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Eliza Collison, Fulbright, Nicaragua: Preparing to be a Cultural Ambassador

When I opened the email my first reaction was to jump out my chair, run out of the office (I was at work when I received the news) and pace back and forth calling Mom, Dad, friends, family, etc. Later in the day the initial shock wore off and the reality set in. You have a “Why me?” moment where you realize that something so abstract and supposedly far fetched becomes a reality. Then you get over that moment and begin to look forward to your preparations ahead. It is a lot of emotions for one day!

Preparation, in the most traditional sense consists of…

1. Paperwork. Lots and lots of paperwork. I know it’s boring, but it’s true. Before you leave for any country for a long period of time you have to make sure you’re well and able. Then you have to prove you actually graduated, so there’s another form to fill out. Then, there are certain forms you turn in within certain time periods depending on your date of departure. I have a running spreadsheet of all of the documents I had to turn in order to avoid driving myself crazy with questions of “Wait, did I turn that in yet?”

2. Orientation: I think the best preparation I have had so far is the Western Hemisphere orientation. I spent an entire weekend in a hotel in D.C. with other students who were in the same boat as me. It was also amazing to hear how diverse people’s projects are! The projects range anywhere from studying an endangered sloth population in Panama to discovering locals’ reactions to foreign medical aid in Honduras. I also had the opportunity to speak to a young woman who had also done her Fulbright in Nicaragua. Hearing from someone who had gone through the experience was comforting as you learn that they had the same doubts and fears before the experience and eventually made the most of it.

I also had the opportunity to meet other Fulbrighters coming to Nicaragua. There are two other people doing the student program and two professors doing the scholar program…and not a single one of them will be in Managua. This is both comforting and nerve wracking. Comforting in the sense that I can go about my research and fully immerse myself in the culture but also nerve wracking because I will have to navigate through a new city on a more independent level. Still, if there’s anything I’ve learned from being abroad before it’s being alone and feeling lonely are two completely different sensations.

3. Reading: I scour blogs of former Fulbrighters (nickname for Fulbright grantees) in Nicaragua. I signed up for something called Nicaragua Dispatch which sends me the top headlines of the day in Nicaragua. I also been keeping a record of publications relevant to my research.

4. Talking: A big part of preparing for Fulbright is to be able to talk about your research in two phrases or less, so you don’t lose your audience. I spent this past summer in Washington D.C. for an internship, so I had many opportunities to practice my Fulbright “elevator speech” at various networking events. I was also surprised to meet a lot of people who have connections to Nicaragua, a country of barely 5 million people. For example, I was at my visiting my brother’s university and met two people who had lived in Nicaragua at one point. One of them was able to give me handy safety and travel advice while the other had a friend who lives there and has agreed to show me around when I arrive.

A more abstract form of preparation

As important as it is to prepare oneself for living abroad a key aspect of preparation is actually to expect the unexpected, as cliche as that sounds. I have to strike a delicate balance between coming in with as much prior knowledge as possible while also understanding that not everything is as I imagined. You can read dozens of articles on a subject or current situation, but it will never be the same as seeing it firsthand. For this reason I hope that diplomacy continues to exist. I don’t doubt that technology and social media have changed how quickly we can assess what is going on in the world. Take the Arab Spring for example. Social media was crucial in disseminating information during these events. However, I cannot confine my understanding of another culture to 140 characters or a 2 minute news story. Understanding another culture requires one’s full attention. I plan to be constantly engaged in the sights, sounds, tastes, smells, and overall feeling of the host country. As a “cultural ambassador” I hope to embrace the idea of diplomacy as a multi-sensory experience.

Nicaragua, I look forward to meeting you.¡Nos vemos el 21!

For more about Eliza’s Fulbright experience, visit her personal blog.

Soraya Azzawi, Fulbright, Jordan: Entry #1

Even as the sun sinks behind the buildings, life flourishes in the streets of the Hashemi district of Amman. Crowds churn as families return from Sunday mass or head off to Maghrib prayer; local eateries ready their stoves for rounds of dinner.

