IHP, or International Honors Program, offers study abroad programs unique in the sense that their programs all begin in the United States for approximately two weeks. My program—which focuses on the impacts of climate change and policies on food, water, and energy—began in Berkeley, California.
As my two weeks in the Bay Area come to a close, I am nervous and excited to begin travelling to Vietnam, Morocco, and Bolivia—the other three destinations in my program. My time in California has been interesting because the ease of communication with people at Vassar makes me feel like I should be on campus with them.
The past two weeks have been packed with activities, primarily lectures and typical orientation team-building. The group with which I’m spending the semester consists of 26 students, three professors, and a trustees fellow who functions kind of like our babysitter/mother. All the of the students take the same four classes together, and our professors travel with us to all of our international destinations. Each class meets about once a week for two hours, and our school days usually last from 8:45 a.m. to 6:00 p.m.
Today we started the morning by taking the Bart (Bay Area Rapid Transit—the region’s train/subway system) into San Francisco where we met with Kevin Danaher, a co-founder of Global Exchange. He was extremely engaging, giving us a lecture about building alternatives as well as the importance of youth involvement in the climate change movement. The group then split up, and I went to a deli and ice cream shop with four others before taking a train to Oakland. We wandered around the city for a bit before heading to a meeting with Bhavik Lathia of 350.org, an environmental group well known for their work with college-aged people. Founded by Bill McKibben—famous for his Rolling Stone article “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.”—the group’s work has been vital to the nationwide divestment movement, including the branch at Vassar. It’s invigorating to speak with activists who are making real progress in the environmental movement. After our informal talk with Bhavik, we dropped by a social gathering at a church and headed back to Berkeley. Talk about spontaneous living!
Some of my most interesting experiences have been with other students outside of the classroom. The group of students in my program are very diverse, coming from a variety of schools ranging from UCLA and Denison University to Bowdoin and Cornell. Majors in economics, political science, engineering, and, of course, environmental studies, many of my classmates are much different than any student I have encountered at Vassar. This motley group creates an unfamiliar dynamic that has been both fun and difficult to experience. For example, only two other students knew what I was talking about when I mentioned preferred pronouns, we used gendered bathrooms, and some people didn’t know what heteronormative meant! We are staying in a hostel, which has introduced us to some interesting characters. A man down the hall has lived in the hostel since 1998, and many students from a nearby English language school also live here, coming from a variety of countries including Russia and Japan. One of my neighbors is a friendly dentist from Brazil. I’ve never experienced such a diverse group in the Vassar bubble.
Although I may possess a little more gender education than other students, most of them are much more outgoing than I am. Early on, we found ourselves with numerous pounds of extra ribs left over from a group dinner (yes, ribs—I thought that all environmental studies majors were at least vegetarians?), so we decided to give away the leftovers. There is a large homeless population in the Bay Area, so we found plenty of gracious people to feed. I don’t think that I would normally have the confidence to talk to strangers like we did!
It’s strange to leave so soon, just as I am getting familiar with the Bay Area. Hopefully I will learn to adjust to places more quickly as my journey continues!