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Month: September 2015

Kelsey Quinn | York, England | Post 1

Kelsey Quinn | York, England | Post 1

I’m still on summer break, technically. English universities begin their terms much later than Americans begin their semesters, meaning I am at the tail end of the longest summer of my life— a dream come true for a younger self who aspired only to watch Cartoon Network and eat Cheetos, but dreadful for a college student waiting to go off on an adventure. At least by the end of September I’ve achieved the “abroad” part of “study abroad.” A few days ago, I finally took a plane to the UK, where I have been spending my first few days in London for orientation with my American program that is helping me spend the semester in England. Tomorrow morning I leave for York, which is where I will be living and attending university until December. That is where my real experience begins, but until then I have been going through a crash course in all things English by being a tourist in London.


Somehow, London has pretty much been…exactly as I expected, for the most part. That’s not a bad thing. I anticipated a posh city where all of the buildings have history, character, and beauty—where the vehicles are all tiny and cute except for the even cuter red double decker buses. And everything I’ve seen here actually looks like that. The small schoolchildren actually wear blazers and straw hats with ribbons, for goodness’ sake.



That’s not to say I haven’t been surprised. One of the biggest obstacles I anticipated before arriving was food. As a vegetarian, I did not see myself fitting into a food culture of which meat seemed to be an integral part. However, so far I’ve actually found being vegetarian to be much easier here than it ever has been in the United States. It’s not that the English don’t love meat as much as I thought; they really, really love meat. But almost every menu of every restaurant I’ve eaten at here has a symbol next to vegetarian options. Some restaurants do that in the U.S., but it seems to be more of a norm here. Something I’ve never seen in the U.S., though, is that most packaged vegetarian foods from English stores say “suitable for vegetarians.” At home, with any unfamiliar food I often have to scan the entire ingredient list about five times just to be sure. I’m not the only lucky one. This country just overall seems to be more conscious of other people’s dietary needs: potential allergens are always noted on menus and bolded in ingredient lists.

The English also seem to love drinking as much as they stereotypically love meat. The one large exception to my easy existence as a vegetarian are the pubs. When I asked the bartender at a pub if they offered any vegetarian options, he was kind and helpful, but I’ve never seen a man more stumped in my life. I ended up with a salad with a cider dressing that made the lettuce taste like beer. This morning I also had an iced tea from Whole Foods that somehow tasted like beer. They really like beer here.


Despite the truth I’ve found so far in a lot of my expectations, my favorite part of being in a new country is discovering the subtle differences that don’t usually come up in conversations about cultural differences. Everyone knows that the English drive on opposite sides of the road, but no one ever mentioned to me that they have crosswalks in the middle of the street, not on the corners. Air conditioning isn’t a thing here; it’s nice and chilly outdoors but uncomfortably warm in our hotel room and the shops. A lot of doorways separate one room that has a slightly higher ground level than the other, creating what is, in my opinion, an unnecessary step.


I was going to include a paragraph about how London also seems unexpectedly safe compared to a U.S. city, spare the increased threat of petty theft. But then I had to flee from the Starbucks in which I was writing this blog because a man came in who was being creepy and aggressive. Maybe that was a sign that my first impressions will turn out to be remarkably wrong, which I would be alright with; I was, after all, able to take a five minute walk after fleeing from Starbucks and finish this piece in Hyde Park. Although England may be one of the least challenging study abroad locations because of its language, as I look towards my departure for university tomorrow I am confident that I will encounter the adventure and surprises that I want out of this experience.

Rainah Umlauf | Vietnam | Post 2

Rainah Umlauf | Vietnam | Post 2

Almost three weeks in, and Vietnam is both comfortably familiar and wonderfully new. We have spent most of our time so far in Ho Chi Minch City, a place that is impossible to describe. It is loud, crowded and polluted; the people are the friendliest I have ever met, the coffee is the best I’ve ever had (secret ingredient is sweetened condensed milk) and even the motorbikes add to the charisma of life in the city. The sidewalks are meant for every activity imaginable: people eat delicious bowls of hot beef noodle soup in tiny chairs at small metal tables; incense burns at the feet of enormous trees whose roots warp the pavement around them; excess motorbikes disregard the curb and take advantage of the extra space; small dogs look for scraps as farmers bring their heaps of dragon fruit, mango and pomelo to be sold.

