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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

An Open Letter to Future Exchange Students

Last week, when applying to lead orientations for outgoing YES-Abroad students, I was asked to write a short letter of advice based on my exchange experience. Writing that brought back memories of stalking every Ghana blog available before I left and feeling relieved that I was set to follow in such wise footsteps and grateful to have access to that honest, first-hand advice. Amazingly, I still get a good amount of page views on this blog and I assume that most of them are from prospective, accepted, or current exchange students (or their parents). So, to pay it forward for the invaluable preparation that other blogs gave me (and since I never wrote a real wrap-up post), I decided to publish my letter. I could write a novel and still not cover all that I learned last year, but here's the condensed version - my two cents on what exchange meant to me, almost a year after returning:

Congratulations! You are about to have the most transformative year of your life thus far. A sense of humor is going to be essential, and sometimes you’ll have to laugh through the tears. That’s okay - value it all. When you get back, believe it or not, you will miss both the good times and the bad. The intensity of emotions on exchange is practically unparalleled in regular life, so ride the waves and keep things in perspective. Learn from your reactions. The way that an experience or interaction makes you feel can tell you a lot, and now is the perfect time to do a ridiculous and indulgent amount of self-analysis. This profound self-awareness may only become apparent when you get back and realize that you are confident in who you are because at last you are starting to discover who you are.

Maintain a good relationship with your host family and the AFS staff. Though you may disagree with them sometimes, respect is essential because a) they are older and wiser (even if it doesn’t seem like it all of the time) and b) they are making a sacrifice to host you. Though it is a stereotype that Americans say “thank you” all the time, embrace that and do whatever else you can to express your gratitude to all who make your year amazing. Open your eyes to beauty - recognize kindness when it happens (it will, a lot) and reflect that kindness back to others. Remember that you are representing so much more than just yourself, and do not get frustrated or short with people because you may be the only American they meet. Stay in shape and get outside. Exercise and sunshine are the best happy pills. Likewise, stay busy. One experience leads to another and friendships multiply so try not to turn down opportunities. Above all, enjoy yourself! Surrendering to the unknown is the best choice that you could possibly make.

And in addition to all this, you may even be lucky enough to come home with some practical skills, like stilt walking :)

Friday, May 10, 2013

Ten Things That Make Me Happy Right Now!

 - Click pictures to enlarge them -
1. Kofi leaping into my arms and giving me a giant hug to welcome me home every night :)

(I'm packing him in my suitcase!)

2. Getting rides with my Uncle Kweku to sewing school. We go on the beach road it's comfier than the tro tro and I get to look out at the ocean and center myself for the day ahead. In school I'm currently working on a baby dress. Sewing school has been on hold for three weeks, though, while I work at the BASICS Vacation Program (another thing that's making me happy). The vacation program is like summer camp for while the kids are on break from school. I'm doing Soccer for Girls in the morning and Mixed Sports (Soccer/Volleyball/Lacrosse) for Boys in the afternoons :)

3. Being surrounded by doers. It's inspiring to know so many people who have put their great ideas into action. My friends Emily, Jeneni, and Lucie started an organization called Our Forgotten Families a few weeks ago and hit the ground running with it. My host brother Desmond has also started a project called 30 Free Websites for NGO's to aid in African development while raising money to fulfill his goal of studying in Scotland next year. At BASICS (where I teach) every staff meeting produces new ideas and leaves me feeling refreshed. We regularly have visitors from universities abroad like USC and NYU, donors (this week I met the family of the former Barclay's bank CEO), as well Ghanaians who inspire the children, such as the vice president's wife and footballers in Europe. Each of these people has taught me a ton.

4. Getting to know new people through my host family's NGO, It Takes a Village. It was founded by one of my family's old exchange students from Montana (Callie, who visited in January). ITV brings 10-20 students from Callie's high school to Ghana for a service trip every year over spring break. We stayed in my host family's home village, Ekumfi Attakwa, and spent the week digging the foundation for teacher's quarters near the village school and doing a few smaller projects. Then we went to an awesome beach for a couple of days to relax. It was weird being around so many other Americans for such a long time, but it was good because it made me think about what things will be like when I get back.

5. Looking forward to summer in DC and starting college. Receiving emails several times a week from UW - Madison makes me excited for all of the wonderful opportunities I'm going to have next year. As my time here starts to wind down (I have just five more weeks), life in America is feeling more and more real everyday.

6. Insanity! One of my biggest recommendations to any exchange student would be to stay disciplined about exercising while abroad. I saw a quote somewhere that said something along the lines of "exercise is the most underutilized antidepressant in the world today." And it's so true! I am on week 4 of the Insanity program, and it is probably the hardest workout I have ever done, but it makes me feel great. It keeps me focused and happy. 

7. My dad coming to visit!!!!! During his two weeks in Ghana we:
  • sat on crocodiles
  • stayed in mud houses in a teeny tiny village

    • rode bikes through the bush with boys from the village as they taught us about medicinal plants

  • met a nomadic clan from Burkina Faso that lives pretty much in total isolation 
  • bargained hard at markets in Tamale and Bolga
  • took looooong, crowded tro tro rides squished between goats and chickens and people and babies

  • saw eight elephants up close at Mole National Park (including the oldest one there)

  • fed monkeys bananas from our hands at the Boabeng Fiema monkey sanctuary

  • made new friends while staying at an orphanage for disabled children

BFFs, seriously :)
  • rode horses around Lake Bosumtwe and stayed at an awesome guest house run by a sweet French woman and her rastafamily

  • got a history lesson at Cape Coast castle

  • relaxed among the rastas at Kokrobite beach
  • went to the mosque with Auntie Aba

  • taught my class together at BASICS
8. The return of the rainy season. When it rains in Ghana, it pours. At home, we set every bucket we can possibly find outside and then get totally drenched as we transfer water from the small buckets to bigger ones every time they fill up. Then we can dry off and nap or read to the sound of the rain on our roof. At BASICS, we play lots and lots of games...and complete impossible watercolor Obama puzzles :)

9. Having time when the power is off to read good books - Thich Nhat Hanh, Wally Lamb, Gillian Flynn, and Michelle Rhee recently.

10. Liking Ghanaian food! My favorites:
  • waakye - a rice and black eyed peas mixture cooked with sorghum leaves. It is served with stew, spaghetti, fish, hard boiled eggs, lettuce or cabbage, and hot pepper sauce. You mix all that together with your hands and eat it out of a giant plantain leaf! (or a bowl if you want to be boring....)

  • groundnut soup with omo tuo - A peanut buttery tasting soup (actually made from groundnuts, which are Ghana's version of peanuts) that can be made with fish, chicken, or beef (often a combination) served of short grain rice mashed into balls (that's the omo tuo).

Life is good!