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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!

Passing on a Love for Travel: CIEE Study Abroad Alumna and HI USA Staffer Kassi Oliver

"Travel leads to world peace...You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling."

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CIEE Study Abroad alumna Kassi Oliver with her world-traveling daughter.

Kassi Oliver, from the University of Texas at Austin, studied abroad with CIEE in Legon, Ghana back in 2001. Sixteen years later, she still has a passion for international travel. Kassi currently serves as the national director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA) based out of Austin, Texas. She has worked for HI USA for six years now, pursuing their mission “to help all, especially the young, gain a greater understanding of the world and its people through hosteling.” HI USA runs hostels throughout the U.S. and also offers educational and engagement programs to hostel guests and community members in the local areas they serve, utilizing volunteers to help lead their programs. Working for HI USA, Kassi gets to ‘pay it forward’ to provide fun and welcoming environments that support international travelers’ cultural experiences, just like CIEE Study Abroad offered her in Ghana. We interviewed Kassi to learn more about her career and what she thinks about her CIEE Study Abroad experience now, sixteen years later:

What is your favorite memory of living in Ghana?

I have so many good memories of living in Ghana. I arrived to Accra a day early before the other CIEE students arrived. I remember staying at a beachside hotel where the staff were incredibly friendly. The hotel had windows open where the ocean breeze cooled off the room. I heard the waves crashing as I went to bed and I remember literally pinching myself asking, “Am I really here?” I just couldn't believe this dream was a reality.

Other great memories include:

  • Taking African drumming class at the university. Our class sat outside under a very large tree – we would sit in a circle and play.
  • We didn’t have classes on Fridays so every weekend my two new friends and I would travel and explore. We traveled all throughout Ghana and also went to all the surrounding countries: Togo, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast. We were able to see it all!
  • The food: not everyone loved the food, but I LOVED it. Fried plantains were amazing and I loved the fufu and banku. While some of my classmates were losing weight, I was gaining it!

How did studying abroad with CIEE impact your life?

Ever since I was in junior high school, I dreamed of traveling to Africa. Going to college and choosing to study abroad with CIEE made that dream a reality. The experience taught me that if you really want to do something you can make it happen. I was able to find a great supportive program through CIEE and even received a travel scholarship through my local university. Traveling to Ghana definitely gave me the confidence to go on and do more traveling abroad – some on my own and some with friends. Now that I am a mom of a 3-year-old little girl, I want her to have the same zest for travel. She has been to 10 states and also left the country once. She even has her own Southwest Airlines miles account!

What are you doing now?

I am the director of volunteer services for Hostelling International USA (HI USA), a non-profit organization that operates over 50 hostels nationwide. Each year, we welcome travelers from more than 100 countries, and more than 1,600 volunteers play a big role in helping fulfill our purpose to create a more tolerant world.

In my role, I help support and grow our volunteer program and volunteer experience. A lot of our volunteers love volunteering with us because it allows them to be part of a diverse community of travelers and be alongside fellow travel enthusiasts. To learn more about volunteering with HI USA, check out www.hiusa.org/volunteer or email me at volunteer@hiusa.org. We always are looking for great new volunteers!

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What do you like the most about working in the tourism industry?

I feel very lucky that my job mixes my love of travel and my love of being a part of something bigger – something that is trying to make the world a better place. I love that at HI USA we help provide travel experiences for others through our travel scholarships programs.

How do you think studying abroad, travelling, and staying in community housing like hostels helps create a more tolerant world?

Travel leads to world peace. It’s easy to judge and hate when you don’t know someone or don’t understand their culture. If you travel to a different country and become a traveler (not a tourist) and immerse yourself in their culture through talking with people, eating their food, listening to their music (you know, all the good stuff!), you gain a respect and understanding for a new culture. You learn to appreciate and not judge. And it’s not even a forced process; building tolerance and being a less prejudiced person just starts to happen naturally while traveling.

The same things happen every day in our hostels as people from different counties either sit down to share a meal, grab a beer, or go on a bike tour together. Conversations start to flow. There are laughs. There are plans made to hang out later that day and friendships are formed. Ultimately tolerance and respect are created.