The tropical fruit is only one small part of the delicious food here. A generous meal can be bought for 12,000 VND (about 50 US cents) from one of the food stalls on the street- fried egg omelet with rice and veggies, noodle soups with sea foods, bánh mì sandwiches on warm French bread… One of our program directors is found of telling us the “secret ingredient” in all of these foods. “Ah, it’s the secret ingredient,” she says knowingly. “The chilies,” “the fish sauce,” “the butter.”

A bowl of Bún Thai, eaten at a street food vendor called the Lunch Lady who was made famous by Anthony Bourdain
A bowl of Bún Thai, eaten at a street food vendor called the Lunch Lady who was made famous by Anthony Bourdain

Even a simple action like ordering food, however, is not a simple act. In order to talk to anyone, you must first get a working grasp of the over ten pronouns that you must use in order to address yourself and the people you are speaking to. For example, when I am talking to anyone older than me, I must call myself “em.” The pronoun I chose to address them varies on their age in relation to me, their profession and their gender. When I am talking to my friend, I call myself “tôi”. And when I am talking to someone younger than me, I must call myself “chị”. It is interesting to note that these pronouns carry a special type of respect attributed only to age; even if I was to meet a famous, wealthy and well educated person who I respect tremendously but they were one year younger than me, I would use the same pronoun I use with my younger siblings, regardless of my respect for them. The only exception is the Prime Minister, who, according to our other program director (pronoun Anh), you always call Prime Minister, no pronouns necessary.

The best way to learn these kinds of cultural necessities has been spending time with Vietnamese students. All of the students in our program, 19 in total, were paired with Vietnamese “buddies” who are attending university in Saigon. These relationships have been one of my absolute favorite parts of the program; my buddy picks me up on her motorbike and we tour the city together, going to both her favorite places and exploring new places for the first time together. More importantly, we are all able to have group discussions, both formally and informally, about our lives as young people in two different places. The Vietnamese students answer questions about the tensions between the ‘traditional’ and the ‘modern’ in Vietnam or the LGBTQIA community in the city, while we answer questions about the class, race and gender issues playing out in the United States.

The view from our classroom looking out over HCMC!

I always have to remind myself, however, that culture or ideas in Ho Chi Minh City are not at all representative of the country as a whole. Not only do perspectives differ between urban and rural areas, from what I am told, the cultural vastness separating Northern Vietnam and Southern Vietnam is similar to the difference between America and Scotland. We share the same general language, but live very different lives. So far, I have only gotten a small taste of what life is like in Vietnam outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Two days ago, we took a bus down south to the Mekong Delta, the “food basket” of Vietnam, where the majority of Vietnam’s rice and seafood is produced. We are currently studying and staying at the University of Rural Development. The crickets chirping and the welcome breeze offers a nice respite from our first weeks in Saigon. The city is a confrontation of colors and sounds and smells and feelings and traffic and it never stops and it is beautiful and exciting. Phew. The Mekong is calmer. It is slower, quieter.

The view from a weekend excursion to Vũng Tàu which is a costal town about three hours outside of Ho Chi Minh city.
The view from a weekend excursion to Vũng Tàu which is a costal town about three hours outside of Ho Chi Minh city.

On the day we arrived almost three weeks ago, the staff gave us program T-Shirts- simple, navy, and with two words, “Impressive Vietnam” printed on the back. The choice of adjective amused us so much, but the more and more we use it, the more apt it becomes.

Here’s to another great few weeks in Impressive Vietnam!



Lizzie Bennett | Samoa | Post 2

Lizzie Bennett | Samoa | Post 2

Tālofa lava!


It’s been nearly two weeks since I’ve arrived in Sāmoa. Already, things feel like they’re falling into place. I’m living at The University of the South Pacific-Alafua, located in a village in the outskirts of Apia. USP-Alafua is where the School of Agriculture is located. It’s a legit farm. I’ve never lived this close to cows in my entire life. They’re literally right next door to me. I haven’t explored the rest of campus, but there are apparently sheep, pigs, poultry, and crops of all kinds. The animals I most often see on campus, however, are stray cats and dogs. They’re quite friendly, but I try to avoid them as much as possible. Since USP is a regional university (It has campuses in places like Fiji and Vanuatu as well as here.) students come from all over the South Pacific- they’re from Sāmoa, Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, Tuvalu, and more countries!  All eight of us in my program group have roommates. Mine is Sāmoan, but she is unfortunately not at the university at the moment because she’s tending to family matters. However, this does not mean that I am lacking in new acquaintances from the Pacific Islands!

The cows, unfortunately, are not among my new acquaintances. That’s the ocean in the background, by the way.
The cows, unfortunately, are not among my new acquaintances. That’s the ocean in the background, by the way.

