Meet Juana!

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

Hello again and welcome back to University College Utrecht! Today I’ll be introducing you to one of the people I live with, Juana! Juana is the most generous person I have met in all of my time abroad! She is hilarious, kind and always accommodating. When my phone was stolen on one of my trips, Juana was the first person to help me out. She lent me her phone charger and her old phone and helped me out tremendously! I am so thankful to have met Juana and I want you to be able to meet her too, so today I am going to introduce her to you! Juana is from Madrid, Spain. Her favorite color is green and her favorite food is tortilla. Her major is something in the social sciences, perhaps anthropology, politics or psychology, but now I will let her tell you about herself!

Me: So why did you decide to come to UCU and study the liberal arts and sciences?

Juana: The first time I heard about the program I thought it was very cool! I don’t know what to do, because I am genuinely interested in a lot! I wanted freedom to try many different subjects, because I’m really interested in it all!

Me: What are you really excited to learn about?

Juana: I am super excited for Comparative Politics. I used to not think that was what I was into, but now I am really excited for it. I used to think it didn’t affect my life, but now I want to study it and combine it with anthropology, so I can go between people and their politicians.

Me: What changed that now you are excited to learn about politics?

Juana: As I grow up, I want to know more, like what is going on. This past year has been crazy in Spain and I want to know all that is going on and have an opinion. The events in Spain (Catalonian Referendum) have affected me a lot more than I expected. The situation was handled wrong in so many ways. The government sucks; they didn’t have any dialogue; they just did what they wanted. It would have been easy if they had talked and got on the same page. I want to be a person that can contribute to dialogue and work with people across differences.

Me: Have any experiences in your personal life contributed to this too?

Juana: Yes, people can be so closed minded sometimes. I’ve struggled all my life with that in Spain. I’m from Argentina originally. I say I’m Spanish, because that’s where I’ve lived almost all of my life, but in Spain, I don’t feel Spanish. When I have conversations with people, sometimes they will insult me just because I am an immigrant. There is a problem with that. Some Spanish people just repeat what they hear that immigrants take jobs from the real Spanish and stuff. The Spanish criticize South Americans, especially if their skin is dark. I try to discuss with these people, but sometimes I just don’t know what to say. I want to learn about politics and anthropology, so I can understand all perspectives to help open people’s minds to view each other and their viewpoints fairly. I want to work with people and engage with them through discussion, so maybe more people can learn to be open-minded!

Me: With that goal in mind, is there a certain type of job you would like?

Juana: I have no idea yet! I want to do something that can make a little bit of an impact in someone’s life. I want to work with people and enjoy what I do!

Me: Is there anything you would like to say to people in the U.S. or Valpo?

Juana: I want to tell people to try to have an open mind. It can be hard, but an easy way to do that is to travel and see different things! Then, you might be able to open yourself up to all possibilities!


Why Everyone Should Travel Solo

Author: Janelle Bouman

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

One of the main reasons why I chose to study abroad was because I love to travel and experience new places.  Some of my best adventures have come from traveling alone.  I never would have thought I’d be brave enough to take a trip by myself until I actually did just that for the first time.  I’ve been on a few solo trips by now: a year and a half ago, when I was 19, I traveled through France by myself for a week.  This semester abroad, I’ve added solo adventures to Copenhagen during my fall break, and a long weekend in Berlin.  I sometimes get moderately shocked reactions when people learn that I’ve traveled by myself, but I think everyone should do this!  The more experienced I get, the more comfortable and enjoyable it becomes. I cannot recommend the experience highly enough to my fellow travelers.  Here are a few of the reasons why:


You have to get out of your comfort zone

This is the obvious reason, but also probably the most important one.  Traveling by yourself is certainly intimidating, especially if you’ve never done it before.  But I’m a strong advocate for going out there and trying the things that might scare you.  Before I left on my first solo trip, I was questioning why I had decided to do this and wondering if I would actually be up for it.  It turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life.  I guarantee that traveling by yourself will be a little scary, but also inevitably a rewarding challenge and learning experience.

