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Unpacking Me: A Personal story of Identity and Passion

There are a lot of things if your life that you must learn how to unpack. The hardest will be unpacking your passions. Especially as a high school senior, college student, college graduate, and many times as an adult you are going to have a dark night of the soul when you have to ask yourself what you want to do for the rest of your life. Its normal.

 

For me, I came to Juniata and I knew that I wanted a career that would allow me to travel the world and get paid for it. However, after my trip out of the U.S. it took me a long time to unpack that experience and understand it in terms of my own passions. And to be honest I still do not fully understand the impact it had upon me as individual.

 

For a Juniata student, I think that it is even more difficult to admit that my study abroad experience wasn’t one of the best experience of my life, because at a school where most people study abroad, all you hear is “my study abroad experience changed me,” “It taught me who I am and what I want to be”. After a lot of unpacking, I can honestly say that my study abroad experiences were not the best experiences I have had over my college career.

 

My study abroad experience challenged me, it helped me grow, it broadened my horizons and it did make me understand what I didn’t want to spend my entire life abroad. However, unpacking my last 4 years here at Juniata. I can honestly say my defining moment that helped shape me as the person I wanted to be happened on October 30th, 2014. That was the day my grandfather died.

 

When he died, it was echo that pushed me outside of the reverberations. For me it was like superman died, and very slowly all I saw were cracks in my foundation. For so long I was convincing myself that traveling was my passion, but it wasn’t. When he died, everything started to crumble and it was in that suffocating mess that I realized the void he left.

 

Being raised by my grandparents I was raised in a legacy. We were farmers. We raised cows. We gardened. We canned. That was our identity. After his death, I was fighting for that to stay my identity. I grew a horrible garden, but I grew a garden. And in many ways I thought that maybe I could connect the pieces of my life that seemed to fall through the cracks, but it wasn’t enough and it wasn’t good enough. Because gardening wasn’t the only part of my identity I need to unpack.

 

Little Old Man on Top of the World

Two summers ago, I told myself, was going to be the best summer of my life – a whole summer in China. Being 20 years old at the time, the toughest thing about life is doing all the right things in order to ensure that after college you have some sort of job waiting for you. For most college sophomores and juniors summer is about trying to put something amazing on your resume. I was thinking of teaching English, interning or doing anything to make my resume pop. Before I hopped on that plane I was excited, because this summer was the summer that I wasn’t going to sit at home – I was actually going to do something that may land me a job someday. Little did I know at the time, I would be coming home a month early with little to nothing to put on my resume. However, traveling is not always going to be about another bullet point on your resume, but learning about yourself.

One of my greatest experiences in China was climbing Wu Dong Mountain. For everyone who hates the stairs or the steppers at the gym – ME- this is all out-of-shape people’s biggest fear – a 3 mile hike ALL UP STAIRS. 30 minutes into this hike when all of the track and field stars and gym fanatics wiz passed you – you feel the tenseness in those muscles from the hips down, and the burning in your abs. It’s one of those moments when you hate yourself for not taking the cable car. As you ascend, the steps get steeper and at some places you are pulling yourself up the mountain, the chains clicking with lovers’ locks. The sun has a chance to rise and peak through the trees, covering you in its unwanted heat. I made it to the top sticky, out of breath, and surprised by the shops around me selling tea eggs and starchy corn.

There is a mist covering the trees, making it feel like only the clouds and soaring birds were higher than I was. The view from a top takes the last remaining breath I have out of me. The view isn’t very clear at all. I found that no matter where you are in China- in the cities, on the mountain tops – you always have the feeling that China is hiding something from you.

Wu Dong Mountain View from the Top
Wu Dong Mountain View from the Top

Hidden here at Wu Dong Mountain for 20 years is a Daoist monk named Hermit Jia. He is a little old man with wrinkles and a huge smile that touches your heart. He lives in a cave overlooking the world in a place where it seems like time has stopped. There is no television, cellphones, jeans or T-shirts. If you’re a fan of Chinese movies you have seen his outfit, the black and white curled up shoes, loose pants and a traditional three button shirt.

He is befriended only by bees buzzing from inside of the cabinets with yellow honey comb shining through the cracks of the wood. A boy asked if he was ever stung by the bees – he smiled and everyone couldn’t resist to smile with him. No, he answered, I leave them alone and they leave me alone.

I traveled half way around the world, and I came upon this little piece of paradise and a smile that was so welcoming you didn’t need to speak the same language to understand the simple, simplistic but very powerful life you could have as long as you did what made you happy. Sheltered only by a dark cave this man on top of the mountain lived by one philosophy: being.

Hermit Jia
Hermit Jia

I wasn’t able to find a job or any “resume poppers” that summer; however, my discovery of a little old man on top of the world was the greatest treasure of my summer. In many ways this man reminded me of grandfather. Both men with heart melting smiles, and the courage to do what they loved most. For my pap it was gardening, for Hermit Jia is was simply being. In this big bustling world we live in we become human doings instead of just human beings.

 

Juniata College: The Problem of the Riches

I was a very prepared freshman. Coming to Juniata, I knew that I wanted to be an International Studies POE, I wanted to travel the world, and I wanted to get paid for it. Looking back as a senior; however, I wish I came to Juniata knowing nothing of what I wanted to do in the future. I wish I would have taken a year to explore more classes that would have challenged me and think more about who I am and what I want to do for the rest of my life.