Recently, I was wearing my Vassar Rugby shirt while doing laundry. Our laundry is located near a house where a bunch of Fijian students live. Our group has become friends with many of the Fijians, and one of them said hello to me while he was on his way home. He commented on the fact that I was wearing a rugby shirt, and asked if I played. I told him I did, and he asked me if I wanted to join the informal games of touch rugby (there would be no tackling, thank God.) that take place every day after classes end. I was excited and terrified that he had asked me, and I accepted his offer. I need to keep up my skills and fitness for the spring season, but I knew that all of the people playing touch would be orders of magnitude faster and more skilled than I. In the Pacific Islands, rugby is incredibly popular, and most people who play have grown up playing and watching it. Adding to that is the fact that I would be playing with mostly men. I already detest drawing attention to myself, and the fact that I would be the only palagi woman rugby player would, in my mind, draw a bit of attention.

As soon as I stepped onto the pitch, however, all of my negative feelings dissipated. I didn’t know who anyone was, and I made innumerable mistakes, but I was playing again. The field overlooks my dormitory, and the mountain behind it. Below is a picture of the mountain in the morning, from right in front of my room. Not a bad view, isn’t it?

Well, imagine it during the sunset. We played until sundown, and then I hung out with some of the Fijians for a bit, since I already knew a few of them through my friends in the program group. They invited me to come to Fijian bible study with them. Although I do not identify with any religion in particular, I accepted the offer. It would be a learning experience for me. I quickly donned some fancier clothes and took a friend from the program group with me. It had been a long time since I had read or even handled a Bible, so I trusted on my friend of faith to help me out if I needed him.

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It turned out that one of the people I had played rugby with earlier that day was the deacon, the leader of the group! Many of those I had played with were there and were excited to see me. The fellowship began and it was super chill. However, the study was basically a speed-reading of the Bible, meaning that I would have to rack my lapsed-Catholic memory in order to remember where things were. At one point, the study group was told to find a verse about the perfection of God and I somehow ended up finding the passage about how Jesus’ apostles went into town to buy food. After stumbling through the Good Book, the service ended and we were asked to stay for some “light refreshments”.

Now, think of some light refreshments. What does the phrase bring to mind? Tea sandwiches and lemonade? Cookies? Tiny cubes of cheese with toothpicks in them? That’s at least what I envisioned. A member of the group brought around cups of mango juice. Already I was satisfied. Anything involving mango juice is good, I thought. Then came the surprise.

Plates of Fijian curry were presented to my friend and I. These were heaping, vibrantly colored servings of aromatic chicken and vegetables in curry, with rice on the side. This was literally more food and flavor than I could handle for one night. I managed to eat most of the curry before getting too full. I said goodnight to everyone and went home. This night among good company made me more confident about approaching other USP students, and made me feel like, maybe, I could make a few friends while I’m here.

Next week, I’ll begin my first of three homestays. This one takes me to Lotofaga (low-toh-FAHng-a) a village on the southeast coast of ‘Upolu. I’ll be living with a family for eight days. At best, my Sāmoan language skills are comparable to those of a toddler, but at least I may provide some sort of entertainment as I stumble through this rich and beautiful language. I’m excited to see a new part of ‘Upolu and live with a family. If anything, it will be a new experience. I await the Sunday meal, the to’ona’i, with great anticipation. We’re talking about baked coconut cream with seasoning (palusami), divinely seasoned octopus, and breadfruit and taro  f o r  d a y s.  I’ll write again when I wake up from this tryptophan frenzy or when I get a good internet connection again.

Whichever one comes first.

Fā soifua!

Ellen Quist | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

Ellen Quist | Copenhagen, Denmark | Post 1

Hejsa!  Hvordan går det?

For those of you who haven’t been pestered by my incessant Snapchats or Facebook messages/posts/pictures yet, greetings from Denmark!  I am one month into my semester studying in Copenhagen, and am still thoroughly enjoying the culture and the Danish weather (though I have been warned many times that it is about to get wretchedly cold and rainy with no hope of sunlight until spring)..

I’ve spent the past few days pondering what I would write to you about this week, and while I have certainly received potential inspiration from many aspects of my life here, my surroundings as I write this post have firmly decided the topic for today: Danish public transportation.

