Low-Income Latinxs and Folx of All Diverse Ethnic Backgrounds: How You Can Travel-Study in the U.S. or Abroad

by Elisabet Raquel @elisabet_raquel

Studying abroad as a low-income, non-white person with an immigrant family background can be a thrilling and life changing experience, believe me! As a first generation college student with a low-income background, I grew up without much access to academic resources and opportunities. But, all that changed for me after I decided to apply for study abroad programs offered by my university.

I’m just a low-income girl from a little east of East L.A. who grew up with an identity crisis and feelings of imposter syndrome – this is how I would have described myself a couple of years ago. I am someone who now knows exactly who I am, where I come from, and what I’m made of since studying abroad three times – two of those three times in my countries of origin (and you can read about that here).

Prior to studying abroad, I had only been to México once as a little girl and spoke mostly English and very poor quality Spanish. I am now nearly fluent in three languages and have received almost half of my undergraduate education in some of the most highly esteemed universities and academic programs in Latin America.

Growing up, I never imagined higher education would have been an option for me, let alone such an esteemed international education! ¡Si se puede, todo se puede!

Fitting the Experience into your Busy Life

Fitting travel study into your academic experience is all about organizing your time, priorities, and resources. The sooner you start planning for your travel study, the better – but even if it’s later in your academic career, know that it is still possible!

If you are an undergraduate student at a community college or university, your school may have a study abroad office where you can reach out for more information about the kinds of programs and opportunities offered.

I studied abroad three times as an undergraduate under a five-year academic plan – all of which was covered by my financial aid and scholarships (though I did take out a small percentage of loans as a personal decision).

This was possible because of the following: I came into university with a sophomore credit standing; I applied for study abroad my first year and went abroad my second year; I studied a major in the humanities with not many requisite courses; and I extended my enrollment at my university for a full fifth year (since my financial aid package covered a full fifth year).

Now, this is my own personal experience and everyone’s situation is unique, but a general rule is that the earlier you start planning, the better! Once you travel study, you might realize that you would like to do it a couple of times (like I sure did). In the end, it is up to you to decide what you want out of your academic experience and prioritize from there on out.

If you’re unable to fit a travel study experience into your undergraduate experience, know that there are other opportunities available, such as the Fulbright program where you can apply for grants to teach English abroad or conduct Master’s level or Doctoral research.

You can even look into getting your TEFL certificate for Teaching English as a Foreign Language as there is a demand for English teachers all over the world. You can also consider Work Away or finding work that you can do remotely. There are many options out there for you to choose from!

Funding

If you are a low-income student, please know that there are funding opportunities for you out there! In some cases, the financial aid you receive for studying at your host institution may apply directly to your travel study costs. This is not the case in all situations, to which I recommend reaching out to a financial aid advisor, and/or advisors at your host institution who are in charge of Travel Study (also known as Study Abroad).

In the case that the financial aid you receive is not applicable to cover the costs of your travel studies, you could look for low-cost program options offered by a third-party company, such as CIEE and look for scholarships and grants to cover the costs, for example. You could even participate in Work Away or with a volunteer position in which you could be provided basic living accommodations in exchange for your volunteer work.

You should also make a little income, budget, and save.  Also, there are so many, many scholarship opportunities out there! So many people want to see students like us thrive and compliment our studies even further by participating in travel study.

I myself won about $12,000 total for all my study abroad experiences – I think I won every scholarship I applied to! One example of such a scholarship is the Gilman Scholarship, for students who are Pell Grant recipients, from which I won $5,000.

To find these opportunities, you just have to start doing your research and not be afraid to reach out for advice. There are many people out there with answers and access to more resources. Like me, I’m just someone sharing my inside knowledge of as someone who participated and as someone who interned at my school’s study abroad office.

Also, might I mention that there are plenty of travel groups full of people who have done this all before that you can join such as Travel Latina and Latinas Who Travel on Facebook and Instagram. Always feel free to look for answers and resources by asking questions!

Family

For some of us, we may be the first ones in our family to have the privilege to travel freely and they might not understand why or how you’re going to do it (at first). Coming from a cultural background where family is very protective and overseeing, having a conversation with your family about your desire to travel study might be a little bit daunting. They might be concerned about the costs, your safety, the general time and distance you’ll be away, among many other factors.

If you are worried about how your family might react with the news, be sure to do your research and make yourself well informed about all the concerns thet might have. Be sure to keep the conversation open and mature. You can be flexible with your options, but stand strong with your decision about going.

Hopefully they are supportive of you from the beginning and if they are feeling a little uncomfortable with you going, just be ready to provide them with reassurance, information, and compromise if needed. As an adult, you have every right to seek enriching experiences in your life – your family likely just cares about your well-being.

 

Travel Study Under the Circumstance of Having an Irregular Migratory Status

I would like to address that access to education in general is a privilege and access to international education is an even greater privilege – not everyone can participate in international travel study programs because not everyone can travel internationally.

For our friends and family who cannot because of unjust immigration policies, I want to let you know that we hear you, see you, and would like to support you and see you thrive just as well.

In the case that you have an irregular immigration status and would like to participate in travel study, you should take a look at internships, field studies, or learning opportunities in other states or territories of the U.S. offered by your learning institution.

You should definitely seek out legal support from an immigration attorney, hopefully one that is provided to you by your school. If your institution does not offer undocumented student services, you should seek for legal advice independently.

Historically, DACA students were able to realize international study abroad though Advance Parole. However, all students with irregular migratory status should seek legal support before decided to participate in a travel-study program.

There are also many travel study programs in the U.S. available to you – you just have to consider factors such as cost and safety, keeping in mind that you never have to disclose your status to anyone at any time.

Higher Education, International Education, and National Exchanges were not designed for students like us who may come from low socio-economic, immigrant family backgrounds, and/or communities of color. However, being college students from the U.S. gives us access to opportunities usually only open to the global elite. The opportunity is ours –  we just have to prepare well beforehand and take the chance!

How a Visit to Switzerland While Studying Abroad in College Impacted My Career

I was studying abroad in Aix-en-Provence, France for an academic year from Fall 2008 to Summer 2009. Coincidentally, I had met a French girl the year before who was studying abroad at the University of Michigan for a year. Even better, she was from the school I was planning for over a year to attend called the Institut d’Etudes Politiques-Aix (IEP aka Science-Po-Aix). Her name is Julie Mandoyan, French-born daughter of Armenian immigrants, and I have to thank her for changing my career outlook forever.

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Here I am with Julie on the right

Not only did we spend some time together in Ann Arbor, but we organized my arrival in the Fall after she would have already returned home. Her and her family welcomed me in their home for a couple of days in Marseille, France because the international airport is located there, and Aix is less than an hour away. She was technically accompanying me to Aix, not to return to the IEP, but to ask for her school transcripts that stated she had completed her Bachelor’s Degree after studying abroad. In France, most Bachelor’s programs take 3 years, the 3rd year is commonly spent abroad in the Erasmus program, but almost all French college students continue their Master’s program right away for 2 years. Furthermore, the average French college student completes a total of 5 years in school to complete their Masters all at the same school without the need of GRE’s or applying again. On the other hand, Julie was accepted into a prestigious Masters program called the Graduate Institute of Geneva in Switzerland. The IEP made it close to impossible to give her paperwork and transcripts because this is not a common occurrence, but yet she was able to get it done, therefore she moved to Geneva!

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Julie took this photo of my in Marseille, France

Fast forward a couple of months living in Aix around winter time in February 2009, I decided to finally visit Julie in Geneva. We planned on touring Geneva, visiting the United Nations headquarters, and then a trip with her graduate school friends to go skiing in the Alps.

