Above and Beyond

Today we were asked to reflect on our original “Presidential Global Scholars Goals” that we wrote down back at the beginning of December. These goals were both personal goals as well as experience/sight-seeing goals. While I am blessed to have traveled to seven countries in these past months, I find it more valuable evaluating how I have changed rather than where I have gone. After all, I was looking for a life-changing experience, and not necessarily to travel as many places as possible. One of the valuable lessons I learned this semester is the importance of going deep. It is not always about doing as much as possible, but spending a longer time investing in the people and places I visited. Below are the original goals of that I set for myself, and looking at my previous blogs and reflection on Time and What Next?, I think I have far superseded my own expectations!

“As a new honors student, I hope for this experience of studying abroad to push me. I have not yet taken any honors courses, so taking 15 credits worth seems a little daunting, but I am excited for the challenge. Another goal of mine is to push my academic knowledge outside of my comfort zone. I don’t want to be content with easy answer, but want to constantly question myself and others around me. Although I personally do not know any of the professors yet, I hope to not only gain a deeper understanding of their area of study but also to develop individual relationships with them. I know that there is much to learn from the scholars that will be joining us and I want to take advantage of this privileged experience. As a student of Religion and Culture and International Studies, I hope to walk away with a deeper understanding of European culture and society through experience. My goal is to interact with the locals and assimilate myself into their lifestyle and “wear their shoes” for the 3.5 months I will be there. One of my final goals is to get to know and interact with everyone on the trip, especially with my group for our interest projects. Just from initial conversations I can see the great diversity that individuals in the group have to offer. I am excited to provide my knowledge and personal experience to others while learning from them as well.”

Time

Where has the time gone? It feels like it was just yesterday when I was sitting on a bench in Zurich Airport with 29 strangers. I knew maybe 50% of my fellow PGSers names and thought it was going to be a long semester. Never having been in University Honors before I was very intimidated by the brilliant minds around me. From the very beginning of our first of many train rides, I knew I was in for an adventure of a lifetime. My peers seemed to all be so unique and have something special to add to the group. As the semester has gone on I have begun to develop a deeper relationship with many of them. Now the adventure is almost over. In less than a week I will be on a plane back to the states, and all I can think about is how fast time has passed. However, I know that I will still go back having made these connections and experiences, and I would not have chosen any other group.

Most people who have studied abroad will tell you that is a life-changing experience. If the traditional study abroad experience is an experience of a lifetime then mine must be an experience of a million lifetimes (at least). I have become part of a new family. I have dealt with the loss of a dear friend. I have racked my brain to pieces. I have debated for hours on end. I have left class with headaches. I have traveled to 7 countries. I have taken dozens of train rides. I have eaten more food, especially margarita pizza, than humanly possibly. I have climbed active volcanoes. I have wandered through the ancient ruins of Greece. I have ridden dozens of trains. I have experienced the wine culture of Europe. I have enjoyed way too many Swiss chocolate bars. I have researched the issue of human trafficking. I have had the ability to become a global leader. I have become a Presidential Global Scholar and so much more!

There are not enough words to describe this experience, but here are a few:

30 students. 8 faculty. 4+ countries. 3 1/2 months. 1 Villa.

What Next?

In less than two weeks my study abroad experience will be over and I will be on a plane back to my life in the United States. Back to work. Back to school. No more Riva San Vitale. No more villa.

I do not mean to be depressing because I am, in fact, quite excited about going back home. However, I am worried about the implications of returning home to family and friends that may not be interested and will not understand my experiences during the past 3.5 months of being gone. I have lived in Switzerland and visited seven European countries. I have struggled with the hard questions in life (what is truth?). I have learned more about myself than any other semester. I have become a part of a whole new family – the PGS family.

But all of this means nothing to those outside.

Even before we left for Switzerland, Dr. Papillon warned us that we were going to encounter this issue. As the date approaches closer and closer I am becoming more worried about integrating back into life at home and Virginia Tech. How will my untraditional study abroad experience fit in with my old life? How do I take what I have learned about the world and myself and bring it back? How do I express to those around me the changes I have undergone?