As I type, I am slowly crawling my way out of Copenhagen north to the town of Hillerød, where I live.  The majority of the journey I spend on an S-tog train on the A Line, and while all seats are certainly full on a normal day during afternoon rush hour, I have never seen a train as full as this one is today.  We are all three to a bench (and the Danes tend to sit as far apart from each other as possible when the only available seats are next to strangers), and the aisles, bike cars, and loading areas between the enclosed seating cabins are all packed with people.  No one has as much space as he or she would likely prefer, but we are all of us just trying to get home on a Friday afternoon, and this is what we’ve got.  One of the S-tog lines is down due to signal failures, and the E Line, which runs parallel to the A from Copenhagen to Holte, is running on delays.  Our train was easily forty-five minutes late getting into Vesterport Station in downtown Copenhagen, and unsurprisingly, when trains that usually run every ten minutes are suddenly every three-quarters of an hour during the peak travel time going into a weekend, there is very little room left for anyone.

Though it may not be discernable from my tone thus far, I love Danish transportation.  It’s usually efficient (except on days like this when, as they say, things happen), and unnervingly clean all the time.  And while you may have to do a bit of prior research into bus routes and train times to get from point A to point B, the transport system will get you there.  My daily commute to school requires that I take a fifteen-minute bus ride and a forty-minute train ride before walking four blocks or so, but the only times I have ever been late were my own fault.  When there’s a breakdown in the train line, the transport officials will inform you, and either you’ll take a different train or there will be replacement buses.  And since I live so far out, my travel pass is good for all transport zones in the capital region, which gives me unfettered access to trains and towns in northeastern Zealand.

Unlike in America, where to get on most systems of transit (especially the subway) you must pass through a turnstile, which can only be done with a valid ticket, access to the Danish transport systems (train, bus, Metro) is based on the honor system.  Most commuters travel with rejsekorter, or travel cards, that they use to check in and out via blue circle proximity readers at the stations on either end of their trip.  There are security cameras at the stations for obvious reasons, but most days I ride the train and never have my pass checked (though there are always transit officials making the rounds on Tuesdays).  Most of the time, I get on and off the S-tog and my transport pass never leaves my pocket.

 Bike parking outside of Nørreport Station, one of the very few places where your bike maybe wouldn't be completely safe.
Bike parking outside of Nørreport Station, one of the very few places where your bike maybe wouldn’t be completely safe.

This practice of expecting people to simply do the right thing is actually very indicative of an idea central to Danish culture: trust.  And it’s also quite obviously a part of the other most popular mode of Danish transport: bicycling.  While we in the US would never even think to leave our bikes sitting out untethered to an immovable object, the Danes do it regularly and never think twice.  Sure, you would never let your bike sit out in Copenhagen without securing the wheel lock (especially because it’s actually illegal not to), but cable locks are relatively uncommon.  The only reason why I have one is because bikes tend to go missing from major train stations; when I lock my bike at school, it sits in the bike rack with only the rear wheel immobilized.  And though it still strikes me as strange, I’ve learned not to worry about it.

Just last night I was talking with a Dane about walking down city streets at night.  Now, as a young woman of relatively small stature in a foreign country where I don’t speak the native tongue, most (including my mother, no doubt) would say that I should never even consider walking alone down a street at night without a companion.  Well, sorry Mom, but I have done it, and inevitably I’m sure I’ll do it again.  In most areas of Copenhagen, and certainly in Hillerød, people expect to be safe.  And they are!  After a certain point on a weeknight, there’s simply no one about, and so you can walk through the dark without too much concern for your own wellbeing.  Even the Danes expect that.  They trust in it.

As for me, today, like always, my trust in the system has paid off.  I did worry a bit that an A train wouldn’t come, but it did, and now, forty-five minutes later, we are about three minutes out from Hillerød Station.  Until next time, Brewers, and remember, even when the Hudson Line is late, crowded, and dirty, it’ll still get you where you want to go.

From Denmark, hej hej og vi ses!

Haleigh Prather | London, England | Post 1

Haleigh Prather | London, England | Post 1

How many pence are in a dollar?

The title of this week’s blog experience is 1000% accurate. At one point, while purchasing a little phone I had never heard of at a phone store I had never heard of, I asked the woman ringing me up “How many pence are in a dollar?” and she looked at me angrily.

I significantly underestimated just how much of a cultural barrier there is between the UK and the US. One would think that a country that speaks the same language as us would be easy to communicate with, but since we have such different cultures, this could not have been more untrue.



Getting into the country as an American was totally straightforward. I spent all summer collecting documents I thought they might ask for at customs and was afraid they might tell me I didn’t have the right papers and send me home (happened to a friend of mine). BUT, despite the fact that I spent all that time mentally psyching myself out, it turned out to be totally easy. They asked me for my landing card, passport, proof of study letter, gave me a stamp, and I was on my way. (Although don’t be fooled by my nonchalant attitude, it was A LOT of standing around and waiting and being a grouch monster after an 11 hour flight). When people use the phrase “hurry up and wait” when talking about traveling they are so right.