Your itinerary (and your wallet) are completely under your own control

I love museums, castles, and cathedrals.  I enjoy simply wandering to take in the sights of a city, stopping to listen to street music, and taking way too many pictures of scenic views.  I don’t mind being out in the rain or walking long distances.  I also prefer spending as little money as I possibly can.  When I am by myself, I don’t have to worry about balancing any of these things against anyone else’s interests or wishes, because my day and my pace are entirely up to me.  And the best part is, I am completely free to change my plans on a whim, sometimes resulting in the very best of experiences.

You learn how to figure out things for yourself

Traveling plans never go perfectly, and figuring out how to handle these situations on your own is just part of it.  I’ve run into cancelled trains that left me scrambling to not become stranded somewhere, language barriers with no one to translate, and bad weather that ruined an all-outdoor itinerary.  You don’t know what sorts of situations you will run into while traveling, but you do know you will learn to adapt to them.  By yourself, there is a lot less pressure when things don’t work out like you wanted.  Solo travel gives you the experience to handle anything that goes wrong with confidence rather than panic.

You become comfortable spending time by yourself

I’ve definitely heard people express concerns about getting lonely while traveling by themselves.  As an extremely introverted person, I probably benefit from (and need!) the alone time of solo traveling more than most people would.  But whether you are the same way or not, being comfortable in only your own company is a valuable skill to learn.  Traveling by yourself gives you plenty of time to think, reflect, read, or do whatever makes you happy when you are on your own.  What better way to do this than by visiting somewhere fantastic?

You get to meet new people

Alone time is important, but so is making friends, and you can balance that when you are traveling by yourself.  When you are with others, it’s tempting to stick with the familiarity of only the people you know.  By yourself, it’s much easier to break out of that shell and meet new people.  Youth hostels are designed for connecting with people: you room with complete strangers, and the buildings usually have hang-out areas, game rooms, and a restaurant or bar.  In Copenhagen, my hostel roommates were other university-age women from all over the world.  Many travelers who stay in hostels are specifically looking to meet other travelers!

It’s a great self-confidence builder

After returning from my first trip by myself, I felt that if I could do that, I could do anything!  Successfully navigating planes and trains in another country is exhilarating, and a huge self-confidence boost.  I certainly felt more confident moving to the Netherlands for a semester because I already had experience traveling in other countries by myself.  If you like traveling, I highly recommend stepping out of your comfort zone and giving a solo trip a try.  It will be a valuable learning experience that you won’t forget!

Meet Nadège!

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands 

Hello again! Welcome back to the Netherlands and specifically, my flat, as today I will be introducing you to one of my unitmates! I am so excited to introduce you to Nadège, because she is one of the most welcoming people and the nicest friend! Nadège is a native Belgian as her home is Brussels. She is studying law and anthropology with a minor in art history! Now, instead of boring you with my description of her, I’ll let Nadège tell you about herself!

Me: Why did you come to UCU to study the liberal arts and sciences?

Nadège: Well, I would really like to work across disciplines. Combing law and anthropology seemed like a great choice based on my interests. I would really like to work with indigenous populations, the environment, and with human rights. The liberal arts and sciences allowed me to explore and learn about all of these things!

Me: Cool! How did you get interested in working with indigenous populations?

Nadège: When I was 14 a guy came to our lecture from a village and talked about how they are trying to fight big companies that want to take their land. From this experience, I knew I wanted to do anthropology, because learning about their culture and the preservation of it was so cool! But I knew I need something heavier in my background. I tried politics and law and I loved them! Law is my favorite now and with it I hope that one day I can be a legal expert working locally with indigenous peoples to help preserve their identity, culture, and protect their rights. Culture is so cool and I really want to help preserve it for places that have one. Coming from Belgium, I never felt like I had a culture and so I realize how special it is to have a culture and I want to protect that!

Me: You never felt like you had a culture? What do you mean?

