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Two CIEE Study Abroad Alumni Make Documentary about South African Comedy

Meg & hannah

The Alumni of the Month for November are Hannah Rafkin and Meg Robbins, CIEE Study Abroad alumni and recent Bowdoin College graduates who studied in Cape Town, South Africa in 2015. After an amazing experience abroad, the two friends fantasized about returning to Cape Town in a meaningful way. Two years later, they are back in South Africa, working on a documentary about the stand-up comedy scene and how it’s bringing new means of expression for speakers of lesser-known languages in the country. We interviewed them to learn more about their exciting documentary and how study abroad inspired the project:

What attracted you to Cape Town?
We both attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine – a small liberal arts school of 1,800 students. The University of Cape Town (UCT) is a large research university in a major city, so we were excited to experience pretty much the polar opposite of what we were used to. We also both majored in English and wanted an opportunity to study non-European and non-American literature written in English. Beyond that, we were obviously attracted by the beauty of the city. The city/mountain/ocean combination definitely appealed to us. But that was an added benefit –we were definitely looking to broaden our perspectives and learn about the history and the current challenges South Africa faces. We wanted to have conversations that we wouldn’t ordinarily have at Bowdoin, or any other place for that matter.

What did learning abroad offer that you could not have received on campus?
The most powerful learning experiences we had in Cape Town were not in the classroom. We were lucky enough to experience the start of the #FeesMustFall campaign, a student-led protest that took South Africa’s universities by storm and has continued to evolve since. UCT students organized to demand their right to free education and to protest the treatment of black students and workers. This movement was literally unfolding at our doorstep. One of our resident advisors was arrested for peacefully protesting and spent the night in jail. Students held posters with slogans that their parents’ generation used in anti-apartheid protests. Our finals ended up getting delayed, but it was absolutely worth it to be immersed in this political moment. Witnessing political action and dialogue on such a high level was a unique experience that we knew we’d never get in Brunswick, Maine.

About the project:
As longtime comedy fans, we watched a lot of stand-up while we were in Cape Town. It was exciting to listen to comedians responding to current events and the historical context of South Africa. At this time, Trevor Noah was just starting to take over for Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, so that became a frequent point of connection between us and South Africans we’d meet. We had a lot of discussions with South Africans about the role of comedy in confronting political corruption and difficult histories, and these talks got us thinking more deeply about the comedy occurring in our own nation.

After returning to Bowdoin, we continued having these conversations, and we were constantly itching to get back to South Africa in a meaningful way. Halfway through our senior year, President Trump was inaugurated. As our country was delving into chaos, the comedy was getting very, very good. People were turning to SNL, Stephen Colbert, Trevor Noah, and Samantha Bee. We were deep in thought about this relationship between politics and comedy and kept returning to discussions about how this relationship works in South Africa. One night during one of these talks, the idea for our documentary clicked. We stayed up until 5 a.m. planning and researching – we knew we were hitting on something important and wanted to make it happen.

As we continued to research and talk to South African comedians, we realized that vernacular comedy was the most fascinating genre growing in South African comedy. That’s what we decided to focus on. Vernacular comedy is doubly political – the material confronts messy politics while the medium of mother tongue languages is itself a political protest against the dominance of English and Afrikaans.

What is it like to experience South African comedy?
South African comedy is a huge umbrella term for a variety of performance styles, languages, venues, and themes. Running through them all is an intense energy between the performers and their audience – comedians often repeat to their audiences that comedy works with energy.

We’ve obviously been going to a lot of vernacular comedy shows, and we often get asked what it’s like to experience those gigs when we don’t speak any of the nine indigenous languages that make up the ‘vernacular’ genre. Of course it can be frustrating at times to not understand everything that’s said, but the combination of the palpable energy in the room during these shows and the way the comedians use other linguistic cues and body language – tone of voice, volume, facial expression, hand movements, an English phrase here and there – enables you to sort of pick up on parts of what is going on. You can feel when something is hilarious even if you don’t understand exactly what that is. And sometimes you realize you don’t need a word-for-word translation. We’ve been able to talk to a lot of comedians about their jokes in English. They won’t translate them for us word for word, but they’ll explain the premises. For instance, one of the comics in our film does a joke about his grandfather who still thinks South Africa is under apartheid. Knowing that bit of background and then seeing the audience react as the comedian performs is enough for us to feel like we experienced his set in a meaningful way.

How is comedy challenging the status quo?
In South Africa, stand up has only been a viable art form since the nation became a democracy in 1994 (with the exception of a few white men who performed under apartheid). Since then, it served as a change-maker, a conversation-starter, and a healing tool. In dealing with such a traumatic history and its continuing legacy (South Africa has been rated one of the most unequal nations in the world), laughter has been crucial.

There have been multiple waves of change in post-apartheid comedy. In the early years after 1994, black and coloured comedians began taking the stage for the first time. In more recent years, there has been a surge of female comedians. Now, vernacular comedy – where comics perform in their native language(s) – is the next frontier. This is disrupting the status quo for an obvious reason: the status quo has always been English and Afrikaans.

There are eleven national languages in South Africa, and the majority of its citizens speak some combination of the nine indigenous African languages (Ndebele, Northern Sotho, Sotho, Swazi, Tsonga, Tswana, Venda, Xhosa and Zulu). However, English and Afrikaans have remained dominant. It is no coincidence that these were the two official languages under apartheid. The nine indigenous languages are often relegated to the domestic sphere, and are not as well-represented in entertainment, commerce, and public life. But now, comedians are taking to the stage and speaking in their mother tongues as a form of empowerment. By putting these languages in the spotlight, they are amplifying the stories, perspectives and cultures of South Africa’s majority. Vernacular comedy is bringing value to mother tongue languages outside of the domestic sphere, and in turn is helping shape how the languages will be spoken in the future.

What impact has vernacular comedy had?
Though formalized stand-up comedy is a recent phenomenon, humor and storytelling are by no means new in South Africa. But now, vernacular comics are making a living doing this. They are performing sold out shows in front of massive audiences without having to conform to industry pressures to speak English or to discuss certain topics.

As evidenced by enormous fan followings, consistently sold-out events, and booming laughter, South African audiences are ready to see their linguistic diversity represented onstage. We’ve even observed this at ‘English’ comedy shows. A comic will go through the whole arc of a joke in English, and then suddenly crack the punchline in Zulu or Xhosa – the audience explodes.