Once I arrived, I discovered that I had severely underestimated the number of things that needed to be done in order to prepare for a semester in a foreign country. It’s completely different from Vassar where one buys everything they need (from linens to school supplies) at the good ol’ Poughkeepsie Galleria. The biggest struggle is trying to find all the things I need to survive as a student without access to any of the giant American conglomerate corporations that Americans thrive on. Like, how can a country not have Target? Target is love, Target is life. What if someone wants to buy a shirt, develop some photos and eat some popcorn at the same time? They simply don’t have big stores like that here which means you have to scope out a different store for each and every one of your needs.
Without access to a Target, a Costco, a Staples, or any other of these capitalistic playgrounds, one needs to find a specific place to: exchange currency, open a bank account, purchase a phone/phone plan, buy school supplies, kitchen supplies, textbooks, figure out where to do laundry/where to buy soap, unpack, etc. while simultaneously trying to adapt to a new environment and attend orientation on a campus spread throughout a crowded metropolitan area where my credit cards aren’t always accepted and no one knows what I’m talking about when I say “Target”.
However, woven in between all my errands, I get to walk around in one of the most beautiful cities in the world. While walking around, I’ll come across Big Ben, or Trafalgar square, or the Thames River, and be completely blown away. Everywhere I look is something I need to take picture of and I love that no matter where I go I can always see the London eye in the distance. I take pleasure in discovering a small coffee shop on the corner of a busy street, getting my feet splashed when those red buses drive through a fresh rain puddle, and wandering around London wondering what it would have been like if I had grown up here. My walking around averages like 3-4 miles a day for classes and errands, and I enjoy every moment. It’s literally the best.

Noteworthy cultural differences this week:

1. Brits like to have beans with breakfast.

2. Subways have corn as a topping.

3. When I asked for cream in my iced coffee, the barista started to put whipped cream it was terrifying. They say “milk” not “cream.”

4. Binders have two rings, not three.

5. The underground tube is so clean and beautiful I have yet to see a rat.

6.  Coin increments include 1 pence, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, and 1 pound.

7. They don’t know what “ranch” is.

8. EVERYONE IS SO POLITE! When I apologized to someone for being in their way they responded with “no apologies necessary!” I was blown away.

9. Netflix doesn’t have Family Guy. I almost flew directly back to the states.

10. Dorito flavors include “tangy cheese” (heinous) “cool original” (I don’t know why they refuse to acknowledge ranch) and “hint of lime.”



Christa Ventresca | Glasgow, Scotland | Post 1

Christa Ventresca | Glasgow, Scotland | Post 1

Hey Vassar people! How’s Poughkeepsie?

I’m currently at the University of Glasgow in Scotland, and it has been quite the adventure so far. My mom and I first came into Ireland through Dublin and spent a day there, then flew up to Glasgow. Dublin was pretty cool, we got to see Trinity College and the Book of Kells which was incredible. The Book of Kells is an illuminated copy of the gospels that’s really old. If you’ve seen any sort of Celtic design, chances are that it came from the Book of Kells originally.

We also went to the Guinness Storehouse. I’m not that big of a beer fan, so I was mostly amazed that people care this much about how Guinness is made. Although the top of the building is a bar and has an amazing view of the city, so we got some good pictures there.

The River Clyde in Glasgow with a view of a concert venue.
The River Clyde in Glasgow with a view of a concert venue.

Once we got to Glasgow, just finding my accommodations was an adventure. I’m staying in university housing, but it’s spread out through different buildings so I didn’t have a definite address, just an intersection. Eventually I got my keys and found my flat. The housing system I’m in is a bit of a mix of underclassmen and senior housing at Vassar, I have a roommate and also share a kitchen and a bathroom with five other rooms on the same floor. Not everyone is here yet since it’s only international students currently, but I can imagine there being a struggle for the bathroom when everyone has arrived.

The main building of campus. Looks ridiculously beautiful with all the flowers.
The main building of campus. Looks ridiculously beautiful with all the flowers.

The campus itself is gorgeous, especially the main building. I managed to get to the top of one of the turrets and take some nice pictures from there. The cloisters are also a pretty popular place for pictures, and for pretending that you’re Harry Potter since it looks like Hogwarts. In fact, a girl who was on the same campus tour as me said that the film makers originally wanted to use the University of Glasgow for Hogwarts, but they would have to film during finals so it didn’t happen.