Nadège: Belgium is such a new country; it was only formed in 1830! It doesn’t have a long history. Plus, the division between French and Flemish speakers in our country really hurts the ability to have a unifying culture! But, when I see indigenous peoples they have such a long history of tradition and culture and I want to help sustain that, because I have never felt that so strongly. The only time I really feel a cultural connection to other Belgians is at Christmas. Europe was super touched by Christianity and a lot of our events have to do with that. To be honest, I don’t really know what Christmas means in Christianity, but for me, Christmas always had a feeling of being connected to my community. I feel connected to the past and the people around me. But that is it! Culturally, I want to feel as connected to other Belgians as I do at Christmas all the time!

Me: What do you think created a feeling of never having a culture for you?

Nadège: We were always influenced by big countries. I actually know more about French politics than Belgium ones! We are like a transitional country I feel. All the artists have to go through France, not us, like Stromae! Lots of people think he is from Paris, but he is from my city, Brussels! Artists are immediately related to the Netherlands or France. We can’t really make something ours because it always goes through others to be heard by the world. Also, we are super international. I love that we are so international and multicultural, but also there are so many influences that we can’t make our own. It’s bad, but it’s also good. I admire the beauty of living in a deep cultural tradition, but I do love Belgium and being able to help construct our culture! Like we love to laugh and live life! We really relate to that and it is our attempt to create a national identity to be proud of!

Me: So how would you like to use this to contribute to the world?

Nadège: I want to help preserve culture, because I know how unconnected someone can feel when they don’t have the tie of culture connecting them with others. But beyond that, I want to help open debate between indigenous cultures and the international community. Indigenous communities aren’t always right. But I want to be a part of the debate and discussion to let those cultures live!

Me: I love your perception on culture! So, anything that you would like to say to the culture and people in the U.S. or Valpo?

Nadège: People should be proud of identity and culture and cherish it! Be proud to be in the US where there are so many people from other places. The diversity is so cool and can create a new culture! On se construit par notre histoire et celle des autres. C’est la beauté de notre monde. (trans. We build ourselves by our history and that of others. That is the beauty of our world.)

The Ten Differences Between France and The United States

Blogger: Skye Schoedel

Location: La Rochelle, France

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Cycling in the Netherlands

Author: Janelle Bouman

Location: Utrect, Netherlands 

Cycling in such a bicycle-friendly place has been one of my greatest joys of living in Utrecht, Netherlands.  The Dutch are known for their bicycles, and not without good reason – there are more bicycles than there are people in this country!  I bought my own bicycle (or “fiets” in Dutch) just a few days after arriving in Utrecht for the semester, because cycling is absolutely essential to life in the Netherlands.  I ride my bike to the supermarket for groceries and to the train station when I travel places.  For many destinations in town, it’s actually faster to cycle there than it would be to take a car!  My Dutch friends used to cycle to high school every day, sometimes as far as an hour each way.  In the Netherlands, bicycles are not just a means of transportation, they are a way of life.

In Utrecht, I’ve learned pretty quickly to always check for cyclists before crossing the bike paths – something that would never be a concern in my American hometown because we don’t have bike paths or cyclists.  I’ve learned to carefully lock and unlock my bike without knocking over the one parked next to it and starting a domino effect with the hundred others nearby (a valuable skill).  Most of all, I’ve learned that it is no exaggeration when you hear people say that there are bicycles everywhere in the Netherlands.  You can’t step outside without someone cycling past you.  In town, it seems parked bicycles take up every bit of available space lining the canals and in front of stores.  I’ve even spotted one parked up on somebody’s 3rd floor balcony.

With so many bikes in town, you can imagine it often gets hard to find a parking spot.  One of the bicycle garages at the central train station has space for 4,200 bicycles, packed closely together in double-decker rows.  Another garage fits 6,000 and will be expanded to 12,500 by the end of next year, which will make it the world’s largest bicycle parking garage.  Even with the space that is currently available, sometimes I have arrived at the station with my bicycle, only to be met with a “FULL” sign in front of one of these garages.  That certainly gives you a sense of how ubiquitous bicycle travel is for the Dutch.