We watch the bustle from our place on the porch of Collateral Repair Project (CRP), an organization that aids impoverished urban refugees in Amman. In addition to my Fulbright project, I have had the opportunity to volunteer with several refugee service organizations. At CRP, Sunday is typically dedicated to administrative work and we’ve just finished outlining prospective program ideas, stepping out to catch the fading rays of sunset.

Suddenly a man approaches us, trailed by a little girl. He shuffles up the steps in a dusty coat that hangs loosely off his frame. It is clearly not tailored for him, two sizes too large. His fingertips just barely escape the sleeves as he warmly gestures hello.

They are new refugees, he says. Syrian, and he heard this place can help.

Syria. Once it used to refer to a rich cultural heritage and a host of ancient civilizations. To finely crafted armoires inlaid with seashells, to Damascus’ world-famous delicacy of Booza ice cream. Lately, it seems the only headlines mentioning ‘Syria’ are those followed by the word ‘crisis’.

It defies reason that the man is still smiling, having just fled a war-ravaged country, but somehow he is—a battered building that refuses to crumble in the storm.

My supervisor, Rami*,  has the difficult task of explaining that registration for new beneficiaries isn’t until tomorrow. A closer look at the pair before him changes his mind. The man is clinging to Rami’s every word as though the sounds themselves will provide relief. His daughter’s eyes never leave him.

Going hungry is one thing. Watching your own child go hungry—while powerless to ease their suffering—is something else entirely. I cannot possibly imagine what this man feels when he looks at the family he must support.

“Why don’t I take your information?” Rami offers instead.

I turn my attention to the little girl, hoping to occupy her as they work through the details. A chance to practice colloquial Arabic, I figure. In a very businesslike manner, she informs me that her name is Huda and that she is six years old. Huda has large, inquisitive eyes, the color of freshly brewed coffee.

I resort to the nifty toolkit of conversational phrases we’ve practiced over and over and over again in class. I’m pretty sure I’ve started hearing them in my sleep.

“How are you?” I ask.

“Fine, thanks to God,” she replies, smiling.

I can barely contain my complaints (and they are loud) in a Los Angeles traffic jam and this girl, who has just left behind her only home, is fine and thankful.

She turns to face me fully, eyes wide like she’s about to reveal the wonders of the universe. In the most eloquent classical Arabic I’ve ever heard, she proclaims, “It is an honor to make your acquaintance.”

And I am floored. With a rich, literary tradition, Arabic is regarded as one of the most challenging languages to learn in the world—particularly Classical Arabic. And this six-year-old refugee girl speaks it perfectly.

Working with underserved refugees for the past few months has proven a challenging exercise in emotional resilience—but also, and more importantly, in humility. Even for those with the best of intentions, it is easy to forget that many of the individuals you serve are highly educated, versatile people who have simply found themselves in unfortunate circumstances. The relationship between the aider and the aidee risks giving way to paternalism, relegating the aidee to little more than an object of pity. It’s interactions like these, the words I exchanged with Huda, that lend perspective, that lead me to marvel at the extent of human perseverance in the face of hardship.

Watching news segments about world events like the refugee crisis is informative. Studying international affairs in the classroom is useful. Completely immersing yourself in the situation, in the context and in the language is indescribable. In addition to the chance to study the impact of war trauma on psychosocial health, the Fulbright Program has given me the unparalleled opportunity to experience history in the making, to not merely learn about other peoples and cultures but to live them. It is a dynamic, once-in-a-lifetime experience that enriches your worldview like no mere course, textbook or news soundbyte can.

“The rapprochement of peoples is only possible when differences of culture and outlook are respected and appreciated rather than feared and condemned, when the common bond of human dignity is recognized as the essential bond for a peaceful world.”

