Alumni Adventures Abroad (Fall 2011)

Jade Borgeson  Class of 2010

As a former student at Sturgis Charter Public School, I hold my experience there as near and dear to my heart for two reasons. For one, the social and academic environment at Sturgis was always welcoming, encouraging and engaging. Being so, the place serves as the backdrop of many of my happiest memories, and the people of the Sturgian community, even still to this day, are some of my best friends and most valued mentors. But I also hold Sturgis in such high respect because the incredible education I received there has repetitively helped me garner success in my later academic experiences- even when those experiences are 7,000 miles from home.

I chose to attend university in the United Arab Emirates after I left Sturgis, a relatively small country located in the southeast of the Arabian Peninsula on the Persian Gulf. Under the patronage of New York University, I joined the first class of their first full-fledged liberal arts campus abroad there in the city of Abu Dhabi. Attracted to the school for its small class sizes, international student body, and liberal arts curriculum, I spent the summer of 2010 in a state of intense anticipation.

Yet, as the day dream of the departure flight date faded into a concrete reality, I found myself confronted with a series of anxieties about my decision. Of course I was excited to be able to travel the world, to see new places, and meet new people, and obviously I felt lucky to be a part of this forming community. But I was also worried. I slowly came to worry that maybe I wouldn’t be able to live up to the expectation- after all, I was just an 18 year old girl raised in one of the smallest towns on the East Coast.

Jade Borgeson exploring the desert outside NYU- Abu Dhabi-2011

However, as classes began, I found myself incredibly well prepared for the academic rigor and cultural shifts that I experienced. On my first essay, my teacher commented on how well structured my arguments were, and in the next few weeks I was able to make friends from all over, my closest friends alone coming from Norway, Turkey, Syria, and Australia. Thanks to the intensive International Baccalaureate education and close attention I had received as a student at Sturgis, I had developed not just into a strong college level writer, but into an open minded but critical thinker, well prepared for the challenges ahead of me. Classes like Theory of Knowledge helped me understand different cultures and perspectives on life, as did Latin and Spanish, which also served to develop my linguistic capabilities and communication skills. IB History and English pushed me into learning how to effectively defend an argument. HL Art and Physics taught me how to understand the world through a variety of different lenses, and, of course not forgotten, HL Mathematics taught me not only valuable social science skills in statistical analysis, but the value of perseverance. Somehow college felt like familiar territory coming from this background.

Jade Borgeson, View of city from her Residence Hall

Obviously there were also many challenges that could not be prepared for. Arabic was nothing like Latin, and I am still not quite sure how to handle the scenario of a woman in a burqa fainting in front of me at the supermarket. But I think that Sturgis prepared me very well for what laid ahead of me, and taught me the value of community and multicultural understanding, particularly through the uniquely IB CAS program, the Theory of Knowledge class , the foreign language programs, and the multinational origin of the literature studied in IB English. Even more relevantly, the sense of closeness, sensitivity, and understanding amongst the Sturgis community helped prepare me for many of the cross-cultural exchanges that have confronted me in my travels throughout the region and within the international student body.

It is in this spirit of understanding and intellectual rigor that I continue to approach my education and travels, and that I continually find myself rewarded for day after day. I would certainly recommend study abroad to any adventurous spirit coming from the Sturgis community, feeling that the program there prepared me so adequately and that my experience abroad has been so rewarding. Abroad, I have learned how to be completely independent, how to handle cross-cultural misunderstandings, the values and drawbacks of collectivistic vs. individualistic societies, and the gravity of political decisions on the lives of others. I would recommend study abroad to any Sturgis student who wants to pursue a liberal arts education and has a tangible interest in understanding the global context in which we live. Not only is there the potential to learn more about the world around you, but there is also the potential to learn more about yourself.

Matt Chamberlain  Class of 2008

TRAVELING TO AFRICA AND ALONG THE WEST COAST WITH WHOI

The following information was provided by Northeastern University:

TRAVELING TO AFRICA WITH WOODS HOLE OCEANOGRAPHIC INSTITUTION

Meet Mathew Chamberlain, a fourth year physics major here at Northeastern University. He has a long and exciting road ahead of him. After undergoing training at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, he – along with two other Northeastern students — will be spending his co-op with a team of scientist traveling to Zambia and Botswana to detect naturally occurring electromagnetic fields in the Earth’s surface. The team will be studying the East African rift, where two tectonic plates have just begun to pull apart.

