Sunday, July 29, 2012

Reflective Essay (Before Honors Kicks Me Out)

As has happened to every other student in the history of the University Honors Program here at UC, it's taken quite a few "gentle reminders" for me to sit down and write this blog-post-cum-reflective-essay. Somewhere in the ballpark of ten or 15 reminders, probably..

But here I am. It's finally happening.

Really, though, what better time to reflect than a year 14 months later? When I was fresh off the plane last May, I had not yet had the chance to reflect on my semester. Certainly not enough to write a 1,500-2,000 word essay. I am finally in a place where I feel I can confidently produce a "thoughtful, integrative, substantive, and well-crafted" essay that addresses my "experiences and learning outcomes in a personal, cohesive manner." (Those criteria coming from, of course, the Global Studies Reflective Essay guideline/outline/prompt provided by the exemplary Honors staff.) Mostly, though, I am finally in a place where I have the time, energy, and mental fortitude to put forth the proper effort. And, as they say, better late than never.

Before I venture alllllllll the way back into thinking about Switzerland, it might make sense to provide a little context about the point in my life from which I am writing this reflection.

As the timestamp will indicate, it's July 2012. At this very moment, I'm watching day one of the Olympic Games. Though I'm not a tough critic, I thought the opening ceremony was fantastic. Full of Brit lit, Mr. Bean, and the Beatles. Today, Ryan Lochte snagged the first gold for the United States (beating his competitors by 3+ seconds in the 400 IM), the women's soccer team managed a solid 3-0 against Colombia, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh narrowly won their match against the Aussies, and a bunch of other events occurred relatively unnoticed. Actually, the Olympics do apply to my time in Geneva. As can be seen in one of my earlier posts, we spent a day in Lausanne, Switzerland, during our orientation week; Lausanne just so happens to be the home of International Olympic Committee (and the Olympic Museum). The museum's exhibits - particularly the collection of Olympic torches - were incredible, especially for someone (me) who has a great deal of appreciation for the sports diplomacy epitomized by the Games.

Wow. Already way off track. As much as I'd love to reflect about my passion for the Olympics, I've got a job to do. And letting down Jen Lile (my Honors advisor and one of the most inspiring people I've met) is NOT something I want to do.

Quickly, though, here's a bit of an update on just what I'm up to now (besides attentively tuning into NBC at all times). This summer, I'm living at my home-sweet-home on Rohs Street, working in the mornings at UC's Archives and Rare Books Library and in the afternoons in the Office of Admissions. Clifton is hot and disgusting in the summer, though it doesn't keep me from running most days (and neither do wipeouts or dog bites). I suppose this is my last "summer," as next year at this time I'll have to be a real person out in the real world. With any luck, I'll be preparing for two years a a Teach for America Corps member... But regardless of what happens after, I will be graduating from UC on April 27, 2013 with a B.A. in International Affairs. Wow. More imminently, though, I'll be heading to our nation's capital on August 29 where I'll be spending a semester interning at the U.S. Department of State. I'm lucky enough to be working in the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration's Office of Multilateral Coordination and External Relations. It's a mouthful, but it's exactly where I want to be. I'm actually still pretty sure it hasn't hit me yet that I'll be an intern at the State Department. It's been my dream for at least a few years now, and I don't think it will really feel like reality until I'm on the plan to D.C. After that, I'll return to UC for my final undergraduate semester. Gotta squeeze in those final history requirements I suppose..

Now that I've successfully (?) spent a great deal of my word count on things that aren't necessarily required in the reflection guidelines, I should probably refocus.

So what did I learn? What did I do? And how does it affect me now?

I'm really a lot better at organizing things in my head when I'm writing in list form. So I'll begin with a shortlist of "most important" things:

1) It's very cliché, but the semester I spent abroad changed my life. I am a different person now than I was when I arrived in Geneva. How could I not be? Let's face it; the American lifestyle is pretty far removed from the rest of the world. Europe, of course, is a close cousin, but it's still different enough to notice how much your day-to-day life changes when you live there for four months.