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Kassi traveling with family.

Want to share your CIEE story? Email us.

From Costa Rica to California: One Study Abroad Alum’s Quest to Save an Endangered Species

Scientist. Educator. CIEE Alum of the Month. These are just a few words to describe CIEE Study Abroad alumna Kristin Aquilino, an Assistant Project Scientist at UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory who dedicates her time to saving the endangered white abalone. Abalone are sea snails found in many coastal waters whose meat is consumed as a delicacy and whose iridescent shells are used for jewelry and other mother of pearl decorations like guitar inlays. The white abalone is just one of 57 species in a group of herbivorous marine snails and is considered endangered as a result of overfishing, infections, and reproductive failure. Saving the species is Kristin’s passion. How did she become interested in this challenging work? What does study abroad have to do with it? We interviewed Kristin to find out this and more.

What motivated you to study abroad with CIEE in Monteverde, Costa Rica?

As an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, I was totally jazzed about ecology, biodiversity, and evolutionary biology. Few places in the world have as incredible biodiversity of plants and animals that evolved interesting ways to cope with their environments as Costa Rica. I also knew that putting myself slightly out of my comfort zone would help me grow as a scientist and as a person, and embarking on a journey that included backpacking in the rainforest was certainly a bit out there for a kid from Iowa who had hardly ever been camping.

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Photo courtesy of Kristin Aquilino

What’s one of your best memories from your time abroad in 2004?

One of my favorite memories from my time in Costa Rica is of learning the theory of island biogeography from a beach on the Osa Peninsula. It was my first and only experience with “sand PowerPoint” – our fantastic instructor, Dr. Carlos Guindon, would draw keywords and figures in the sand with a stick, and our teaching assistants would advance his “slides” by sweeping palm fronds over what he had written so he could start anew. To this day, it is the best lecture I have ever attended.

The most impressive part of the experience was not just being able to plunge my feet in the sand during class while enjoying a backdrop of crashing waves and scarlet macaws, but being able to experience the concepts we were learning in action. After our lecture, we visited a nearby island and compared species abundances and ecological processes on the island to those on the mainland. This immersive, hands-on approach was what made this field course so much more impactful than my lessons that took place in lecture halls on campus.

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Photo courtesy of Kristin Aquilino

How did your study abroad experience impact your education?

Observing natural history, asking and investigating my own scientific questions, building confidence, being surrounded by inspiring peers, witnessing the global, “real-world” impacts of science, understanding the context of science in society and how it affects people… all of these things made me a better naturalist, scientist, and human being.

My study abroad experience gave me a much more holistic appreciation of the earth and the way humans interact with it, which broadened my scope of interest when applying for graduate programs and pursuing future research questions. It also made me appreciate home; though I always had a passion for nature, I often didn’t appreciate the Great Plaines and rolling cornfields that surrounded me. Sometimes it takes something like an exotic rainforest to help you appreciate the wonders of the ecosystem in your own backyard.

What makes you so passionate about the white abalone?

Where do I begin? There is certainly a sense of purpose that comes with trying to correct past environmental mistakes. We humans were responsible for the decline of this species, and I believe that we have a responsibility to save them. Efforts to save an endangered species also allows for an excellent opportunity to engage in meaningful communication about the importance of science to our quality of life. I love opportunities to share our work through social media, video production, science outreach seminar series, and K-12 education.

I also have the pleasure of working with several amazing people and organizations. While the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory leads captive breeding efforts, we work closely with other universities, federal and state institutions, aquariums, and aquaculture farms to do this work, which is overseen by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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Photo courtesy of Karin Higgins, UCD

Most people have probably not heard of white abalone. What are five things everyone should know about the marine invertebrate?

