Reflections on my mid-semester meeting

We had mid-semester meetings to make sure we’re meeting the requirements for the Global Engagement Fellowship. I thought my mid-semester meeting went pretty well. It was really helpful to just go over the requirements again and make sure I was on track to get everything done. I’m not always the best at keeping track of all the requirements for a program, so it was good to make sure everything was in order and make sure there weren’t going to be any unpleasant surprises at the end of the semester. It was also really helpful to talk about the digital portfolio and story. I wasn’t quite clear on the exact expectations for either of those things, so it was definitely good to get that cleared up.

After the mid-semester meeting, I do have a few goals for the rest of this semester. First, I’d obviously like to follow through with the three goals I had for the meeting to continue becoming more globally engaged. It’s only been about a week, but so far I think I’m doing pretty well with my goal of keeping up on international news. After the conference, I also have a few additional goals. One is to stay focused for the last half of the semester. I tend to lose focus in the third quarter of just about anything, which is starting right about now. The last few weeks I’ve noticed my focus slipping away just a little bit, and I don’t want to let that continue. I hope to not lose focus by simply being aware of the fact that it usually happens, and by scheduling my time really well. I’ve found that if I have a written list of things to do, I’m much more likely to get everything done, so I’ll make sure to do that in order to stay focused. Finally, another goal for the rest of this semester is to keep up with my Global Engagement blog. I’m not very familiar with blogging, and I can already see that I’ll probably forget to post because it’s not a one-time thing, but it also isn’t a daily thing. Again, I think this problem can probably be solved by writing something down. (Edit: It’s the end of the semester and I just now managed to post this! I didn’t do a very good job of keeping up with posting here, but I’ll try to do better in the future!)

Manu Prakash and his 50 cent microscope

I watched Manu Prakash’s TED talk on his 50 cent microscope, and you should too.

The idea of a microscope made of paper is incredibly powerful, and has so many applications in so many parts of the world. I never really thought about microscopes as needing to be rethought, and I doubt many people do. After the microscope was first invented, it fulfilled our needs at the time, and continues to be useful in the developed world today, so we never really thought about changing it. When we donate microscopes to health clinics in the developing world, we don’t really think about how useful they will actually be, we just assume that they will work the same in developing countries as they do in the developed world. Of course, this is incorrect, and brings up one of the fundamental issues we face when dealing with other parts of the world, and particularly the developing world.

When we think about helping the developed world, the first thing we want to do is export our knowledge and technology, so that they can enjoy the same benefits that technology has given us. We think that by giving them our technology, we will be able to speed up their development process, and better the lives of people living in developing countries. While this is true to some extent, our technology doesn’t have nearly the impact we expect it to because we fail to take into account the differences between our society and the societies in Africa, or Latin America, or Asia, or really anywhere other than the United States. This is a fundamental reason that our aid is ineffective in many developing countries. When we install a water pump, we don’t think about the fact that the locals probably don’t have the tools to repair it when it breaks, so it becomes useless within a few years. When we donate a microscope to health clinics, we don’t think about the fact that people might not know how to use it, and there probably isn’t a perfectly clean, sanitized environment for it to operate, so it will probably wear down or break. I convinced my parents to buy my brother and I a cheap microscope when we were younger, and I can attest to the fact that conventional microscopes do not stand up to being used in less than ideal environments.

Prakash’s 50 cent microscope solves a lot of these problems. They’re cheap to make, so if one breaks, no big deal. They’re easy to put together, and directions are in the form of color-coding, rather than being in English or some other language in which people in the developing world might not be proficient. Even though they’re made of paper, they’re much more durable and useable than traditional microscopes. Such a device would be huge for health clinics in the developing world. As Prakash mentioned, they also have educational applications. It’s hard enough for a hospital to get microscopes in the developing world, much less a school. But if a microscope only cost 50 cents, it would be huge for science education in developing countries. Solutions like this make me really excited about majoring in engineering. There are so many problems out there that we don’t even think about, but that have such incredibly powerful solutions. This is definitely one of those solutions.

International volunteering and its pitfalls

This week we talked about the merits and drawbacks of international volunteering. As it turns out, there are a lot of problems with international volunteering, particularly short term, “voluntourism” projects. I haven’t ever gone on an international volunteer trip, but I definitely wanted to go on one. Of course, I didn’t really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do or how it would be helpful. I would most likely have made all of the mistakes we discussed in class. After this class, however, I’m much more skeptical of international volunteer service. I still think there is merit to volunteering, we just need to be careful about how we volunteer, and how we think about volunteering.

First, I think it’s just as important to volunteer close to home as it is to volunteer internationally. It’s much easier to make a long-term commitment and make a real difference close to home than halfway across the world. I volunteered at a therapeutic riding center every weekend for several years back in Colorado, and if I had to guess, I’d say that had more of a positive impact than anything I could have reasonably done internationally. Another issue with international volunteering is that it can perpetuate misunderstanding of developing countries. It’s easy to homogenize entire developing countries, or even entire continents (Africa). It’s easy to assume that all Africans are poor and in need of our help, and traveling to Africa solely to volunteer can perpetuate this misunderstanding. We can also start to think of ourselves as superior, because they need our help. Of course, this is incredibly problematic.