Comedians and audience members alike often describe comedy as a healing tool – a powerful means of grappling with both personal and political trauma. Vernacular comedians in particular stress the importance of relating to their audiences; they seek to provide them with stories and jokes that are relevant to their daily lives. In a country that has historically shunned the life experiences of its majority, this laughter and connection is especially important.

Learn more about the documentary by watching the video below and visiting their Indiegogo page, where you have the chance to donate to this incredible project!

CIEE Study Abroad Alumni Reflect on the 2017 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad

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Image courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation.

This year, we were fortunate to have three CIEE Study Abroad alumni invited to participate as Alumni Voices in the 2017 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad in Washington, D.C. The Summit, which took place in early October, is part of the Institute of International Education (IIE)'s Generation Study Abroad initiative that aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by 2020. As a partner and luncheon sponsor, CIEE was excited to have these alumni in attendance – sharing their thoughts and experiences about studying abroad and building talent with global experience.

Our alumni reflect on their Summit experience:

“The conference was great - it was so neat getting to meet so many people that work hard on making education easier for all students. A highlight was definitely going to the Norwegian embassy and meeting the ambassador, and getting a selfie with him and IIE president Alan Goodman. It was interesting to me in the sessions I attended that they kept promoting a focus on diversity, but spoke mostly about diversity with different cultures and races, and how important language is for diversity in study abroad. I only briefly heard them speak of disability inclusion with diversity. I was glad to see the people that I met from Ireland wanting to hear about my experience, and wanting to learn about the difficulties. It was interesting to me that several things I pointed out regarding access, they hadn't seemed to notice themselves.”

-Rachel Malone

IIE2017_1001_171954-0294_DVS
Image courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation.

"The IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad was an amazing experience and I am very thankful that I had the opportunity to attend! I met peers who are creating and accomplishing amazing feats. I had the opportunity to network with trailblazing professionals. I love that IIE is committed to diversity, which was visible throughout the conference. Thank you so much to CIEE and IIE for this opportunity!"

-Breanna Moore

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“The crowd was large and purposeful, and it was fun to walk among the goal-oriented without a detailed agenda. In fact, the best way to describe my experience representing students at a conference of industry professionals whose work surrounds students is half celebrity, half specimen. Day one was very hustle-bustle. I got the impression many people were preoccupied with meetings that had been planned far in advance. Day two was more relaxed, and I found it easier to mingle after the crowd had a day to cool down and I had a day to warm up. I ended up meeting some interesting people, exchanged plenty of business cards, and even wrangled some possible work opportunities.

“I'm not a business person. The business side of study abroad never really interested me, so as I witnessed many panels attempting to distill the powerful elements of curiosity, self-discovery and wonder that is study-abroad into concrete figures and language meant for the business world, it crushed me a tad. I see its importance, but I don't play that game, and as a writer, I champion the very opposite: anecdotal evidence. My favorite moments were when I was able to speak to that and use my position as a Summit voice to remind some of the officials that the beauty of study abroad isn't about how much more desirable you are to a corporation after the fact, but rather how much opportunity it allows a young person to grow within themselves in the moment and shake their worldview. In many of the people I talked to, I sensed that appreciation underneath, yet somewhat buried under industry vocabulary and vernacular. I had fun breaking through that and finding real human moments with some very industry-minded people.”

-Thomas Rose

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Image courtesy of Event Photography of North America Corporation.

Three CIEE Study Abroad Alumni to Participate in IIE Summit as Generation Study Abroad Voices

This year, three CIEE Study Abroad alumni were invited to participate as Alumni Voices in the 2017 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad in Washington, D.C. from October 1-3. The Summit is part of the Institute of International Education (IIE)'s Generation Study Abroad initiative, of which CIEE is a partner, that aims to double the number of U.S. students studying abroad by 2020. The theme for this year's Summit is "Navigating a Changing World: Building Talent with Global Experience." Studies show that graduates with an international experience find employment faster and are more prepared than those without it, yet less than 10% of U.S. college students graduate with global experience. The Summit will bring together leaders and practitioners from education, business, and government for discussion on global workforce readiness to spark new ideas and creative collaboration to work towards expanding study abroad participation.

As a Generation Study Abroad Alumni Voice, these three CIEE Study Abroad alumni will be contributing their experiences, thoughts, and ideas as individuals who have gone from a study abroad student to a member of a global workforce. Combined, they present skills in photography, advocacy, business, marketing, writing, editing, and more. Click on their bios below to learn more about them, what they plan on contributing to the Summit, and what access to study abroad means to them:

RACHEL MALONE

Rachel

STUDIED IN:
Dublin, Ireland

EDUCATION:
B.A. in Travel and Hospitality, Minneapolis Business College

CURRENT POSITION:
Brand Ambassador, Sand Cloud

BREANNA MOORE

Breanna

STUDIED IN:
Legon, Ghana

EDUCATION:
B.A. in International Relations and African Studies, University of Pennsylvania

CURRENT POSITION:
Founder and CEO, LaBré

THOMAS ROSE

Tom

STUDIED IN:
Lisbon, Portugal

EDUCATION:
B.S. in Professional Writing, Champlain College

CURRENT POSITION:
Freelance Writer & Editor

 

 

 

IIE Summit Participant: Rachel Malone

Rachel Malone

CIEE Study Abroad in Dublin, Ireland, Summer 2016. CIEE/MIUSA Access to the World Scholarship. Minneapolis Business College graduate.

Rachel is a strong advocate for disability rights with insatiable wanderlust and goals to compete in the Paralympics someday. She has put her degree in travel and hospitality to good use by travelling to more than thirteen countries using a wheelchair. She also studied American Sign Language and is an award-winning, exhibited, and published photographer. Rachel is an advocate for disability civil rights and works closely with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) related programs in her hometown community in Minnesota. Her experience travelling abroad has offered a unique opportunity to compare and contrast accessibility in other countries. A true global citizen, Rachel has a strong sense of wanderlust and adventure that is sure to take her on many more travels to come. Her globetrotting experience offers great knowledge for the international education community in learning about accessibility differences worldwide. Learn more about Rachel:

IMG_0180
"Myself and paralympic wheelchair racer Tatyana McFadden in front of her image on the stairs of the National Portrait Gallery, during ADA 25/40 celebrations.Washington, D.C."

