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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.

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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.

Aquilino microscope_Karin Higgins UCD
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.
Aquilino with white abalone_Shauna Byron
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.

Crepe

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.

Shrine

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

Study Abroad Alum Tells Us, "It's Okay to Come Home"

Alexandria Polanosky photo

Studying abroad is an exciting, educational, and transformational experience that changes lives forever. But after falling in love with a new city and country, it can be difficult to return home. Your thoughts and feelings about your life abroad may be frustrating to communicate to friends and family as you experience reverse homesickness (missing people and places from abroad), uncertainty, or maybe even withdrawal. The re-entry period isn’t easy, but there are ways to overcome reverse culture shock.

CIEE Study Abroad alum Alexandria Polanosky experienced this transition period herself and tells us “It’s Okay to Come Home” in her recent article for The Huffington Post blog. The Ohio University student spent a semester in Stellenbosch, South Africa, exploring the area and blogging like a true budding visual journalist. A year later, study abroad is still on her mind as she writes for College Tourist as a Summer Travel Blogger Team Member. We interviewed Alexandria to learn more about her experience abroad and her thoughts on re-entry:

What motivated you to write this article about re-entry, a year after returning from study abroad?

After working in my university's study abroad office upon returning from my time abroad with CIEE, I wanted to continue sharing my travel experiences as well as trying my best to inspire other students to take advantage of the many study abroad opportunities we have available to us. So, this past summer, I was part of College Tourist's summer travel bloggers.

Returning home after traveling has always been something I struggle with, and I spent a long time reflecting on why I should embrace coming home while also appreciating the experience I had. This article was both my way of accepting coming home and sharing these feelings with other student travelers that likely experience the same difficulties.

In the article, you encourage other study abroad returnees to take their spontaneity and curiosity that they had abroad and use it to explore their hometowns. Is this something you did yourself? How do you think this helps with the re-entry process?

If my time abroad taught me anything, it was to embrace the spontaneous side of myself that I previously pushed away. I learned to enjoy every single moment no matter where I was. I definitely adopted this idea at home as I continue to find new places to visit and explore. No matter how cold and cloudy it may get here, I have learned to enjoy it just as much as the sunny, beautiful town of Stellenbosch, South Africa I spent so much time in a few years ago.

Embracing spontaneity and never ceasing to search for new adventures at home can definitely help with the re-entry process. I think a lot of the fear of returning home comes from the thought of facing familiarity after experiencing so many new things and believing that your days won't be nearly as exciting as they were abroad. Overcoming this fear by making an effort to rediscover your hometown can be a great way to deal with re-entry.

What other advice would you give to recently returned study abroad participants?

For any recently returned study abroad students, I would definitely encourage you to share your experiences with others, good and bad! Traveling and studying abroad is a big unknown for many people and can seem scary or unattainable. Sharing experiences and advice, like how to pay for studying abroad, can help encourage other students to pursue such wonderful opportunities. You might also find that many other students struggled with the same aspects of re-entry as you. Also, try to keep in touch with any friends you made abroad; it’s fun to see where everyone's lives take them after the end of the semester or year. For those who have not yet returned home, don't let the return date on your plane ticket scare you. Enjoy every bit of today!


Have something to share about YOUR international exchange or re-entry experience? Email us to find out how you can share your story on the CIEE Alumni blog.

Stories from Senegal – CIEE Study Abroad Alum Shares Peace Corps Experience

Did you know that the former vice president of the CIEE Alumni New York City Chapter has been in the Peace Corps for nine months now? After a successful time as a volunteer leader for the chapter, CIEE Study Abroad alum Anna Poruks traveled to Senegal to begin a two-year assignment as a Peace Corps Volunteer. With a bachelor’s degree in counseling and clinical psychology, Anna is now a Health Extension Volunteer in a small Senegalese village in the Louga region. Her work includes projects aimed at improving child and maternal health, increasing knowledge and access to proper water and sanitation techniques, and eradicating malaria. And, of course, cultural exchange.

We checked in with Anna for an update on her time in Senegal:

“My Peace Corps experience thus far has been an incredible roller coaster, but overall so worth it and one of the greater experiences of my life. In these past nine months I have been completely submerged in Senegalese culture, learned how to speak a traditional West African language, and adjusted to an entirely different pace of life. At the same time, I have been working to decrease malaria, improve maternal and child health, and educate about the importance of water sanitation and hygiene in my village. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is an amazing opportunity to help others at a grassroots level and learn about a different culture, while teaching others about American culture in the process. I am looking forward to what the future has in store!”

Follow Anna’s Peace Corps journey by visiting her blog.

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Anna pictured with Malick, a coworker in the Linde health hut.

CIEE Study Abroad Alum Will Speak at 2016 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad

We are pleased to announce that CIEE Study Abroad alum Hannah Smalley has been chosen to be a Generation Study Abroad Voice at the 2016 IIE Summit on Generation Study Abroad taking place this weekend in Washington, D.C. Hannah studied abroad in Legon, Ghana through CIEE in 2011 and graduated from Tulane University in 2012 with a double major in international development and sociology and a minor in psychology. She currently lives in Washington, D.C. and works as the Coordinator for Women, Girls, and Population for the United Nations Foundation.