The cloisters in the main building.
The cloisters in the main building.

One other fun Harry Potter fact is that one of the side streets around here, Ashton Lane, apparently inspired Diagon Alley when J.K. Rowling saw it. It’s a pretty adorable street, has a movie theater and a few pubs on it.

Another adorable aspect of this city is the subway. A strange way to describe a public transportation system, but there’s really no other way to put it. The entire subway system is in a circle, you just have to pick which direction in the circle you want to go. The cars themselves are also pretty small, and comfortable as well. Apparently it used to be called the “clockwork orange” since the cars were orange (only some of them are now). I definitely did not expect everything here to be so cute.

It’s been interesting being grouped with the international students. Sure, the majority of the study abroad and exchange people are from the US, but China has the second most number of students here, so I’ve gotten to talk to quite a few people from other countries.

Ashton Lane! Super cute place.
Ashton Lane! Super cute place.

So far I’ve mostly been using my time to explore and get to know the city a little bit. This week was international orientation, but I’ve been finding that the university is pretty hands off when it comes to orienting us. While I feel mostly like a freshman in college again, I don’t really have a fellow group or anyone to follow around. Which is fine because I enjoy being on my own, but I’m also finding that I’m having the same thoughts that I had during freshman orientation at Vassar. Which is mostly freaking out that I’ll have no friends because it’s been a few days and I haven’t met my soul mate yet. But I know that I’ll be fine once the school year gets going, and that is the beauty of having been through this before.

James Falino | San Francisco, California | Post 1

James Falino | San Francisco, California | Post 1

This semester, I am studying with 25 students on SIT’s IHP Climate Change: The Politics of Food, Water, and Energy. We travel to San Francisco, Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia. I have several goals for the semester. First, I want to learn how to live out of a suitcase, while shedding some attachment to material items and 3G Internet connection. Second, I want to push myself out of my comfort zone for the sake of personal growth. Finally, I aim to learn from my fellow students, faculty, and from experiential learning abroad.


Like many students, I haven’t had a similar experience or even been to 3/4 of these continents. On the first day, the group was faced with the realities of our choice – a session on privilege and an anti-oppression workshop. Much of it was a continuation of social justice discourse at Vassar, but I was comforted to hear the other students engage and provide their perspectives. Among my biggest takeaways was the fallacy of students from the U.S. becoming “global citizens” from a semester abroad and the harm in commodification of culture or objectification through photography. Our classroom was in a local activist space in the Mission district of San Francisco, which gave us a framework to recognize that that this learning would be an ongoing process as we travelled.

Among our first stops was a trip to the Driscoll’s distribution center in Watsonville, California. We learned about their business model of providing research and development, seeds, and other services while contracting out smaller farmers throughout the world. We got a run down of their global operations, the process of freezing berries with a chilling tour through an industrial freezer, and the quality control to get the homogenous fruit we consume in the super market. It put into perspective the effort, and particularly the carbon, required to enjoy seasonal fruits 365 days a year.

After, we stopped to eat a packed lunch in Natural Bridges State Beach, and I got to enjoy my first visit to the Pacific up close and personal. After climbing rocks, getting our feet wet, and relaxing for a bit, we headed to Swanton Berry Farms about an hour north in Davenport.

We walked into a small building where the sign above the counter read “Don’t panic everything’s organic.” The blackberry cheesecake called my name behind the glass refrigerator door, but I treated myself to coffee as I rushed into my seat as Jim, the owner, began to speak. His hair shone an ivory white and he rested his crossed arms atop his protruding belly. He told us the effect that recent climate change and the drought in California had on his crop yields.


After some questions and discussion, the group departed to visit one of the berry fields. As we left, he called to two classmates and I to skip the bus and we had the privilege of Jim as our personal escort to the farm. The car whipped along Highway 1, bordered by the Pacific and rolling hills. I wondered how Northern California had preserved its waterfront views for farmlands and avoided the luxury developments that would seal off its horizons, a sight I was not used to back home. Jim told us he gave up his childhood dream of being a physicist to become one of the first USDA certified organic strawberry farmers in California.

We reached the ranch and the bus pulled in behind us, classmates poured out to share the view. Strawberries grew in horizontal rows down to the highway, and the ocean remained in sight. The sun bronzed our foreheads as we snaked along rows of strawberries picking the biggest and brightest we could find.