In this blog, Mathew will be chronicling his journey – from research to outreach, he will write about all his experiences. Enjoy

http://www.northeastern.edu/cos/about/news_items/summer2011/matchamberlainafrica.html

Michael Falletti  Class of 2002

After Sturgis, I moved down South to attend the Savannah College of Art and Design, where I studied art and architectural history. I specialized in ancient Near Eastern architecture and, as such, spent a couple of summers working on archaeological digs in the Middle East as part of my studies.

After that, I moved to NYC for a couple of years, where I received a master’s in Humanities and Social Thought from NYU. It was an interdisciplinary program, and my area of focus fell somewhere between international studies and urban studies. My thesis was on Bedouin tribes in Jordan (who I worked with while doing archaeology over there) and the simultaneous fetishization and subjugation of their culture by the modern Jordanian government in light of its burgeoning tourist economy. I was fortunate enough to win NYU’s Rose and Herbert H. Hirschhorn Thesis Award for my work!

I was on a plane to Burkina Faso just a few weeks after completing my master’s. Peace Corps was something I had always wanted to do since I was young, and my last year of grad school seemed like the perfect time to apply.

I was in Burkina Faso from June 2008 until August 2010. I was part of the first-ever group of computer science teachers Peace Corps sent to the country. The group consisted of myself and four other guys, but we trained alongside math and science teachers most of the time.

I lived in Bobo-Dioulasso, the “second capital” of Burkina. It was a very large city, so teaching computer science was feasible there (though never easy!) My school, the Lycée Municipal Vinama Thiémounou Djibril (named after the first mayor of Bobo-Dioulasso—a mouthful, I know) was the second-largest middle/high school in the city, with a student body of about 2000. Over two school years, I taught about 700 kids and dealt with constantly failing technology and the flooding of my computer lab (due to the intense rainy season). On days when the power was out, I had to be really creative with my lesson plan! We started with very basic material. One lesson of mine was called “What is a computer?” if that gives you an idea. However, I was able to bring some of my students all the way up to doing simple calculations in Excel.

Michael Falletti – Tantie Zalikatou’s House

I lived farrrrrrrrrrrr away from my school, and even further from downtown, where I went to receive mail and withdraw money from the bank. A round trip from my house to downtown was a solid 20km over very hilly terrain, not to mention the very dangerous city drivers (I was in two bike accidents—the second of which being a hit and run incident caused by a very careless taxi driver).

Aside from teaching computer science, I advised my school’s English Club and spent my spare time trying to master Dioula, the local language of my region (since I was already fine in French). Funny story: I was at a grocery store here in the States, and overheard some people from Mali speaking a variant of Dioula. The looks on their faces when I went up and greeted them were priceless!

Michael Falletti -Niansogoni

I was also an elected member of Peace Corps’ AIDS Task Force. In this role, we planned and allocated funds for various AIDS-related community development projects across the country.

Nowadays I am living in Baltimore, where I work as the Manager of Development for a national non-profit called New Leaders for New Schools. We identify, develop, and support transformative leaders for high-need urban public schools. I enjoy what I am doing now, but I would LOVE to get back into international work if the opportunity presented itself. In the meantime, I’m enjoying honing my skills in the development/philanthropic field, and am currently contemplating getting my MBA (if I can find the time to study for the GMAT!)

Matt French  Class of  2011

Studying in the Middle East has been a challenging but incredibly rewarding experience. Coming from the States, many people would look at me strangely when I said I was studying in Abu Dhabi, a city they considered the center of burqas and Al-Qaeda. However, coming from Sturgis, many people would support my decision and be excited for the amazing experiences I would have in college. The Sturgis faculty, students, and curriculum were essential to my transition into life in the UAE. I feel like Sturgis developed me as a global citizen before I came here. It was never hard for me to interact with people from all around the world, and my best friends come from places like New Zealand, Mexico, Norway, Iran, Chile, the Philippines, Argentina, India, etc. It was never a nuisance for me to embrace their cultures and their languages, and it isn’t strange to me now that I type this while listening to the call to prayer.

Michael Pease  Class  of 2002

Michael Pease -Teaching English

As a freshman at Sturgis Charter School (before they added the ‘public’) I had a history teacher, Mr Olins, who had served in the Peace Corps. I remember him talking to us about his two plus years in Guinea Bissau, a tiny nation in West Africa on the Atlantic coast, which was my first introduction to Peace Corps. I remember pictures of dirt paths, smiling villagers, and thatched-roof villages. I recall being very impressed that he had learned the local language of his region and lived without electricity or running water. Mostly, however, I recall not having any understanding of what he ‘did’ while there.

