education.


I am excited to start taking real classes in Political Science in a couple of weeks when the real school year begins. Hopefully learning about Argentine history and politics will allow me to better participate in the never-ending political discussion that seems to take place here in Buenos Aires!

Tori in Spain: ¡Feliz Cumpleaños Yolanda!

December 5, 2016

The first time I walked into Iglesia Evangelica de Cristo Vive, I was greeted by a lady who talked a mile a minute and never stopped smiling. Although it was my second week and I was extremely overwhelmed by Spanish, she was patient, and we started to get to know each other. Yolanda and I chatted every week after church, our conversations always beginning with her scolding me for not arriving early enough to chat before church. “¿Por que tú siempre llegas tarde?” She later introduced me to her son Eker, who has become one of my closest friends in Madrid. He taught me how to salsa dance and came to Morocco with me… he is the best!

3 months later, my week would not be complete if I did not have a mínimum of 3 texts from Yolanda reminding me that God is in control and that she is praying that He will guide me. Last weekend, I had the privilege of celebrating Yolanda´s birthday at her brother´s mountain house in la Sierra de Madrid, and it was an incredible day.


View from Eker’s uncle’s mountain house!

Me, Eker, Kristina, and Amalie arrived at 10am, and Yolanda was in the kitchen, making all sorts of things that smelled wonderful. We met Yolanda´s brother, and he gave us a tour of the house. It was the highest in the village, so it had an amazing view of the mountains and pueblo below. It was breathtaking. Two dogs ran around and a huge garden of veggies and fruits surrounded the house. Yolanda, being a typical Spanish woman, then began insisting we eat everything in the house… They do hospitality well here. We ate some integral cake and a platano pineapple drink that was super yummy, and then went off to explore the beautiful mountains.

Our quick hike turned into a 3 hours affair because we decided to forge our own path instead of following the trail. By decided, I mean we were forced to because none of us had any idea where we were (don´t tell Eker I said that, if he asks I had full confidence in his ability to get us home the whole time). We found a beautiful lake and some even more incredible views. I breathe easier in the mountains, and being surrounded by sunshine and trees was good for my soul.


I’m in awe of this place!

The house in the mountains was a place of peace, and the tranquil atmosphere made the presence of God almost tangible. They use the house for lots of church retreats and dinners, and I can see why. It is a special place of rest and rejuvenation and recalibration of the heart. A rock lies outside the house that says “Jesus es el camino” in honor of Tio´s wife who died 6 years ago. It served as a beautiful reminder of the creator of the beauty and peace we experienced that day.


When we returned from our hike, the feast began. Most of Eker´s family is Peruvian, and the relatives started rolling in to celebrate. We collected firewood for the wood burning stove outside, and Tio began cooking every type of meat imaginable. Even though it was her birthday, I am pretty sure she only left the kitchen to make sure everyone else was comfortable and having a good time. Her joy and energy are contagious, and her constant thankfulness to God a beautiful reminder of what is important, and what isn´t.

There were about 18 of us there to celebrate Yolanda, from age 12 to age 90. It was a really fun mix. Eker´s sisters absolutely blew me away, they were kind and beautiful and wise beyond their years. I am constantly in awe of their whole family. We feasted on lamb, AMAZING chorizo, pork ribs, yummy cilantro salad, and a delicious rice and chicken soup, while sipping pineapple wáter. It was one of the greatest meals of my life, and was followed by roasted SWEET POTATOS, platanos, platano bread, and an amazing dessert called leche asado (cooked milk). Every minute of the day I was in awe… it didn´t feel like real life.


The whole fam!

The day ended with 3 content, sleepy girls trying to play UNO in a group of what felt like a gagillion Spanish speakers and understand their jokes. Most of the time, we just laughed along and played our cards, content to be with this amazing family, and so thankful to have gotten to spend such a special day with them. Yolanda and Eker, thank you! Being a part of your family this semester has been incredibly sweet. I will never forget you.

Tori in Spain: Me, a homebody?

November 1, 2016

Since coming abroad, I have realized how much of a homebody I actually am.