A walk around Lake Geneva and the Freddy Mercury Statue

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A Tour of the United Nations Headquarters – Palace of Nations:

It was a dream come true to be able to see this building. I always knew since I was little that I wanted to work internationally, but visiting this location inspired me even more. In the following photo I’m acting like I submitted my job application to the UN:

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A road-trip to the Swiss Alps, blocked road by an avalanche, skiing, and finally arriving to our wooden cottage (called “chalet” in Swiss French, pronounced sha-ley)

Overall, because of spending time with Julie and her classmates, I decided I wanted to apply to grad school in International Affairs in the future. In fact, I applied to her program in 2011 but unfortunately did not get in. However, I did get accepted to the University of California, San Diego – School of Global Policy & Strategy which was a blessing in disguise because it was significantly less expensive and much warmer than living in Geneva.

Nonetheless, thank you Julie and Switzerland for inspiring me to take my career route of International Development. I will never forget it, and hope to one day have an opportunity to work in Geneva one day.

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Travel Hasta La Raíz

by Elisa R. García

I am a young Latina, a nenita in her early 20s who is the first one in my family to go to university and the first one to have opportunities to study and travel freely. With Mexican-Chilean roots and a mother who is from Bolivia, I took full advantage of study abroad opportunities and my financial aid situation to go to all three of these places that have played roles in the histories of my families. I wanted to go hasta la raíz to really understand how we became to be who we are today. Reconnecting with my these histories, families, cultures, and language – all that I have found lost to me in these past two generations away from my countries of origin – has spiralled me onto an unexpected journey of solitude, soundness, and soul therapy. I imagine this kind of journey could do many of us good, though I understand that this is a very privileged opportunity that is not a possibility for many people. This journey was only made possible to me because I found myself in an ideal situation for it to occur as a college student with near full funding for my studies, who was ahead of credits, giving me the freedom to study abroad for about two years in total. If you are finding yourself in a situation where you can realize these homecomings and reconnection to your countries of origin, I highly suggest taking the opportunity. Though I will give a fair warning, this type of journey back to the homelands, learning about who we really are, where we come from, and why we are not ‘from’ there anymore can be a deeply intense and painful, but a beautiful process nonetheless. I was being called back to my roots, so I looked into the study abroad programs offered in these countries – Mexico and Chile. Then I went, and I took the opportunity to go to Bolivia too.

I participated in a field research program in Mexico offered by my university that allowed me to live there for four months. This was only my second time visiting and my first time returning in about fifteen years. I had gone for a month when I was about five years old and stayed with my family who lives in Guadalajara, Jalisco. I was placed for a month in Ciudad de México to study, then in Oaxaca for three months to conduct my field research, and I then visited my family in Guadalajara for a week at the end (where I was prohibited to visit during my program due to travel restrictions). Living in the country for those couple of months, I learned much about about the country, the people, myself, and our shared histories. The Spanish I had lost after having been fluent as a little girl developed so much with dedicated study, immersion, and dating a local. In Ciudad de México, I was introduced to the fast-paced Chilanga lifestyle and enjoyed all the street food. While in Oaxaca, I was given the freedom to design my own schedule, allowing me to realize more than just my research (that is to say that I also spent a lot of free time falling in love and on the back of my partner’s motorcyle getting to know the city and living my best life). Later in Guadalajara, when I was finally able to visit my family, I sat in my bisabuela’s house and tortería, eating all my favorite home-cooked foods and learning a little bit more about my personal family history. The memories of my childhood visit came back to me in Spanish, from when I was more fluent. At this time, I was still developing my Spanish and I started trying to converse with my family about topics I always wondered about – like how and why my grandmother left home as a teenager on her own to the U.S., for example. With time, practice, and use, my Spanish has improved immensely, and I am proud to say that I am now nearly fluent. This renewed skill has allowed me to communicate fully with my family, which has been the most important for me. I’m sad to only have been able to visit my family for such a short amount of time, but I am already planning a three-month return to just stay with them in Guadalajara to really get to know the whole family and our history.

The semester after my study abroad in Mexico, I started my year-long study abroad program in Santiago, Chile. Though the family I have here is mostly from the Valparaíso Region (which is about two hours away), being in Santiago was the closest opportunity available to me and I made frequent weekend visits. I didn’t know much of my Chilean family at first, but they definitely knew me, and showed me all the pictures and letters my grandmother had sent them throughout the years. Everyone welcomed me into their homes with open arms and it was during these initial visits that my search through my family history and the past grew more profound. They shared stories with me about my grandparents and about their childhoods. This led me to ask questions to which led to interesting stories and even more questions. Then I began taking notes, collect data, conduct informal interviews and search for more family members that were introduced to me for the first time in theses stories. I started reconstructing my family history and making a family tree, with the goal of meeting them all and sharing our histories with each other. I would travel to meet each person for the first time and each of them gave me a new perspective, new information, and put me in contact with even more family members I hadn’t previously known about. Así que, with each new person I met, the family and our complex history got bigger and bigger. All this was done in my free time when I wasn’t studying at the university in Santiago, partaking in my internships, or attending events with my exchange program. Balancing all of this work on top of trying to keep mentally, physically, and financially stable was a feat that sometimes I lost to, but am proud of myself for having been able to pull through by means of immense self care and seeking out the support I needed – but that is a whole other story.

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Lisa at the Casa de Frida Khalo in Coyoácan, Ciudad de México

During the break between my two semesters here in Chile, I went to Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia where I met up with my mom for her first time returning home in thirty-three years. I was there for only a short time and spent my time and energy there looking for the missing pieces to the my family history while trying to navigate its sensitive relationships and complicated dynamics. Here I sat down with my family members, trying to get them each alone so we could speak honestly one on one because I knew this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for us to share the truth with one another. Some of my family members don’t have cell phones, What’sApp, or Facebook and live in remote regions so visiting them in person was truly the only way. Bolivia is where all the pieces began to come together of the history of my grandparents leaving Chile, building a new life in Bolivia, getting lost in the drug trade, brujería, and Evangelism, and the long and harsh journey that brought my grandmother and mother to the U.S after having been abandoned by my grandfather. After all this searching, I now became the family keeper of oral history, knowledge, and secrets that could have been very well forgotten – leaving my siblings and I, and the generations yet to come, less confused about where we come from and why and how our life became to be the way it is in the United States.

I think the most rich yielding from my study abroad experiences has been the reconnecting of my family and the healing process I have undergone in learning the roots of my family’s unresolved traumas and of my own personal traumas. We might not be able to undo whatever harm was done to our families along the way of leaving our countries of origin and starting anew, but we can come home and do some deep searching, honor our histories, and heal. If you are finding yourself in a time where you are able to and it’s safe for you to do so, I encourage you to take a wholesome look at the possibility of travelling to where we come from – para realmente conocerse hasta la raíz. It’s time to know our stories and to tell them now before they are forgotten.

How to Find an International Degree Program

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It’s no secret that the cost of higher education in the US is a nightmare and that my generation is defined by student loan debt. A perennial favorite of news outlets is to talk about the cost of education in other countries and how many American students are looking abroad for school.

While they always share the success stories, they never tell you exactly how to find an international university for that degree. In the last year I did a lot of research, and here’s a guide on higher education abroad!

2

What schools are best? Who offers programs in English? Where do I see myself living? Does it count in the US?

Why do I want to study this specific field and what am I willing to do to get there?

For me it had been brewing a while because I blog about museums, so a future working with museums and cultural heritage was what I wanted. This guide will be written from that POV and my desire to get a Master’s. My location focus is on Europe. The process began in March 2016 and ended exactly a year later for application deadlines.

This guide can also be adapted for undergraduate use.

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Research organizations in your field that serve as a network for professionals.

I found the American Alliance for Museums had a directory of Museum Studies and Related Programs, and the National Council on Public History had their own.

I used LinkedIn to search and message people that listed the orgs as an affiliation and noted where they went to school to check out those programs. I also made contacts with individuals through their groups, including one who became my mentor throughout the process. They directed me to other people and I began interviewing them about their experiences to get a realistic picture of the field.

After speaking to roughly 15 professionals in varying areas, I felt adequately informed on what to expect after completing an MA.

4

Identify a region you can see yourself living and studying in.