What made you interested in studying in Ireland with CIEE?

I attended the ADA 25th Anniversary celebrations in D.C., and when I returned home I saw that there was a scholarship being offered to 25 students with disabilities from MIUSA and CIEE called "Access to the World," so I applied and received it. I was asked where I'd want to go and why, and I said Ireland because I have part Irish heritage and my disability is most prevalent in Ireland. So, I wanted to see what life would have been like if I had been born with my disability in Ireland had my family not created the Irish colony where I am from in Minnesota.

Where else in the world have you traveled?

I've mostly gone on cruises, but in total I have been to 13 countries and 32 states – Jamaica, Haiti, England, France, Denmark, Iceland, Mexico, Italy – to name a few.

What does being a global citizen mean to you?

Learning about others’ beliefs and customs and respecting our differences. Contributing when you feel you are able to offer something of value, and being open to trying different things.

The Summit revolves largely around making study abroad accessible to everyone. What are your thoughts on this?

As a person with a disability who has an educational background in travel and hospitality, I took the difficulties I faced in my study abroad in Ireland and our Intercultural Comparative Experience (“ICE”) weekends in Spain and Germany, and it made me want to look for ways I can contribute to making the lives of Europeans with disabilities, and lives of others like families and caregivers, easier where I see significant flaws. The trips made me want to find ways to make their lives better, which would in turn make the lives of everyone with a disability better. Seeing the difficulties that they face and that I don't deal with in the U.S. made me want to meet more of them, to look for a possible committee on accessibility, understand if they see a change being needed, and to offer them ideas or advice which I think may help.

Jux1
"A photo of the ADA Legacy Tour Bus, during ADA 25/40 celebrations, as many of us with disabilities marched with NCIL, from the Grand Hyatt a rally at the U.S. capitol. Washington, D.C."

What thoughts are you excited to contribute to the IIE Summit?

How better accessibility and removing barriers would greatly improve the quality of life for their citizens with disabilities in Ireland, and give those citizens more opportunities to shine. Better access for the country would mean a greater tourism boost and a better economy. Disabled visitors to the country would be able to get a better understanding of the Irish, their history, and the country itself. If accessibility needs are understood and barriers are removed, everyone would benefit; more people with disabilities would be able to travel independently in the country, and more citizens of the country would become self-reliant rather than potentially feeling like a burden or charity to caregivers. Quality of life for not only the disabled but those around them would be greatly improved with access. Europe has great adaptive equipment inventions, and if I were to run a country with that distinction, I would want to have people with disabilities front and center showing off our achievements.

IIE Summit Participant: Breanna Moore

Breanna Moore

CIEE Study Abroad in Legon, Ghana, Spring 2014. Michael Stohl Research Scholarship. University of Pennsylvania graduate.

The immersive experience of living and studying in Ghana exposed Breanna to the vibrant artisan communities, stunning Ankara fabrics, and traditional Kente cloth that inspired her to create her own clothing line – LaBré. LaBré is a fashion-forward West African-inspired clothing company that employs Ghanaian designers, seamstresses, and tailors, who are primarily women, to create African-inspired, modern products for exposure to the international market. Her entrepreneurial pursuits aim to increase economic growth in the country through job creation – supporting those who are often disenfranchised. Based in Philadelphia, Breanna continues to grow the fashion line and build on the large, preexisting network of African-focused organizations in the city. Breanna’s semester in Ghana represents the powerful intercultural connections and economic development opportunities that are found through exchanging our world. Learn more about Breanna:

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What made you interested in studying in Ghana with CIEE?

The summer prior to studying abroad in Ghana with CIEE, I studied abroad for one month at Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology through the International Development Summer Institute where I taught mathematics to elementary and middle school students in Adanwomase, Ghana. That experience motivated me to come back to Ghana and explore the country through a semester-long program with CIEE.

Where else in the world have you traveled?

I have traveled to South Africa, Togo, Barbados, and Grand Cayman Island.

What does being a global citizen mean to you?

Being a global citizen means not being confined by political, man-made borders. It means accepting people from other cultures as your human family, knowing that "foreign" is only one translation away from realizing we all share a common experience, culture, and bond.

The Summit revolves largely around making study abroad accessible to everyone. What are your thoughts on this?

I agree wholeheartedly that it's vital for youth to have the opportunity to travel, learn, and expand their mind. Traveling teaches you not only about other people and their cultures but also about yourself. It's necessary that steps are made to prohibit financial or other disadvantages from hindering youth from getting the life-changing experience of global citizenry through travel.

How do you think study abroad prepares young people to become global leaders?

Once you realize, through travel, that the world is bigger than your street, your neighborhood, your city, your state, your country, you'll able to care more about how global systems affect people everywhere. You will be able to lead being driven by the motivation to have a positive impact on all communities and not only try to find solutions to issues that affect you and your community directly because you'll realize that we are all connected and until everyone in the world is from free oppression then there is no progress.

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How has your study abroad experience shaped who you are as a person and leader?

Studying abroad in Ghana caused me to pick up better values and treat people better. I loved certain parts of the culture and adopted it into my own. I began to share more with people. I asked people how they were and how their family were with genuine care. I talked to people more directly. I became more relaxed, appreciative, and less stressed. I listened more and grew from being in and observing the culture.

How did study abroad equip you to be a part of the global workforce?

Studying abroad allowed me to make connections with people who I desired to do business with. I learned more about the market and fashion industry that I now participate in. I learned the importance of international travel and international business. Studying abroad equipped me to become an entrepreneur.

What thoughts are you excited to contribute to the IIE Summit?

I'm excited to contribute to the IIE Summit how studying abroad can, and will, impact you past the tone experience – how you can take what you learn and use it to propel you towards your interests and passions.

IIE Summit Participant: Thomas Rose

Thomas Rose

CIEE Study Abroad in Lisbon, Portugal, Spring 2016. Champlain College graduate.