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Enjoying dinner with my host mom in Madrid!

Anyone reading that sentence is likely to be shocked, since I am not a homebody in the traditional sense of the word. I am always out exploring, adventuring, and traveling. Homebodies, by definition, prefer to stay at home and are perceived as unadventurous.

Let me explain.

I used to say that I am most comfortable in a room where no one knows me, and that I almost always prefer new places and faces to old ones. My favorite friend used to always be my most recent acquaintance. I have come to realize that this was because I deeply desired a clean slate in order to be able to recreate myself and prove myself and enter into relationships with no past mistakes or hardships. I also had a tendency to idolize the consumption of experiences, and thought the more I experienced the more whole or fulfilled I would be.

I was so comfortable and confident in rooms where no one knew me because I could be the center of attention and hide simultaneously. I would hide behind my mask of perfection and accomplishment and goodness, and no one would have any grounds not to believe me. Ha. Had ‘em right where I wanted ‘em. I could be whoever I wanted.

As relationships go on, they get harder. My image of perfection is slowly replaced with a more accurate picture that includes my weaknesses, brokenness, and sin. I mess up. My selfishness shows through my silly façade of perfection, and my pride becomes evident despite my angelic image.

I used to hate this. Like reaaaaaally hate it. I felt like after people saw me for who I truly am, they would only see the bad parts of me for the rest of eternity.

Before leaving for Spain, I feared that my decision to go abroad stemmed from this continual desire for a clean slate in order to appear like I had it all together. If not that, then from a belief that the more I experienced the more whole I would be as a person. Abroad seemed to be the perfect setting to indulge both these weaknesses, and yet, it has taught me much.

I am coming to grips with the fact that I am a broken human with a deep need for a Savior, and the only good in me is due to Christ’s redeeming work on my heart. I have not earned or deserved any of the titles, accomplishments, or positions I possess. If this is true, then comparison is truly laughable, as is portrayal of oneself as “good” or “better” than anyone else. No amount of experience will heal my brokenness, I cannot save myself. Quantities of experience are irrelevant unless they are done with an intention to love deeply and glorify the Lord.

Instead of going out and continually desiring to meet new people and consume all the experiences I can in a new place, I now prefer to connect to a few people deeply. I believe that every person desires to be fully known and fully loved; despite their flaws and imperfections. I used to try to preserve too many relationships, and thus, I was not able to give to anyone, nor was I able to truly know and be known. People rarely saw beyond the mask I hid behind because my calendar was always full and I was afraid of my own pride and brokenness.

I have now come to fully embrace my homebodiness. Madrid is wonderful, but I long to return to my family and community in Virginia and North Carolina, and just sit with the people I love.

Today, I am spending Halloween at the home of some family friends in Barcelona and savoring family life here.



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I am more than content to teach this family how to carve pumpkins, listen to their stories, learn about their traditions, and allow them to know me in all of my faults and brokenness. I think slowing down is the most important part of life, and let me tell you, Spaniards know how to do it. There are about 324892369 things that “every tourist needs to do” in Barcelona that I will leave here without experiencing, but that’s okay. I will leave with a few important relationships strengthened, and a feeling of rejuvenation from time spent in a loving home. This is what I have been given this weekend, and what I get to look forward to returning to in the United States.

Life is most beautiful when we take off our masks, empty our calendars, and sit with the few we love the most in the places we love the most.


A beautiful, slow morning in Barcelona.




Emily in Samoa: A Trip…Home?

April 12, 2016
A traditional canoe by Tutuila’s main road. April 17th is Flag Day for American Samoa, and each village will have a canoe in an island-wide boat race in the main harbor

A traditional canoe by Tutuila’s main road. April 17th is Flag Day for American Samoa. Each village will have a canoe in an island-wide boat race in the main harbor.


We just got back from a four-day trip to the island of Tutuila in American Samoa, where we stayed with host students and their families. The students were members of the community college’s Phi Theta Kappa honors society, and were eager to get to know us, welcoming us as friends and new members of their families.