  1. White abalone are a delicious marine snail that will go extinct very soon without our efforts to save them: We fished over 99% of them in the 1970’s, and the ones that remain are too far apart from one another to reproduce. This overharvest led to them being the first marine invertebrate to land a spot on the U.S. Endangered Species List.
  2. White abalone is one of seven species of abalone off the west coast of North America, and there are abalone on every continent except for Antarctica. Abalone are hugely culturally and economically important to communities worldwide, including coastal California; people eat them, make jewelry and guitar inlays out of their shells, and native people even used the shells as currency. My husband learned to harvest abalone from his uncle when he was a boy, and we can’t wait to teach our daughter to dive for them. Abalone are in the DNA of Californians and coastal inhabitants throughout the globe.
  3. White abalone and their congeners also possess ecological superpowers – they are like the Zambonis of the sea, maintaining a habitat that is perfect for lots of other animals to inhabit, and competing with species like urchins, that can wreak havoc on kelp forests when their populations go unchecked.
  4. White abalone are adorable. While many people appreciate the giant foot of these snails, so many don’t realize they also have “squee”-worthy faces. Few things bring me more joy than showing someone the beady, black eyes topping the mollusk's long, skinny eyestalks. They have personalities!
  5. We can save them. Captive breeding and outplanting was identified as the best way to rescue this species from the brink of extinction. We now boast more white abalone in captivity than exists in the wild. While this is a scary prospect for the wild population, it also presents a great opportunity to save them. With their wild habitat in relatively pristine condition, we should be able to get our captive-bred animals to thrive there and save this important species.
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Photo courtesy of Shauna Byron

For updates about Kristin and her colleagues’ efforts to save white abalone, follow them on Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter!

 

Study Abroad Alumna Works to Provide Computer Literacy in Rural Kenya

CIEE Study Abroad alumna Ruby Au traveled from the University of Southern California to Cape Town, South Africa in 2015 to pursue her interests in social enterprise and environmental issues. The semester abroad studying and working in a Western Cape township inspired her to keep traveling and solving problems. Ruby now lives in Nairobi, Kenya and operates a social enterprise that she co-founded. The organization, Lumen, is a market survey company that enables information gathering in rural communities while providing data and computer literacy to children. We interviewed Ruby to learn more about Lumen and her study abroad experience with CIEE.

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Ruby's Story

How did your study abroad experience spark your interest in social enterprise?
During my time in Cape Town, I had an opportunity to intern at Langa Quarter, a social enterprise precinct in Langa, the Western Cape’s oldest apartheid-era black township. The idea was to economically develop the area by providing business training to residents, who would then open up their homes as a homestay experience for visitors. With the preservation of culture in mind, it was a way to improve Langa’s neighborhoods by working with the residents rather than gentrifying the area. Prior to working at Langa Quarter, I had already been interested in social enterprise. Working in Langa solidified that interest, and helped shape my decision to move to Kenya later on.

When did the idea of Lumen come to life?
I don’t know that there was ever an “aha” moment for Lumen. Rather, it was a series of one thing leading to another, and continuous decisions to keep going down the proverbial rabbit hole. We started by identifying a need and asking people how we could help meet that need. When our first idea didn’t work, we would try to make that idea better. For example, this whole process started as a research investigation into the need for solar lamps. We later discovered that people weren’t asking for access to solar lamps, they were really asking for access to computers, and so on. (See below for Lumen’s story)

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Why Kenya?
Prior to starting Lumen, I had worked on a case challenge for Acumen, an impact investing group, about Kidogo, a Nairobi-based social enterprise that provides early childhood care services. Having had the opportunity to work on the case and meet Kidogo’s founder, I had a degree of academic familiarity about the social enterprise scene in Kenya. When I chose to visit in person in February 2016, it quickly became apparent to me that Nairobi is, in many senses, the capital of the social enterprise world. Adding on the perks of amazing people and the personal connections that I had made there, Kenya made a lot of sense.

What tips or advice do you have for other study abroad returnees to take their experience and turn it into a career?
Act while you are inspired and trust your gut. The period after you return from studying abroad is incredibly valuable because that’s often when inspiration and passion are at its strongest; you’re fresh from new experiences that expand your horizon of what you think is possible. Wait too long and it’s easy to forget that feeling and fall back into comfortable routines. Don’t let that happen!

