Wanderlust and Nostalgia


Almost exactly one year ago today, I left my beloved Alcalá de Henares and headed home. It was the end of a magnificent and life-altering four month stay, and though I was excited to reunite with family and friends, I was devastated to leave. These seem like very dramatic words, and they are, but it’s difficult for me to avoid bold terms when describing this particular adventure of mine. I had been dreaming of studying abroad in Spain and living with a host family for YEARS before I did it, and when the time finally came to actually get on a plane and go live the dream, I was terrified. It seemed like an insane leap of faith, and I was not at all confident that it would be as awesome as I’d been dreaming it would.

However, faithful readers of the blog (if any exist!) will know that I faced my fears, got on the plane, and lived the dream. And it really was like living a dream – during that semester, I saw incredible places, met incredible people, and created memories that I will forever cherish. It is one of my accomplishments that I’m most proud of. I realize that seems odd – getting to live in Europe and travel the continent for four months in a country that values siestas doesn’t sound particularly difficult. However, in going, I overcame a great deal of personal trepidation and reached way outside of my comfort zone. I crossed the ocean, made friends, took challenging classes during which I debated interesting current events and learned a great deal, all in Spanish, built a relationship with my host family, also in Spanish, made great friends, became a more capable traveler, and got a great deal bolder and more confident.

My time in Spain was a time filled with learning. The joy of the trip was interspersed with mistakes and stress. To say that every moment was enjoyable would be a lie, but to say that every moment was valuable is the complete truth. Studying abroad taught me so much, about the world around me and about myself. I fell in love with the city of Alcalá and the country of Spain, and it all still feels as though it happened yesterday.

Ever since I returned, I’ve felt periodic pangs of missing Alcalá, but this semester has been particularly hard. Many times, I look at the calendar and think, “This time last year, I was roaming the medina in Rabat (Morocco).” “This time last year I was watching the sun set over La Alhambra while I listened to beautiful music and was engulfed in dancing and merriment.” “This time last year I was exploring the Sunday market in Madrid.” I absolutely love my life in Norman, but it’s impossible for me not to miss the grand and glittering adventure that was my semester in Spain.

What all this boils down to is that I’m itching to go back. A large part of me wants to continue to branch out and see more of the world that I haven’t yet, but another large part aches to return to my second home in Spain. I would love to get to hug my host mom, eat tortilla and drink some tinto in Indalo, to paddle across the lake in el Parque Retiro, and to get to revisit all the places that are so close to my heart.

Sadly, my days studying abroad may be over, but there is a silver lining – graduation is coming soon, and once I get a job and start saving, I can begin to save and scheme my way back to Alcalá. If anyone is reading this who hasn’t studied abroad yet, please do me a favor and seriously consider it. Everyone who has studied abroad sings its praises, and they are absolutely telling the truth. Go, explore, learn, and don’t be surprised when you come home and immediately want to go back.

Islamaphobia and the West


Throughout the past several months, I have been disheartened to see that the fear of Islam, and of its practitioners, seems to be getting stronger and stronger in the United States. We like to think of our country as a cultural melting pot, accepting of people from all races and religions. Anyone willing to work hard who dreams of a better start will be embraced. Except that they definitely won’t, especially not if they’re wearing a hijab, it seems.

In reality, Islam is quite similar to Christianity. In my eyes, the moral basis of both religions appears to be very similar, and the Qur’an contains much of the Bible within it. Much as Christianity considers itself to be a continuation of Judaism, Islam considers itself to be an extension and perfection of Christianity. All three of these religions are Abrahamic, and I believe that if you look their past practices and into their specific beliefs, you will find many similarities – I certainly have.

None of this is to say that two groups need to be similar in order to get along. Mutual respect should not hinge upon similarity. However, it does make it look to me as though Christians and Muslims have much more to commune about than to fight about. It feels as though it should be easy for the two groups to get along, considering how much they have in common.

And yet. So many Americans, many of them Christians, fear and are threatened by Islam. More and more lately, I’ve been pondering this and questioning why. Part of it, I’m sure, comes from the fact that people feel comfortable pitting another group against their own – you feel closer to your ingroup when you belittle an outgroup. However, I think that a lot of it comes from politicians and public figures playing up the fear of Islam in order to make themselves seem more powerful and to get themselves elected.