I was excited from the moment we touched down. Like many of the students in my group, I knew the least about American Samoa going into my study abroad, and was curious about what it would be like—more so than Fiji or Savai’i. We started by driving past chains like McDonald’s and Carl’s Jr…places I would not usually frequent in the US, but which sparkled with new fascination as we drove past. A lot of the world’s American stereotypes felt true here: things seemed glittery, plastic, diverse, plentiful. Or perhaps I was just in culture shock.

The situation got even better when I met my host. We had similar personalities, and as she told me about what she had planned for our stay, I couldn’t help smiling. She wanted to take us to ice cream spots, the best ocean views, and her aunt’s function center (set on top of a hill that overlooked the island). “My dad’s an artist,” she said, “but he also loves to cook…really intricate things. He’s starting to put tattoo patterns on his cakes, and he’s going to make lasagna on Thursday for you.” Oh gosh. The L word. We went back to her house, and I was enveloped in air conditioning, basking in the feeling of cool air on my skin as I delved into Arizona iced tea and potato chips. None of us had felt like life in Samoa was particularly hard, but I was not expecting this reaction to all the food choices on my arrival in American Samoa—an island only half an hour’s plane ride away, yet a world apart.

I could go on for pages with the food, but suffice it to say that I ate my fill and more. And between eating, hikes, lectures, and late-night talks with my host family, the stay was over before we knew it.


 One of my host family's paintings, a mural at a local retreat. More artwork can be found at

One of my host family’s paintings, a mural at a local retreat. More artwork can be found at


My family was the biggest highlight of my trip, as every night they sat up for hours talking about life in American Samoa, their past, and what they hoped to do in the future. Our group advisor wants us to analyze whether culture is “blended well” there, and we’ve all found that is impossible to do so. My family called themselves weird, since they were a small nuclear family with healthy portions of Portuguese, Hawaiian, Australian, Solomon, and Samoan in their family tree. They didn’t go to church or bingo, though most of the island did. My host father created artwork based on Samoan traditional tattooing, but wasn’t widely known, since those in the community “didn’t understand his art,” and felt they could make it themselves. My host brother, who was sixteen, was a product of all this “blending,” but was closest to the Tongan population on the island, since his best friend was Tongan and they would often go to church and other events together.


flower leis find a new twist in American Samoa, where grocery stores sell leis with candy, chips, and 5-hour energy bottles

flower leis find a new twist in American Samoa, where grocery stores sell leis with candy, chips, and 5-hour energy bottles


leis close-up


So what exactly is cultural blending, and how does one do it well? And why should we assume that American Samoans do it less well than Americans or Samoans? To me, culture just is. A group might lose traditions, but it cannot lose culture…it can only adapt it, as we have been seeing in American Samoa.

One aspect of Samoan tradition and culture that is still very much alive is the legend of the turtle and shark in the village of Vaitogi. According to one version of the story, a man and woman fell in love, and ran away from their island so that the man would not have to fight a war. They were taken in by the villagers in Vaitogi, but their leaders, angry at the man’s desertion, eventually found them out, chasing them to the cliffs. The pair refused to surrender, and jumped into the ocean, where they turned into a turtle and shark. Another version claims that the pair are a mother and daughter fleeing famine. You can watch the first version in more detail here:



The pair can still be seen today, but only if the villagers come to sing their special song. Our hosts had called the village before our visit, and a woman came out to meet us when we arrived. After five minutes of singing, they both appeared, the turtle surfacing on the right, and the shark swimming in the crest of a large wave that came crashing down on the cliff. It’s easy to be cynical of legends, but much harder when they come true right in front of you.