I don’t mean to say that international volunteering is all bad. There are still ways we can, and should, help internationally, and nothing is wrong with wanting to make people’s lives better. We just need to think about the potential issues, and try to avoid as many as possible. If we volunteer internationally, we should focus on sustainable and long term solutions, and make sure some system is in place to maintain those solutions. This doesn’t mean that if you complete a project abroad you have to fly halfway across the world to check back every year, but there may be potential for more volunteer trips that focus on maintaining projects, rather than making new ones. The most helpful projects may not be the most glamorous. On that note, we need to be careful about our attitudes toward volunteer projects. We should be careful not to fall into the trap of considering ourselves superior to the people we are helping, or of assuming we know what’s best for them. I think a lot of volunteer projects are ineffective because foreign volunteers assume they know what people in a certain community need, when in reality, this community functions differently than Western society, and the solutions that we might institute in Western society won’t be effective. Instead of assuming that we know everything, we need to work with local communities to create real solutions.

Mentally preparing to study abroad

This week in class we listened to a panel of people who had studied abroad. The perspectives of the panel were really helpful. One of my biggest worries about going abroad is the fact that I’ll be so obviously different. I think that having the experience of being an outsider is one of the most interesting and useful aspects of studying abroad, but I’ve never really been an “outsider” before, and it definitely makes me nervous. Hearing from people who have already been abroad and dealt with being an outsider calmed my nerves a bit. It was reassuring to hear that people were usually willing to use English when it became necessary. Obviously, I want to be able to use English as little as possible while abroad, but it’s nice to know that if I need it, there will probably be someone who can speak English and help me out. It was also good to hear from the women on the panel that gender wasn’t really an issue for them while abroad.

The panel also made me think about a few issues that I hadn’t really thought about before, which will help me be ready to deal with those issues. For example, I never really thought about religion being an issue abroad. I don’t know why, because religion is a huge issue in general, but I just never thought about it. I’m not religious, but it was good for me to recognize that I may have to go to church with a host family or something like that. I have no problems doing that, but I still think it’s a good thing to be ready for. I also never thought about the fact that people might want to take pictures of me abroad because I’ll look different. Again, this is a small issue and I don’t think it will bother me, but it’s good to know about ahead of time. Listening to the panel definitely helped me plan ahead and be more prepared for some of the issues that I might face while abroad.

Being the outsider, and preparing to study abroad

This week in class, we did an activity that involved some members of the class being “outsiders”, while the rest of the class acted as a foreign society. Three of us were the “outsiders”, and our aim was to find out as much as we could about the culture of the rest of the class. We could only go into the classroom one at a time, and we could ask any members of the class whatever questions we wanted to. When I went into the classroom, the answer to every question was either “yes, yes, yes” or “no, no, no”, and they would often answer the same question two different ways when asked multiple times. Additionally, some people refused to speak to me at all. The three of us “outsiders” came up with a lot of guesses about their culture, all of which were ultimately wrong. The actual rule was that they respond with “yes, yes, yes” when people seemed happy, and “no, no, no” when people seemed upset. Additionally, they could only answer to people with the same sleeve length as they had.

Though there wasn’t much to find out about the class “culture”, this activity was really interesting and really opened my eyes to what traveling abroad might be like. When the people in the strange culture continued to only say “yes, yes, yes” and “no, no, no”, trying to find out about their culture, or even ask any simple question, became very frustrating very quickly. While I was trying to communicate with the rest of the people in the class, I always felt as though everyone knew something I didn’t. I can definitely see how a similar situation could (and probably will) happen abroad, which I didn’t really think about before. It’s always been obvious that when I go abroad, I’ll be in a different place, and people will be different from me, but what I’m starting to realize is that a layer of my confidence comes from knowing how people are likely to act, and when I go abroad, that layer of confidence won’t be there. I felt a bit nervous just with people from our class pretending to be from a different culture, so I’m definitely nervous about getting my bearings when I go abroad and feel completely out of place and uninformed. I’m definitely a lot more nervous about going abroad now than I was, but I also think I’ll be more prepared for that feeling of isolation and awkwardness as a result of this class.

Overall, I think the more I learn about studying abroad, and the clearer ideas I have of what my experience might be like, the more overwhelming it becomes. When we filled out the study abroad questionnaire, it brought up a lot of things that I hadn’t really started to consider yet. For example, I didn’t even think about hospitals or medicines before filling out the questionnaire. I didn’t really think about location or living conditions either. I’ve been so preoccupied with trying to figure out where to fit in a semester abroad without falling behind in my major that I haven’t really thought about any of these other hugely important issues. This week was a bit of a wakeup call in terms of me realizing how many details go into studying abroad. Thinking about all the details definitely made me nervous, but it also inspired me to do some serious planning, so that’s at least one positive. I’m definitely glad we got this started now, because I have time to look through all the options, and pick something that will work well with what I want to do.

