A Georgetown education is punctuated for most by many meaningful academic and social experiences. For some, however, many of the most eye-opening ones do not happen on the Hilltop. A semester abroad immerses students in a different culture, forcing them to confront preconceptions. Five students share their study abroad stories.
Tim DeVita (COL ’14)
Stellenbosch, South Africa
Now that I am back at Georgetown, I am often asked the question, “How was Africa?” Such a short question is deceivingly simple and altogether impossible to answer en route to class. My time in South Africa had a profound effect on me. Its natural beauty and dynamic culture entranced me.
In South Africa, I was enrolled directly in Stellenbosch University, just outside Cape Town in the Winelands. This is South Africa’s premiere Afrikaans University. The Afrikaaner community descended from the Dutch and is noted in history for comprising the National Party that imposed Apartheid. In fact, I had multiple classes in the building where the laws of Apartheid were written. At Stellenbosch, I lived in RES. This is similar to Hogwarts in that if you get into a RES, you live there for multiple years and compete academically, athletically and artistically with other RES students. I was the one American in my hallway and thus made mostly South African friends. I still talk to many on a daily basis. In our spare time, my friends would teach me how to surf, go wine-tasting or attend music festivals, which took place almost every weekend.
I took a wide array of courses, many focusing on community development. For example, for my “HIV: A South African Perspective” class, I worked directly to combat the HIV epidemic. The university gave four of my classmates and me 1,100 rand (approximately $120) to construct a sustainable HIV project in the township of Kayamandi. The townships of South Africa are where the black population lived during Apartheid. Most residents still live in tin shacks. I ended up befriending the girl who was our community partner and still correspond with her, too.
In South Africa, race is a hot topic. Although many students I encountered were not overtly racist, most of their parents were biased. This is largely because our generation is the first that does not recall the Apartheid years, seeing as the regime fell in 1994. I faced prejudice not only as a white male, but also as a Westerner and as a homosexual. Most Africans still feel the sting of imperialism and also see homosexuality as “un-African.” This surprised me, because South Africa is one of the few nations with a Constitution that protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation. Thus, even though many South Africans were uncomfortable with members of the LGBT community, I had more rights there as a foreigner than I do in the United States as a citizen.
Having finished classes in early November, I had time to backpack across Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique and Swaziland. This experience gave me confidence in myself while exposing me to people from all walks of life. I learned to step outside my comfort zone, immerse myself in many different cultures and interact with people whose backgrounds were extremely different from mine. Facing prejudice gave me the strength to stand up for all of my values, despite being in a completely foreign place. Lastly, I learned the struggles of the developing world. I now complain less about little things that often upset Georgetown students like the quality of Leo’s food. I hope to help those in need as I pursue a career as a doctor and will definitely monitor the effects the products I consume have on others.
Moreover, I aspire to help the effort to gain equal rights for LGBT people in the United States as the people in South Africa have done. As I revisit the familiar scenes of Georgetown student life, I see them with new eyes. In such a short period, my outlook on life was altered. I now see life on a more global scale. I implore all Georgetown students to spend some time abroad and away from the Hilltop.
Michael Paslavsky (COL ’14)
Although Georgetown’s colors may be blue and gray, I think the color gray applies best to the city of Dublin. Every morning I woke up to gray skies, gray streets and gray rain — I don’t even know if that’s possible. However, I would not have changed any of it.
During the past semester, Dublin was our playground. My fellow Georgetown students and I experienced everything from €2-euro chicken fillets — pronounced “fill-its” — trust me, I had a hard time getting that one – to a people, clad in cheesy Christmas sweaters, who celebrated Christmas for three weeks as they pursued their goal of the “12 Pubs of Christmas.”
We met the local Dubs and the culchies from the farms, but regardless of the county, they were hospitable and shared their entertaining stories — at least from the various pieces of the story I could actually understand. Certain expletives are pretty clear in any language or dialect.
The Irish people, no matter the country’s fiscal uncertainty, always had smiles on their faces and as Georgetown students focused on grades and futures, there are moments our smiles fade for stupid reasons. The Irish taught me to always keep smiling and of the beauty of “tomorrow” — hopefully, my professors can catch on to that idea as well.
As much as Ireland was great, I’m glad to be back. There was one night in late November when my friends and I watched the phenomenal video narrated by University President DeGioia about the Campaign for Georgetown. As the camera panned away from the front gates, I can assure you the waterworks were not from the gray skies but from the Georgetown students who had sincerely enjoyed their experience abroad but were ready to come home to the Hilltop. In all seriousness, we didn’t actually cry — it was our allergies to the mold growing in our bathroom, which we didn’t clean for the four months.
Samantha Lin (SFS ’14)
I went to Amman, Jordan knowing very little Arabic. And I’m not being modest — I hadn’t taken a single Arabic class, the alphabet looked like a mysterious code I would never unlock and the only phrases I knew were “Do you speak English?” and “Where is the bathroom?”
But I didn’t want the language barrier to stop me from studying in a region where I had always wanted to go. So, I took a huge leap of faith and hopped on a flight headed to the Middle East. At first, I was completely overwhelmed. I had to pick up survival phrases (“Give me my money now!”) and learn how to live with four host siblings in a two-bedroom apartment.