I didn’t want to rule out US schools and wanted to compare information to something I felt comfortable with. I looked at states I could see myself living in and then went to each university’s website to search their departments. I made a spreadsheet with each school’s information, a direct contact, and cost. Separate from that I made a notebook of pros and cons for every program.

The listings were generous with US programs, but sparse with international options. I found a global listing on another museum website that gave me the first step in where to look abroad.

The US was the easy part. What followed took weeks of work.


5

Cross Check, Triple Check.

The biggest hurdle in finding a program taught abroad was finding on that was only in English. The problem with many international school listings is that they are never consistent, lack important details, and open up a whole world of new terms and scheduling. Even University websites can be vague about the language.

I used FindaMasters.comMastersPortal.com, and GradSchools.com to search for specific terms and made a list of schools. I even looked up the schools that attended international school recruitment events to see if they were relevant.It didn’t feel complete, so then, using this amazing map tool, I manually went through every single country and looked up every single university to catch any I missed and confirm that each had what I wanted.

You can imagine the time this took, and so make sure you note every url, email, and program name. Set up a folder in your email for future correspondences and tag email threads with a school name.

I also discovered that “museum studies” was too vague and limiting, and many listings and schools used “cultural heritage”, “heritage studies”, or “heritage preservation”. Expand word choices and if you see a phrase pop up often, write it down and use it in your searches.

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Say Hello, Look Up Funding


After dozens of university websites, I finally had a list. By now it was June.

I emailed department heads to ask for more information, hit up students on LinkedIn, and looked through Facebook groups of current students. I narrowed it down again and again, and then moved on to visiting the schools that were local to me in the US. I made appointments and talked to their department directors, including about financial aid.

When my top US school would have cost triple the amount of an EU program, not including cost of living, the list became smaller. Many programs in the EU are for a year and were significantly more affordable.

Tuition for a Master’s from some my selected schools:
(not including living costs or fees)

2 years in the US: 

$59,680 (Mid Atlantic School)
$47,653 (Northeastern School)
$33,072 (State School)

1 year in Europe:
$21,015 (United Kingdom)
$14,517 (Netherlands)
$8,783 (Denmark)

Unfortunately many US-based scholarships are not applicable to foreign schools, and the few grants and scholarships available from international schools are usually reserved for top GPA applicants.

The US Department of Education offers this FAQ with details about Federal Funding and a list of international schools that participate (opens as an Excel spreadsheet). You have to fill out a FAFSA and will need your school’s country code because it may not be in their system automatically.

 

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Will a non-American degree be valuable?

It surprised me how often this came up, so I turned to one of the most common resources used by undergraduate students here in the states: US News & World Report issue the “Best College” guidebook. They also have an online Global University Ranking.

In the 2017 guide, their method looked at 1,262 institutions in 65 countries. They included schools based on “academic research and reputation overall” rather than “their separate undergraduate or graduate programs”. It also considered those that “had published the largest number of articles during the most recent five-year period (2010-2014)” (Read more here). With this data, cross referenced with the rankings hereand here,I was able to get a better idea about reputations.

The verdict? In some cases the schools I was looking at abroad were either higher or comparable to the ones I was considering in the US.

7

See it for yourself.

I thought long and hard, spending weeks to mull every detail over and looked up the cost of living. I researched potential fellowships, the weight of EU degrees in the US, and school accreditation. All of it was a blur and intimidating to make a decision based off websites. By now it was August.

Two of the schools were in the same country within 2 hours distance of the other and they were both having open houses in November. It was the off season to travel and my local international airport had cheap airfare through Norwegian. I found myself on a red eye with only a backpack, arriving to the first open house with an hour to spare.

I am SO glad that I went in person to see these places, because I would have made the wrong choice based off my original list.

 

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I’m going for it.

A letter of motivation, a certified copy of your diploma via mail (NOT digital), a transcript, additional docs. In the end I applied to three programs at only two international schools.

Make sure you have looked each school’s application website because some places require registration in advance. Don’t expect to upload all your docs on the day you are ready to hit submit. If needed, renew your passport before you start the process.

I notified the department heads that I applied, and had I emailed sooner I would have had my fee waived. They noted my visit as an international student, and I regret not following up.

Each school strictly required a bank transfer to pay your application fee, no credit cards or online payment, and my local banking branch was confused. In addition to the application fee:
1) The bank has a fee to send the money.
2) Some schools have a fee to receive the money.

You must have the exact amount needed and confirmed with the university, and have every detail of their routing numbers correct.
Then, you wait.

and wait.

and know that you’ve done all you could do.

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Congrats! You’ve earned this!

I emerged with an acceptance to my top choice and began the process of working with my future university’s International Student office. It’s wise to purchase a printer with a scanner if you don’t have access to one because of the amount of paperwork that needs to be signed and scanned over on a regular basis. Save phone numbers for specific administrative offices and note the time zones.

If you’re going through with a Federal Loan, the Financial Aid office will be in contact with a series of steps, and more documents, in order to secure it. You need that information completed in order to apply for a visa.

In the Netherlands, students must have health and liability insurance or else you get fined. My American policy (surprise) wasn’t accepted, so I signed up for one through the university.

When the above paperwork has been completed, you can then submit a visa application. By now you should have a renewed passport ready to go, and if you’ve got a recent headshot photo save a copy in case you have to upload it for a student ID card.

While all of this is going on, finding viable housing either though the university or through outside channels should be something you keep your eye on. Join Facebook Groups, communicate with current students, or ask your department head for details.

If you are from the US, this is also a good time to start learning the metric system and military time.

I hope that my experience guides you, and if you’ve got something you want to share or questions I’d love to chat!

As for what it’s like to START a degree program abroad? I’ll know soon enough!

Wine Ur Waistline

A warm medase paa to BKLPhotography for allowing us to feature these stunning and luminous images.

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Growing up as a 90’s kid in Los Angeles, California was awfully confusing for a young girl who carried some extra weight and a Latin accent. Back then, television screens were flooded with images of Cindy Crawford and Kate Moss, which in turn set a true standard of “perfection”. Bodies’ slayed with thin waists, visible rib cages, and no “behind” were a testament to real beauty. I, at the time, couldn’t dare to compare myself to the images I saw on TV. I, instead, preferred to compare myself to a sack of potatoes. I was a chunky little thing, who loved tortillas, and pan dulce. Although my Mami did a fantastic job at showering me with love and appraisal, she also constantly monitored my eating habits, and tried, with little success, to get me involved with sports. Some time after my sophomore year in high school, I grew a few inches, and the weight around my belly distributed to the southern corners of my body. By the time I reached the age of 15, I walked the hallways of my high school carrying a womanly shape. Despite the even distribution of mass around my hips, I never felt I fit definition of beautiful. Cute? Maybe. Nalgona? Definitely.

Fast-forward.

At 22 years old, I touched down in Ghana. West Africa. The land of bright, brick red Earth, colorful fabrics, and hip-life tunes as well as afrobeats. The city of Accra is bustling. As I rode the tro-tro (a commonly used method of public transportation) women and men crossed the motorway, balancing baskets atop their heads selling fresh fruit, water sachets, plantain chips, Fan Ice yogurt and other miscellaneous items like electronics and bathroom tissue. Often times, the women work from sun up to sun down. Walking up and down along the motorways winding in and out of the car lanes amidst traffic; the real world is their runway, and they kill it every single time. They don’t drop their children off at day care before they leave for work. Instead, toddlers are strapped, perched just above their lower backs, using a yard of color fabric and carefully tied knots. As soon as their children are old enough to read, they too, join their parents on the motorway. Meanwhile, beats from the local radio station play from random car stereos and I can hear lyrics, sung in pidgin (an informal manner of communicating that incorporates Twi and broken English, heard across Ghana and used predominately among men to express solidarity, comradery and youthful rebellion) like “Ur waist, ur waist/ All I want is ur waist” and “Shake up your bum bum/ The way you whine whine e dey make me go down low”.  As I try to maintain a calm exterior, on the inside, my heart would randomly flutter; this too is beauty, and I can finally relate.