I’ve had several conversations with a professor of mine, and we both agree that there’s more here than even meets the eye. I do not believe by any means that these politicians are creating this fear of Islam in many Americans. I think that this fear has existed all along, and they are simply stirring it up. Mistrust of Islam runs very deep, and I would like to investigate how exactly it all began. Because of this, I have decided to conduct my honors research project next semester on the roots and contemporary manifestations of Islamaphobia in the west. I would love to educate others, and myself, on the fact that Islam should be respected, and not feared, and that Muslims are just as valuable a part of this American melting pot as everyone else.

With many good books and articles by talented, engaged people, I hope to get at the roots of this problem. Hopefully, armed with this new knowledge, I can put a good foot forward and start combating Islamaphobia in any way that I can.

Epcot: the World Showcase


Over this spring break, I had the immense pleasure of visiting Disney World with my family. It’s funny, because I pride myself on going off-the-beaten-path and taking care to experience more than just the touristy side of new places. I want to immerse myself in the real culture and to blend in, not to stand at-odds with the amazing places I visit. Walt Disney World, in all honestly, stands a little at-odds with these tendencies: as vacations go, it’s up there on the touristy scale.

However, despite it’s cheese factor, to me, Disney really is magical. For one thing, I’m a fairly high-stress person, and the opportunity to spend a week at Disney with my family and best friend meant getting to take a week off of responsibility and to just focus on fun. That’s rare for me. For another thing, I think there’s something admirable about a place dedicated entirely to bringing people joy. From the perfectly engineered details of the place to the friendly employees to the massive media presence that they whole place is founded upon, it’s clear that Disney is carrying out their mission well. It was an amazing week, and it gave me some wonderful memories.

Now, you’re probably wondering why I’ve decided to ramble on about the wonders of Disney and what exactly this has to do with international events. We’re getting there! Because my favorite Disney park has always been Epcot, and my favorite part of Epcot has always been the World Showcase. If you haven’t been, the World Showcase is a long, circular walkway around a lake that features miniature versions of eleven countries from around the world. Each country’s area is themed to that country, filled with its cuisine, music, and even employees from that country. Walking through the showcase is like taking a mini trip around the world, all in a day. Obviously, it doesn’t beat experiencing these countries in real life, but there is something so cool about strolling from country to country and feeling immersed in so many exotic places so close together.

Some could, justifiably, argue that this showcase is guilty of reducing massive and diverse countries into a limited number of their most famous traits. This is true, but I like to think that Epcot is celebrating what makes each of the eleven countries they’ve chosen unique in the world. After having been to the U.K., Canada, France, Italy, and Morocco, I can honestly say that Disney does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of these places, and the fact that the employees in each country’s section are residents of that country makes it all the more awesome. Many people don’t have the means or opportunity to get to places like Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America, but a trip to Epcot can help them better appreciate all of these places, as well as getting to meet people who’ve lived there.

One of my biggest passions has always been learning about other cultures and traveling to new cities and countries. I love my own culture, but I’ve always been hungry to experience others. To me, Epcot is the best of this – it gives people a taste of what lies outside the U.S. and celebrates foreign countries for being uniquely great. I like to think that Epcot inspires other people to love and celebrate the international community. I know it inspires me.

4.1 Miles: The Modern Refugee Crisis


Sorry for the radio silence! This semester has been a bit of a beating, but I’m learning some awesome things and staying busy! Tonight, I had the immense pleasure of attending a screening of the documentary “4.1 Miles” and the panel talk that followed. “4.1 Miles” is a documentary about the refugee crisis in Europe, focusing on an island in Greece that sits just 4.1 miles across the sea from Turkey. The main focus of the film is one Greek man who takes several trips by boat into the see each day to rescue refugees.

This film brought tears to my eyes. The refugee crisis is often on my mind, but as a westerner with little actual exposure to it, it’s often easy to forget just how horrific the crisis is, as awful as that sounds. While watching this film, it was impossible for me to feel anything but deep sadness: sadness for the refugees fleeing brutal civil wars and losing family members in the process, sadness for this Greek man who is bearing so much of the weight of this crisis on his shoulders, and sadness that my country, like many others, is so apathetic in the face of this tragedy.