— Senator J. William Fulbright

* Names have been changed for privacy purposes 

Armaan A. Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: Engaging Contradictions – My Fulbright Experience

Heart-warming stories, awe-inspiring photographs, cute yet meaningful trinkets… these are the souvenirs that friends and family expect me to return home with after my Fulbright fellowship year in Jordan.  Their expectation, however, is mistaken on two fronts.  Firstly, through eight months of living and studying in Amman with my wife, this has in many ways been my home, the home I will be leaving when I depart three months from now.  Secondly, no number of stories or photographs could represent my year abroad as truthfully as the questions and contradictions I will take with me, which have come to define my Fulbright experience and that I hope to share in what I expect to be my final blog entry.

Cultural Exchange, or Human Connection?

To explain these contradictions, I must start by relating my own path to the Fulbright program, which I believe began with the following words: “And do good to others, as God has done good to you.”  Originally from a verse of the Holy Qur’an in Surah Al-Qasas (The Stories), I found this quote on the final page of my late grandfather’s journal, which he kept during his 23-year diplomatic career in the Pakistani Foreign Service and eventually in the Pakistan Mission to the United Nations.  My grandfather Ataullah Khwaja, whose name in Arabic means “gift of God,” chronicled a life committed to the idea of serving others with every opportunity that his education had afforded him, privileges that he understood as unearned and as blessings.  Having lived through violence in Indian-occupied Ladakh and exile from his home in Chinese-occupied Tibet, he sought to empower communities that, like his own, had been uprooted and marginalized by conflict.  As a young boy, I internalized the ethic of service inherited from his final journal entry, and it has since guided me toward a life dedicated to this same conception of service.  A decade later, it would form the basis of my project proposal to the Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Jordan.  My motivation was simple: to use my education in public health to promote health among families that, like my own, had been displaced by conflict and military occupation.

Through this story, I hope to share the layers that exist beneath and beyond my own identity as an American: I am an American, and I am also a Muslim; my project and studies are motivated by a verse from the Holy Qur’an; my family traces its roots to Muslim communities here in the post-colonial Third World.  The collective result of these layers was that, after travelling thousands of miles away from the place where I was born and raised to arrive in Jordan—where I hear the Qur’an being recited in taxis and grocery stores, where halal meat is available everywhere, where I can hear the call to prayer and walk to the mosque from my home—I felt a connection rather than distance.  I felt a shared heritage, a belonging.

I am led to ask, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself?  Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”  The express purpose of the Fulbright program is mutual understanding, and I thus believe that my personal experience poses a larger question that pertains to all Fulbright scholars, which is: is our goal of mutual understanding really about cultural exchange, as though we have crossed the boundaries of two mutually exclusive worlds?  My own story would suggest otherwise and leads me to further questions: when my Fulbright peers interact with their students, their research subjects, their neighbors in Jordan or other respective host countries, do they view them as the Other, or do they also see in them a heritage that is shared by people like myself, who are their compatriots and neighbors back in the place they call home?  Is our experience solely about cultural exchange, or is it truly about making this human connection?

Objective Observer, or Active Participant?

Moving on from how we as Fulbright scholars perceive the people around us, I also question how we perceive ourselves and our own role in their context.  For those who are student researchers like myself, we are conventionally taught that the scientific ideal demands detached objectivity in our observations and investigations.  The question I faced early on was, assuming that such detached objectivity—in spite of context, positionality, or even power relations—was even possible, would it be ethical?  This was a dilemma I faced early on in my project proposal, which began as an observational study of the barriers to care that exist for diabetes patients among refugee populations.

The question I faced was: what were the ethical implications of examining a life-threatening problem facing a vulnerable population, publishing my findings for academic advancement, and then wrapping up and going home?  The result of my reflections on this problem was a major shift in my project proposal, which was modified to become an interventional program incorporating public health education for diabetes prevention in addition to observational analysis.  I believe that the ethical and methodological question I faced is relevant beyond my field, as the critiques of passive objectivity are well known within the social sciences.  French psychiatrist and philosopher Frantz Fanon once said, “For the native, objectivity is always directed against him,” pointing to uses of the notion of objectivity to actually conceal and defend specific power relations and structural inequities.  Even after modification of my research design, the ethical implications of my position and project continue to represent a question with which I struggle to this day.