Thomas Rose spent spring of 2016 exploring the culture of Lisbon, Portugal – analog camera in hand. During an art history class, he befriended an Austrian creative with a bold idea to document the culinary wonders of their host city. The result? “Salt & Wonder” – a passionate print magazine exploring the culinary startup culture of Lisbon. They have proudly released their first issue and Thomas returned to his study abroad team in Portugal to share in celebration. He continues to serve as the editorial voice for the magazine while back in the United States. Thomas’ study abroad experience is an example of the unique, life-changing opportunities that studying abroad offers to intimately discover a new city, country, and culture. Learn more about Thomas:

Photo credit: Tim Waltman
Photo credit: Tim Waltman. "Tim's photo was taken during my return to Lisbon a year later for the Salt & Wonder Release party. Here, facing Lisbon and the Ponte 25 de Abril from across the mighty Tejo River, (from left to Right) Me, Chris, and Anna review one of Chris's photos while Luca takes another photo. Traveling with four photographers is quite meta, as exemplified by this photo of someone taking a photo of three people reviewing a photo just taken."

What made you interested in studying in Portugal with CIEE?

My father's side of my family came off the boat from Portugal a couple generations back. I wanted to explore that heritage, and I also wanted to choose a less traveled study abroad destination. Dublin, Rome, Montreal, Barcelona, and London all seemed very popular for study abroad at the time, and I like to be different, so Portugal was perfect.

Where else in the world have you traveled?

In high school I did a week-long exchange program in the Italian alps, based out of a city called Cles, but I stayed in a small mountain village called Rumo. That was my introduction to travel. In high school, I played drums for a band that saw some underground success. Through that I was able to tour with the band down the East Coast twice, as well as around the entire United States during the summer after my freshman year of college. Finally, during my semester in Portugal I took three trips: an Easter break backpacking adventure through Amsterdam, Bremen, Hamburg, Prague, Auschwitz, Krakow, and Paris; a weekend trip to Dublin; and another weekend trip to the Azores, specifically the island of Pico, where some of my great-great-grandparents came from.

Photo credit: Thomas Rose
"This photo is taken during my weekend trip to the island of Pico in the Azores. My friend Avi and I had just hiked down from Pico Mountain after being turned away from the summit, which was too dangerous to climb that day. Here, A woman walking her dogs stopped to let them play in a tide pool. In the background you can see Faial, another of the Azores Islands."

What does being a global citizen mean to you?

Being a global citizen means I can go anywhere in the world and not just survive, but learn, appreciate, and enjoy the setting and the people who call it home.

The Summit revolves largely around making study abroad accessible to everyone. What are your thoughts on this?

The more people who are able to travel, the better. One of the biggest downsides of attending any multiple-year program at any school is that you have to stay there, and usually at a time in a young person's life when they should instead be seeing and experiencing as many things different and new as possible. Study abroad is one remedy to that. Uprooting from home and discovering a new place and its people grants perspective, from which derives understanding. In order to be a leader, especially on a global scale, you need to not only understand your own people, but all people. The wild thing about going to another place and experiencing its culture is certainly the differences, but it's also the similarities. People are people wherever you go. Everywhere people dance. Everywhere people sing. Everywhere people work, and everywhere people struggle. To travel and share these experiences is how we can learn as a globe. I believe that's what they call cultural exchange, and that's why study abroad should be accessible to everyone. Personally, study abroad allowed me to test myself – to learn how to interact in a place where I was fresh, knew no one, and couldn't speak the language. Consequently, I was able to meet some fantastic people, have some incredible experiences in far-off places, and make connections between places that are still granting me opportunity to this day.

What thoughts are you excited to contribute to the IIE Summit?

I'm excited to offer my voice as one who was bettered immensely by my time abroad and explore how it's possible to give more people that opportunity.

Photo credit: Thomas Rose
"This photo was taken in a small bar in the Barrio Alto district of Lisbon. The bar is called Vou de Camões, after the famous Portuguese poet. I stopped in for a drink after riding into the city and was lucky enough to get this shot. Lisbon is a very romantic city, this shot captures that."

Stories from St. Petersburg: Celebrating 50 Years

23230_Study Abroad_St Petersburg_St. Petersburg_RLP_RASP_Catherine_s Palace _Fall 2006_

This year marks 50 years of international exchange in St. Petersburg, Russia. In 1967, CIEE contracted Soviet Union representatives and negotiated the first educational exchange that ever took place between the two nations. Since then, thousands of American students have participated in eye-opening exchanges in St. Petersburg to practice Russian language, learn about Russian history, and foster mutual cultural understanding.

To celebrate 50 years of exchanges, the CIEE Study Center in St. Petersburg is hosting an anniversary program from September 21 to September 24. CIEE Study Abroad students, alumni, staff, partners, and friends will enjoy a long weekend of Russian cultural events including trips to the State Hermitage Museum, a 'Swan Lake' ballet at Mikhailovsky Theatre, a Russian-themed costume ball, and an excursion to Peterhof. A number of distinguished alumni will speak at the event including a former U.S. ambassador to Russia, a former CNN correspondent, and a columnist from "The Moscow Times."

Throughout history, CIEE has adapted to change, in this region and beyond, to remain true to their founding mission while embracing new challenges in international education. CIEE is dedicated to providing the highest level of academic and intercultural programs for students from the U.S., and around the world, for generations to come. This anniversary represents 50 years of providing opportunities for Americans and Russians to learn together, exchange ideas, and study language to better communicate across cultures. The experiences of generations of study abroad students in Russia illustrate the impact that these exchanges have had on cultural understanding and the beauty of finding a second home in a world that was once inaccessible for American students. Read these thoughts and memories from alumni to get a glimpse of what exchange in St. Petersburg, Russia has looked like over time:

1967

Exchange programs between the United States and Leningrad, Russia begin.

1969

“[…] Being in Leningrad University, so old, so famous, so prestigious, was thrilling. And then, when we started attending classes, we had two teachers, whose names I still remember, though incompletely. They were Robert Eduardovich Nazarian and Inna Sergeevna, whose surname I unfortunately cannot recall.. [...] And they were the best teachers. They were incredible. They were so dedicated and so effective; they were so technically good at teaching us Russian. And it was so interesting. I remember that Robert Nazarian assigned us a paper about art—specifically about modern art, which is kind of interesting, in the Soviet Union. I wrote my paper about Picasso. […] We had such wonderful conversations with our teachers about really interesting things. And then, privately, we’d go and listen to music with our friends, and talk about life. It was a really fabulous experience.”