On a Sunday afternoon, I was with a group of program students from the California system and we’d organized a trip to the local beach, Krokrobite. I suited up with a two-piece bikini under my dress and I was ready to hit the sand. Upon arrival, I quickly realized I was “under-dressed” for the occasion. Most of the locals lounged around the beach and beachside mini bars in shorts and tank tops and any women seen wading in the water were fully clothed in leggings and t-shirts. Hesitant, I removed my dress and quickly wrapped myself in a beach cover-up. That’s when I heard someone behind me yell, “Eii, I like your waist line!” Blushing, I turned to find myself faced with three local men. I was soon at ease, as these men politely introduced themselves and we began a friendly conversation.

We somehow made our way onto the topic of waist beads. African beads have a long history as these powder glass beads have been seen all across the continent of Africa and are used as ornamental and symbolic adornment, at times representing signs of wealth, aristocracy and of femininity. Enlarged waistlines, hips, arms and calves are regarded as common characteristics of traditional Ghanaian beauty. Ghanaian beads (because of their inability to stretch unless they are untied or loosened) are worn around the waistlines, hips, arms or calves of young girls so these areas can develop well as they grow and their bodies are shaping. I’d heard about waist beads during my time in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil from a friend who’d previously been to Ghana. I, myself, started wearing strings of beads around my waist since my first trip to Rio de Janeiro, although in Brazil they are not symbolic. The beads that I wore were more of a fashion statement and also represented my time in Brazil. Before my departure to Ghana, I was warned by a friend not to flaunt my waist beads so thoughtlessly since a public display of waist beads was seen as the equivalent of exposing your breast.

As soon as I arrived on the beach, I was hesitant about taking off my dress for that reason. My intention was not to offend anyone with my body. When I inquired about this to my new acquaintances, I asked how come some of the shops surrounding the beaches all sold women’s bathing suits and bikinis but none of the local women actually wore them. I asked, how, in spite of the consistently humid year-round heat, women stayed so covered-up.  The answer was quite enlightening, “You see, us Africans, we come from kings and queens. So, we must dress as such. That means treating our bodies as temples and only sharing ourselves with our partners”.  These men went on to tell me that Africans are a very royal people. And to demonstrate it, they adorn their bodies with these colorful and uniquely made cloths and beads, which requires many hours of tedious craftsmanship. Ghanaians are just as concerned with their health and well being as they are with their outward personal care and appearance. It is common for Ghanaians to greet each other with variations of “Ete sen?”, spoken in Twi (just one of the most commonly spoken local dialects in Ghana) which translates into some form of, Is your body well? Or, How are you? In English, a Ghanaian might ask you, how is your health? Or how did you sleep? as a greeting or introduction to a conversation.

During my time studying at the University of Ghana at Legon campus, I sat in classrooms, side by side with some of the descendants of these queens and kings. I have heard the words that so eloquently roll off their tongues when they raise their hands to give a response or pose a question. I have had the privilege of being taught by some of the finest educators in Ghana, one of them being Gertrude Aba Mansah Eyifa-Dzidzienyo, lecturer of archaeology, with an emphasis on gender studies, museum and heritage studies. Madam G.A.M. Eyifa-Dzidzienyo is the first woman archaeologist fully trained and currently lecturing in Ghana. She conducted her doctoral research among the Talensi in the Upper East Region of Ghana and at eight months pregnant she was still on the field collecting data. She proudly submitted her PhD thesis for examination and looks forward to graduating in July of 2017. This will make her the first woman to receive a PhD in the Department of Archaeology and Heritage Studies at the University of Ghana. She has given hope to women in pursuing Archaeology and has enhanced the gender image of the Department of Archaeology by being the only woman working with male colleagues until the recent appointment of another woman, which she herself mentored and encouraged after her undergraduate studies. After paving the way, more women have also received their MPhil degree while others are currently enrolled. Madam G.A.M. Eyifa-Dzidzienyo is thriving proof that the Ghanaian woman is an educator and a leader, the elbow grease that gets the hamster wheels spinning. She serves as a reminder that women are nurturers, among many other things, giving light to future scholars, entrepreneurs, and philosophers.

I’ve heard the saying, ‘Feeling like I got the weight of the world on my shoulders’. After my time in West Africa I’ve come to the belief that Ghanaian women, West African women, African women, black women, women of the African diaspora, all carry the weight of the world on their hips. The curves of their bodies withstanding the weight of the millions of men, women, children that were ripped from their mothers and brutally shipped to the four corners of the world. Their royal lineage awfully tainted by the brutal experience our world has bestowed upon millions of black women. Mama Africa carries the ever lasting affects of the colonial rule that still to this day disrupts and intercedes in the unification of the African continent. The creases and wrinkles caused by the years of carrying this weight are traces of the white man’s border lines. The groove on her lower back providing refuge and comfort to her brothers and sisters, husbands, sons and daughters, uncles and fathers.

Reflecting upon it now, when I examine Ghana more closely, I see that the Earth is that bright, brick red color because Mama Africa bleeds for those who were lost and those that continue to struggle today. I listen to the lyrics of hip life, and I realize that they are a celebration of the African woman, her waistline, and her ability to smile and cry through her pain; she carries her crown high amidst of the constant geo-political warfare against Africa. In Ghana, when the women walk, they stand tall. They are proud to be Ghanaian; they are proud to be African; they are proud to be Ghanaian women; they are proud to be African women. I, then, examine my own body. And although I could never draw a comparison between my life experiences and those of African women, I’ve come to love and embrace the body and the curves I was given. It is this one body that has helped me through 25 years of life, across the land of three different continents. It is this one body that has helped me get through school, which wakes me up every morning for work. From watching her, I too, have learned to be proud of who I am, the life I have been given and the body that I was born with.

A song to get you in a good mood – Africa by Yemi Alade ft. Sauti Sol

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Instagram @steezy_b

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Instragram @steezy_b

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Instrgram: @steezy_b

 

Work While Studying Abroad

How working while studying abroad in France allowed me to travel Europe and learn the language better than 9 years of classes. Recommendations at end of post.

Coat check at a bar and elementary English teacher. Those were my two jobs I was able to nab while studying abroad for an academic year in Aix-en-Provence, France. Whatever student loans and small scholarships didn’t cover, I had the privilege that my parents could help me with much of the cost during the year there (the rest of tuition, dorm, round-trip flight). But any of the extras like food, entertainment, and travel was to be covered by me. Though I did have a middle class upbringing, the burden of college on my family was immense. My family lived through the chaos that was the Michigan auto industry, and I had studied in France in 2008 to 2009, when the economic recession hit. The dollar was very weak compared to the Euro, and my family and I felt it. My two summer jobs before I moved in the Fall didn’t allow me to save enough to cover a whole year of “extras”. I was determined to find a job that would feed my addiction to wanderlust while lessening the study abroad cost burden on my family.


The first month or so we were in Aix, my new study abroad friends and I would go out to the international student nocturnal spot called IPN (it’s possible it stood for “International Party Nightclub”, in English, not in French) where a few French people worked, but the rest of the workers were foreigners. I was pleasantly surprised to meet a fellow Colombian guy, Kike, attending the coat check on a slow weeknight. We hit it off, conversing mostly in Spanish. I expressed to him that I needed a job, which led him to help me get a job doing the same as him, and – BAM – I got my first job abroad! I was being paid 50-60 euros a night (depending on tips) under the table, and I was only working Saturday nights for about 2-3 months (September – November 2008). That was about $70-80 at that time, which was a lot considering I was not bartending. This covered food to experiment outside of my main choice of cheese or bread (food is expensive in France!). It also covered short weekend trips like to the French island of Corsica, for example.

European clubs stay open past 4 or 5 am , so I knew I had to look for something different or else risk my health and weekend social life (i.e. time to go on trips). There was also an incident where I once got choked by a non-French male coworker who thought he was being playful and funny. I never did or said anything about the situation because I didn’t know how to handle it. Thankfully, a fellow female coworker saw what happened and called him out. Regardless, I knew that it was time to look for a better work gig.