How not to Offend People

In class, we talked about how we can avoid unnecessarily offending people from different countries both in the US and while abroad. This involved a discussion as well as a panel of international students. I have several habits and behaviors that I will be trying to change as a result of this week’s discussion. Now that I’ve started to question my habits, I’ve realized that there are a lot of things I say that I don’t even think about, but that are actually fairly insensitive. When the international students were saying the things that they don’t necessarily appreciate being asked, I realized that I have actually asked people those questions. For example, I have definitely asked someone if they knew somebody who was also from the same country, even though it’s impossible that a person would know every single other person from their country. I realize now how ridiculous of a question that was. One of the International students also mentioned how weird how annoying it is when people automatically assume that they don’t know anything about the United States. I try not to make assumptions, but I can see how it would be easy to automatically think of myself as a kind of mentor, rather than a friend. I realize now that thinking like that is inherently insulting, and I’ll make a conscious effort not to think that way in the future.
Additionally, I think I can sometimes be that person who pretends to know things instead of asking questions, and I’ll definitely be working to change that.
I also found the potential study abroad scenarios that we went through really interesting. They exposed a lot of weird things about our country and culture that I don’t usually think about or even notice. For one, I don’t usually think about using “America” and “United States” interchangeably, but they definitely don’t mean the same thing. I can also see how it’s a really great way to offend people without even thinking about it. This discussion also made me realize just how strange our media is. No media ever represents it’s people perfectly, but our media is just really strange. I can see why people make certain assumptions about the U.S. based on our media. Finally, the situation where the host mother was always following the exchange student to turn off the lights made me realize just how lucky I am, as a college kid in the United States, with adequate access to all the resources I need and more. It’s really tricky to be in this situation and not feel incredibly guilty about all of the unnecessary resources I’m currently consuming at this very moment. I’ve definitely been inspired by that discussion to make a conscious effort to conserve resources as much as possible.

OU Cousins

OU Cousins is a program that pairs international students at OU with American cousins. This is a great program that aims at developing friendships between American and international students at the University. I recently met my OU cousin, and it was an incredible experience. Despite being a Global Engagement Fellow, I can’t say that I’ve encountered a whole lot of difference or diversity in my life. I spent the first 18 years of my life in the same house in Castle Rock, Colorado, and the biggest change I’ve ever encountered was moving to OU just a few months ago. Needless to say, my OU Cousin, who knows French and Chinese in addition to English, and has lived in two countries before studying abroad in the US, has a much different perspective than I do.

My cousin and I spent a few hours at the beginning of this semester just sitting in front of the library talking about our lives. Mostly, we talked about my cousin’s life, because it’s much more interesting and impressive than mine. My cousin grew up in China, but attended a French university. Now she’s studying at OU for a year before she returns to France to complete her master’s thesis. Despite having spent the past several years in France, she’s retained a lot of her everyday practices from China. She still eats almost exclusively Chinese food, which she makes herself. She’s also kept all of her small electrical appliances from China with her through her education in France, and now has them here in the U.S.. Despite carrying her culture with her, she was really curious about American culture, particularly how we celebrate holidays.

Naturally, when OU Cousins hosted a pumpkin carving event, my cousin was very excited to see what Halloween was all about. Neither of us were able to make it to the event, so we bought some pumpkins from Target, and carved them together. Afterward, we ate some tofu and pig’s ears prepared by my cousin for lunch. It was a really cool exchange of culture, and I hope to have similar experiences with OU cousins in the future!

Chinese Corner!

One of the events sponsored by the Confucius Institute at OU is Chinese Corner. Chinese corner is an opportunity to meet with other students and a Chinese teacher to simply practice speaking Chinese. When I went, there were only two students, myself and another Global Engagement Fellow, Ashlynne Macnee. We spent an hour speaking only Chinese. If we didn’t know how to say something, we had to try to explain it in Chinese or draw it.

I learned quite a few new words in that one hour. It was also good to try and explain unknown words using only Chinese. It’s easy when learning a language to fall into the trap of tossing English words into the middle of a sentence when you don’t know something. Chinese corner forced me to realize that my Chinese has actually come a long way. I don’t necessarily know a lot of words, but I at the very least know how to describe a lot of words I don’t know using ones that I do know. I will definitely be going to Chinese Corner again to keep practicing my Chinese.

First Post!

Hi everybody! This is Louise at the University of Oklahoma. The point of this blog is to track my progress through OU’s Global Engagement Fellowship and beyond. The goal of the Global Engagement Fellowship is exactly what you might expect – to encourage global participation and engagement at the University of Oklahoma. The program helps students become engaged through language learning, study abroad, and engagement with international groups on campus. This year, I’m a freshman in the Global Engagement Fellowship program. I’ll be using this blog to document all of my exciting international experiences and travels over the next four years, and hopefully even after I graduate!