On the bus ride back to our hostel, I reflected on the stark contrast between the mechanized distribution at Driscoll’s with the individuals at Swanton Berry working behind the scenes, providing the world with the products we find on our grocery store shelves. Classes in sustainability and food politics had provided me with the framework to analyze the methods, but the classroom just couldn’t offer the same kind of insight I got from seeing this myself.

For the next week and a half we were busy exploring San Francisco, attending lectures, and making site visits. Many speakers were local professors or professionals, speaking about topics ranging from Vietnamese history, climate science and policy, and the oil industry in the U.S. One lecture that really stood out to me was an Introduction to Fracking given by Madeline Stanos, an attorney for the Center on Race, Poverty, and the Environment. She told us the realities of the water usage used for fracking and agriculture in California, with a highly disproportionate impact compared to residential consumption that the news emphasizes. She told us how there are currently no setback laws prohibiting the placement of oil wells, leaving populations and even schools within a harmful distance. The effects of this exposure are a strong smell, dizziness and headaches, nosebleeds, and threat to contaminate local waterways. Unfortunately, these fracking wells are often placed in the most economically disadvantaged communities. She is litigating a case against Gov. Jerry Brown on behalf of a family whose daughter goes to a school with a fracking well in sight of the playground, and high incidents of terminal illness and death at the school.

Another fascinating lecture was by a Navajo woman, Wahleah Johns of the Black Mesa Water Coalition. She shed light on her decade-long fight to combat Peabody Energy’s coal mining operations on top of the reservation’s water source. She organized among the tribes to limit the company’s water usage, which successfully closed down a mine. Most recently, she has been campaigning for a Just Transition – to build a large-scale community solar development that would provide clean energy to those dependent on coal as well as the large population on her reservation without electricity. I was moved by her beliefs in the connection of nature and all objects as living, as well as the importance of recognizing ancestral lands.

Environmental work is always an uphill battle, and on the first day I admitted to my classmates my fear of becoming too disheartened to continue the fight. The lectures have given me role models, while San Francisco has inspired me by its activist community and proximity to breathtaking nature. My classmates already tease me for saying “wow” too often. With my word limit approaching, I leave you with some of my favorite sights along the way – street art in the Mission and Clarion Alley and a hike to Land’s End. Next time you hear from me I’ll have lots to report from Vietnam.

Clarion Alley
Clarion Alley
The Mission
Clarion Alley


The Mission
Land’s End


Lizzie Bennett | Hawaii | Post 1

Lizzie Bennett | Hawaii | Post 1

Malo! O lo’u igoa Lisi.
Hey! I’m Lizzie Bennett.

I’m majoring in Anthropology with a correlate in Art History. This semester, I’m studying abroad in the beautiful and fascinating island nation of Samoa. I will also be taking excursions to American Samoa, an unorganized territory of the United States, and to Fiji. Until this past Friday, I was in Honolulu, Hawai’i, for orientation with my classmates. We lived at a hostel and walked every day to the East-West Center, by the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, for classes. Giving us a week in Hawai’i would not only abate the effects of the drastic time change that lay ahead (though I do contest this on the grounds that NOTHING prepares anyone to lose a day.) but would also serve as a good introduction to various environmental, sociocultural, and political changes that the peoples and nations of Oceania face.

And what an introduction it was.

We learned a brief history of the Hawai’ian Islands, focusing on how the United States government, with the help of a group of American businessmen, forced Queen Lili’uokalani from her throne and overtook the government in what has since been decried as an illegal act. Some Native Hawaiians do not consider themselves Americans and argue that Hawai’i should not have become the 50th state of the United States. The scholar and artist who taught us this facet of Hawaiian history, Jon Osorio, also taught us about a major conflict between Hawaiian citizens (not just Native Hawaiians) and the University of Hawai’i.

The University wants to build a thirty-meter wide telescope on the top of Mauna Kea, a volcano whose summit is sacred to Native Hawaiians. Dr. Osorio told us how Native Hawaiians never went to the summit without praying first, being mindful about their presences and the impact of taking resources like rocks and plants from the top. Mauna Kea is host to an exceptionally fragile ecosystem, and the protesters argue that another massive building project would not only engender catastrophic consequences for the environment, but would also not be of any benefit to the Hawaiian people. Most of the money, Osorio said, would be going to grinding the lens. The most lucrative jobs are being done by crews that are flown in, not by locals. It was learning about these ongoing conflicts that set the stage for our study of the social changes that Pacific peoples are undergoing.