Having myself now completed 27 months in Peace Corps Thailand, I have found that “what did you do over there?” is the most commonly asked question. I have also found that, “I was accepted into a community where I made amazing friendships, learned a new language, and everyday promised a new adventure” or “I gained a whole new perspective on life” are not the type of answers people want. Notwithstanding my unequivocal belief that those intangible accomplishments require the most effort and sacrifice, I recognize and can appreciate people’s primary interest in the work accomplished and projects completed.  So, while I may dwell on themes of community integration and cultural appreciation, I will try and focus on what I ‘did’ while in Thailand.

I was a Community-based Organizational Development volunteer stationed in Amphur Phrao (This can be loosely translated as ‘Coconut County’) in Chiang Mai province. The political and administrative boundaries of Phrao coincide with a geological formation of mountains ringing a beautiful valley where agriculture is king. Like many places Peace Corps volunteers end up, inequality, poverty and economic uncertainty persist in Phrao, despite relatively strong economic growth in Thailand. Household debt levels are high; the cost of agricultural inputs like fertilizers and pesticides has risen while the prices of their crops fluctuate with international markets, somewhat arbitrarily in the eye of the average farmer. However, this is a reality that might easily be forgotten as members of my community were always smiling and laughing, generously offering me a meal, or appearing otherwise carefree and happy.

My Thai dad offering his blessings before my departure. Each person offering a blessing tied a string around one of my wrists which they believe helps ensure my soul and spirit remain intact and safe.

My primary project was working with the organic farming cooperative in my community. I worked with the cooperative to help them achieve their goals of expanding their membership and market and increasing their income. The single biggest initiatives to this end were the achievement of FairTrade and BCS Organic certification. The two certifications, while substantial investments of time and money, allow the group to export their products to European and Asian countries as ‘organic’ and ‘fair trade’. The group effectively doubled the price their rice fetched. In 2009, for example, the cooperative earned between 36 and 28 Baht per kilogram (depending on the strand of rice), which compares quite favorably to the roughly 18 Baht per kilo received prior and 11 Baht an average rice farmer might have earned at the time. (The group grows special dark purple and red strands of jasmine rice that fetched higher prices even before organic certification.) As per the FairTrade requirement, a percentage of this premium was put into a special community development fund that the group has dedicated to supporting new members make the transition to organic farming. The transition is often very difficult as one must farm organically for five years before one can be certified (and receive a higher price) while the soil quality has typically deteriorated from years of fertilizer application which results in lower yields initially. The fund will help financially support new farmers to make this transition.

Big Organic Vegetables – Lung Dao, a member of the organic farming cooperative posing next to a Fuk Kiow, a large vegetable commonly used in curries.

We combined this internationally-focused marketing initiative with efforts to expand the local market. We built a new organic produce stand at the weekly district market so as to differentiate the group and its products.  Additionally, we launched an educational initiative, which included an economic survey of rice farms and blood tests for farmers in eight local villages. The survey was used to gather data to highlight the economic viability of organic farming and the blood tests showed the high concentrations of deleterious chemicals in the blood of conventional farmers relative to the organic farmer. We hope the combination of lower debt levels (organic farming requires few expensive inputs) and more consistent profits combined with better health indicators would draw other community members to organic farming. All in all, things look very promising for the group as interest in organic farming has grown as has income. I am very grateful that I was able to support the group as they worked towards their goals.

In addition to directly supporting the organic farming cooperative, I was involved in several secondary projects. I worked with the local Thai massage group to get them certified in Thai massage and taught them basic English so that they could make more money giving massages at a nearby resort with foreign tourists. I led site visits to other Peace Corps volunteers’ villages with members from the organic farming cooperative to offer technical assistance with other farming groups interested in organic farming. I also served on the Thailand-wide Community Enterprise Committee which developed resources and led trainings to support community-based income generation projects.

Village Festivity – A picture from the annual ‘sports day’ celebration whereby the community took the day off from work and all gathered to compete in such sports like egg toss, slow bike riding, sack races and three-legged races.

While, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work with such talented and passionate community members, I am even more grateful of how quickly and genuinely I was welcomed into their community.  Really taking the time to integrate with my community may have been the most meaningful component of my service. I spent months awkwardly building Thai language skills (there were no English speakers in my community), I shared countless delicious and the occasional gross meal, I spent long hot days working in the rice fields with my villagers, I spent lots of time chatting with neighbors and I otherwise just tried to get to know as many people in the village as I could as well as I could. Building these relationships and really appreciating and understanding their culture and way of life was not only essential to effectively working with community members but was also the most rewarding aspects of my Peace Corps service.

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