Privileged Teacher, or Humble Student?

The final question that I have confronted through my Fulbright experience thus far is, do I conceive of myself as a privileged teacher in a foreign land, or as a humble and sincere student?  Once I had modified my project to revolve around a public health education program, this question became extremely relevant.  As a Fulbright scholar from the United States to Jordan, it can easily be assumed that the direction of learning and benefit flows primarily from my First World knowledge and advantages to this Third World, “developing nation” context.  In the case of diabetes, however, the United States is among the worst examples to follow, with a public health crisis stemming from rising rates of obesity and diabetes despite exorbitant healthcare expenditures.  If anything, among the primary factors suggested to be contributing to Jordan’s rising burden of diabetes is adoption of Western or American diet and lifestyle.  In this way, traditional notions of First World progress and Third World development come into question, and I have had to examine what role I play in the assumptions that underpin such notions.

I conclude by reiterating that, rather than providing answers, my intent is merely to offer questions that I feel my Fulbright experience have warranted, and I hope to continue engaging with them through the duration of my Fulbright fellowship as well as long after I return to the United States.  The collective sum of these questions and contradictions for me has been to realize that, however service- or education-oriented as my project may be, this experience has been above all a privilege and a blessing—one that, in the spirit of my grandfather’s memory, I hope will contribute to my efforts to continue serving in the future.

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

Ataullah Khwaja, my maternal grandfather, in his youth

This post is based on my presentation at the Fulbright Near Eastern Affairs Regional Enrichment Seminar in Amman, Jordan, on February 24, 2014.

This is not an official Department of State website or blog, and the views and information presented are my own and do not represent the Fulbright Program of the U.S. Department of State.

Felipe Hernandez, Fulbright, Colombia: So Much Work To Be Done

It’s hot. No, not just hot but it’s humid and boiling hot. It is 1:55 pm on a Monday and I just had a great big lunch for $3. Now I am walking, drenched in sweat, to Santiago Vila, a school in an underprivileged area in Ibagué, Colombia. As I walk up the steep hill I can see the children at the top. Some are sitting on the library steps trying to cool off. Meanwhile, others are playing by the church in front of the library. They are here after school to attend the free English and Leadership class that I teach every day, rain or shine. There are about thirty to forty children who attend this class every day. We all sit in the library where the only ventilation is the half broken ceiling fan that works only a third of the time. However, their attention is unwavering. They are so focused on the lecture and activities that they forget about the heat and so do I. We work through a series of new elementary vocabulary and play some games in groups. They love it. I love it.  This is how I spend my free time in Colombia.

This is the social program I developed as part of my U.S. Fulbright Teaching Assistantship Grant for Colombia. I have established a community based organization that provides low-income middle and high school students with English, leadership, community organizing, and life-skills courses that enable them to develop strategies and projects to improve their community. After seven months, most of my students have significantly improved their English abilities. Also, they have developed their leadership skills and improved their community at the same time by organizing community projects such as murals to remove graffiti, creating a children’s reading room in the library, and developing creative expression workshops to comment on the violence, poverty, and crime in Colombia (see Youtube Links below). Thanks to our efforts we also received a grant from the U.S. State Department to expand and fortify our program.

This may seem like a typical community outreach program back at home, but here it is not typical at all. For these children, this is a rare and unheard of opportunity that they enthusiastically participate in everyday. Most of these children have never been exposed to leadership programs or free English courses. In fact, some mothers even came up to me a couple of times and asked “This class is free? Really? ” They were also doubtful that I was really from the United States because I look Colombian, due to my full Mexican descent and good Spanish speaking abilities that I acquired growing up in Southern California. However, once their doubts are reassured they ask if they can bring other children from a brother, sister, neighbor, or a friend. I of course never say no. The most kids we’ve had at one session was about sixty and I will admit, that got a bit out of hand. I guess I have a problem saying no to them. I mean, wouldn’t you? However, the fact remains that there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