I enjoy cycling immensely as a form of both exercise and leisure, but I have to make a conscious effort to keep up the “leisure” part of this when the town is so crowded with bicycles.  One crisp fall morning, I decided to take a bike ride to a castle west of Utrecht in order to get out of the city a little bit.  It took around an hour (16 kilometers) to get there, but never once along the journey did I have to worry about there not being a bike path for a particular stretch of road.  Sometimes the cyclists simply share a lane with the cars, sometimes the outside edge of the road forms a bicycle lane, and sometimes there are separate bicycle paths running parallel to the road.  Anywhere it is possible to go at all, it is possible to go by bike – that’s the incredible bicycle-friendly infrastructure of the Netherlands.

My ride to the castle was incredibly beautiful, providing a scenic glimpse of so many aspects of the Netherlands.  It started off through the old city center of Utrecht, onto the more modern part of town, then past canals, boats, and even a windmill.  The ride was flat and easy; my Dutch friends were completely right when they advised me, “You won’t need a bicycle with gears.  You’ll never encounter a hill here!”  An impressive bicycle bridge that only opened a few months ago (a further testament to the bicycle infrastructure), deposited me across the river on the far side of town, where peaceful Dutch suburbs lead into idyllic countryside.  Along the final stretch I had cows keeping me company, separated from the bike path by only a canal.

Kasteel de Haar, my destination, was so worth the trip!  This beautiful castle was originally a medieval fortification, with the current buildings being a nineteenth-century reconstruction.  It’s also completely awesome for a castle to have a bicycle parking lot, as though everyone rides their bicycles there on any regular day.  I really enjoyed the museum inside the castle and the gardens surrounding it, but what will stick with me the most from this day is the bicycle ride I took to get there.  You see the world at a different pace when you are riding a bicycle.  You can get somewhere quicker than walking, but there is so much more to take in than when you drive.  It’s easy to feel at peace in the regular rhythm of pedaling and the changing scenery.  The Dutch know this, and I know that I will continue to learn a lot from their cycling ways.

Healthcare in Costa Rica

Author: Zoe Henkes

Location: San Jose, Costa Rica

As a pre-med student, I feel sort of obligated to write about health and the healthcare system here in Costa Rica.  After all, one of the main reasons I chose to study abroad here was to learn about Costa Rican healthcare through the INTL 335 course, “Sociology and Ethics of Health and Health Care in Costa Rica” taught at Casa Adobe by Heidi with the opportunity of an internship in a healthcare setting.

To start, I feel like some people might assume that Costa Rica has a lower standard of health than the United States, maybe due to its location as a Central American nation and stereotypes based on its neighbors like Nicaragua.  While Costa Rica is comparatively “poorer” than the United States in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), it actually boasts similar or even better health statistics.  Furthermore, Costa Ricans pride themselves on their good hygiene.  Especially because it can get so hot here, they like to be very clean, bathing once a day at the least!

Next, the Costa Rican healthcare system itself consists of a social security system called the Caja Costariccense de Seguro Social (Caja or CCSS for short).  The three principles of this program are equity, solidarity, and universality.  Workers and employers pay a fixed percentage of their incomes into this system, in return for standardized healthcare services.  Because nearly everyone is required to pay into the system, nearly everyone receives the healthcare services provided by the Caja.  Two of the main complaints with the system include long wait times to be seen by a doctor and not being able to choose which doctor to see (it is generally whichever doctor is on staff at the time).  Nevertheless, there are private practices in which patients can be seen quickly and see their own doctors in return for paying extra.