The histories and experiences I learned about in this lecture and the others that I had (I’m not including them here for the sake of brevity, but believe me, they were just as powerful and informative as Dr. Osorio’s.) swam in my head on Saturday morning as I climbed down the stairs that led from the airplane to the tarmac. I had just flown from Honolulu to Apia, the capital city of Samoa. The air was warm and blowing towards a calm sea. I looked behind me for my classmates and froze in place. I stood agog in the face of the most beautiful sunrise I had ever seen. The syrupy, purple sky above was flecked with stars sinking into the darkness, as if they fled in terror from the rising tide of bright, piercing orange sunlight. I tried to take a picture of it, and describe it to those who did not look, but as always, my camera and my words failed to do it justice.


Rainah Umlauf | Vietnam | Post 1

Rainah Umlauf | Vietnam | Post 1

When I tell people that I will be leaving to study in Vietnam for a semester, I am usually met with disbelief.

“Oh my goodness, why?” everyone asks.

“Will it be safe?” one says skeptically.

If someone is feeling particularly diplomatic, she might say, “Well, at least the food will be good.”

My response is just as terrible. I give a cowardly shrug, put on a fake grin and say apologetically, “I know, crazy right?” I usually top it off with an awkward, self-conscious laugh.

The conversation then shifts to my friends.

“Ah yes, so and so?” I say, eager to move on from that conversational train-wreck, “she’ll be studying art in Paris. And you know what’s-his-name, don’t you? He’s spending the whole year in Italy.”

At this point, everyone—usually acquaintances, semi-distant relatives, friends’ parents and the like—lights up. “Oh, Paris! How lucky! How amazing!” they say enthusiastically. The other adds wistfully, “What I wouldn’t give to go to Italy for a year! I hope your friend appreciates every minute!”

Although many people seem to believe it, my decision to study in Vietnam was not an accident. It was a conscious and enthusiastic decision. Although a summer of these kind of conversations has been taxing and disheartening, I am still resolutely confident in my choice. The highly-esteemed, research based program I am in focuses on social change and economic development in one of the fastest changing countries in the world. It promises a rigorous academic setting and an immersive cultural experience, complete with intensive language courses, homestays with middle-class families and vetted volunteering projects. At the end of the four months, I will depart Vietnam having written a 50 page thesis based on my own independent research on a topic of my choice. As an international studies major focusing on South East Asia, I couldn’t be more excited to see what adventures are awaiting me.



The lack of enthusiasm I have been receiving from people back home, however, has not been innocuous. Overall, I am just tired of feeling like I have to continually apologize for my decision to go to Vietnam for my junior year abroad (JYA). Everyone going abroad is nervous, regardless of the destination; we are nervous to be away from our homes and our friends, to be in a new culture with people we don’t know, and we are nervous to speak a language we don’t yet understand. On most occasions, this is understood and respected, and people offer excited congratulations and reassurances. In my case, however, I am continually incredulous that my JYA destination—somewhere a bit further away, somewhere a bit more unknown, somewhere a bit more politically charged—warrants such a lack of sensitivity.

I am not the only student who feels this kind of stigma; I find that other students who have chosen to go to non-European places for JYA, places like Argentina or Madagascar, also feel this kind of push-back from family members and colleagues, as if only countries that are members of the EU are commendable study abroad destinations. This lack of appreciation for these other destinations must be confronted not only for the sake of the adventurous students traveling to them, but also for the general sake of the shrinking international sphere; as the world gets more interconnected every day, we all must stop viewing countries that are different than us with wary distrust. I wish everyone I spoke to this summer would understand that my decision to go to Vietnam is just as legitimate as anyone else’s decision to go anywhere else.

Of course, Vietnam’s past relationship with the United States doesn’t help the situation; when I say Vietnam, any American over 40—heck, over 18—immediately visualizes some combination of Agent Orange, the draft and/or President Johnson. But Vietnam is not defined by the “American War,” as it is called there; after all, that was just one war in over 250 years of external occupation.

An antique map of Vietnam from the War showing the division between north and south.
An antique map of Vietnam from the War showing the division between north and south.

So the next time your niece or your roommate or your lab partner tells you they are JYAing in Mongolia rather than Madrid or South Africa rather than Switzerland, a word of encouragement would not go amiss. We don’t expect you to name any museums or beaches in the place we are going.  We just don’t want to have to apologize for our decision.

The next time I write, I will be in Ho Chi Minh City. Like all JYA students, I am incredibly excited and unspeakably nervous. To everyone abroad this semester, all over the world, I wish incredible luck and a bountiful amount of learning. To everyone holding down the fort at Vassar, I wish you endless womp-womp sightings and great Deece days.

Here’s to a great semester for all of us!