03 November, 2016

TnCIS Conference 2016

I recently had the opportunity and honour of being the lunch speaker at the 10th annual TnCIS conference. For those of you who don't know, TnCIS is a study abroad consortium in the state of Tennessee, and I've traveled with them for three years studying in different countries. I had a lot of people come up to me after the speech, thanking me for my words and thanking me for my passion.

I always feel best when I'm in the company of like-minded individuals, and I feel right at home whenever I'm working with TnCIS. Everyone involved is so passionate about international education, and it really inspires me to continue to push my studies towards a more international curriculum. It also makes me realise that I should really continue to write, as I feel my thoughts flow more freely when I have a pen to paper or fingers to a keyboard.

I wanted to share with you all the general gist of my speech that I shared this afternoon. It is my goal and my passion to inspire students (and teachers alike) to do part of their studies abroad. I studied mainly with Pellissippi State Community College in Knoxville, Tennessee, and their scholarship program is absolutely marvelous.

I know you all are probably tired of hearing me talk about studying abroad, but I cannot tell you enough how much it changed my life. Here are the words I want to share with you:

When I first came to Tennessee, I was a senior in high school. I had every intention to continue my education at the University of Tennessee. I thought community college was the easy way out, and that I wouldn't have the opportunities I wanted from college at a community college. Boy, was I wrong. One day, Charles Miller, head of the theatre department here (at Pellissippi), contacted me and asked if I would consider joining the theatre program at Pellissippi. I came and toured the facilities at this campus, but it wasn't the facilities that brought me here. Charles told me that there would be an intro to theatre class taught in London over the summer, and I immediately knew I had to attend school here, as it was a dream of mine to go to London.

I couldn't be happier with my decision to come to Pellissippi State. Not only was London a dream come true, but it opened the doors for me to explore other countries. I've now studied in England, Turkey, and Italy, all through TnCIS programs.Most people were amazed when I told them I was going to be studying in Turkey. I was only 18 years old when I went to Turkey, and many people I talked to, who were well into their 50s and 60s, said they had never traveled as much as I had, and they were impressed and encouraged by my courage to be out in the world. Many of them told me how badly they wish they had this opportunity when they were young. Many people begged me not to go, as they thought it wasn't safe. They thought what the media showed of Turkey was all that was true, but I can assure you, it is not. I am incredibly lucky to have traveled to so many incredible countries at such a young age.

The most striking and important of my trips was to Turkey. Anyone who knows me knows that I am absolutely and completely obsessed with Turkey. The TnCIS program was exceptional. Dr. Sekman worked incredibly hard to make sure the students had a proper "Turkish experience." We were hosted by different universities throughout different cities in Turkey, and in each university, the American students were paired with a "Turkish Buddy" who would show them around the city, take them to classes, and always be there to hang out. I swear, I got the lucky straw with my time in Turkey. In Izmir, I was paired with a girl named Naz, and she immediately became my sister. I made so many friends that week in Izmir, and it was the hardest goodbye I've ever had to say. The connections I made on that trip are lifelong connections. I missed those friends so much, that I traveled by myself to Turkey this past summer to spend two weeks with the friends I had made on my TnCIS trip.

To me, the connections and friendships made all around the world are some of the most important parts of the experience. I've always had quite the travel bug, and having the experiences I've had in all of these countries has allowed me to feel comfortable in any situation, be it in the States, or in another country. I never felt unsafe on a TnCIS program. Every staff member was incredibly helpful in getting us around the cities, and making sure we knew how to stay safe. Brickey even made personal maps for each and every one of the students on her trip! That's above and beyond excellence. The lessons I learned in England, Turkey, and Italy are lessons I carry with me every day. I'm far less fearful than I have been in the past.

These trips have even inspired me to push my education further. I now have a degree in performing arts, but am completing my bachelors in linguistics in Colorado. I have a heart for foreign languages, surely heightened by my experience abroad. My next steps are figuring out how to internationalize my major. I want to work overseas. I want to continue to travel and explore and see what this world has to offer. And I know none of this could have happened without the help of TnCIS.

Being a student at Pellissippi had additional perks, being the incredible Dr. Wise and Dr. Edwards. I can definitely say I wouldn't have been able to travel so frequently if it weren't for their generosity in scholarships. Pellissippi offers 40-60% scholarships for students studying abroad, and I've heard many students say they wouldn't be able to travel without this assistance. It breaks my heart when I hear that students at other schools are unable to attend due to lack of financial aid. The state of Tennessee has received recognition in the number of students sent abroad, but I know that financial aid and scholarships could push those numbers higher. With the influx of Tennessee Promise students this year, I have a feeling more students are going to want to travel abroad, especially once they hear about the experiences TnCIS has to offer. I will preach until my dying day the glory of TnCIS. It completely changed my life. There's no way to go on one of these programs and come back completely unchanged. It is single-handedly the best experience I've had as a student. It has not only broadened my view on different parts of the world, but it's given me a new love for cultures, for new foods, for learning in my own country. Everything I do is in the shadow of my time abroad, and in the hopes that I can one day return to my homes overseas.