Lumen's Story

Ruby Au traveled to Nairobi, Kenya in February 2016 to conduct independent research. Along the way, she met Rick Kiilu, a Kenyan who had grown up in a rural community in eastern Kenya. While offering to help Ruby with her research, Rick encouraged Ruby to re-direct her attention to rural Kenya, which lacked the attention and philanthropic activity centered around urban informal settlements.

After graduating college, Ruby moved to Kenya and began traveling to rural communities around the country with Rick. It was during these travels that the need for computer education in rural communities and the lack of access to it became apparent. “We know the world is becoming digital,” one community member told Rick, “and we don’t want to be left behind.”

Although over 70% of Kenya’s population lives in rural communities, these areas are by and large cut off from the digital revolution sweeping the urban centers of the country. In order to access a computer, many rural families are forced to send their children to classes in city centers that are hours away, and unaffordable for most. The question remained, “for rural communities already struggling to meet basic living expenses, what could be done to create a financially sustainable and scalable model for providing computer education?” From this question emerged the idea for Lumen.

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Co-founded by Ruby and Rick, Lumen is a social enterprise that integrates data collection with computer education to bridge the information gap in rural Kenya. Lumen provides market research services for development organizations by training students to collect data about their communities. At the same time, Lumen establishes computer labs where its students work with the data they collect, allowing them to master project-based computer skills while also learning to analyze and think critically about issues in their communities.

After concluding a successful pilot program in December 2016, Lumen is now crowdfunding to set up their first permanent “Lumen Labs" in Muhuru Bay and Mtito Andei, Kenya. You can help support the venture by donating to their campaign or visit their website to learn more. You can also follow Lumen on Facebook!

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Studying Abroad in Tokyo: Moving Forward

This article is part of a series by blog contributor Ria Jagasia, who studied abroad with CIEE in Tokyo, Japan in 2016.

My Facebook memories have let several cringe-worthy posts of mine resurface, but on December 9 this year I saw a very special post that has been my favorite memory thus far – the day I got my official acceptance to the CIEE Study Abroad program in Tokyo. Seeing that it had already been a year made me realize how much has changed since then, especially my language abilities.

Of course, being in Japan means that I had the opportunity to improve my language skills, and I did just that. Before going abroad, I had around a year and a half of Japanese classes, but I felt nervous going to Tokyo without the confidence I needed in my language ability. Living in a homestay was the perfect option for me, since it was a chance to speak in Japanese to native speakers. Even when I wasn’t speaking, I was listening. My listening comprehension, arguably more than my speaking, improved tenfold just because I was surrounded by people who only spoke that language. Coming back to my campus in the U.S., I definitely saw an improvement in my ability to read, write, and speak even in the more advanced material we covered. In addition to improving in those areas, I genuinely began to enjoy using and hearing the language. When I first started taking classes, I wasn’t sure if Japanese was right for me and really only continued it for the sake of my Asian studies major. It was definitely a challenge to pick up a completely new way of writing and speaking, and I wondered if it was really worth the effort. Being in Japan, speaking the language, and experiencing it in the context of daily life in Japan made me realize what a beautiful language it is and how lucky I was to be able to learn it.

Now that I am very far from Japan and in a community where Japanese culture isn’t as prevalent, it is hard to create and share my experiences. I think this has made me less inclined to constantly talk about where I went or what I saw during my time abroad, since it would be hard for people to relate to and, honestly, not everyone wants to hear about it. This is where friends come in – those that went with you, saw the same things as you, and lived the same life as you. I couldn’t have asked for better friends than the ones I made during the program and they have definitely been a part of my moving forward. Being able to relate not only in our common interest in Japan, but in the experiences we had there, makes me grateful that I can still keep in touch with them.

Additionally, cooking has always been a passion of mine and it was wonderful to be able to make some dishes from my Japanese homestay back in my own home. I was able to find ingredients in my local international market and enjoy the familiar tastes again. Sharing the food with my family was also a great way to have them experience my life in Japan. Initially it was hard to talk about my experiences with my family since they were not there with me and couldn’t truly understand. The Japanese food I made became a bridge of sorts as it allowed me to bring up some of the memories I have of eating those foods in Tokyo.