Searching for the turtle and shark at the cliffs of Vaitogi

Searching for the turtle and shark at the cliffs of Vaitogi


Other aspects of American Samoan culture are not as Samoan…perhaps more like what many like to call a “melting pot.” There is little food waste, as is common in independent Samoa, but when this is combined with easy access to American fast food chains and junk food, health risk and obesity rates go through the roof. Add to this the inability to access fruits and vegetables, due to the lack of home gardening and mainland ships that never seem to arrive, and you end up with a difficult situation. Similar instances of blending can be seen elsewhere in the culture: strong Samoan family values are played on by recruiters to coax students with few options (the US government has prevented universities from being established on the island) to join the army. Tuna canneries employ large numbers, and enable proprietors to label their products as “made in the USA” without paying their workers national minimum wage…since American Samoa is not officially part of the nation. And the list goes on…

It may come as a surprise to some readers that American Samoa exists and is part of the US. We certainly aren’t told much about it where I’m from. Well, it’s an “unorganized, unincorporated territory,” the last US holding in which people are not citizens, and thus cannot vote or have a voting representative in Congress. They also do not pay taxes, and maintain their land without risk of eminent domain, even receiving payments from the government to rent their land as a national park. There are pros and there are cons, as there would be any place in which different cultures are coming together and attempting to successfully coexist.

I hope that one day in the future I will be able to host members of my American Samoan family at my house in Massachusetts, so that we can continue are conversations, and that I can begin to see my world through their eyes, as they tried to see their world through mine.


Sunset from my host family’s hilltop retreat

Sunset from my host family’s hilltop retreat

Emily in Samoa: Worlds Without Walls

March 1, 2016

Picture your world, the one where you live out each day, where you go to work or school or coffee, where you interact with family and friends—and those people who, unfortunately, fall into an often unpleasant third category—and where, at the end of the day, you return home to peace and quiet. Now, eliminate every wall from this world. Start by taking down the physical walls, then go to the interpersonal ones, and demolish those, too.

If you do this right, you have a pretty good image of what a Samoan village homestay is like. While many people have switched to palagi (foreigner) homes, the fale (open house) mentality has stuck, and everyone’s life is out in the open to the rest of the village. We have lived in this wall-less world for ten days, and it is a definite cultural adjustment. We visitors have had to get used to a new style of living, in which the hardest part has definitely been derived from the lack of walls. And what are the implications?

Seaside fales provide the best views out and in

Seaside fales provide the best views out and in

Physically, no privacy. And I mean None. Windows are open, doors are few, and getting dressed in the morning is an adventure that often results in accidental flashing. Showers have no curtains, and are done in lavalavas (sarongs usually worn as skirts, but converted to tube dresses for the purpose). A shower is the biggest adventure in this wall-less world, and, as I found, a number of obstacles ensue once one is showering. What would you do if your host father decided to strike up conversation? Or if your shower happened to be next to a popular pig hangout? Or if your six siblings decided it would be good fun to turn on music and watch you?

My universal solution has been to dance. I am not an adept dancer by any means, but anyone who decides to be a part of the audience when this palagi showers is in for a good show…


My curious siblings surround my bed whenever I arrive at the house. This time, I gave them all pigtails.

My curious siblings surround my bed whenever I arrive at the house. This time, I gave them all pigtails.


With no privacy comes no alone time. You can approach this however you like: many students chose to be frustrated by it. “Why does my homestay family want to spend time with me?” they would mope. We discovered as we progressed that when we found times of alone-ness, “alone time” took on a new image. Instead of soaking in the peace, you sit puzzled, wondering where everyone is. And, in contrast to the US, this place with no alone time also has no room for loneliness.

A lack of being alone manifests itself in a variety of ways. Socially, everyone is always watching, gossiping, and peeping in on neighbors. If voices are raised in a house, everyone on the street will crowd the windows to see what is going on. If a group of palagi girls goes to the beach, at least ten village boys will be there within the hour.

This isn’t as oppressive as it seems, since the flipside of communal life offers benefits for all members. The most surprising example I found was when I was playing with my siblings. In the US, I rarely have found children who, come snack time, don’t snatch and devour their food. Here, however, a few children got snacks, and within seconds I and the others had piles of food in our hands. Three- and five-year-olds had evenly divided up their food for the rest of us, with no qualms whatsoever.

There are no walls around personal property, nor are there walls around individuals as they age or weaken. Samoa does not have Social Security, and care is taken on by the family and the village. Money is pooled for weddings, funerals, and hospital visits, so that everyone is taken care of by those around them.