Additionally, there is a greater focus on preventative health here.  Inadvertently, the long lines at the Caja for medical attention serve as an incentive to keep people healthy.  In a sense, if they stay healthy, they won’t have to come see the doctor as much!  There is also a public health officer at each local clinic, called an EBAIS, that go around to each house in the neighborhood to do preliminary checkups, provide care to children and women in their child-bearing years, and take data on or educate the public about current diseases spreading around.  Furthermore, an EBAIS occasionally organizes public rallies or other educational events to promote healthful habits in the community.  I was lucky enough to participate in a health parade organized by a local EBAIS, where volunteers, school children, and healthcare professionals marched to raise awareness about healthy lifestyles.  At the end of the parade, there were various tents with informational brochures about child development, healthy relationships, dental hygiene, you name it!  There was also an instructor leading Zumba, which is a fun way for community members to get involved in regular exercise programs.

Finally, if you do get sick while studying abroad, don’t freak out!  At least here in Costa Rica, you will be cared for in good hands.  While in Nicaragua, I got a bad upper respiratory infection.  When we returned to Costa Rica, I was reluctant to see a doctor because I was stubborn and a little nervous.  The cough persisted, so I finally went in.  Heidi took me to the private doctor that she usually brings students to if they get sick.  The appointment itself was 25,000 colones, which amounts to about $45.  The doctor was extremely respectful and knowledgeable, and even spoke English, which I didn’t expect.  Furthermore, doctors in Costa Rica get lots of pharmaceutical samples, so if they have what you need, they’ll give them to you without an extra fee, which was great!  Additionally, if your condition doesn’t get better, you can go in again free of charge, which is a way to encourage patients to be attentive to their own health and not wait until conditions get worse and worse.

Overall, the Costa Rican healthcare system surprised me in its level of care and expertise.  The quality of care given throughout the country is very high, and the fact that care is almost “universal” is something to aspire to.  While there are obvious downfalls with the system, the overall idea that healthcare is a human right is something that is very important to me.  As a future practitioner, I’d like to integrate these principles of preventative health in my own practice and promote more widespread and equalized care for my future patients.

In all, I think that my experiences here in Costa Rica have opened my eyes to other models of healthcare that I didn’t know could function so well.  Likewise, they have helped me develop a more extensive understanding of what really goes into providing quality healthcare and how I can implement these practices in my own career.



My Classes at UCU

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

As this exchange opportunity is through Christ College, in the Netherlands I have been taking humanities courses. Now that I am only about a month away from the end of my semester, I thought it would be a good time to describe the impact these courses have had on my time here at UCU. My three humanities courses are Origins and Crises in the Global Economy (economic history), Introduction to Law, and World Philosophies. All of these courses have underlined why I came to UCU in the first place. Reflecting back to my first blog, I wanted to come to University College Utrecht because of the community. It is not like any other study abroad experience where you just immersed in a culture, but instead UCU is a true international community. In my classes, this international setting is only stressed more.

In my economic history class, we do not focus simply on the effects of globalization for the USA or for Europe, but for the globe. We have talked about places from Zambia to Thailand. I consider myself well versed at least in US History, but learning about the economic situations of so many countries was eye opening. Not because I didn’t know such complex things happened abroad, or that I was ignorant to the rest of the world before, but now through this class I have started to see how everything that happens in a certain country or economy has repercussions all around the world. Though we may not realize it, every dollar we spend affects people around the world. Just like UCU, this class has shown me how the economy is an international community too. Even though when we buy one gallon of milk at the local grocery store we may not feel connected to the world, the mechanisms it took to get you that gallon of milk are in fact global, involving everyone from to China to New Zealand.

Learning about the judicial process in other countries in my Intro to Law class has also been a great experience. Whether in the US, UK, the Netherlands, or another country, it is cool to see that even though a system may be different, it can still work very well. Different types of law have developed in history, but that doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than another.

However, my favorite class to demonstrate this international atmosphere is my World Philosophies class. On the first day of class, my professor pointed out the title. She said, “this class is called World Philosophies, not World Philosophy for a very good reason. I will not present you with the truth about a topic called World Philosophy, but instead a worldwide array of different philosophies.” Her point was that there is not some overarching structure of World Philosophy that already has been established. But instead, each person we study and each viewpoint we read about, just contributes a piece to a global compilation of thought. All the philosophies we look at are just different ways of thinking that have been published about. They are not all encompassing, but instead represent a variety of different mindsets about how to exist in the world.