Through Kike, I was introduced to ALL the Colombians who lived in Aix that were around my age. This group  included a guy I would later (and briefly) date, who introduced me to his sister, Linda. Another girl, Daniela, I met randomly while working coat check because we haphazardly bonded over Shakira playing at the moment she handed me her coat, and then we became inseparable the moment we both said we were Colombian. I remain in contact with Linda and Daniela to this day. They are two of my best friends. We spent some fun nights at IPN while I worked and they came to party to accompany me, but we preferred going Latin dancing at Cuba Libre or for some cheap Rosé at Splendid.

My parents weren’t too happy that I was speaking too much English with U.S. American friends and too much Spanish with Colombian friends, which they felt defeated the purpose of being in France.  However, another Colombian, William, who was also working at IPN, worked as a Spanish teacher at one of the French public schools in the area. He told me it would be possible for me to teach Spanish or English. I was more than excited to stop staying up so late on Saturdays for work.  That way I could start having a unique and fun experience with some French youngins during normal business hours. In addition, who would have thought I would meet so many Colombians in France, and that they would make such a positive impact on my life then and now?

William organized my first and only interview with Madame Vela Tur, the principal at Bellevue Elementary School (École Primaire Bellevue), a 30-40 minute bus ride away in the bigger nearby city of Marseille, France. To prepare me before the interview, he let me know that the school was located in a neighborhood that was the government projects with low-income housing. We had one meeting, and I hit it off right away with the kids. I couldn’t believe I got the job!

I was working once a week on Fridays, from 8am to 3pm for a couple of months. I later started to work at 2 other nearby Elementary schools for about 3 hours each. I worked a loaded schedule for my remaining 3 months while still taking university classes. Unfortunately, I don’t remember the names of those elementary schools.  I was teaching 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade, about 2 different classes per grade. The best part about this experience was getting to know this unique part of France, different from what it’s famous for (i.e. fashion, luxury, Cannes Film Festival, the Eiffel Tower, Paris, etc). Marseille is a largely immigrant city since it is the biggest port of France in the Mediterranean. Most of my students were first generation African, Middle Eastern, or Gypsy. The majority of the students were Muslim. I wouldn’t take back this experience for the world, and I was happy to have such a genuine exchange of cultures: between my U.S. American/ Latin American/ Colombian culture, and their French or African or Middle Eastern or Gypsy or Muslim culture.

I ended up working there from about November 2008 to June 2009, and it was a challenging but beneficial 8 months out of my study abroad experience. In fact, I was able to help a fellow U.S. American classmate, Brandon, land a job teaching too. Because of this job, I was able to travel to 7 other countries in Europe. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the extra income.

Do not pay attention to criticisms from your family or friends. If most of your social network speaks your native language(s), yet you are working while studying abroad, the best language experience you will get is if you work with colleagues who are local. It’s usually hard to befriend locals, therefore this is the best way to connect with them, befriend them, and be immersed in their language in the most useful way that is not learned in a college course.

Recommendations
It can be tricky to find a job while studying or living abroad depending on visa restrictions. Here are 3 easy jobs to research online before you travel to the new country, and/or on the ground when you arrive there:

Teach. The easiest job to find as a foreigner with a student visa is teaching English or another language like Spanish or Portuguese. Many require a TEFL certification, but some don’t. Do your research to see what exists in the area you will be in because chances are there are plenty of elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, universities, and adult evening classes for you to teach. Connect with other foreign students who teach since they know direct contacts to people who hire for these positions.

Au Pair. Basically, you get room and board paid for while you take care of a family’s kids. Most times you get an extra stipend to spend for yourself and access to a motorized vehicle. This might be tricky if you have a set school schedule, but it is possible to balance the two. Daniela, my Colombian-French friend I mentioned earlier, worked as an Au Pair in the UK while she completed her studies AND worked at a nearby school.

Work at a bar or restaurant. You may be able to find a job that pays you under the table by bartending, bussing, or other jobs like coat check. Try the bars or restaurants that are frequented by a lot of international students or run by foreigners, especially if there are other Latinxs there. Be wary that “under the table” isn’t always the best option since things can go wrong or the workplace might be unsafe.

Odds and ends. Translate documents to English. Babysit. Task Rabbit offers remote jobs, or find a similar local app. Intern for a company that wants English/Spanish/Portuguese speakers. Find work you can do remotely for your university, with a connection, or for a company.

Even if you aren’t able to secure something before you arrive to your destination, remember that it’s always easiest to find a job on the ground. Network with people who are foreigners but who have lived there for at least a year, they will have the best knowledge in terms of connections for foreigners, and will empathize with you the most. You will most likely find something quicker on the ground rather than sitting at home researching online. You have to be active about talking to people or else you won’t find anything.

For more photos of my teaching experience, click here!

Stay tuned for a future post about my summer internship experience in Paris that followed my academic year in the South of France.

Were you able to find a job while studying or living abroad? What did you do? How did you find the job?

 

Welcome to Perugia:

Smack in the center of Italy, this medieval city has roots older than early Roman civilizations and its hilltop location has some of the most glorious views of the fertile valleys of Umbria. Welcome to Perugia, a culture-rich city with lots of charm!

Perugia is a stone’s throw from Assissi, and a quick 2.5 hour train ride from Rome. It’s full of winding stone streets, countless hidden nooks, and boasts beautiful surviving structures from eras long gone. It’s a great place to wander; if you get lost all you have to do is head upwards.

The region (and much of Italy) is a goldmine of antiquity for archaeology lovers, with Umbria being the heart of Etruscan treasures. Some of the Perugia’s landmarks were erected by Italy’s ancient people, and the National Archaeology Museum of Umbria in Perugia holds a wealth incredible artifacts. The Etruscans are their own mystery; they left no written account of their ways and most of what we know is gleaned from surviving pieces of art, sculpture, and pottery.

Relics from the Middle Ages also speckle the city, the most famous being the Fontana Maggiore in the Piaza Grande; a symbol of Perugia and the critical center of the city’s busiest and most important square throughout history.

To walk amongst the arches and paths is to walk through their same steps, just everyday people doing everyday things; albeit over two thousand years ago. In some places, ancient stonework is literally the foundation of other buildings and of the future.

Scheming Popes and Renaissance Art

Modern times brought an original Raphael oil painting to the San Francesco Al Prato church in the early 1500’s…which was then pilfered by a Pope’s nephew because he liked it so much and HAD to have it. The Pope arranged for an exact copy of “The Desposition” to replace it to ease tensions with Perugians. Funny enough, the copy is in much better shape that the original that lives in Rome’s Borghese Gallery.

There used to be a few other Raphael paintings in the city that are long gone, and all that’s remained of his mark on Perugia is a wall in the Chapel of San Savero. A fresco illustrating the Holy Trinity and several saints is the combined result of his efforts and of his teacher and celebrated master in his own right, Pietro Perugino. It’s tucked away in an intimate room of the chapel, and if you ever wanted a one-on-one with the work of Italian Renaissance masters, this is the place to be.

So, how’s the food?

Italian cuisine is glorious and I am very glad to be walking uphill most of the time because of it, although the bread leaves much to be desired. I know! Bread in Italy that’s terrible?!

Legend has it that the Salt War of 1540 made Perugians protest salt taxes with a boycott, meaning some pretty bland bread that still exists today. The reality is that any salt that was imported and purchased was probably used to cure meats instead. Still, people will swear that Perugians really wanted to stick it to the man and are proud of their crusty rebellion.

That same Salt War and Papal power abuses ignited Perugia’s uprising against the church that resulted in parts of the city being demolished when rebel forces failed. A huge portion of the city was bulldozed over and replaced with the Rocco Paolina, an intimidating fortress and symbol of Papal power that was built ON TOP of entire city blocks. Though the fortress is no longer standing, you can still walk through the “underground city” and see remnants of the buildings upon which it once stood.

What else is there to do?