When I applied for the Fulbright I thought I was just going to be teaching English everyday and maybe volunteering somewhere. However, when I got here there were no non-profits in the region that I was placed in. Also, the culture of volunteerism was nonexistent at the University and in the community. It’s not because of a lack of compassion, but rather just a different country with different customs. So, I faced an immediate challenge. I could give up and take on another simpler project or I could face this head on and create my own organization. I chose the latter and I am glad that I did. In the last seven months I have faced some new challenges but also celebrated some extraordinary gains with the community I now call home. The children here are taking over their own community, which they once deemed too dangerous, dirty, and poor. Now, they are cleaning the streets, painting murals to replace graffiti, and organizing campaigns to improve their community. There is a new energy that has taken over the children and yet I did not do anything extraordinary. They have always had it in them; I merely provided them with simple resources. This is why we need more Fulbrighters to continue to facilitate this kind of powerful community change.

The Fulbright Program is unlike any other program that I have ever done before. My professional communication and organizing skills have been uniquely challenged here because I am responsible for developing and managing the entire program, recruiting volunteers, teaching classes every day, developing the curriculum, cultivating community partnerships, and obtaining funding. Aside from this, I have traveled extensively and formed new life-long relationships. There is much work to be done in Colombia and around the world. This Fellowship allows for that work to get done. As the first in my family to attend college this opportunity was unforeseen when I was a freshman at UC Irvine. Now, I am glad I took that study break during my senior year to look up this Fellowship. It has not only changed my life but also influenced the lives of those that I serve every day.

Homer Simpson Mural
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=feUNGfMLiBk#![/youtube]

Children Reading Room
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0bvrsfNwve4[/youtube]

Gallery

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

The alley behind the School where all of the children walk through every day.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Clean up Day. During several occasions children cleaned the trash in the alley.

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Homer Simpson Mural to remove graffiti and promote clean streets

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Partnered with Beyond Violence to host Creative Expression courses in English

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013

Students in MENTE Program in Ibagué Colombia. 2013

Armaan Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: My Father’s Name is…

“My father’s name is _____.”  As I noticed this single sentence hiding beneath a conspicuous strip of white paper loosely taped to the poster, I wondered why it had been so haphazardly effaced from the list of English sentences we were to teach the children that Saturday morning.  As I thoughtlessly began to peel away the tape, I suddenly remembered where I was.  I stopped.  Heavy-hearted, I slowly smoothed the strip of paper back over the sentence.

In Baqa’a, Jordan’s largest Palestinian refugee camp and home to more than 100,000 refugees, the Orphan Welfare Association (OWA) provides additional educational programs to children from the eight crowded United Nations Relief and Works Agency schools, which operate on a double-shift basis six days per week.  Most of the children supported by OWA—through financial assistance, medical treatment, and provision of clothing and other basic necessities—are between six and twelve years old, and all have lost either one or both parents.

Many of my students in the English program that morning hadn’t learned past tense yet; many wouldn’t have known how to say, “My father’s name was…”

Later that day, my wife and I shared a seat on the crowded bus back to Amman from Baqa’a, as we have done each weekend while living and studying Arabic in Jordan.  However, this time, as we squeezed through narrow roads between cramped markets and hastily constructed homes, my mind was not occupied with the view from our window as it usually is; all I could think about that afternoon was my father.  As I reflected, I realized that throughout my life, my father’s example had always been my inspiration, his loving encouragement my strength, and his advice my constant guide.  To this day, rooted in his unconditional affirmation and support is my very sense of identity and self-worth.

These were ideas I had previously neither expressed to my father nor even consciously thought to myself.  Yet, as I was reminded of the circumstances of my students at OWA, I found myself unable to fathom life without him.

When I left the United States over four months ago to begin my Fulbright fellowship year in Jordan, I expected to learn a lot about the world.  For this reason, I was not surprised when I encountered entirely unfamiliar realities living in the Third World, or when I was challenged daily to express my needs in faltering Arabic, or when I was confronted with the different cultural norms and expectations of the Middle East.