-Jill Dougherty (’69, ’71)

  1970

“Having grown up in rural America, I arrived in Leningrad with little exposure to high art and culture. I drank it in. Whether it was watching Mikhail Baryshnikov perform as a rising ballet star, or visiting a different room of the Hermitage each day to do homework, art became a passion. To this day, I am an avid balletomane and always go through the Hermitage when in St. Petersburg to say hello to my favorite paintings. They are like old friends.” 

-Mary Kruger (’69, ’70)

1971

“Because the standard of living was so much lower in Russia than it was back in our home, I learned to get along with very little. I also learned to appreciate what we had. I believe that we all learned to be flexible and to realize that each person has his own set of beliefs. Also, one quickly realizes that when speaking to a person from another cultural and linguistic background, one has to anticipate what that person is really trying to express, in other words, not to take each word in one’s own language at face value, but to try to grasp what the person is actually trying to say. So tolerance would be another skill which one acquires when living and studying abroad. Also one realizes that if things are done differently, then perhaps that particular approach has established itself in response to a different environment. When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” 

-Pamela Dougherty (’69, ’71)

1975

“We were grouped into five levels of Russian-language ability based on a detailed written and oral test given at the university. All courses were in Russian and revolved around language, grammar, phonetics and literature. It was serious, intensive language study for hours each day [...]. Classes were long and expert, teachers excellent and disciplined, and we all learned a lot.”   

-Larry Sherwin (’75)

1976

“Leningrad was the first Soviet city I ever saw and the first big city after Washington DC and New York that I knew and ever lived in. It was simultaneously very similar to and very different from Washington, both post-imperial capitals, both military capitals with a lot of military objects and statues of war heroes and a lot of people in uniform. The city was a город-музей, with the 18th-19th century architecture—and was run-down like museum. I have visited Vienna, Paris, and other imperial capitals and I think Saint Petersburg is still my favorite imperial capital. Theaters and museums made me a much more cultured person. The change of season from winter to spring was dramatic. Even now, I often compare cities that I visit with Saint Petersburg.” 

-Mark von Hagen (’76, ’80)

1979

“We had classes in the morning, but after that we spent practically every waking moment with Vasya, Irina, and their circle. Our activities included: throwing a frisbee, hanging out at their tiny communal apartment, cooking and eating, exploring what seemed like every single corner of the city, riding the metro and trolleybuses, going out to the beach on the Gulf of Finland, going to museums, playing guitar and singing in public parks.” 

-Sharon Lee Cowan (’79)

1981

“Two things struck me particularly during my stay. One was the warmth and hospitality of ordinary Soviet/Russian people in private settings; the other was the fact that Russians seemed to know much more about the United States and American culture than most Americans knew about Russia. Russians were much friendlier and more welcoming toward Americans than Americans were toward Russians at the time. Russians did not take the Cold War personally or view us American students as responsible for our government’s policies.” 

-Adrienne Lynn Edgar (’81)

1983

“The summer I spent in Leningrad in 1983 completely changed my life. It was my first trip abroad, and it was the experience that set me on a professional path that I have been on ever since.” 

-Michael McFaul (’83) [Read his story]

1988

“My eyes wide open, I grew in courage and confidence. It’s then that I decided that to learn a language is to transmit knowledge. But what would I transmit or bring to the world? And it was back then that I decided to return to the US to get a medical degree. I subsequently became a surgeon and worked in Africa. To quote the good doctor, [Anton] Chekhov, ‘Knowledge is of no value unless you put it into practice.’” 

-Matthew LeMaitre (’88)

1994

“The quality of language instructions was very, very high, and it has not changed. The teachers were very genuine. I was always treated with a lot of respect by the instructors and the administration. The teachers really cared about the students. I am sure they are still like that.” 

-Darin Menlove (1994–95 Resident Director)

2000

“After studying abroad in Russia, I had a richer, fuller, more real impression of Russians. I learned about their bottomless generosity and strength of will. I learned about their reverence for high culture (poetry, ballet, fine arts) and pride in military accomplishments. But overall I learned that the Russian people are extremely complex.” 

-Jarlath McGuckin (’00 student, 2006-13 CIEE resident staff)

2001

“Living in St. Petersburg, everything was right there before me. Russian history? Choose one of the hundreds of museums. Russian arts? Pick a museum or theater–you won’t even come close to getting to them all. Russian orthodox religion? There are cathedrals to tour and believers to talk with. […] But I have to say my best memories came from a hobby I picked up on a whim. I bought an old Russian camera and started messing with it trying to take pictures of St. Petersburg (this is before digital cameras were really a thing). I went everywhere and photographed everything I could: not terribly artistic, but it made for great memories. It gave me something to work on while I was seeing these amazing places like the Summer Gardens, Smolnyi Cathedral in the fall, the Summer Palace, and the Art Institute. I took a particular interest in night photography because I thought the buildings around St. Petersburg were so beautiful, especially lit up at night. My photographic skills were not great (a remote shutter would’ve helped immensely), but walking around St. Petersburg at night and seeing these things in the dark and covered with snow made an already-magical place even more so—and created magical memories as well. I also had the chance to meet people and just talk with them as best my language would allow, and learn more about the city and its residents. Probably it was not the best idea wandering around at night by myself, but memories like that you cannot make any other way.” 

-Andy F. (’01)

2002

“I loved exploring, and St. Petersburg is a city that lends itself to getting deliberately lost along canals and in back alleys. I enjoyed walking with friends through the almost desolate nighttime streets of Vasilievsky Ostrov (where I lived), exploring smaller sites such as the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad. We also enjoyed the perks of student life, such as getting student prices at the Mariinsky Theater.” 