Fa’alavelave is a Samoan term that refers to any major occasion in village life. We were able to attend a funeral fa’alavelave. Life is celebrated with singing, euglogies, and gift exchange. Fine mats (left) take weeks of work, and are a major gift.

Fa’alavelave is a Samoan term that refers to any major occasion in village life. We were able to attend a funeral fa’alavelave. Life is celebrated with singing, eulogies, and gift exchange. Fine mats take weeks of work, and are a major gift.



A group of matais (chiefs, shown right) receive gifts for their deceased friend as they sit next to his grave, and others wait with the body in the house, singing and eating.


Most uniquely, perhaps, is that there is also no wall around death. Those who die are buried next to their front door, so that they can continue to take part in the goings on. Unlike in the US, where elders are shooed away to nursing homes and those who die are compartmentalized in far-away cemeteries, Samoans keep their family close by long after they die. Brightly-painted graves often match the houses they guard, and memories stay alive as children play on the stones and families have sunset conversations while sitting among deceased relatives. Maybe it sounds bizarre, but I think this is a good deal for the dead—why go to a cemetery when you can continue to be part of the family?

Taking down walls has made me more open, and enabled me to grow closer with those around me. It is certainly exhausting at times, but it has made me wonder about why we build all of these walls in the first place, and why we feel the need to keep building more.

Dan in Argentina: Signing Off

January 10, 2016

above BsAs


Six months ago, when I got off the plane in Argentina, I had no idea what to expect, not to mention no idea where to go. My first observation of this country was that they don’t have signs… anywhere! I follow the other passengers on my plane to the long migrations line. It isn’t until ten minutes in that I realize the smallest sign in the distance which reads (in both Spanish and English) “International Visitors.” Cool, I’m in the wrong line.

I “perdón” my way out of the line for Argentine citizens and over to the much longer correct line. The whole time, I worry about speaking with the migrations officer and hoping all my luggage got through the two flight, 15-hour travel day. “Passaporte?” Ahh ok, I’ve got this. I hand the guy my passport. “¿Dónde vas a quedarte?” “Ummm…” ¿¡Dónde vas a quedarte, vos!?” Ahhh…vos?…what? “Where you stay in Buenos Aires?” From this moment, I knew my time here would challenge me. Truly, every day in South America posed a struggle of varying size. Whether waiting 45 minutes for the bus, being ripped off by a cab driver or getting a mild bout of heatstroke, every day was an adventure, an adventure that I loved in its entirety. Argentina and I may have gotten off on the wrong foot but I can’t help but remember this experience as anything less than amazing.


The friends I made during this trip will be some of my best friends for the rest of my life.

The friends I made during this trip will be some of my best friends for the rest of my life.


I will always flock to whatever part of the U.S. my host family visits and I can’t wait to visit them back in Argentina someday!

I will always flock to whatever part of the U.S. my host family visits and I can’t wait to visit them back in Argentina someday!


The places I traveled to in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are bucket list items for many people.

The places I traveled to in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay are bucket list items for many people.




Coming home is the ultimate bittersweet feeling. I have learned to love Buenos Aires. I am finally comfortable traveling around the city, speaking the language, and being far from home. The summertime weather is in full force and I love it. All that being said, I am excited to go home. I missed the beauty of falling leaves and am excited to catch up on some cold nights with coffee by the fire. I can’t wait to see my family and all of my friends. For almost six months, Buenos Aires has been my home, my host family has been my family and my friends have been (please excuse this eye-roll-worthy moment) my everything. Now that I’m going home, I hate to think that all will change.

But in reality, I will return to Buenos Aires one day and feel at home as if nothing changed. I will stay in touch with my host family and see them again someday. And of course, I will see my friends back in Richmond come January. Coming home changes things a little but the way I look at it, I will always have these memories to hold on to this experience.

I couldn’t have asked for a better time. I truly got to know my city, traveled around a little, made amazing friends and learned a lot about the culture, language and daily life in Argentina. I will always cherish this semester.

To the city that had me tapping out many days but excitedly back in the ring the next, I bid you “adios.” To my beloved Buenos Aires, goodnight. Te amo.

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