This was powerful to me. This class is not absolutely authoritative, but instead inquisitive. It is where questioning minds meet to discuss their own ideas. For example, as part of this class, we held a dialogue between a Zen Buddhist, Dogen, and Plato discussing what we thought was the ultimate goal in life (See link below). It is wonderful to adapt and take on someone’s ideas as your own. I had to argue as Plato in this role. Instead of seeing his concepts as external to myself, I was forced to internalize them and ultimately I understood them better. Through internalizing others’ arguments, we grow ourselves and when we are faced which such different opinions like those in an international setting, we grow all the more. Through being at UCU and in my international classes, I have grown in my understanding towards others. I hope by reading my blog, you too can develop a broader understanding for others, that only an international environment can grow. Understanding others is so important in the world, especially now, and UCU’s classes have helped my understanding flourish.


Rain, Rain, Go Away

Author:  Zoe Henkes

Location:  San Jose, Costa Rica

One thing that anyone should absolutely know about traveling to Costa Rica anytime from about May to November, is that it rains.  It rains a lot. It’s different from the climate in Valpo where winter weather generally lasts from November to March and summer weather from May to September, Costa Rican summer (AKA the dry season) generally lasts from November to April and winter (the rainy season), from May to October.  I’ve been wanting to write about this for a while since it is such a large part of life in Costa Rica, but I thought now would be the most appropriate time since we are finally at the tail end of the rainy season (fingers crossed).

That being said, it’s important to note that during this season, it rains every day.  That is no exaggeration.  It also rains a lot—like cats and dogs, except that if you try and directly translate that into Spanish, you will get some weird looks because that isn’t a real phrase here.  Additionally, the rain generally falls during the afternoon, but it can rain in the morning or nighttime, as well.  One of the nice things, however, is that if it rains in the morning, it usually doesn’t rain again that same day.

With all of that in mind, an umbrella and rain jacket should be at the top of your list of packing essentials for traveling to Costa Rica during this season.  Some packing lists might lump these together as an “either/or” suggestion, more or less, but in my opinion, they are both necessary.  Especially as a student, you’ll be walking to and from different places with a backpack a lot, so you’ll likely appreciate both in preventing all of your schoolwork from getting soaked.

Furthermore, if you like to wear rainboots, those might also be helpful.  Although I brought them, I don’t like wearing them on a daily basis, but they also could help you avoid coming home each day with wet shoes and feet.  Another thing to pay attention to when picking out rainboots to bring is how heavy they are for two reasons: 1) packing, since you are only allowed to bring so much on the airplane and 2) the heat, because it could be just as bad to walk around with boots that make your feet sweat profusely as it is walking around with wet feet from the rain.

Lastly, this is not to deter you from coming to Costa Rica during the rainy season at all—Costa Rica is a beautiful country, rain or shine!  In fact, I find that the rain can be quite soothing and exhilarating at the same time.  It also helps to keep the temperature reasonable (usually around 70-75 degrees Fahrenheit during the day), because the cloud cover provides a little barrier from the harsh sunrays.  Overall, hopefully after reading this post, you know a little more about Costa Rican climate, and will be even more prepared than I was, if you are planning on traveling here!

Experiencing New Cultures

Author: Rachel Silcox

Location: Utrecht, Netherlands

One of the reasons I wanted to study abroad  was traveling. I wanted to go lots of places and to see the world! But as I travel more, I keep finding the dynamic between the traveler and the host to be more and more interesting, so let me try to show you what I have learned through a metaphor.