-Matt Burke (’02)

2003

“In the winter of 2003, four CIEE Russian students set out from St. Petersburg to explore the Caucasus. It was great that the CIEE program gave students a week’s vacation from class in the middle of our program, allowing us to travel farther than our organized excursions to Moscow and Tallinn. Some students went to Poland, Ukraine, or back to the Baltics. Others went east to Lake Baikal. Our foursome decided to go south, visiting Volgograd, Piatigorsk, and Dombai. Armed with a borrowed Lonely Planet guide book, we made our way down to Piatigorsk, asking locals on the train how to get to Dombai. The simple answer was, ‘Don’t get in a taxicab or private car.’ Upon arriving in Piatigorsk, we encountered friendly people telling us about Lermontov’s city, and police officers who took our passports and wanted three hundred rubles in return. We hopped on buses going further south, finally reaching our terminal point with public transportation: a bus stop on the outskirts of Teberda, whose lone occupant was a cow grazing in the lot. With thirty kilometers to go, we took a taxi, against the advice of all the people on the train. Our cab driver drove us up the snow-covered roads, warning us that the ski resort was off-season, and insisting, ‘If we make it only to Dombai, you haven’t really been to the Caucasus.’ We were lucky to have his help, as he found us a place to live with his brother’s family, where we rented a spare apartment. We were able to spend only two days in Dombai, but they were memorable. We went on a four-hour horseback riding trip that took us close to the border of Georgia, and spent the rest of the time eating shashlyk and kharcho at the one open cafe in town. On the way back, we met a youth wrestling team from Dagestan. We arm-wrestled on the train. We also spent time with a soldier who was on leave to return home for his father’s funeral. Our trip was memorable in so many different ways, from vast beautiful landscapes to the countless friendly people whom we met along the way. It was the highlight of my semester in Russia with CIEE.” 

-Andrew Chapman (’03)

2005

“During my program, I stayed with a family of three in an apartment complex on Bolshoy Prospekt. Most of my days were spent riding the metro system to school, with visits to the Hermitage or other landmarks or museums in the afternoons. The family I stayed with was very helpful and for better and worse, they spoke English rather well when I struggled with the Russian language.” 

-Fred O’Hara (’05)

2008

“I think about Inna and Zora [my hosts] a lot when I come up with my lesson plans. The words I learned from them were right in front of me as they showed them to me–immediately useful and necessary: matches, traffic, towel, butter. I try and give my students words that they’ll need and use, rather than vocabulary that has nothing to do with their lives.” 

-Lauren Nelson (’08)

2010

“I really appreciated getting to stay with a host family and to live immersed in the ‘real Russia.’ It allowed me to see what life was like for ordinary people in Russia, to see beyond the perceptions/propaganda we might have been exposed to through the news or other stereotypes.” 

-Lindsay Daniels (’10)

2012

“The most valuable part of my experience was my homestay and interacting with our native teachers. Living in a working-class home in St. Petersburg was very educational and my host’s stories about the country in the early years after the Soviet Union brought my knowledge of the country to life and humanized the issues faced by the rapidly changing nation. Interacting with locals, however, was also the most difficult part of living in Russia. Having been able to read and write in Russian far better than speak or listen, adjusting to living with a host family was probably the most difficult aspect of the program. I often did not understand locals, but quickly learned to find other ways to communicate through hand signals, sounds, and broken sentences.” 

-Will Bezbatchenko (’12)

2013

“Because my first encounter with Russian culture came through the works of Tolstoy, I pictured Russia as an elegant and high societal culture—an expectation I carried with me as I first set out for Petersburg. Though my expectations differed from reality in many ways, I was pleasantly surprised by how steeped in tradition Russia remains, as well as by how much their literature runs deep in the parlance of modern people. While in America, it’s a challenge to find someone able to quote Hemingway or Frost, in today’s Russia, it is harder still to find someone unable to recite Pushkin, and I think that is one of my favorite characteristics of the Russian people.” 

-Rebekah Olson (’13)

2014

“The CIEE had a nice array of classes that complemented my studies of U.S.-Russian relations. Taking classes like Russian politics and Ethnic studies (in Russia) enhanced my degree and gave me a better understanding of the country than I could have received in the U.S. I believe it really made a difference that the professors were locals. They often shared stories of their own Russian experiences while simultaneously answering any questions or concerns we had from what we heard in our media.” 

-Ella Berishev (’14)

2015

“[...] being able to explore the city through a series of excursions was a big advantage of this program, as it provided me with an opportunity to get to know Russian society from all of its angles… My life in Russia revolved around fully exploring the local culture, local museums, parks, watching operas and ballet, etc. I miss being able to simply stroll around the city after classes and admire the beauty of the architecture. I am really grateful for my host family who introduced me to many of their friends and allowed me to become a part of their family celebrations and events.” 

-Dagmara Franczak (’15)

2016

“[...] The city, although different in appearance and in time, is still the same city in which Dostoevsky lived. Through the opportunities given to us by the CIEE, we were able to recognize this and furthermore imagine ourselves in Dostoevsky's time. The first thing we had the opportunity to do is attend a play of one of Dostoevsky's short stories, ‘Сон Смешного Человека’ (‘Dream of a Ridiculous Man’). I had read this story in English a few months before coming here to Saint Petersburg, and so although it was presented in Russian, I was able to understand what was happening. Moreover, it was by far the best stage performance I have ever seen, no exaggeration. There were perhaps only fifteen people in the room, which was decorated with period-style furniture and lit with candles. I cannot overstate the actor’s skill, or the feelings I experienced there. It was absolutely amazing. The CIEE students also had the opportunity to go on a walking tour of all the places in ‘Преступление и Наказание’ (‘Crime and Punishment’). This, I thought, would be interesting and nothing more, but I was wrong. Not only was it interesting, but it even brought the story to life. We were able to see the apartment in which Dostoevsky described Rodion Raskolnikov as living, as well as the places where other various characters might have lived. Frequently, my English translation had mentioned the 'hay market', and only on the tour did I discover that this was an area I had traversed myself multiple times before. Furthermore, we walked the distance on the same streets that Raskolnikov took to the apartment of the pawnbroker, and saw the apartment in which Dostoevsky wrote his novel. In fact, we had to remind ourselves that these people were not real, and that they were only characters in a book, because it was so easy to imagine them as real.” 

-Iain Cunningham (’16)

2017

“Before I arrived here, I thought Saint Petersburg was not truly Russian. Now I can see that perhaps Saint Petersburg is quintessentially Russian. Everyone says that it is Russia’s European city, and that might be true on the surface. But, if one bothers to look even a little closely, one can see through the veil, one can see a heart that is neither European nor Asiatic, but Russian.” 

-Jacob Levitan (’17)

 

The Journey & The Coming Home

"I could follow a lecture, read a book, write a paper, all of that in French, but I hadn’t been me before in French."