2) Living with 26 other American undergrads in a tiny (though standard by Swiss/European standards) "house" in downtown Geneva is an experience that is completely impossible to forget. And I would never want to. Despite the occasional constant bickering, drama, and food-stealing, my housemates in Switzerland are responsible for some of my greatest memories (and for so much of my current music collection). I still keep in touch with many of them (just saw Riley last night, in fact!), and I plan to for years to come. Genf love <3

3) I learned so. much. Both inside and outside the classroom (and in this case, "the classroom" is not just in the figurative sense - we literally had a single classroom), my brain was on overdrive at all times. Within the confines of the Rue Rousseau, on the streets and in the stores of Geneva, and while traveling around Western Europe, there was hardly a time I wasn't discovering something new, picking up a new word or phrase, meeting strangers and new friends, eating a new food (or trying a new beer), or learning something new about international politics. I often hear my peers dissing the courses they took/their actual academic experience of being abroad, but I simply do not share that sentiment. I could not be more happy with the courses, professors, and material I studied while in Geneva. Sure, it would have been lovely not to have to take 18 credit hours while studying abroad, but our schedule was more than ideal. (I had class on Monday afternoons and evenings, Tuesday mornings and afternoons, Wednesday mornings, afternoons, and evenings, and Thursday mornings - i.e. the ability to travel Thursday through Monday.) Additionally, the classes were (generally) fantastic. At the beginning, I felt as though my classmates/housemates knew far more than I did about international affairs (and the world in general). I spent a lot of time reading and a lot of time listening. But after four months of European politics, human rights, international business, international trade, international organizations, and French, I found that I had learned a lot of stuff about a lot of stuff. I returned to UC much more knowledgeable than I left it; I truly feel that, as a result of this experience, I am a global student and a citizen of the world.

4) On this trip, I discovered that learning while doing is perhaps the best approach (at least in the majority of situations). I had to be on my toes all the time, constantly adapting to new surroundings, new people, etc. My planning and critical thinking skills were exercised all day every day, and I am forever indebted to the great continent of Europe for making me the student, woman, and person I am today.

5) Also of importance, while traveling was exhilarating, I have to take the time to properly express my thanks to the city of Geneva. For a student of international affairs, this is the place to be. To walk down the street and see the World Trade Organization, the World Economic Forum, agencies of the UN on practically every block, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the World Health Organization up the hill, and so on and so on, is unexplainably incredible. In a particular example of how my Geneva semester is still impacting my life and my future, my work with PRM/MCE this fall is a direct result of how passionate I became about refugee issues thanks to several of the courses I took while in Switzerland. Specifically, visits to places such as the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the ICRC truly opened my eyes and my heart to the millions of humans mistreated, marginalized, displaced, and forgotten. So, when I was asked on my State Department application to select the two bureaus in which I would most like to work, I was not hesitant to chose PRM. And in exactly a month, off I'll go..

6) I think, above all, this experience taught me the value of being present in the moment. More correctly, reflecting on this experience led me to understand that. I spent a lot of my time in Geneva and in Europe worried, anxious, stressed over small things, and often wishing to be somewhere else. I'm not sure I've ever been more frustrated with a realization than I am with that one. (This is also something I thought about a lot while I was in South Africa earlier this summer.) Again, it's cliché, but living in the moment is so crucial. Living in the second, even.

And now, a brief advice section. Because there are (small) things I would change if I could:

1) If you're really, really set on studying in Geneva, Switzerland (which is the 5th most expensive city in the world as of this year), plan ahead. Specifically, start working about four jobs several months in advance. Then you may have enough money to eat three meals a day. But really, plan a budget and stick to it. #ThingsIshouldhavedone

2) Live in the moment. Don't let the little things matter. See #6 above. #Thingsthatarecrucial

3) In the same strain as #2, keep an open mind at all times. Bad things will happen, things will go wrong, you'll adapt. Often, it's the unplanned stuff that ends up being the most unforgettable. #Thingsthatpplytoeverything

4) Learn everything you can about a new place before you go. It will make your experience a thousand times better. That way, when you're in Rome, you won't walk by the Vittorio Emanuele II and say "What's that?" #ThingsIhavedone

5) Take it all in. Take pictures. Take deep breaths. Take chances.

I could go on, but I am at 1,800 words, and that feels like the perfect amount. I could not possibly say, in a blog or even in words, how much I have been, and will continue to be, affected by this journey of a lifetime. And I am so lucky to have been able to experience that life, if only for a short time. Though I don't know when my next adventure to Europe will take place, but I am near certain it will never live up to the four months I spent in Geneva in 2011.

But you never know.

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