Seasonal markets pop up with local wares depending on the month, and you’re sure to smell the truffle oil before you see the vendor. There’s an old church or building around every corner, but the most fun lies in exploring without a destination in mind.

Perugia is a hotspot for studying abroad and you’re sure to pick out the students from the locals. There’s an Italian language school as well and plenty of activities to exercise your new language skills.

I highly recommend Alphaville Coffee as a nice place to get your bearings, and if you want someone to give you ideas of what else there is to do, they have a multi-language social night every Tuesday.

It’s a glorious little city that is sure to get you hooked on the undeniable allure of an Italian romance. If the history of it isn’t enough, maybe the daily espressos and terrace views of never ending valleys and blue sky will be😉

My Ghanaian Love Story

I arrived in Ghana with little mindset of falling in love. At this point I’d been single for almost two years and I can’t stress how much I enjoyed it. At a younger age I’d experienced a very unhealthy, you could even say toxic, four-year relationship. As soon as I found an escape, I had no intention of relinquishing my freedom so easily. During those two liberating years I went through a streak of casual dating, valuing the ability to keep my options open and guiltlessly concentrating on my needs. It was during this time that I discovered my self worth and developed an understanding of my likes and dislikes as an individual.

I maintained my usual behavior at the beginning of my study in Accra, Ghana. I never pass up the opportunity to mingle socially and I quickly began enjoying the nightlife in Accra. I became entranced by the fluidity that the locals possess in their dance moves and I soon learned about azonto, alkayida, and hiplife (you can’t say hiplife without mentioning the Godfather, Reggie Rockstone). It was songs like Aye by Davido, Adonai by Sarkodie ft Castro (may he rest in peace) and Million Pound Girl by Fuse ODG that really gave the nightlife in Accra its lively and carefree vibe. Seeing everyone jamming to this music at weddings, birthday celebrations or in their dorm rooms really made me feel like Ghanaians must have been born dancing straight out of the womb.

They say chivalry is dead…

I was very impressed by how forward yet respectful many Ghanaian men were in their approaches. Unlike many of the encounters I’d experienced in LA and Brazil, although persistent, Ghanaian men were very conscious of personal space. Many of them engaged in pleasant conversation – inquiring about what courses I study, what I’d enjoyed about Ghana thus far and asking my birthday in order to give me an Akan “day name” (I am Wednesday-born, me din de Akua). Potential suitors attempted to woo me through invitations to dinner, rides to class and even having food delivered to my dorm room. It was refreshing considering that we now live in the era of “Netflix and chill” and I came to realize that I preferred this more traditional way of dating. I watched as many of the other girls in the program fell into relationships and I came to the conclusion that for many of the local university boys it was a scramble to snag an obruni (local word for “foreigner”) early on in the semester.

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It was no different for my floor mate and also best friend. She became fond of one boy in particular who lived in the International Student Housing dormitory, informally known as ISH (located on the University of Ghana, Legon campus). And I slowly began to focus my attention on his best friend. We were introduced on a rainy Sunday when a bunch of us decided to have a movie night in the TV room at ISH. Beyoncé had recently released her self-titled album (also what I consider to be the soundtrack for my entire Ghana experience) and the girls and I were binging on Beyoncé music videos and pizza. I was outside the TV room when a group of boys approached and asked if there was a party happening. Although I dismissed the encounter as casual and friendly, I did exchange numbers with one of these boys and this is how it all started…

At first, we began seeing more of each other socially. Usually it was a friendly encounter in the hallways, at a soccer match or out and about in town. And the fact that his best friend dated my best friend only facilitated these encounters. It became all too natural for us to hang out together, most frequently sharing meals with one another.

In the dormitories on campus we lived a very tightknit lifestyle. Exchange students and local Ghanaian and Nigerian students live harmoniously (with some occasional Nigerian vs Ghanaian rivalry) under the same roof and naturally these people became my family. As inherently communal people, Ghanaians normally sit in a circle and share their meals with one another from a large bowl whilst conversing and joking around. This usually includes typical dishes like waayke, fufu and banku. It’s the simplicity of these moments that I miss most. Hearing the phrase, “you are invited”, while being handed a spoon to share in the meal was one of the most comforting sensations. It helped me feel closer to home, even from the other side of the world. I found myself craving these interactions more so than the idea of being anywhere else.

I caught myself spending more time at ISH than my own dorm – a women’s dormitory called Volta Hall. After some time, I subconsciously began to suspect that my feelings for this boy were becoming deeper and perhaps the reason behind my desire to linger around ISH for longer than usual. We had a conversation once to clarify our intentions and I insisted that I didn’t want the commitment, reluctant to acknowledge any of his objectives to be anything more. As the days passed, I realized how much time we were spending together.

Looking back, I am able to pinpoint the exact incident where my feelings became all too apparent. My crush had fallen ill to a severe case of malaria and I made it my mission to nurse him back to health. I went out of my way to sneak food into his dorm, made sure he drank all his medication and stayed hydrated and even watched over him while he slept so I could be there to readjust his blanket if he got cold. It was in this moment that I found myself feeling vulnerable. I didn’t like the feeling of being exposed to any possible injury and I reminded myself that I shouldn’t get so attached, especially since I was unsure if he reciprocated my feelings.

Knowing that my days in Ghana were numbered, I desperately grasped onto every moment. And although I was completely breaking my own code, which was never to focus on one boy for too long, I reassured myself that it was okay for him to receive my affections as long as it made me happy. And he did, in fact, make me happy. We spent a lot of time watching movies on his projector, eating and laughing. And he took care of me. But he took care of me in a way that didn’t feel like he was bending over backwards to cater to me, but in a way that made me feel safe.

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And then, love happened. It crept up on me so unexpectedly that after two years I couldn’t run from it anymore. And although I tried extremely hard to fight it, I finally succumbed to its beauty. I realized that my past relationship had left me with a very bruised idea of what love should feel like. I knew that it wasn’t loneliness or lust that lead me to falling in love. Instead, I’d found someone who is humble and genuinely regarded me as an equal, gave me all the patience in the world, someone who looked at me as if there was no one else in the room.

So there it is.

I fell in love 7,558 miles from home on a continent in another hemisphere of the world. Not necessarily the ideal conditions to fall in love. And even worse that it hadn’t really sunk in until the day that I was leaving. From one moment to another, I felt like somehow my lungs lacked oxygen and the ground under my feet was splitting in two. I felt faint at the realization that I would no longer have the luxury of seeing this person everyday or steal kisses in the staircase or share a coke and Pringles while intertwined on a couch.

Simultaneously, I had also fallen in love with Ghana. And I realized that this boy embodies everything that I love about Ghana as well. And although the heartache that I felt when I left Ghana was one of the most difficult I’ve had to endure, I wouldn’t trade my experiences for any material possession or amount of money. In fact, as I replay certain moments in my head, I would give anything to relive it again. Would I recommend falling in love abroad? Most definitely. There is something very beautiful in leaving tiny pieces of yourself and your heart scattered around the world. Most importantly, falling in love abroad isn’t just limited to a person or a place but it begins with falling in love with yourself, sometimes over and over again.

A few more local songs to get your hips moving! I have an entire playlist when I work out.

Patoranking – Girlie ‘O’ (Remix) ft. Tiwa Savage

VVIP – Skolom Ft Sena Dagadu

VVIP – Hustle

WizKid – Show You The Money

WizKid – In my bed

WizKid – On top your matter

Castro – Seihor ft. D-Black

Stoneboy – Pull up (Remix) ft Patoranking

E.L. – Shelele

Yemi Alade – Johnny

PSquare – Collabo ft Don Jazzy

Patoranking ft Wande Coal – My woman my everything

Davido – Skelewu

Olamide – Bobo

Kiss Daniel – Woju ft Davido, Tiwa Savage

Mr Eazi – Skin tight ft Efya

Runtown – Gallardo Ft Davido

Davido – Tchelete Ft Mafikizolo

Some local songs featuring foreign artists…

Wizkid ft Drake & Skepta – Ojuelegba (Remix)

VVIP – Selfie ft Idris Elba and Phyno

Timaya – Bum bum ft Sean Paul

Davido – Fans mi Ft Meek Mill

A few other songs that remind me of my study in Ghana..