By Charles Lee (CIEE Study Abroad, Brussels, Belgium, 2013)
*This essay was a winner in CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest.

One night in the library, early in my junior year, everyone at my table was working on applications to consulting firms. Recruitment for summer internships was coming up. Deloitte, PWC, Accenture, all these firms and the wild questions they’d ask in the interview. I still wasn’t sure what a consultant was, but apparently it is what you do after college. I opened the website for one of them and closed it immediately. I knew it wasn’t for me, but I still didn’t know how you do find out what is for you.

A few weeks after that night in the library, I got an email from my university saying that I had passed the French test and was approved for a semester in Belgium. It was exciting, adventure and all that, but it was mostly a relief. Not sure of what I should do, it was comforting to have something to do. You can always do something until you get to the “should” part of that verb phrase.

Settling into Belgium came with ups and downs, but it was easier than I expected. Some very typical challenges faced me that, had I been older and wiser I would have seen how typical they were, but each minor hurdle turned into either a minor accomplishment or a valuable failure. I made friends. I went to class. I slowly built a new life for myself.

I came to Belgium already speaking pretty advanced French, a language I had studied and spoken since I was 13 or so. French, though, had never carried a deep emotional weight for me. It was a subject I was good at in school. It was my minor at university. It was this separate, abstract thing that existed outside of me. I could follow a lecture, read a book, write a paper, all of that in French, but I hadn’t been me before in French.

In Belgium, the language took on a new form. I cried in French; I talked about being afraid and uncertain in French. I made jokes in French. I plumbed the depths of friendship in French. I admitted to embarrassing crushes in French. I got angry in French. I navigated a new and complex social world in French. People I knew in French became important to me. And French became important to me. It seems cliché, but at that moment in my life, when a logical path seemed to already lie before me, it was really astounding to see this extension of myself – an extension that needed this otherness for it to exist. It was as if this parallel world was suddenly opened up to me. It took this new feeling of otherness to upend the assumptions I’d made about the future.

As I relearned how to exist in my parallel self, I was able to see things from a bigger perspective. There is nothing that I just had to do. There isn’t such a thing as should. People just do and they do all kinds of things.

I was so taken with the feeling I felt when French became an important part of my life, a central element of my existence, that I wanted to do it again. I had always been interested in German, but had set it aside since starting college. I signed up for a German course, got a German language partner, hung out with the German exchange students and went to readings and events in German. Now that French had become an almost automatic language for me, tumbling from my mouth with unthinking ease, it felt right to start anew.

When my CIEE exchange was coming to an end, I went to dinner with one of the student mentors. I told her that I was going to Vienna that summer to take summer courses at the university. She was half German and had been instrumental in feeding my interest. As a joke, or maybe not, I said I wish I could just stay. I said aloud that I had thought about coming back for grad school, but that was a lie. I had only just thought it as I said it. Saying it made it real. She said, “You know you could, right? You could do that.” I don’t think I did know that.

After my summer in Vienna, I got on a plane to DC. It was hard getting on that plane. I had experienced the whole emotional arc of the study abroad experience, feeling almost bitter that I was such a cliché. Unease in the new, total ease in the new, unease in the old, acceptance of both. But just because something is typical does not make it unreal. 

I came back to DC, though, with a clearer sense of what I could do. I came back understanding that what I should do and could do were up to me to be discovered. I came back with a goal.

Every Saturday morning I went to an exam prep course, and on Thursdays I had a German course and made French my major. I got a side job to pay for these prep classes and in January I sat the first exam. I passed. In April I submitted my application and waited. In March I was invited to Paris for the interview.

Last fall, I graduated with honors from the Sorbonne with a master’s in German studies and translation. As I write this, the other document open on my computer is my second thesis, this one in comparative literature and next year I’ll apply to doctoral programs here in France. In another year, I’ll be allowed to submit an application for French citizenship.  

In the journey I found a new way of being, but one that had always been parallel to myself. In coming home, I found that home is a choice you make yourself.

Coming Home: The Journey Begins

"Through my semester in Ghana I found my life’s work at home."

By Erin Ruff (CIEE Study Abroad, Legon, Ghana, 2009)
*This essay was a winner in CIEE's 70th Anniversary Alumni Storytelling Contest.

Just after daybreak in early August I stood in Heathrow’s Terminal Three and stared into the crowd of travelers ready to board the flight to Accra. Bored with the monotony of college life, and a few credits short of a degree in art, I headed across the Atlantic. My intentions were self-serving: to explore, experience, and enjoy another part of the world.

Though only in Ghana for five months, I intended to see every nook and cranny the country had to offer. I did a pretty good job of it. I visited all ten regions in Ghana as well as the neighboring countries of Côte d'Ivoire, Togo, and Benin.

The first month of my stay had come to a close when my study abroad group was called together for a program. I had little patience for these gatherings.  However, this time things were different.

It was at this program that I met Beatrice, a master weaver from the nearby village of Kisseman. Beatrice was a timid lady. She stood before our group and, in her broken English, invited us to her village for weaving lessons. In exchange for weaving lessons she asked if students would help the children in her village with their schoolwork. I was instantly drawn to her. Though she was there to recruit students for a weaving lesson, it was clear where her heart lie. The true purpose of her presence was to solicit help for the children she spoke of. I decided to give it a shot.

Sitting in Beatrice’s compound, I felt little pairs of eyes peering around the corners, curious as to why there was a strange woman at their “Mama Teni’s” house. Children staggered in asking for pieces of torn books to read or pages to scribble pretend school work on. They picked up scraps of elephant grass and mimicked Beatrice’s quick weaving hand to keep themselves busy while they waited for a taste of the meal she prepared each night.

I had never seen anything like it. She was the village mother, accepting anyone that came her way. Some were regulars, others came and went as they were called home to their work.

I began to spend all of my free time in Kisseman. I put the weaving aside and began to teach. Soon, my daily routine consisted of unloading boxes of donated school supplies and preparing our makeshift classroom. The cement flooring became our chairs and desks, the compound tree our roof. The scorching sun served as our clock, letting us know when lessons began and when it was time to go home. Armed with a pencil and paper, the children had their first real classroom experience.

