Scholar First Report


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This is a short essay about my initial months serving as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in London, fall 2009

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Scholar First Report

  1. 1. Ambassadorial Scholar 1st Report Humility and patience: these are the first words that enter my mind when contemplating my initial months as a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar in London. The journey has been teaching me so much; I am not the same woman I was in September, in tears saying goodbye to family at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport as I headed abroad for the first time. Helen, my host counselor from the Ealing London Rotary Club, met me at the train station. This was my first train ride and every time the coach passed another train on the tracks, I would gasp for air out of surprise to be sitting so close to and passing so fast by another train at the window. Other passengers stared at me, knowing full well I was a tourist. Beyond the gasping, I was staring and snapping photos out of the train window for the duration of the trip. Having never traveled abroad, my mind immediately related all these new historic buildings and nostalgic architecture to the pictures I’ve seen in books and the scenes I’ve watched in movies. The sites were beautiful, breath-taking, poetic. It is inspiring to be surrounded by such rich history. After meeting me at the train station, Host Counselor Helen took me to my dorm. Driving down the road, my body tensed with the fleeting thought that the other cars were on the wrong side and would slam into our car! Once safely at the dorm, Helen provided a quick assessment, took me to her house to stay the night, and then we were off to Ikea in the morning to purchase essentials. The living costs in London are much higher than in Dallas, so she also provided me with plenty of year-loan items like bed sheets, comforter, pillow, towels, bathmat, some kitchen ware, and an all-important oyster card to pay for public transportation. Culture shock is sometimes subtle, but it hits immediately. For instance, just because the Brits speak English, it does not mean communication comes naturally. Helen graciously allowed me to ask all the silly questions, without fear of judgment. How do you use the subway? We call it the ‘tube.’ What is a pasty? It’s a doughy pastry with sandwich filling. Why do they serve French fries with everything? They’re chips, not fries. Where can I buy pants? Pants are underwear; use the word ‘trousers.’ Can you get medicine at the grocery store? No, you have to see the chemist. Where is the “@” symbol on a keyboard? It’s near the return button. What is black pudding? A dessert? It’s blood sausage. Why do the women talk about their stones? They’re talking about weight. How many degrees Fahrenheit is 20 degrees Celsius? You need to start learning all these conversions. And remember Brits like to add vowels and we don’t write with the letter zed as often as Americans. Why won’t the stores accept my US visa credit card? The UK uses a very specific pin card in most places. Will my computer plug in here without frying? For that question, we’ll call an expert. Helen also assisted me in learning the British pronunciations of words, which is no easy task. In America I could look at a word and, even not having seen it before, be able to properly pronounce it. Not the case in London. For instance, Leicester is
  2. 2. pronounced leh-stur, Marylebone is pronounced mahr-luh-bohn, Islington is not pronounced like island, but is-ling-ton. A cell phone is a mobile, pronounced moh-byle, and you send S-M-S, not text. Humility, I quickly learned, is a much more effective attitude when tackling such a learning curve. Transitioning from tourist to resident requires lots of work. I have also found that in my perceived limitations of this new culture, I am confronting unrealized nuances of my American lifestyle. At first in London I was frustrated that I could not grocery shop, send faxes or do my laundry at all hours of the night. I was frustrated not to find a 24-hour WalMart, Kinko’s or CVS pharmacy nearby. I was even indignant that the pubs closed at 11 pm most days—I learned this after going out with friends at 10:30 pm one evening, much to my disappointment. Add to this list of grievances the fact that tubes stop running at midnight. But slowly I began adapting to these new hours. Adjusting to the cultural norms of the host country takes patience. After a few weeks, I even started questioning if it’s really necessary for Americans to have 24- hour service and round-the-clock deadlines. Is this “Get what we want, when we want it” mentality beneficial? In London, when it hits 5 or 6pm in the financial district, it is quitting time and everyone floods into the streets and onto public transportation to get home. In Dallas, it seems far more common for workers to cram in more overtime hours at the office. Fortunately because of this scholarship, I’m blessed with an opportunity to focus on school, not work, for the first time in my life. My school, the University of London School of Oriental and African Studies, is profoundly diverse, as is my student hall. If you pause a moment to listen, you’ll hear people chattering in a host of different languages, punctuated by the busy traffic on the streets and the noisy beeping of the devices that let pedestrians know it’s safe to walk at the intersection outside. My flat is shared with a Polish man, who’s lived in China the last five years, a Japanese woman, who is working hard on her English-speaking skills, and a Swedish woman who has been an architect for a decade and decided to go back to school. Next door to us is a guy from Palestine, a few girls from India, another from Greece, a guy from Turkey and a man from Australia. A few students I know here have