The Summit brings education leaders, government and business leaders, and journalists together to discuss how to make study abroad opportunities available for all, over the course of more than 30 sessions, 12 summit talks, 4 think tanks, and 5 learning labs. This interactive conference is designed to help attendees explore ideas for expanding study abroad participation, exchange best practices with a diverse group, and experiment with new actions to work towards the goal of doubling study abroad participation by 2020.

Hannah will be a panelist on the session “Mavericks with a Cause: Generation Z and Millennial Incentives for Study Abroad,” talking about her first-hand experience studying abroad and the academic and professional experiences these generations find valuable. As someone whose study abroad semester made a profound impact on her career trajectory, Hannah is excited to speak about the value of these types of experiences for future generations. And, she will be taking over our social media channels to tell us all about it!

First, though, we interviewed Hannah to learn more about her study experience:

If you could describe your study abroad experience in one word, what would it be?

Catalystic.

What made you interested in studying in Ghana?

It was really more the program that initially sparked my interest in Ghana rather than the country itself. The CIEE program had a development track that you could apply to, which provided an internship and international development classes; since I was an international development major, that was right up my alley. It really was the opportunity that I had been longing for, a program that I knew would guarantee the hands-on learning experience that I felt was the point of study abroad.

What did studying abroad offer for your education that was different compared to another semester at university?

My study abroad experience truly offered me more than I had ever anticipated; both in and out of the classroom, and the experience ultimately helped lead me to my career, which is working in the field of girls and women’s rights.

My most poignant and impactful moment studying abroad was while I was working on my internship, which was co-founding an eco-tourism non-profit. My two partners were one Ghanaian man and one American man. Initially, at least two of us would go to meetings together, which was fine. Then the American man had to go back to the U.S., and I started working more independently, as my other co-founder didn’t live full-time in Accra. One day I had a meeting with a man who worked at a television station, who we had met with before, to go over an upcoming project. I sat at his office for two hours before he finally came out to talk to me. However, as soon as he stepped out he asked where my partners were. I said I was on my own and he let me know that he would not be working with an American woman. He told me to come back with my co-workers then turned on his heel and left.

Needless to say, though I had seen gender inequity in the US, I had never experienced anything close to that before. The point of study abroad, at least for me, was to experience a culture completely different from my own, and in that I was very successful. That moment has stayed with me and will continue to drive me to work in the international gender space. I have always had the passion to work in this field, but my experiences abroad gave me a very real push to make it my career.

  • Follow Hannah’s Summit experience on social media – she’s taking over the CIEE Alumni Twitter & Instagram until Oct. 26!

Meeting the Host Family

While applying for the program, I had my doubts about living with a host family, as I had never had any experience like it. What if I didn’t get along with them? What would happen if I couldn’t speak with them because of the language barrier? So many of these thoughts were running through my head and I considered staying in the dorm, but then I had a realization. I wasn’t moving halfway across the world to be in a familiar environment, I was going to put myself out there and try something new. Living with a host family was the answer.

All the students in my program gathered in a room, separated only by a wall from the room full of host parents. I could feel the anticipation, nervousness, and excitement buzzing through both rooms as we were called out, one by one, to meet our new parents. I met the other student who was going to be living with me and we both went to see our host mom who had come to pick us up. I remember seeing her for the first time and already having a good feeling. I introduced myself with what I had rehearsed multiple times and then we headed out to take our family picture and go to the train station. The first moments were only what could be described as an awkward happiness of sorts. There wasn’t much talking as we made our way through the hustle and bustle of all the new families to take the Chuo line (one of the most central train lines in the city) towards Yokohama, the city that I would grow deeply fond of. We hopped on the next line to go all the way to my home station and made the short walking trip to the house itself. The house was deceptively small but had so many rooms, leaving my new host sister and me with a floor to ourselves. The first dinner late that night was admittedly rough as I wanted to say so much, but could only manage a “arigato gozaimasu” (“thank you”). We had delicious homemade tempura, (an assortment of panko-coated, fried vegetables), and then got a house tour to show us where everything was before retiring to bed. I remember feeling so at home that night and excited to see what the future days would bring.

The first nights at dinner were filled with delicious food and fun conversations over geography books that my host dad had collected over the years. I got to show them where my hometown of Nashville was and explain to them, as best as I could, what it was famous for – namely country music. I also showed them where in India my family was from and was surprised to learn from my host dad that Mumbai, where my parents grew up, was sister cities with Yokohama! That connection remains with me today and I still think it was fate that mine and my host family’s paths intertwined. Over the course of my stay there, I saw my language skills improve tremendously and I began to enjoy my life in Japan so much more. Whether it be walking to and from my home station, dinner with my host mom while watching the most hilarious Japanese television programs, or wandering around Yokohama, I realized that leaving would be so much harder than I had expected.

I learned so much from my time in Yokohama with my family, not only through improving my language skills, but through learning how to appreciate people from other cultures, especially those that are willing to learn about yours. My host family had so many students pass through their house over the years but they were still so curious to learn about my hometown and the culture I grew up in. I received a much greater sense of appreciation for Japanese culture and Japanese people by living with a host family; my experience in Tokyo would not have been as fulfilling without the homestay experience. When other students in my program would go back to the dorm, I got to go back to a family and continue to learn about Japanese culture, exploring why it meant so much to me. I wish there were more kind and generous people like them and I wish, more than anything, that I could go back ‘home’ to Japan.

Yokohama tower view
Tower view of Yokohama.

by Ria Jagasia (CIEE Study Abroad, Tokyo, Japan, 2016)