My dear students--WHAT ARE YOU WAITING FOR? I know you might be scared. You might miss home. You might miss your friends, your family, your boyfriends and girlfriends, but I promise you, the three weeks you will spend abroad with TnCIS will be some of the best days of your life. Now is the time to do it. Get out there and explore. The world is waiting for you.

31 May, 2016

The Buddhist Institute

Hello again. I'm very behind on this blog. I started writing this post a couple weeks ago in Siena, but neglected it until now. I'm currently back in Rome, wrapping up my class this week.

A lot of you have asked me about my time in the institute. How did I end up there? Was it weird? What was it like? What did you do? The whole thing is a little crazy. I can't believe I got to have this experience. Here's the story.

Back in Tennessee, I am a work study student in our performing arts centre on Pellissippi's campus. My director/boss and I were talking one day about my trip to Italy and how I was spending a little extra time there prior to my class. He mentioned he had an aunt in Pisa, and told me he'd contact her and see if I could stay with her for a few days. I graciously accepted his offer. I was soon connected with his aunt, and found out she did not live in Pisa, but was a teacher at a Buddhist institute in Santa Luce. She told me they'd be happy to host me, if I would like to volunteer there. I had nothing to lose in this offer. I was (and am) so grateful for their accommodations.

I booked my flight to Rome and traveled to the institute the next morning. It was a gorgeous stone building in the middle of the Italian countryside. There were beautiful gardens, walking paths, and cats everywhere. I was greeted with such kindness and hospitality by the entirety of the institute. I was given a bed in a dormitory, and told to relax until dinner. I'll admit, I was nervous. I had no idea where I was, no clue how to behave, what to wear...I didn't know if anyone knew English, who were students, who were volunteers...you get my point. I sheepishly walked to dinner that night, not knowing anyone or how the process of getting food worked. I was greeted by the head of the institute with a huge smile and hug, but she spoke only Italian. We found another volunteer to translate for us, and I got the run down on how things worked.

As a volunteer, I was required to work a certain number of hours a day. The jobs were divided up among the volunteers, some of them having different jobs every day. I was placed on the cleaning crew.

A day at the institute looked a little like this: breakfast at 8:00, meditation at 9:00, work from 9:30-12:30, break for lunch, then back to work until around 3:00. It was a lot of physical labour—sweeping, moping, cleaning showers and toilets. We cleaned the entire institute. Daily. It was pretty exhausting, I won't lie. I took a lot of naps. But again, it was a learning experience, and entirely worth it.

I had to learn to communicate pretty much on the fly. Many of the volunteers spoke solely Italian. A few of them knew a bit of English. On the first day, I worked with a girl named Ingrid. She knew a bit of English, and asked about my life, my travels, etc.. Sometimes she'd have a word she didn't know, so we'd work together to find a way to translate our ideas. This was anywhere from acting it out, to pointing, to descriptive words or sounds. It took time and patience, but we figured it out.

The following days were pretty much the same. Get up, eat, work, eat, work, sleep, eat, sleep. It was nice. It was hard at times. The quiet gave me a lot of time to think. I had a lot of time to reflect on what I was learning.

I sat outside the cafe on my last day and made a list:

Things I learned while volunteering at a Buddhist institute

* Kindness triumphs over all
* Drink a lot of tea
* Wear comfy clothes
* Schedule time in your day to sit and have a silent moment, sans phone
* Meditation is a great tool to combat daily demons
* Skip the makeup for a few days. Let your hair fly free. Be at peace
* Everyone has a need to communicate. Sometimes all it takes is a little patience and a willing attitude. Trust me. You can do it
* Appreciate nature. Sit back. Breathe. Listen to the wind and the birds. Take out those headphones
* Ask for help when you need it
* Work hard. Be honest in your work. Shortcuts don't always make for best results
* Be kind to everyone and everything—including yourself
* Make friends with the chef. They'll make you laugh. They'll take care of you
* Respect other cultures and religions. Even if you don't believe in the same things, you can respect another's beliefs
* Clean up after yourself. Remember you are responsible for your own actions
* Experience everything to the fullest. Take every opportunity to explore
* If you are uncomfortable, stop what you're doing. Respect your own boundaries
* Never stop learning. Do not put up walls in your mind
* Choose to be good in this world. Smile. Love. Be friendly. You have nothing to lose in being kind

12 May, 2016

Not All Who Wander...I'm Lost

It's about time to start this writing process again.

Hello. I'm in Italy. And in a strange turn of events, I have no idea what is going on.

Seriously. I'm so lost.

Let's back up. For my past three years in college, I've been generally on top of things. My grades were good, I maintained two jobs while attending school full time, I did shows, etc. etc.. My last semester spent at Pellissippi changed everything.