What I could not have expected when leaving home—the “transferrable skill” I could never have thought to seek—was how much I would learn about myself, about my blessings and privileges, in innumerable moments like that morning with my students in the Baqa’a refugee camp.  These moments have been the most important of my time in Jordan and are the reason I now feel compelled to seize this opportunity of writing, with humility and gratitude: My father’s name is Mohammed, I love him immensely, and I am who I am today because of him.

With my father, one month before departing the U.S.

With my father, one month before departing the U.S.

Armaan Rowther, Fulbright, Jordan: To What End?

To what end?  This was the question I would continually ask myself throughout the year that passed, from the day I submitted my Pre-Application at UC Irvine to the moment I was notified of my selection for the 2013-2014 Fulbright U.S. Student Program in Jordan.  Looking back, I believe it was the most important question for both my application’s success as well as my eventual decision to accept the scholarship, transplant my life to the other side of the world, and dedicate one year to realizing the answer to that question.

For some, sufficient enough as an answer is a single word, found in the very title of the relevant page on the Scholarship Opportunities Program website: prestigious.  In a world defined by letter grades and accolades, the insidious idea that prestige defines the worth of any endeavor can ensnare university students.  Through such a lens, the application process becomes a matter of self-aggrandizement and a game to be won.  The deep reflection and thorough planning required of the research proposal is substituted with superficial strategies to sound appealing, and the introspection of the personal statement is replaced by self-laudation.

It would be a lie to suggest that prestige did not factor into my thoughts about the Fulbright scholarship.  Fortunately for me, however, there were too many other pressing matters in my life that year for prestige to seem as important: my grandmother was in bed rest awaiting surgery for congestive heart failure, I was juggling secondary applications to nearly three dozen medical schools, and at precisely the same time, I was trying to convince the woman who is now my wife that she should spend the rest of her life with me (and to explain to the man who is now my father-in-law how a medical student would support his daughter).

Needless to say, it was a stressful period of my life.  The question I thus had to answer to myself time and again was, to what end was I spending countless hours writing and revising draft after draft of my Fulbright application?  For what purpose was I motivated to live abroad for one year and conduct public health research with refugees in Jordan?  And most importantly, what would the experience mean both as part of who I am as well as what I hope to do with my life as a physician and scientist?

In the end, the colors of family, identity, and purpose that were born of these questions painted every facet of my application.  Asking “To what end?” of my research proposal even led me to change the nature of my project; what began as an observational study of barriers to care for diabetes patients became an interventional project incorporating public health education for diabetes prevention.  I realized that the answer to my question was to benefit and empower the people touched by my project. Nothing more nor anything less.

Lastly, asking “To what end?” enabled me to ultimately accept the Fulbright scholarship once I was selected.  By the time I was notified, I was in the throes of planning my wedding and had an acceptance letter to my top-choice graduate program in hand.  To accept the Fulbright meant deferring medical school for one year, shifting my home and life to another country, single-handedly running my research project abroad, and having to convince my wife once again, this time to move thousands of miles away with me only weeks after our wedding.  Nonetheless, by reminding myself to what end I had applied, I readily accepted.  As I write this post from my home in Amman, I could not be happier that I did.

Armaan and his wife at their wedding.

Armaan and his wife at their wedding.

About the SOP

**The Scholarship Opportunities Program advises competitive undergraduate UC Irvine candidates in applying for prestigious merit scholarships. Our staff conducts outreach and manages the campus-level application and endorsement processes for these national and international scholarships, all funded by outside agencies. Applicants cannot apply directly to the funding agency (except NSF).

Please visit our main website for application information, deadlines, services provided by our office, and more details about all of our prestigious scholarships.**

This blog captures the experiences of our past scholarship recipients, as they embark on journeys around the world funded by grants and fellowships such as the Fulbright, Strauss, Rhodes, and others. Read about their exciting adventures below!

DISCLAIMER: The views and opinions expressed in this blog site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position or views of the Scholarship Opportunities Program or UC Irvine.