After the first day of lessons, a few children walked me to the local tro-tro (mini-bus) stop. Jennifer, a lively six-year-old, took off running towards a man coming down the hill. Full of excitement she pronounced, “Father, today I have learned!” In that moment, I realized that the work I was doing would carry on far beyond my stay in Ghana. The pride in Jennifer’s voice that day fueled my passion for teaching the kids of Kisseman.

That semester the children wrote their first letter, read their first sentence, and began to shape their lives through education. As word spread throughout the village, the compound filled day after day with more and more children eager to learn. What began with five children turned into lessons for more than 50 students.

Everything I had sought to discover was right there, in the little village of Kisseman, and in the hearts of kids I met. Through my travels in Ghana I found myself. In those five months, I discovered my passion and untapped my potential. But my biggest journey began when I returned home.

December 2009, I arrived back to the United States in a fury, desperate to find a way to hold onto my time in Ghana. I wanted to continue to help ensure the children of Kisseman received the education needed to lead them to a brighter future.

Within a year of my return, Beatrice and I launched Baskets for Education. It began with Beatrice sending small shipments of her handmade Bolga baskets to me to sell. The money raised was used to pay for children’s school fees. The first child on a full scholarship was Sammy, in 2010.

Today, Baskets For Education buys baskets directly from our partner cooperative who pays the highest wages in Bolga. The proceeds from the basket sales support our non-profit organization. The Kisseman Children’s Foundation, established in 2012, provides scholarships for students to attend local schools, as well supplies and daily lessons. To date, the organization has provided 22 students with full scholarships.

It was that program, which I so unwillingly attended, that took me on the adventure of a lifetime. Through my semester in Ghana I found my life’s work at home.

Lessons continue to take place in Kisseman. CIEE Legon provides volunteers each semester through our partnership. The volunteers come from colleges across the U.S. and teach the lessons I once led, this time in our rented classrooms under the guidance of our Program Director, Beatrice’s son Dominic.

Back home in small town America, Ghana has become a familiar name to many in Hagerstown. Local schools aid in filling our cargo shipments with donated supplies, as school children write letters to their friends in Ghana. A mother who attended our recent Egg Hunt fundraising event stated that her six-year-old has a newfound interest in Ghana. The place that I had never heard of before my trip abroad has become a landmark for those around me.

Embracing our roots in Bolga basket weaving, and our heart in education, our journey carries on at The Kisseman Children’s Foundation where I continue to impact children through a means they may have never thought possible: education.

Learn more about Baskets for Education and the Kisseman Children's Foundation.

Diversity in Floura and Fauna, and in People: A Marine Biologist Sees the World

"I didn't realize how big the world was until I started spending time abroad."

Samantha Farquhar, CIEE Study Abroad alumna and former program leader for the CIEE Global Navigator High School Study Abroad program in Bonaire, is off to explore more of the world. In January, Samantha embarked on a new adventure to Nepal to work on an aquaculture project. As a marine biologist and humanitarian, the field of international sustainable development came naturally to her. Based in Rampur, Nepal, Samantha traveled to rural communities to collaborate on implementing new aquaculture technology to empower and nourish women. Largely, this involved researching the socioeconomic impacts of an aquaculture initiative started to empower women in rural communities by teaching them to maintain fishponds to benefit economics and nutrition of local families.

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In her article on “Pink Pangea”, an online community for women who love to travel, Samantha describes how she came to this role in Nepal, fusing science and humanitarian work:

“I have always known I wanted to help people, but I never really knew how I was going to go about it. My strengths were always science-based, but I didn’t want to become a doctor. I liked the idea of teaching, but I didn’t want to be stuck in a bureaucratic school system. By the time my senior year of college rolled around, I was doing some serious soul searching. My double major in International Studies and Marine Biology seemed liked an odd combination to many, including myself, but after working with the nonprofit The Full Belly Project, I began to forge my own future endeavors. This organization innovates and distributes tools to rural communities based on the resources available. This sparked my own interests in sustainable development. I decided that I wanted to use my education to help communities protect, utilize, and sustainably manage their environmental resources to help develop and advance the community as a whole.”

In an interview with Samantha, we learned more about the role that CIEE Study Abroad played in shaping who she is today – an aspiring scientist and humanitarian!

What interested you in the CIEE Study Abroad program in Bonaire?

The ability to become trained as a scientific diver was a huge incentive. I was majoring in marine biology so I knew that the training would be beneficial to my career. That, combined with opportunity to live and learn on a beautiful Caribbean Island made it an ideal choice.

What was it like to live and study in Bonaire?

Bonaire was so inspiring for many reasons. The island community is close-knit and really care about preserving their beautiful home so you learn from professors and locals alike. You and your classmates become this big family and support system. You will spend evenings and meals talking about what cool thing happened on the dive or how you are all going to change the world.

I was also surprised with how diverse it was. On this one small island, you can find coral reefs, deserts, mangrove forests, and caves. Wild donkeys roam free, rare jelly fish are constantly being discovered, and thousands of flamingos migrate there every year. I was even able to pick up a little Papiamentu and Dutch while there in addition to improving my salsa dancing. The only negative thing about Bonaire is that the all the beautiful sunsets, diving, and starry nights will spoil you; your standards for such things in the future will be so high that eventually you will realize nothing compares to Bonaire.

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How did studying abroad open your eyes to the world?

Studying abroad showed me how diverse the world is – in flora and fauna of course, but especially with people. It was building relationships with the people I met abroad, turning strangers to friends, which allowed me to gain perspective I otherwise wouldn't have.  

How did studying abroad contribute to your education?

I didn't realize how big the world was until I started spending time abroad. Studying abroad broke me out of this bubble I didn't even know I had. Once I broke the bubble, I learned how small the world was. I found that there are always more similarities with people than differences. This has ultimately inspired me to apply my education to tackle global international issues.

What motivated you to return to Bonaire as a program leader?

I enjoy helping others and teaching. I also had developed a special place in my heart for Bonaire and wanted others to feel the same. So, the opportunity to return there and guide high schoolers through a study abroad experience of their own seemed meant to be.  

What plans do you have for the future?

Well, in the near future, I'm happy to say will be working as a program leader again this summer! This time in Lisbon, Portugal for the Aquatic Ecosystems and Sustainability program. After that, I hope to attend graduate school in the fall to study environmental management or marine affairs.

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Do you have your own story to share? Email alumni@ciee.org to get started!