Juniata College

Juniata has a problem, the problem of the riches, and when you get locked into your POE, the F-I-S-H-N (Fine arts, international, social science, humanities, natural science) credit requirements helps you somewhat to take classes outside of your major and explore but it doesn’t do that to the extent I would have liked. It wasn’t until I was senior who has studied abroad in China, The Gambia, and Washington D.C. that I realized that those experiences of being in a completely new environment and outside of my comfort zone helped me grow as an individual. Looking back, I wish I would have made more of my freshman year and really explored, taking classes I never thought would have been a good fit for me, because if nothing else it would have helped me know myself and what I didn’t want to be doing the rest of my life a lot better.

Almost at the finish line, I regret not taking natural science classes such as sustainable agriculture and fermentation – which I learned only while I was abroad that I have an interest in. I also regret that as freshman I made the decision to only take Chinese language courses and not explore all the different languages before I picked one and decided that was going to my language for the next four years. I have nothing against Chinese, besides it is a hard and extremely difficult language that you have to be invested in 100%, but I would of like to have known if another languages would have fit my personality better.

Like learning a language, your POE has to be something that interests you 100%, it has to be something you are going to obsess over, that you wouldn’t mind doing 40 hours of research and writing a 50-page thesis on.

My advice to the incoming freshman class – come with only a general idea of where you want to be in four years when you leave this place, and take that first year to try a few classes you are not sure fits you but you have a slight interest in, explore all possibilities before settling on a POE – if you hate the class you can always drop it.

I really wish I could have explored a little more, because being a senior looking at all the amazing classes Juniata offers – with no room in my Spring semester I might add – it is a huge let down to know that as a freshman I could have taken one class that would have changed my entire major and my end goal for jobs in the future.

I am happy with my major, I do think as a freshman I made a good decision to be an international studies POE and along the way I did narrow in on International Political Economy as my finalized individualized POE; however, I would have made French my language of choice instead of Chinese because after four year of Chinese, I can honestly say my Chinese still sucks. Maybe I am just not good at learning languages.

Juniata College and the Gambia

Being a participant of Juniata’s Gambian study abroad trip, one of the things you hear when you tell people I am going to Africa is:  “Why”?

Art in the Gambia
Art in the Gambia

 

In my opinion, Africa is often very difficult for people to understand, because it is not white and it is not a utopia. The media provides the average individual with only the worst possible news about Africa to shape these very negative misconceptions. Misconceptions that lead to the construction of the enemy. Having gone to The Gambia, one of the things that strike people is all of the smiles. Being able to form a relationship with someone half way around the world helps deteriorate these negative misconceptions, because the whole of Africa is not a terrorist or diseased. However, culturally some things like FGM are practiced but the amazing and motivating thing is that there are Africans (Not Americans or British) working to stop the practice. They are working to change a hurtful cultural practice by changing the mindset of the people.

Gambia blog2

Traveling to The Gambia was a unique Juniata experience, because it pushed you out of your comfort zone and shows that things such as WIFI are truly a first world problem. The Gambia is a very poor country whose main commodity is peanuts. Being there helps me better understand Carl Wilkens who visited Juniata and gave a talk entitled I’m Not Leaving-One Family’s Decision against Genocide, about the Rwanda genocide. This talk encompassed not only the tragedy of this small Africa country, but one of the biggest recoveries stories in history. My trip to the Gambia helped to explain his energy when he bounced around the room talking about his friends that he risked his life for during the Rwanda

Gambia blog3

A big take away from Wilken’s talk was that no matter what the circumstances are you have a choice. For him the choice was staying in Rwanda during the genocide in order to protect the two Africans that worked for him, and he had called friends. These relationships and the Rwanda genocide helped Wilken understand the important of a building a relationship VS building a school. Wilkens states that he “wanted to build something that lasted”. One of the things that really sold me on Juniata was the international experience they promised I’d have. So much of learning happens outside the classroom, and it was great to have my international experience linked with a guest speaker on campus.

Writing Policy for the State Department – visiting U.S. State Department diplomat Scott Kohmel

After meeting Juniata alumni, Scott Kohmel in D.C. the previous year. I became very interested in joining the Foreign Service. Scott works for the U.S. State department and is the Vietnam desk. This is a four year job that he will soon leave to work at an embassy overseas. On his visit to Juniata he discussed how the State Department makes policy and how to write.

A very valuable piece of advice from Scott is that everything that happens in the State Department is based on writing. It is essential to improve your writing ability. The State Department looks for brevity, reading nothing over one double spaced page. Every sentence has to have a point, and it is best to write using as few as possible words. Professor of international politics, Emil Nagengast stated that in his experience students that couldn’t write well also did not read a lot. I am neutral on Professor Nagengast’s statement because I understand that reading does improve your writing syntax; however, struggling with grammar issues and spelling myself I do not believe that reading improves these issues.

As policy was described to me, I did not see much difference between it and some of the papers I write in my politics classes. To draft a policy you have to have an idea, research, and a valid argument that can be put into practice.

Another part of policy is conversation. Scott wanted to highlight that face to face communication is very important for creating a policy. You have to talk to someone in order establish and finalize a policy. This communication develops into negotiations, which are secretive in nature. Scott argues that negotiations should be secretive because the officials who make policy, especially policy with other nations need to be able to talk through the policy and come to a compromise. This compromise will not happen if the public and interest groups are watching and reacting to the negations. The negotiations are where the shaping of the policy is created and allowing these negotiations to be done in secret acts as a massive brain storm see if a win-win situation is achievable.  It is important, however, to release the policy to the public in order to get public support. A policy is not very successful unless you have public support.

One thing that Scott stated that stuck with me that I am still trying to analysis is the statement “you cannot let your classes get in the way of your education.” I will leave you to think about that statement as well.

 

To hear more about Scott, check out this video.