First of all, I was in a car wreck over the Christmas holiday. Definitely the worst car wreck in which I have been involved, and hopefully the last. It really screwed me up. Long story short, I pushed myself and pushed myself to continually have my shit together and be "okay." I'm the oldest sister, if I was okay, my sisters could see it was good to heal, and they would soon be okay. I didn't slow down. I didn't take time to heal. I didn't want to think anything was wrong. Turns out, I had swelling in my brain, and because of how hard I was pushing myself, it only got worse, making my healing time longer. I wasn't sleeping. I had PTSD nightmares. I could barely eat. It was a nightmare. On top of all of that, I had a slew of health problems thrown my way. Anaemia. Possible thyroid disease. Finally being medicated for depression. And the really fun part: endometriosis. (Side note: we're not 100% certain on the endometriosis yet, as it is difficult to diagnose and the specialists who can test are about 3 hours from my house. Plus, with my leaving the country, we couldn't get an appointment until I'm back. But my doctor is nearly certain. Yay.) Every two weeks was blood work and tests and doctors visits. I went from a healthy, rarely sick person to an incredibly unhealthy individual.

Because of these health problems, I started having problems in school. I couldn't focus. Being in the classroom was increasingly difficult. I had one particular teacher with no care towards my condition who would offer no help when I asked, so I wound up dropping her class. I couldn't participate in theatre. I was too exhausted, too sick. For the first semester in nearly eight years, I wasn't involved in a single show. I wasn't taking any theatre classes. I wasn't assistant teaching. I still worked in the office, but that's not the same. I truly think taking time off from working in theatre was one of the most difficult things I've had to do to take care of myself. I thrive on the hard work and challenges the theatre throws at me. It's a great emotional outlet. Sure, I still wrote in my journal to get my "art" fulfilment, but nothing compares to theatre.

Though it was immensely difficult to take time away from something I love so much, I believe it to be for the best. I had a bit more free time than usual. Okay, I had a LOT more free time without theatre. I stayed busier than ever, though. I worked more. I studied more. I slept more.  I met a new group of people, instead of hiding away in a group of theatre kids. (Though there's nothing wrong with them. I love you, losers.) I went out on dates with a few different guys. Most of the dates didn't turn into anything, save for one, with whom I have an incredibly weird and fun friendship. A little light in the darkness!

The time off also gave me time to think. This is where I started to get lost. Prior to this last semester, I knew exactly what I wanted and where I was going. I knew my field of study. I knew my university. I was on the path to success! Then I woke up one morning and decided...nope. I don't want that. Well, maybe I do. But I'm not sure anymore. So I decided not to go.

Strange things happened after that. I was offered a job in Hong Kong. I was avidly looking at schools in Germany. I had a friend offer to be my roommate in Texas. I was all over the place. I was frantically scrambling to try and put the shattered pieces of my future together. I have never not known what I was going to do on this drastic of a level. I was always Julianna: The Girl Who Has Her Shit Together.

I am no longer that girl. Sure, parts of me are very well developed and put together, but I no longer have a clear set plan for my future. All I know is what I don't want. What I don't know is what I do want. At least that's a start.

I've always said I'm happiest and feel most alive when I am outside of my comfort zone. I consider myself very lucky to feel this way. I like a challenge. When I take a step back and really examine this situation, I realise I'm exactly where I'm uncomfortable: in not knowing. It forces me to learn new things—literally new survival skills. Part of me has always loved the mystery of the future. I know I can't control it, but I still try. But for now, I must be okay with not knowing.

With that, I have decided to take time off of school. Maybe a semester, maybe a year. I never thought I would do a thing like this. I love school so much, but I think I need to take time to focus on me, and really examine what I want. It will be good for me, I think. I will read for pleasure. I will work. I will travel.

Speaking of travel, as I mentioned, I'm in Italy right now. My current situation is hilariously parallel to what I'm processing in life. I am in a small province of Pisa, in the gorgeous Italian countryside. Really, I wish I could explain how beautiful it is, but that would be impossible. I came here alone. I was graciously offered a place to stay in exchange for volunteer work. I am volunteering at a Buddhist institute. Please let this sink in because I am neither Buddhist, nor do I speak much Italian. (I can say basic phrases and ask for coffee and wine...you know, the important things in life.) Everyone here is Buddhist, and very few of them speak English. This is a completely different culture for me, and I love it. The people I have interacted with so far have been nothing but kind to me, even with our language barrier. These next few days are going to test me in new ways, and I couldn't be happier. I believe I can learn a lot here. I will learn a lot here. I will take in the culture and be happy to do my work. I will have time to think and write and take walks in the countryside. Maybe I'll find some answers. Maybe not. But I cannot sit back and let a learning opportunity pass.

Here's to being lost. Here's to being okay with being lost. Here's to the mistakes I will make in my journey to learn. Here's hoping I'll find my way out.