contracted H1N1 flu and were under quarantine for a while. Navigating the socialized health system here has been a challenge; it has also shown me a lot of the benefits of such a system that are not widely publicized in the US media. The coursework is fantastic and incredibly difficult. International Studies and Diplomacy is a very multi-faceted degree that I’ve tailored to my own interests. I am taking courses in international economics, international securities, transnational media representation and contemporary history of the modern world. I intentionally chose a Master’s degree that was very different from my Bachelor’s work in journalism, to promote my own global understanding and breadth of knowledge. It is a huge struggle to bridge the knowledge gap. I didn’t know just how much I didn’t know! It seems most people in this degree all have much stronger foundations in economics and world history —so it requires a lot of extra reading and learning on my part. This is by no means easy reading; it is intense, time-consuming, thought-provoking, brain-stretching reading that
  3. 3. requires more hours than exist in a day (and a good dictionary helps, too)! When I am frustrated I just remember that what I’m learning will benefit me enormously in my journalism career. It is rewarding; it is humbling. Moreover, the very liberal nature of my school has brought me vis-à-vis with anti- Western sentiment and anti-American opinions. In half of my classes, Westerners comprise an overwhelming minority. I use my diplomatic skills daily. Considering the Rotary Four-Way Test before I speak is very helpful in this regard. I listen respectfully to other views, I offer understanding and acknowledgement, I do not challenge but offer facts and ideas to the contrary if I see an appropriate opportunity to do so. I also consider if there is any validity in their arguments. Amazingly, in spite of these major differences in cultures, religions and opinions, there is an inherent sense of community among the students. Though, admittedly, it requires great patience to cultivate that community at times. But we are all here to learn, to grow, to find solutions to the global problems, and to make life a little better for everyone in this world—goals that hold true to the Rotary mission. Rotary has been a huge support system providing me with friends and mentors since the very moment I set foot in the United Kingdom. (Not forgetting to mention the support of my sponsor club and district before my departure!) In September, RIBI, or Rotary International in Great Britain and Ireland, hosted a fun weekend in Leicester, where I connected with dozens of other scholars from around the world, spent a weekend with a local family who showed me the countryside and the prestige of boarding schools, and witnessed the historical hilarity of Morris dancing. In October, District 1190 hosted me at their conference where I introduced myself on stage, presented a District 5790 banner to their governor, listened to motivational speakers, and experienced the splendor of the Seven Sisters Cliffs. My host club, Ealing London, has been astounding. They have invited me to meetings where I personally met local members and the Group Study Exchange team from Boston, USA. Ealing members have brought me to various events including a wonderful classical dinner-concert at historic 12th century St. Mary’s Perivale church in Ealing. I also attended a personalized walking tour of London’s financial district. Next on the agenda is an afternoon at a British “panto,” which I’m told is a very spectacular fairytale play that evolved from Commedia del’Arte. I’ve visited two nearby Rotaract clubs and have met new friends and other like-minded young professionals. I’ve participated in a fundraising event for local children’s charities, fed families at the Ronald MacDonald House, and begun work on a joint project with another scholar for Schools4All in Africa. My time not spent studying or on Rotary projects is spent on personal cultural excursions. I have purchased a bike and am learning to navigate traffic on the left side of the road. I have visited museums, sat in awe while riding the London Eye, taken various tours around the city, roamed the corridors of castles, viewed the magnificence of Hadrian’s Wall, toured the Royal sites. On occasion, I choose one of the many parks in the London area, take a book and a snack, and spend the afternoon there. I go for walks
  4. 4. or jogs along streets that I have not yet traveled. I visit markets in other boroughs to buy food and hear from independent artists and musicians. I even did a brief weekend trip to Paris via the Eurostar train, which is a stellar mode of travel. I visited the Louvre and ate escargot and drank red wine, while learning simple French phrases like Je ne comprendes pas. I’m taking photos of everything and blogging, as time allows. I never imagined it was financially or logistically feasible for me to be doing the things I’m doing. It feels like a dream. I’m experiencing something new every day. That being said, I would be remiss not to mention some of the hardship involved. Periods of loneliness are unavoidable. Difficulties in budgeting are inherent. Feelings of inadequacy are often present. Fears of the unknown are tackled constantly. Deaths of family members back home are unpreventable. Grief and homesickness are part of the life-changing processes of the journey. I’m learning these lessons firsthand. But my Rotary experience, the very act of serving as an Ambassadorial Scholar, is teaching me that it is all right. It is all right to cry; all right to be frustrated; all right to feel lost; all right to seek help and ask inane questions. Being an Ambassadorial Scholar is showing me that through humility and patience, I am finding inner strength I did not realize I had and developing knowledge of the world, of myself, that cannot be acquired any other way.