The film took place mainly on the man’s boat during rescue missions. It was harrowing to watch the soaking and terrified refugees flood the boat, clinging their children to them, crying for people that had drowned. It was heart-wrenching watching the Greek man’s eyes fill with tears as he lamented the world’s lack of response in the face of this tragic situation.

The film left me, understandably, shaken, but the three speakers did a magnificent job of transitioning from the emotional to the more analytical side of the crisis in a way that was tactful and engaging. Dr. Mitchell Smith, Dr. Mark Raymond, and graduate student Stefanie Neumieir all spoke eloquently about different facets of the crisis. Dr. Smith outlined the fact that, in the West, this crisis is often framed as a security issue, rather than a humanitarian crisis. Populist politics shape peoples perceptions, and nationalists play to people’s fears. All of this means that people view refugees as threats, rather than human beings who need help. Dr. Smith also spoke to the EU’s values of peace, tolerance, and rule of law, and of helping refugees. Some EU member countries, such as Germany and Sweden, have taken these values to heart, but many others are avoiding helping.

Dr. Raymond spoke about the fact that in the past, there were no such things as tightly controlled borders. Immigrants to the US simply had to cross the border. Sometimes, he said, if things were really strict, some immigrants might have been asked their names. He gave an impassioned speech about the fact that the world is NOT sharing the burden of this crisis equally – the countries accepting the most immigrants are often the poorest countries who are least equipped to help them. Many rich countries sit by and let them bear the burden themselves. This apathetic attitude forgets the fact that if the extreme influx of refugees becomes too much for these fragile countries to take and they fall into chaos, the problem is further compounded. Wealthy countries have the ability to do so much more than they are doing, but we seem so often to turn a blind eye.

Ms. Neumieir spoke specifically about the reception of refugees in Germany. Under Angela Merkel, Germany has been the most accepting European country toward immigrants, but that even their generosity is straining. Most notably, she mentioned the fact that most violence related to refugees is actually violence AGAINST refugees. This number, of course, is rarely reported on – people are much more content to see refugees as the enemies.

It is hard to find the words to describe how moving this film was, and how inspired I now feel to do everything I can to help refugees. These are people fleeing for their lives, relying on the help of strangers, losing friends and family members on their journey to safety. And they are facing slamming doors everywhere they go. I refuse to be afraid of them, and I refuse to turn a blind eye simply because I am far from most of the action. I am a citizen of the world first and a citizen of the United States second. Refugees, from any country, race, or religion, are people who desperately need our help. I’m going to do my best to lobby hard for the United States to provide that help.

Global Engagement Day: Study Abroad Story Time


Now that I have studied abroad twice, I was called to participate in a panel during Global Engagement Day! It’s only a little alarming to think that I’ve already made it here (we’re rounding out year three of this blog, which makes me feel old…) but an honor nonetheless. The panel I participated in was named Study Abroad Story Time, an informal panel of students who’ve been abroad mixed with students who have yet to go, swapping stories and advice. If there’s one thing I really love, especially now, it’s reminiscing about Spain. This panel was made for me!

Throughout my time abroad, I’ve generated more than a few transportation near-horror stories, and I told one or two on the panel. I had a great time listening to the stories of others – everyone has been so many amazing places, and several GEFs are incredibly gifted story tellers. And of course, I loved getting to share some of my tales from Spain and England. My favorite thing about the panel was actually the reactions I got to some of my stories. I had many great experiences in Spain, and one of the most unique was my time shadowing a resident in the emergency gynecology and obstetrics ward of the hospital in Alcalá. I’d forgotten quite how remarkable it was to get to see C-sections and babies be born in Spain until I got a stunned reaction to the story. I was feet from the king of Spain at one point. I had to wait to see the doctor until a criminal, flanked by two policeman, was finished in the one room in the free clinic. Getting to tell my crazy stories to others was a great reminder of how unique and amazing my experience was, and it made me ache to go back.

My other favorite part of the talk was getting to share my stories about my host family. I ended up being the only one at the table who had lived with a host family, and people were eager to hear about how it was. This was another element of my trip that I’d grown to take for granted – I forget that not everyone has the amazing opportunity to live with a sweet host mom and sister for four months in a cozy apartment in Madrid.

My travels have taken me to so many places and given me so many memories that I will cherish for a lifetime. Getting to spend a small part of my week sharing those sweet memories with other fellows was an absolute treat, and I can’t wait for more story-swapping next year!