Over the summer, one of my professors taught me that it is impossible to measure a system without inherently changing it. If you want to measure the temperature of a liquid, you stick a thermometer in and read the temperature. But actually, by inserting the thermometer in the liquid, some of the heat that was in the water has transferred to the thermometer. That heat was taken out of the system and that has permanently changed it. Now, one thermometer reading will not significantly change the temperature of a normal sized system. But imagine we have an insulated cup of boiling water. If we leave the system by itself, it will continue to stay piping hot for a very long time. But if we jam it full of thermometers, each which take a small amount of heat. We have now dramatically changed the system we are measuring. We may think at first that it is good to have so many measurement readings, but in the very processes of measuring so many times, we have eroded the heat that was there originally.

I think traveling and tourism can be exactly like this. We are like a thermometer. We want to experience a place and the people by dipping ourselves into the environment momentarily, enjoying what a place has to offer, and allowing it to change us, in whatever small way. The thermometer takes some heat from the system, in the same way that we take back home some of the experiences of that place. But this is not a one way exchange from a system with endless amounts of heat. Eventually, the thermometers take all the heat that they were trying to measure. When we take a small part back with us, we take it away from the place we visited. Tourists and travelers can slowly chip away at a places’ culture and traditions until it is so eroded that only a flimsy caricaturized stereotype is left standing. Hundreds of vendors sell the same three things that a place is supposedly known for. The depth of culture and tradition that stood behind a traveler’s experience from long ago is no longer there, it was eaten away by those who wanted to take a bit away with them. The heat that once made that system special is gone.

Recognizing this, it is easy to see why people may not want to be especially hospitable or caring to us as travelers. It is easier to see that as travelers and hosts we are in a unique position, each vulnerable to each other. In realizing this vulnerability, it is important for us to travel with a new mindset, one of preservation and understanding. We should seek to be in the culture, instead of around it.

In my recent travels to Italy and Germany, I have tried to be in the culture instead of around it and typically I enjoyed myself all the more. In Germany, I enjoyed eating some traditional lentils and spaetzle from a delicious authentic restaurant. I walked down the bustling cobblestone streets listening to the German equivalent of a hipster singing and playing the guitar. As soon as he finished, some German middle school girls start cheering and screaming and of course then some German adults walked by and rolled their eyes. I went to the Deustche Oper to see the opera Aida. I loved how when I got up to let an old German woman move past me to her seat she patted my hand like a grandma and said, “Danke schӧen.” I think these experiences of being part of the culture give depth to other experiences like visiting the Reichstag or buying lots of pretzels. By merging these two together, travelers and hosts can equally enjoy each other’s company.

In Italy, driving up the ridiculous mountain and coastal roads also gave me a taste of being in the culture. Numerous times we accidentally took the long way, but we enjoyed it more. I loved walking around the beautiful roads of Erice and interacting with the people there. At one restaurant, we sat down and a little boy, not more than four gave me my breadstick, smiled, and then shyly ran away. The rest of our meal comprised of laughing as the same boy would continually walk up to our table and stare at us, but as soon as we looked at him, he darted away. Eventually, his mom yelled at him in Italian. I’m not sure what she said, but it didn’t seem to deter him that much.

These small interactions, these authentic moments, I think are what create the basis for sustainable and respectful travel. Traveling can be made of both observing the culture and appreciating it. But I think when we take an extra step to interact authentically with the people and places we explore, we travel, not as gawkers or tourists, but as equals who seek understanding. For me, this type of travel produces the best memories, and I think for the host culture, the best preservation.

Life Update: The Final Countdown

 Author: Jessica Hanson

 Location: Newcastle, Australia

Howdy friends!

I can’t believe I am already saying this, but that time of year has come: classes are over, all my assignments are finished, and I am in extreme study-mode to prepare for my finals over the next couple weeks. In 14 days, my responsibilities here at the University of Newcastle will officially be completed….and about a week later I will be home!