Christina Zdenek, Fulbright, Australia

After completing my 3-yr-long master and getting it accepted by The Australian National University, I took 4 months to top up my funds and climb some trees. I was an installation manager for Mobile Illumination, Inc., wrapping big trees with Christmas lights for, basically, the rich and famous of LA. After my funds were topped back up again, I was free to go back to Australia and explore the wildlife there again, this time with a big-lens camera   :).

The context of the trip was to join up with my old supervisor to do a reccy (reconnaissance mission) for the next round of Palm Cockatoo research. This time, as opposed to my masters time, I’m always photographing and videoing birds, mainly Palm Cockatoos, and, when the weather is good, heaps of other birds, too. It’s so fun. I can get some pretty ripper shots and footage with this pro-camera gear I’m getting around with. See below for some of my best recent photos.

In terms of the project reccy, I’ve been on a serious roll: I’m up to 16 hollows that I’ve found, as in 16 trees that have cavities in them that I’ve seen Palm Cockatoos (PCs) sitting on (they may end up being nests or just display hollows). That’s about how many hollows I found in 6 months of fieldwork 2 years back, and this round has only been 1 month. I’ve seen only one PC drum so far, which is a bit of a drag that it’s only one b/c that’s the main footage I’m after (for the project and for my video journal I want to make about PCs). I have seen them nest-building on two hollows, though. Yippee  :). So those may turn into nests (they maintain multiple nests, just to make it more difficult on us researchers).

I’ve also gotten into this habit of finding Green Pythons in the rainforest and sharing it with camping tourists – great way to make instant friends! I gave a PC talk to 10 trash-picker-upper volunteers the other night before a nighttime spotlighting session in the rainforest. They knew they wouldn’t have any luck finding anything without some expert help :). Sure enough, the green python I found for them was way off the side of the road in the scrub and everyone else had missed it. Needless to say, they were much appreciative of my time and help.

I’ve made lots of local friends with good hook-ups, too. Like this one old fellow who has a shack and 2-acre property by one of my fieldsites. He has welcomed me to camp there on his property, which is higher than all the surrounding land and overlooks the ocean. There’s even several 70-year-old war bunkers there, too, from WWII, when the Americans had a base up here in Northeast far north Queensland.

I’m also soon heading out with this old croc-hunter bloke (he used to sell croc skins, I think) to this remote creek where he has seen heaps of PCs, including drumming behaviour. It’ll be great to hear all his bush stories of this wild place.

Permission from local aboriginal land-owners for the project is going pretty well. They’ve all been positively responsive to letting me trek around and do this reccy, plus research down the track. Some are particularly keen b/c having me there researching PCs will help them have a stronger case for acquiring gov’t funds (perhaps for rangers) for conservation on their Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA). It is hard to get onto (find) these folks sometimes though.

One bit of bad news is that Rob, my old supervisor, can’t make it up here after all. We were going to do this big exchange of information and I was going to introduce him to all these key people up here, but his vehicle died on the big drive up here (3,600km/2,237mi) and he has run out of time. He’s keen to have me back next year, and he’s working on getting funding to pay me wages, too. Check that out. Haha. It’s a good gig, coming out here and getting to play out bush. It only feels like work every now and again, like when PCs are being slack and not doing much or never letting you get close to them.

Lastly, after this stint, which ends in 20 days or so, I head down south to the Daintree Rainforest (oldest RF in the world) for 18 days to help my good mate do her research for the AUS government’s study tank (called CSIRO). After that, I go to Darwin (Northern Territory) to present my PC research at a big conservation conference. I’ll likely fly back to LA come end-Sept. and hop straight into MI again (that Christmas-lighting business) to top up the funds so I can be free and do fun wildlife things again next year!

Cheers,

Christina

 

**All photos © Christina Zdenek. See www.ChristinaZdenek.com for more photos and stories.

Mark Sueyoshi, Indonesia, Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship

Nearly a year has passed since I returned from my Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Indonesia. Currently, I am taking pre-medical courses at City University of New York, Hunter College in New York City to eventually pursue a medical degree, one day. The shift in my life’s focus from the social sciences and the humanities is not so much a completely new track as it is a slightly different finish to the same material. I still love learning about peoples and cultures. But now, having lived another culture that I was neither born nor raised in, I feel that my perspective has grown in a dimension that books, movies, and photos cannot quite teach. I find myself seeing a bigger picture that I often had trouble imagining before.