Being in Japan allowed me to explore an entirely new way of living and speaking that I would have never experienced otherwise. For those who are thinking of studying abroad, I would encourage you to take the leap – you will most definitely reap the rewards!

My Two Favorite Places to Visit in Tokyo

Even though I spent four months abroad, I wasn’t able to visit every part of Tokyo - let alone many places outside of it. However, I was able to make great memories in the places I did. Here are my two favorite places in Tokyo that anyone travelling to this city should visit:

1) Shibuya

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Those who know even a little bit about Tokyo definitely know about Shibuya, one of 23 city wards of Tokyo, and the famous crossing there. Shibuya has a multitude of shopping malls, restaurants, and all things in between. Shibuya station is by far one of the craziest stations in all of Tokyo because of the many lines that run through it given its central location. The crossing itself, which actually isn’t as big as I had imagined it to be, is busy any time of day with people flooding back and forth. Once you exit the station and zig around the mass of people to get to the crossing, the flashing ads will probably catch your attention - that is, if you are looking up. Shibuya has several large screens by the crossing advertising the newest brands or promoting new TV shows or music releases, all accompanied with blasting music. It is hard to escape the pure chaos of this part of town, but there is something not so crazy about it as well. For me, being in similarly crowded areas in the U.S., namely New York City, has always followed with headaches and a wanting to leave. I never felt that way about Shibuya. Maybe because it was so novel to me or that everyone minds their own business to the point where it doesn’t feel as crowded. There is something about the energy that is so exciting, especially at night, where you really feel what the energy in Tokyo is like. I loved to go to Shibuya and try to grab a spot at the Starbucks overlooking the crossing (which is rarely a success) or head out at night to wander around with friends. Shibuya has always been a special place to me, so much so that I have a postcard of it right above my bed. Every time I look at it, I remember all the fond memories I made by myself and with friends. With the Olympics coming up in 2020, the station is undergoing major construction and I can’t imagine more people being there than there already is! Nevertheless, Shibuya is most definitely an icon of Tokyo and its fantastic energy.

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2) Harajuku

Tokyo’s colorful and fashionable youth thrive in Harajuku, my second favorite spot in the city. Harajuku is known for the super kawaii (“cute” in Japanese) and super trendy shops that line Takeshita Street, the main attraction in this part of town. My first time here, I was amazed by the crowds that packed Takeshita Street and surprised by some of the costumed people that made their presence very clear out in front of the crowds. You cannot go to Harajuku without noticing the crazy number of crepe stands that always have people waiting to grab a snack. You might think that crepes are quite an odd Japanese dessert, but Harajuku’s sellers have found ways to add a unique spin and make it their own. Crepes in Japan are packed full of ice cream, brownies, and other sweet things that make them very unique.

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One of my favorite spots in Harajuku was actually slightly away from the chaos of the stores – the Meiji Jingu (Shrine). Meiji Jingu dates back to the era of Emperor Meiji and was established in 1920 to commemorate his death. The shrine itself is a large area surrounded by traditional Japanese shrine buildings. My favorite part is the walk to the shrine, passing the large Torii gate that symbolizes the entrance of the shrine. The walk to the shrine is a wide road covered by the overarching trees – an image straight out of an old Japanese folktale. Only in Japan would you find such an amazing shrine right next to the bustling shopping crowds in Harajuku.

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My ultimate spot in Harajuku, and definitely in my top places that I would like to go back to, is the Nescafé Café. Nescafé, known of course for their coffee and coffee machines, has their own physical café in Harajuku. Inside is a modern environment with calm music, large windows, and a beautifully designed interior. Not to mention, the coffee and food are amazing! The café is also a technological experience – ordering happens on an iPad and the very kind servers bring your food out to you. The big chairs and sofas make it a great study place – my friends and I took advantage of this on several weekends! The best part is the central area which has a selection of Nescafé coffees and coffee machines where you can make yourself a cup. I had never been in a café like this and really miss studying and chatting with my friends there. I really hope I get a chance to open a café inspired by this spot someday!

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By: Ria Jagasia (CIEE Study Abroad, Tokyo, Japan, 2016)

Alumni Voices: the 2016 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad