Jess en France: In Retrospect

December 21, 2017

I’ve been home for about a week now and have had the time to reflect on these past four months. Studying abroad in Paris at one of the most challenging schools in France was difficult academically—in other words I was studying hard and still in fear of failing…But the learning component of study abroad was hardly based in the classroom but in the experience of making a life for myself in a country whose language I’m only learning to speak, whose culture I’m trying to assimilate into, and whose customs I’m trying to adopt. It was one of the most necessary experiences I’ve ever had when considering my growth as an independent person. It was amazing, simply put, but I wouldn’t be telling the whole truth if I didn’t also mention that it was incredibly challenging, both emotionally and mentally.

I hit some high highs but also some low lows. I know for sure that I got bit by the travel bug. In total I visited twelve cities, six countries, and had exposure to at least thirty different languages. I learned to drop everything and go explore other countries as well as navigate the difficulties of problem solving that come with the inevitable stress of travel. On the other hand, I experienced what it’s like to be alone and feel alone. Initially, I couldn’t communicate effectively with almost anyone and needed the patience both for myself and the process of getting to know people like I’ve been transported back to freshman year of college. The first few months, in this respect, were very difficult. But George Addair once said that everything you want is on the other side of fear, and I cannot emphasize more how daunting yet rewarding turning about-face to some of the fears I didn’t even know I had has been for me as I understand myself as a changing person. In other words, I grew up, even if it’s just a little bit.

Most importantly, my conception of the planet and humanity’s role in it has dramatically shifted after spending these months working with homeless refugees. One of my good friends, Jumah, which mean’s Friday’s prayer in Arabic, is a Syrian refugee I came to know closely. On Thursdays and Sundays, I would go out to the Porte de la Chapelle neighborhood in the outskirts of Paris with the Refugee Help Association at my university to distribute information packets concerning asylum seeking. Jumah would help me translate for some of the refugees who didn’t speak French or English. There’s a lot people want to tell you but agonize to say when they don’t have the capacity to communicate, and, having moved to a country whose language I could hardly speak, I could resonate. He would translate for me, and on my first day on the job, a man from Afghanistan had said that if I didn’t get him a tent to sleep in before the winter cold set in, he was going to die on the streets. My work with the refugees was not only a wake-up call to the inefficacy of current state asylum policies, but it was also a reminder of our common humanity—that humans are humans who want the same things, who, regardless of where they’re escaping from, will stand in front of me as I offer them help and ask for nothing more than the hope to survive tragedy. We are all refugees because refugees are humans, and humans are more than the categories into which we narrowly enclose them. So whether or not the refugee crisis can be solved, all I would hope to impart as a witness to the receiving end of this common hardship is the recognition that these individuals are no different and want no differently than you or me, and this message of humanity is only irretrievably lost if we make the conscious decision to look at them as somehow intrinsically different. My brief experience having met Jumah and the many other familiar faces at Porte de la Chapelle is a testament to the dormant humanity that I trust will slowly swing to life and come to the aid of those who need it most. But it rests in our hands to question why we stand where we stand and why we think how we think. It’s up to us.

As you might imagine, studying abroad is emotionally enduring, but, for me, it became what I made of it, and what I made for myself was a life in a corner of the world that just a few months ago I couldn’t have imagined I’d have navigated fruitfully. I made the friends who then turned into hard goodbyes and the memories that have become indelibly written into my timeline as a maturing young adult. I’m not sure when I’ll be back to Paris or France or Europe in general, but a part of my identity was formed there, and, although my time there as an undergrad is finished, I know I’ll be back. I’m sure it won’t be long.

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Jack in NZ: Alkaline

November 21, 2016

“Don’t feel bad for me. I think I’m, like, so pretty.”

“I am a hot-blooded fire and I am fearless.”

“It’s been a life-altering year. But I guess every year for everyone is a life-altering year.”

– Amy Schumer

After literal weeks of trying to come up with a post-abroad blog post, I’m taking my second copout. I’m still trying to make sense of the whole semester and tie a pretty little literary bow on the whole thing. Rest assured, it’s coming. But in the meantime, I need to publish something. And I’m running out of forms to experiment with. The one, of course, that I haven’t touched, is the blandly positive stereotypical travel blog. I’ve resisted this one all semester, agonizing over my posts, trying as best as I can to make something meaningful that I can be proud of. Now, I relent.