Conversely, I’ve also realized the importance of the minute and the seemingly unimportant.

I would occasionally ask myself, “Why does teaching English abroad really matter to me if I’m not to become an English teacher, a public speaker, an anthropologist, or an expatriate of some sort?” And I started to realize throughout my time in Indonesia that it was not so much the task that was of prime importance, rather the countless other things to be learned and taught by everyone involved. While I was there to teach English, what I felt seep into my bones was humility. I was humbled by the kindness of people and the beauty of our world; humbled by Sisyphean struggles of individuals and the volatility of the Earth; humbled by realities that inspire and realities that demoralize. Now, while I imagine myself slightly overwhelmed in a much larger world with so much more to grasp and comprehend, the boundaries with which I function are no longer in sight.

Yes, it was just that amazing.

Megan Braun: Rhodes Scholar, Oxford, England

Megan and other Rhodes Scholars matriculating at Oxford

Megan and other Rhodes Scholars matriculating at Oxford

First post: Oxford is a series of contradictions- both ancient and modern, charming and exasperating, intimate and aloof, egalitarian and hierarchical. The system of exams and tutorials dates back centuries and yet Oxford is in the grips of the modern higher education funding crisis. The slow-paced lifestyle of a small town is charming and yet the amorphous and ill-defined bureaucracy of the university leaves you wondering what is expected of you, much less who to ask. The college system creates small, intimate communities where you see the same people at meals and wave while you walk through the quads on your way to the library or your room but this can also make you feel disconnected from the rest of the university. And while the system of academic advisors provides a unique level of access to professors, the university is overtly hierarchical as epitomized by the “high table” where the faculty sit during meals.

 The amazing talks and lectures hosted every day at Oxford are enough to keep my calendar full, but the English seem to eat a disproportionately large amount of potatoes and mayonnaise and a dearth of fresh vegetables, so I figured that some physical activities were in order. I joined the water polo club at Oxford and after playing competitively at UC Irvine, adapting to the laid back and recreational atmosphere has been an adjustment, but I am eager to see the team improve and the Cambridge match will be a great way to take part in one of the world’s oldest sports rivalries. Rowing is also a quintessential English experience and one that I couldn’t pass up. Even at the novice level it is clear that this is a sport that fetishizes pain- the early morning practices on the frigid river, blisters all over the hands and agonizing sprint sessions on the erg machine are all part of its weekly charms. This week my boat finally got to the point where we could get all eight people rowing at a time and that has been a comedy of errors- people get out of synch on the strokes, then the boats starts rocking violently and eventually someone’s oar loses traction with the water and the handle comes sailing towards their head. And they say rowing isn’t a contact sport!

 The other highlight thus far has been the Rhodes community. Rhodes scholars are a dime a dozen at Oxford. There are approximately 200 of us in residence here at any given time and several thousand have passed through these halls in the last century so no one is automatically awed by our brilliance or taken aback by our curriculum vitas. But on the whole, I can’t say enough about how much I have enjoyed getting to know the other scholars. They are a truly exceptional group of people. And it has nothing to do with overt displays of intelligence. Everyone is incredibly understated but has a fascinating life story and a vision for global change. There are frequent opportunities to get to know the other scholars, whether it is the weekly gatherings for tea, the monthly Meet and Mingle nights or the ad hoc pub crawl or touch rugby match. This week at tea, my conversations ranged from the ideal flour for baking bread and research on using beta-blockers to inhibit memory retention in PTSD victims, to perceptions of female education in rural Pakistan and comical mishaps during block-starts at swim meets. I can’t imagine a better depiction of what Rhodes scholars are like and am increasingly convinced that these small exchanges, more so than any curriculum or grand adventures, will prove to be the most cherished element of the Oxford experience.