Rihanna – Bad ft Wale 

Miley Cyrus – Wrecking ball

Chris Brown ft Lil Wayne – Loyal

Movado – Give it all to me ft. Nicki Minaj

 

 

 

 

Advantages Latinas Have When They Travel Abroad

To my Latinx brothers and sisters, this message is for you. Honestly this message can apply to any minority living in the US, but it’s crafted through the eyes of my experience as a Latina traveling abroad.

Especially if you are a university student, please consider studying abroad. Leaving the US will open your eyes to systems, characteristics, and a multitude of other things you might have not seen before. Why am I telling this message to just Latinxs when really all students should study abroad? Well, some things will be easier for you than it is for a white US American.

Reason #1: Ambiguity of nationality

Most people you meet abroad won’t guess where you are from. Unless you are wearing a shirt with Obama’s face and US American flag print shorts, most people will think you are from somewhere else. The majority of

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Looking mysterious in Quito

people in other countries still hold on to the stereotype that US Americans are white with blond hair and blue eyes. Just look at Hollywood, which is where people abroad receive images of US American culture and Latinxs are vastly underrepresented. If you are a brown or an Afro Latinx, people you meet won’t be able to guess where your roots are. While I was in India most people wouldn’t believe that I was from the US because I was brown (I was even called Chocolaty-brownie once!) because people can be unaware of how diverse the US is. I always explained that my parents were Salvadoran, however I didn’t meet one person who had heard of El Salvador. After three months of explaining where El Salvador was I gave up and told people my background was Mexican because it was quicker. Although it is frustrating at times, this can really be a positive thing, especially if you choose a country where US Americans aren’t typically adored or are just seen as a piggy bank. People stereotype nationalities quickly while traveling so that fact that people didn’t really know where I was from allowed me to craft my identity or remain more mysterious. It’s a shallow benefit but it has really helped me abroad and leads into reason #2.

Reason #2: Higher chances of blending in

If you happen to choose a country that has a population with similar facial features as you, then you are in luck! This saved me in India countless times. I was usually confused for

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Attempting to blend in in India

an Indian-American or the tour guide for my group of friends. Also, I’m not proud to say that I paid the Indian price at entrances for several museums. I could blend in and wasn’t a target for as many stares or beggars as my classmates received. Also, I made friends easily and one Indian friend attributed it to me not looking as intimidating as a 5’11’’ blond girl. This has helped me in other countries I’ve visited/lived in like Morocco, Mexico, and Ecuador. If you are a lighter skinned Latinx these first two reasons might not apply to you so much, but the next one will.

Reason #3: Past experiences of being a minority

You know what it’s like to be in a group of people and realize that you are the only minority. If you are in college, chances are that you really

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Surprise, the only brown girl

know what this is like. You’ve grown used to it and even though it still bothers you, it doesn’t stop you from being social. Well, when you are in a different country, you will go through this but in a more extreme fashion. However, you are used to feeling like an outsider. For a white US American, it’s harder for them because they might have never been in a position to feel that way. Many other exchange students in my program struggled with the feeling of being an outsider.

When I studied abroad in India, my US American classmates were homesick so to alleviate their pain they would often reminisce about things they missed in the US. One day they were sharing stories about their childhood memories at Disneyworld or Disneyland, and I simply couldn’t relate. I’m not even sure if I knew where those places were as a kid. After commenting several times that I hadn’t done most of the things that they were missing, one classmate told me that I wasn’t even US American. These types of things happen to us all the time. We feel like foreigners in our own country and with our own people. Actually being a foreigner isn’t too far from that feeling.

Reason #4: Visits abroad to the motherland

You’ve probably already been abroad and know that the US American way of life isn’t the only way. Many students abroad experience culture shock or are simply surprised by many of the smaller details to living abroad. Although you might get homesick, you have already seen how other cultures meet the demands of daily living. You probably won’t be surprised to see milk or juice sold in plastic bags and you’ve probably already cultivated a love for street food. Another great thing is that since you’ve already been to another country, you can compare your study abroad country with the US and your motherland. I was surprised to see the same frituras that are sold in Mexico and Central America also sold in India. These types of similarities are comforting and also help give you an understanding of how similar we all are.

I hope these four reasons motivate you to study abroad. I know that there might be other factors working against you and your dreams to go abroad. Some of those may be financial worries. There are many scholarships for minority students and if you go to a non-traditional study abroad destination (e.g. Asia, Middle East), you have a higher chance at getting a scholarship. One really great one is the Gilman Scholarship (if you are a US citizen) which is the one that allowed me to study in India.

Another factor that might hold you back are the opinions of your family.

France

Southern France

They might not like the idea of you being so far away. You could use the strategy I used; just fill out all the paper work and once everything is confirmed, let them know you are leaving and that you’ll bring them lots of souvenirs when you get back.

I hope you will see that the positives really outweigh the negatives. For once you are at an advantage for being Latinx because of your looks and background. And like Sandra Cisneros said, “You can never have too much sky”, so go on and see the world, take photos, and share them with others so we can be a more internationally minded community.

*This perspective of traveling is from a brown Latina who was born and raised in the US with Salvadoran heritage. Although “Latinx” is a broad term, the reality is that we are diverse and can have very different experiences while traveling. 

Ghana is not just a place, it is a feeling

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In the spring of 2014, I decided to do a semester abroad with my university through the University of California Education Abroad Program (UCEAP). While many of my classmates were submitting applications to study abroad in London, Madrid and Paris, I decided to pursue the road less taken. In my heart, I knew I was destined for Africa. But as vast as it is, I had no idea where exactly to start. At the time, EAP provided programs in Botswana, Ghana and Egypt. By the time I decided I wanted to study abroad, I’d already missed the deadline to apply for the Botswana program and the Egypt program was limited to certain majors. So, Ghana it was! A few weeks later, I received my acceptance letter to study at the University of Ghana, Legon and I was overwhelmed with joy and excitement. But as the pre-departure process began I would soon be filled with doubt from external sources. As I informed family members and friends of my study/travel plans, those feelings of excitement quickly turned into nausea.

The reactions all varied from “wow, you’re so brave!” to “be careful, girl, I heard some shit is going down over there” to “aren’t you scared you’ll catch something?” It was incredibly frustrating to me that people didn’t seem to share my enthusiasm. And I knew, had I decided to go to London, Madrid or Paris the reactions would not have been as discouraging. I began to wonder, had I been hasty in making such an important decision?

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Entrance to the women’s dormitory where I lived for a semester

For many, the continent of Africa is a mystery, making it easy to create generalizations. When people think of Africa, they picture the emaciated poster child often times used by Save the Children campaigns, conjuring images of war, famine and disease. And although this may be the case for a small number of African countries, it is not the same for the vast majority. Africa is extremely diverse – possessing 47 countries (55 if you include the islands off the coast), over 1,500 official spoken languages and dialects and many various religions. These are just some of the factors that influence culture, philosophy, governance, economics, societal values and art in all of these countries.

The city of Accra (Ghana’s capitol), itself, is bustling with activity day and night. The earth is a beautiful redbrick color, the skies are always blue and the people always in high spirits. Ghanaians are some of the most peaceful people I have ever met and the level of hospitality is heartwarming. At the same time, Ghanaians are also extremely hardworking. Many service jobs require long overnight 12-hour shifts. And most clerical jobs often involve waking up at 4:00am daily in order to avoid rush hour or take public transportation. Ghanaians are not afraid to perform backbreaking labor. Simultaneously, Ghana possesses some of the most innovative businesses in West Africa.

I don’t blame anyone for having a misconstrued image of Africa. It is difficult to understand a place you have never been to. My hope is that I can change at least one person’s misconceptions about Africa – easing fears and concerns about safety and encouraging travel to lesser-acknowledged destinations. I have put together a list of recommendations and travel advice – including a few things I wish I’d known prior to my departure (for peace of mind). I hope that I can shine some light on the otherwise mysterious cloud that shrouds the continent of Africa.