As the end of the semester draws near, I have started reflecting on all the things I have accomplished so far, as well as the things I didn’t. Every once in a while I get a bit disappointed thinking about the things I wish I had gotten to do (Thailand, New Zealand, Uluru, Frasier Island, Daintree Rainforest, the list goes on)…. But then I realize that four months in general is nowhere near enough time to see all the amazing things Australia has to offer without also having to balance being a responsible student. That being said, I have to remember all of the amazing things I HAVE done- between starting my trip with scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef, seeing Tasmania and Melbourne over spring break, and getting involved with various activities around Newcastle, I would definitely say it has been a successful semester. I wish I could do it all, but I have to accept that I have made the best out of the time I’ve had- and will definitely have to make the most out of the time I have left!

What an absolutely beautiful day we had!

Before I go hide in a hole and study for finals, I wanted to give everyone a small update on what I’ve been doing since I last checked in. Due to my dwindling financial situation (proven by the fact that I have officially reached the poor-college-student status of living off of ramen…), I decided that in lieu of buying more plane tickets to other places, I would treat myself to local adventures instead. The first of these was going whale-watching up in Port Stephens (student tickets are only about $40 USD so it was an opportunity I definitely couldn’t miss!) Living in Wisconsin, I obviously am nowhere near the ocean, and thus have no opportunity whatsoever to see whales and dolphins (at least not in the wild– sorry Shedd, you don’t really count!)

My excitement for this trip was definitely proven by my excited squeal and mashing my face up against the window like a 5-year-old when I saw my first dolphin next to the boat (if only I had that moment on video so you guys could all get a good laugh at me). October is the end of whale-watching season, so we were nervous we weren’t going to see any- thankfully, that wasn’t the case! It was such a magnificent experience to see whales and dolphins just hanging out and having a good time in the water 😀 Unfortunately, I did not get any good pictures, but here’s at least a little proof that I’m not lying!

There she is, right in the middle!
Notice the dolphin up-close in the bottom right corner 🙂
Perhaps a little better view? (not sharks I promise!)

After the cruise, we also took a detour to hike up the beautiful Mt. Tomaree and get gorgeous views above the water (by “hike” I mean a 15 minute walk up man-made stairs.) We ended up seeing another momma whale and her calf hanging out in the water just below us, so we actually got pretty cool views from above! Whales or not though, this was such a perfect and lovely day taking a break from classes and just enjoying the beautiful land that is Australia! This one is an experience I will remember forever 🙂

The next treat to myself turned out to be an incredibly inspiring opportunity: attending the Beyond Plastic Pollution Conference in Sydney this past Monday and Tuesday. I’ve wanted to attend an environmental conference forever, so when I saw it posted on Facebook, I knew I had to go. Attending this conference was an investment I decided to make as an educational opportunity beyond the normal scope of what I learn in the classroom. I listened to speakers for two days talking about not just the depressing havoc that plastic pollution is wreaking on the environment, but more importantly how people and organizations are investigating real solutions to tackle this issue. It was a bit unfortunate that all these programs are based in Australia so I can’t join the movement, but maybe I’ll even start one like these when I get home! ;D

Image result for beyond plastic pollution
Cocklebay Wharf Conference Venue Day 1
Australian National Maritime Museum Conference Venue Day 2
For a laugh, here’s my Snapchat from the train station before the conference….
(don’t worry, I recycled it!)

Over the course of the semester, I occasionally found myself worrying that I was missing out on opportunities or not making the most of my experience. But in the end, I realized that my study abroad experience doesn’t have to fulfill anyone’s expectations other than my own- it should only be exactly what I wanted to get out of it. For me, the best way that I have taken advantage of studying abroad has been taking the time to invest in my life and myself. Yeah, school and exploring is pretty cool, but I came into study abroad knowing there were a lot of things in life I wanted to figure out. I’ve grown more confident, I have a better understanding of my values, my priorities and my goals, and I have a different perspective on my place in the world. Most importantly, Australia has ignited my passion for environmentalism and inspired me to come back to America ready to change the world. I know I’m not quite done with the semester yet, but I know I’ll leave proud of what Australia has given me for the rest of my life.

Cheers friends, I’ll see you in a few weeks!

Jessica <3

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