Studying abroad in the Middle East is, to be honest, terrifying, but entirely worth it. Everything from my three-year-old sister’s confiscating my phone and refusing to give it back until I had correctly pronounced a new Arabic word to hiking through a river and rappelling down an 80-foot waterfall to hearing air sirens in the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem to successfully bargaining for a lamp (all in Arabic!), my time in Jordan was adventurous from start to finish. In the end, I surprised myself in my ability to jump into unexpected situations without knowing what I was doing but with the faith that I would not only get out of it but also learn something from it. That was the most surprising thing about study abroad: myself.
Alexandra Buck (COL ’14)
St. Petersburg, Russia
Imagine a Lady Gaga concert: crazy costumes, bright lights, provocative dancing and a building full of “little monsters.” Now imagine a Lady Gaga concert in Russia, where an anti-gay propaganda law prohibits the promotion of homosexuality to minors.
When I received tickets to the concert in St. Petersburg, knowing I would be studying abroad, I never could have anticipated what the event would be like. Months before the date, the city seemed to have mixed feelings. Some Russians I spoke to were very excited that she was finally coming. Others, however, found it embarrassing and a threat to society. While homosexual acts are not illegal, any sort of representation in public can get you in a lot of trouble. Even before Lady Gaga’s plane landed, she was being threatened with a $150,000 fine or arrest if the show took place. Between her manager and Russia’s prime minister, everything was smoothed out. But it still felt like Russia wasn’t ready for her quite yet.
The night of the concert, the crowd was restrained by police holding shields and batons. Nothing major happened outside, but it felt like the police were waiting for just one person to make a wrong move. When the concert finally started, I wasn’t surprised that the crowd was low on enthusiasm; the opening bands were nothing like the pop stars the Russians love. I was in for a big shock, though, when the crowd remained at a dull roar when Lady Gaga came out.
My friends and I were singing along and jumping up and down to every song. Our paws were up, and we didn’t have a care in the world. Beside me, people stood completely still, with their arms folded over their chests. In the stadium area, most stayed seated for the entire concert. Even when Gaga yelled for them to stand up and dance — and had her message translated — very few got up. It was unlike any concert I had ever been to. She later told the crowd via translator that she was so thankful to be in Russia and wouldn’t end her fight until equality existed for all her little monsters. While my friends and I went crazy over her speech, crickets could be heard elsewhere in the arena.
I later found out that many Russians went to the concert for bragging rights only — something I never would have guessed. It turns out her fan base isn’t as large in Russia. Also, it turns out the cultural norm is to sit down for concerts and enjoy whatever type of music or show is going on. I think a lot was lost on the crowd because she spoke and sang in English. It’s definitely not a popular second language in Russia, and the people who have studied it tend to be younger.
It makes sense to think that concerts would be different all over the world, but I never expected a Lady Gaga concert to be so subdued. I learned so much about Russian culture in one night, and I’ll never forget that concert.
I think I’ll stick to U.S. concerts from now on, though.
Nicholas Dirago (COL ’14)
There were essentially three responses that I would get when I told people I was studying abroad in Cuba. By far the most common was, “Oh, I didn’t know you could do that” — a tepid combination of surprise, uncertainty and suspicion. Beyond that, they were about evenly split between genuine interest (“Wow! What a great opportunity!”) and circumspect cross-examination (“What exactly are you going to do there?”). At this point, I don’t even remember what my exact motivations were for choosing Cuba as a destination for studying abroad. I do know, however, that I was looking for a place that would be substantially different from the settings to which I was accustomed; I wanted to maximize the proverbial pushing of my comfort zone.
Of course, this is exactly what study abroad is supposed to be about. To be sure, Cuba pushed me in ways that I could not possibly enumerate here. But for all of the differences, for all of the unfamiliar aspects of the new culture, what repeatedly struck me over the course of my semester abroad was the sameness that I encountered.
Before my departure, I would often joke that I’d be “so close but so far” while in Cuba; the island, despite being only 90 miles off the coast of Florida, would be like another world.
Yes, there were old cars. The government is socialist. There’s been remarkably little contact with the United States since 1962. Business has little presence. Different, to say the least.
But at the end of the day, the most striking thing about Cuba — and perhaps the hardest thing to illustrate — is how familiar the country was. Cuba, like anywhere else, is a country full of people living lives — wholly ordinary lives. It has many quirks, but none of them makes the place any more or less of “another world” than do those of any country with which the United States has normalized relations.
One thing that did set Cuba apart, however, was that people have to live these ordinary lives with so few resources — often times due to the embargo but more generally due to poverty.
As a result, sometimes things don’t operate optimally; sometimes you have to wait in a long line, the finished product isn’t what you expected or accomplishing what you need to is impossible for reasons beyond your control. This is what was most challenging for me, and I originally attributed it to my impatience.
Cuba made me realize, however, that what I had been thinking of as impatience was probably something closer to entitlement: although I never knew it, I felt that I was entitled to smooth operations and the absence of the obstacles I would encounter, and I got frustrated when reality wasn’t commensurate with that belief. And although a gut reaction for myself and many American students was to resort to blaming a backward economic system or a clumsy bureaucracy, the lesson for me was that I’ve had the privilege of being accustomed to conditions that much of the world could never have access to.
Obviously, I knew that going in. But being in Cuba made it real; it put my entitlement into stark relief. I suppose I wish that saying that you’re going to study abroad in Cuba got the same reaction as saying you’re going to Barcelona, London or Buenos Aires. But if it’s not going to get that reaction, I wish it weren’t because of the perception of Cuba as some foreign, incomprehensible world. Instead, I wish it were because of the depth of our first-world entitlement and the distancing effect that it can have vis-a-vis the world’s most vulnerable populations.