 Pre-departure

  • Lets just get this clarified and out of the way: You are not going to die from Malaria!
    • My university’s health insurance only covered half of the daily anti-malaria medication that I was prescribed. I was in a panic because the nurse at the health center told me any anti-malaria medication sold in Ghana is counterfeit. I went through a grueling process of rushing to the local Emergency Room and having my personal insurance cover the remainder of the medication, which also had to be switched to a generic brand. HOWEVER, weeks into my study abroad program I decided to stop taking the medication and never contracted malaria throughout my entire six-month stay. On the other hand, there were kids in the program who took their anti-malaria medication faithfully every day and still contracted malaria

Yes, malaria is common. However,

  • Anti-malaria medicine is extremely easy to find over-the-counter (and affordable) and you don’t necessarily need it pre-departure (which can be very pricey if you don’t have insurance that will cover it)
  • If you happen to contract malaria, it is extremely easy (and affordable) to find treatment over-the-counter. Recovery time is usually 2-3 days (about the same amount of time it takes to recover from a cold or the flu)
    • Signs of malaria: Fever, shivers, nausea, lack of appetite, diarrhea. If you start to feel any of these symptoms, I highly recommend going straight to any corner pharmacy and asking for malaria treatment medication. Usually, people begin to feel better within 12 hours of the first dose and this will reduce recovery time. Make sure to eat properly and take cold showers to reduce fever
  • You will need to show your yellow fever vaccination card upon entrance into Ghana
  • I strongly advise buying a voltage convertor if you plan on using electronics like laptops or home appliances like hair dryers, etc.

Tips for travel

  • Always bargain and negotiate the price! This goes for taxi rides (negotiate fares before getting into the taxi), most articles of clothing, fabric etc. Never just settle for the first price they offer
    • Some Ghanaians can be very pushy when it comes to selling items

 

  • Fruit from street vendors is delicious, fresh, inexpensive and prepared right in front of you!
  • Nightlife in Ghana is amazing
    • For nightclubs, lounges and bars, locals will dress to impress in heels and dresses, etc. However, for daytime, dress modest and appropriate for the weather since it is usually hot and humid year-round: flip flops, etc.
    • Nightlife in Accra does not begin until midnight and will typically last until dawn
  • BUG/MOSQUITO REPELENT!
    • This is also the best way to avoid catching malaria, since malaria is spread by mosquitos
  • Tons of sunblock
  • It is good to have a lot of cash (of course I wouldn’t advise carrying it all at once), especially small bills. Only supermarkets accept credit/debit cards
  • ATMs are fairly accessible and for the most part open 24/7
    • For people who bank with Bank of America – Barclays is a sister branch and will not charge international ATM fees. Otherwise, I suggest signing-up for an account with Charles Schwab, in order to avoid ATM fees
  • Come prepared with your own hygiene products especially (girls) if you normally use tampons, as these items are a bit difficult to find and pricey
  • Almond milk is EXTREMELY over priced, as well as some other imported items like coconut oil, cashews, dark chocolate, etc.
  • Try as many of the local dishes as possible – fufu, banku & tilapia, jollof rice, fried rice, kenkey, indomie, waayke, yam (chips or boiled). (Prepare to put on a few pounds, but its worth it!)
    • Some of these may cause diarrhea/constipation (but its worth it if you want the full local experience!)
    • And don’t be afraid to eat with your hands! (Ghanaians will appreciate your effort)
  • Google Maps is not very useful in Ghana and most locals do not go by addresses/street names. When telling the taxi driver where you are going it is important to know points of references
    • Always agree upon a fare before getting into the taxi
    • It helps to have exact change when bargaining fare price
    • Taxi drivers like to be called “boss” or “boss man”
  • Warning: Local Ghanaian men are quick to profess their undying love/ask for your hand in marriage. Ghanaian women, on the other hand, are typically more conservative/reserved
  • When it comes to trusting locals use your instincts. Some locals are more exposed to foreign influences and cultures than others and can assist you in reducing culture clash/misunderstandings. Overall, most locals are extremely friendly and willing to lend a helping hand
  • Always use your right hand when greeting, shaking hands, picking something up, etc. The use of the left hand is considered bad luck/taboo
  • Ghanaians have a different standard of costumer service. Do not be frustrated or discouraged if the service is slow. It is also common for some of the items on the menu to be unavailable or made differently than described. They don’t share the same “the costumer is always right” philosophy. Patience is very important
  • It is typical for Ghanaians to be behind schedule. So if they tell you they are going to meet you at 2:00pm don’t be surprised if they arrive closer to 3:00pm
  • The official language of Ghana is English and is heavily influenced by its British colonizers. There are nine local tribal dialects spoken all throughout Ghana. Make an effort to pick up colloquial phrases such as “Charley” meaning friend, “Akwaaba” meaning you are welcome/invited and “Obruni” meaning foreigner or white person

Recommendations for Nightlife

Republic Bar and Grill – Osu

Bella Roma nightclub and shisha – Osu

Purple Pub – Osu

Shisha Lounge – Osu

Firefly Lounge – Osu

Coco Vanilla Lounge/Shisha – Adjiringanor/East Legon opposite John Jerry Rawlings house on Argriganor Road

Beaches

Labadi Beach

  • Best during the day on the weekends, or
  • Reggae nights on Wednesday and Friday

Krokrobite Beach

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  • Here you can also shop for beads, fabric, clothing etc.

(it is acceptable to consume alcohol on the beach, and there are often beachside bars that will serve alcohol)

If you are looking to explore beaches outside of Accra, Cape Coast and Ada Foah also offer breath taking beaches

 

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Ada Island offers a variety of clean, warm and secluded beaches and resorts

Recommendations for Food

Philipo’s for banku and tilapia – East Legon opposites Jerry’s bar

Fish and Fries for seafood – East Legon near University of Professional studies

Mama Africa for banku and tilapia – Osu, near Epo’s

Tasty Jerk for kenkey and pork – Osu near Epo’s

Certain foods only available during certain times of the day/week

Fufu (served mainly for lunch)

Agatha’s – Medina near Rawling’s Circle

Bush Canteen – Legon University Campus or East Legon

Asanka Locals – Osu or East Legon

Asaabea – Osu near Cuzzybro’s

Rice balls (Omotuo) Sundays after church

Mawuli – Labadi

  • For these local dishes, bowls of warm water and soap are brought out for guests to cleanse their hands before they begin to consume their meal

For people with sensitive stomachs or prefer more familiar dishes

Epo’s – Osu

Coffee Lounge – East Legon near the AnC Mall

Starbites – East Legon

Burger & Relish – Osu near Shisha Lounge

Goldin Tulip Hotel – near Airport

Barcelos – Accra Mall

KFC – Oxford Street in Osu

Chix and Ribs – AnC Mall

Pizza

Eddy’s Pizza – East Legon

Mama Mia’s – Osu

Papa’s Pizza – East Legon

Sports Bars

Champs (karaoke) – Paloma near Circle

Honeysuckle – Osu and AnC

Cuzzybro’s – Osu

  • Don’t shy away from befriending the locals and asking for recommendations. There are so many more options than just the ones I have listed above

Concluding Thoughts

Ghana is a feeling I wish I could share with everyone. Ghana felt like home in so many ways. I understand that Ghana is only one country in Africa and many African countries are far from the same. But so many of them offer such beautiful cultures and experiences. In Ghana I found love, I found peace of mind, I found thrill and excitement, I found kindness and compassion. I learned to appreciate things that we often take for granted in our high pace society. I learned to slow down. I learned to pause and enjoy a fresh breeze or a cold glass of water on a hot day. If there is anything that I would like my readers to take away with them, it is this – do not be afraid to go beyond your comfort zone. Do not let others discourage you from following your path. There is so much more to gain from taking a risk and following your heart.

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