And my goodness was it enjoyable. There’s no literary risk involved, just relating my experience as simply as possible. No flourish, nothing over which to feel self conscious, nothing over which to agonize. It was easy, it was fun, it was positive.

And here I think lies the first lesson I’ve learned while abroad: basic stuff is kind of fun. Polo shirts are comfortable, Ke$ha is talented, Amy Schumer is funny. And more importantly, the people who like these things aren’t suffering from some sort of aesthetic-appreciation affliction, they’re just people, enjoying what life has to offer.

This is the Katy Perry of my blog posts, my Abercrombie, my Kevin Hart. And while any respectable critic would (rightly) dump on it, it’s upbeat and it’s fun and it’s positive, and who wants to disparage that?

Just because I don’t like it, doesn’t mean other people can’t enjoy it:

Finals were kind of hard. I had to cram for them in the two days before I took them because I procrastinated studying for basically the entire semester. My first final was for my environmental chemistry class. Because I did pretty well on my course assignments (my labs and homeworks and stuff), I only needed a 28% on the final to pass the class and get credit for the course. The format of the test allocated 20% of the possible points to each of the five sections of the class. Instead of studying all the material, I concentrated on the two sections I had taken notes on at the beginning of the year, because I thought that was a more efficient use of my time. When I got to the exam, I was relieved to see that the questions for those two sections represented what I had studied pretty well. I was even able to do some of the questions in other sections, because the chemistry involved was relatively simple and the problems didn’t require the specific knowledge I neglected while studying. I was confident I got the score I needed, and I even got to leave the exam a little bit early. What a relief!

After I took my environmental chemistry exam, I headed back home to relax for a little bit and have a cup of coffee before diving into the study materials for my conservation biology class. For this test, I needed to get about a 50% to pass, so the stakes were much higher. I studied for a few hours, and mostly concentrated on big picture conservation priorities, as well as something called PVA. PVA stands for population viability analysis, and I knew there was going to be a question about it on the exam, so I studied it extra hard. I went to bed pretty early, so I could get a jump on studying before I took the exam the next afternoon.

The next day I woke up and went to the library. I managed to find a desk, and my friend Amy came to join me. Amy was in the same class as me and we helped each other study. Thanks Amy!

After reviewing our notes for a while, it was time to take the test. Now, I should mention, the university where I studied releases past exams, so students have a rough idea of what the questions will be. Every year the last three questions are pretty much the same (there’s one for each of the major sections of the course), which makes it easy to study for the exam, but the first question has more variation. The previous exams had first questions that were mostly about how to prioritize protected areas for animals. Because we really focused on marine protected areas in class, I was pretty sure that the question would be about them. There were also questions on what to do about specific conservation problems, like an oil spill, or what to do about the endangered yellow-eyed penguin. I thought (because they used the penguin question last year), there was no way they would use it again this year, so I didn’t really study for it.

Boy was that a mistake! When I opened up the exam, the first question was about the cheeky aquatic birds. Oops! Thankfully (because I did a lab report on the big problems facing the species), I was able to do well enough on the question. I also was able to answer the PVA question pretty well, all my studying sure paid off!

The last question was about how to attract local species to a town. I don’t think I did so well on that one. I knew the ‘what to do’, but I don’t think I explained the ‘why to do it’ enough. Hopefully I’ll get a good enough grade to pass!

Finals were pretty stressful, but after I finished I felt so good. I packed up all the stuff in my room, and gave away the things I couldn’t take with me. Then I made a tasty dinner with a steak from my freezer I’d been procrastinating cooking for a few months. It was a great last meal.
Then I bought some nice New Zealand craft beers from my local shop, and went to hang out with the best friends I made while abroad.

We didn’t do very much. I played a game of chess with my friend Noah, and talked with Amy and Sarah. We drank the beers and ate ice cream and had a relaxing time. I left around midnight after hugging them each goodbye and promising to stay in touch. That should be pretty easy with Amy and Sarah because they both go to Richmond. For Noah it will be more difficult, he goes to school up in Boston. We both said we might visit each other’s schools, but we didn’t make any firm plans. I went to bed feeling pretty excited for my trip the next day.

I had to get up really early to catch the airport shuttle, but it was worth it. All my transfers went smoothly and I was on the plane to Singapore in no time.

So long New Zealand! You were OMFG awesome!


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