Although I am still struggling with all these questions, I know that having the PGS family back at Virginia Tech will be a great help and support. One practical way in which I hope to bring back my experience is through the group project work from this semester. Learning about human trafficking and meeting those that are helping to combat and prevent the issue has inspired me to make other college students aware of the prevalance of the issue. Group project work is more than just an excuse to vacation around Europe, it has been a life-changing experience that has allowed me to look at the world through a new lens.

But all of this means nothing to those outside.

One of the largest lessons I have begun to learn is that an experience will be whatever you make of it. With the passing of a PGS family member and friend, J.J. Stinson, I have struggled this past week in understanding why things happen. It is never easy to say good-bye, but I realized that it does not have to be a good-bye. As long as I hold on to the great memories with J.J., he will never be gone. I will forever remember his kind smile, his graying head (filled with wisdom), his laughter, his melodious voice, and his honest friendship. I am beginnnig to realize that the same applies for my experiences this semester. Although the travelling may be done, the family and conversation will carry-on.

But all of this means nothing to those outside.

My goal going back is not necessarily to make my experience mean something to others, but to be able to positively impact others and myself through my experience. How this will exactly look I am not sure, but I know that in the process I will try to evaluate myself more often and stay true to who I am and have become while being open to the ideas and views of others. I will try to take this experience and use it to become a better global citizen and leader (although I am still working on these definitions).

So bare with me!

Pursuing Passion

The following is a draft of my exigency that I am continually (and will continue) working on. It deals with a passion of mine: racial discrimination and stereotypes. Although I have presented a problem and not necessarily a distinct solution, I am currently working on feasible solutions to implement within society. I would love any input or suggestions!

This past week in class Dr. Nikki Giovanni said, “We stay silent to keep from making a mistake, but the biggest mistake you can make is keeping silent.” Often I find myself not being able to shut up when I get deeply involved in a conversation, but there is one issue in particular that I cannot keep inside – racial discrimination. I am not just talking about civil rights and liberties; I am talking about negative racial slurs and stereotypes.

For a large part of my life I have been numb to racial diversity, whether African, Asian, Hispanic, Caucasian, etc. My parents did not raise me to see myself as biracial or as black and white. I had always seen myself as a unique and loved individual. I didn’t have a group of black friends and a group of white friends. I just had a group of friends. Looking back at photos I can now notice myself being the only person of color or being the lightest person in the group, but it never dawned on me before. I never consciously chose to hang out with one group or the other. Much of what had played into who I hung out with was my environment. I grew up going to a small, private Christian school where the vast majority of the children were white. I couldn’t change that, and I didn’t want to change that. People are people no matter what color.
Growing up bi-racial, I understand what it feels like to be stereotyped as both a black and white female. Being told that you wish you could be “black like me” is not a compliment when you are implicating that the color of my skin gives me the ability to rap and dance. Because the truth is I can’t rap. Maybe I can dance, but just tell me that you like my dancing. Likewise, saying that I “act white” is not a compliment either. I am proud of all of my roots. I am proud to be me.

Although some of these racial stereotypes may be true, I struggle to understand why we use them. Why we can’t see people as people. Why we can’t look beyond the color of someone’s skin. I may be African American and Caucasian, but I want to be seen as Karli Bryant. Nothing else. Just myself…Karli Bryant.

Despite trying to convince myself that I am not racist, I realize that I am extremely racist just like everyone else. When I see a black man walking down the streets with his pants hanging off his butt, I immediately think – gangster straight from the hood. When I see a white girl dressed up in Lilly Pulitzer clothing on campus, I immediately think – preppy, sorority girl. When I see a Hispanic man doing construction work, I immediately think – illegal immigrant.

We are all racist, and that is why I am here to talk to you, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The first step to solving racial discrimination issues is accepting the problem. It is evident through the existence of this office that Virginia Tech recognizes the diverse community and need for a more inclusive university. However, I am not convinced that the university has realized the great degree to which racial slurs and stereotypes are exhibited.

It seems that the largest front to increase diversity and inclusion lies in the creation of the Diversity Development Institute aimed towards Virginia Tech faculty. The stated goal by the institute is “enhancing diversity and inclusion by developing the competencies of our faculty and staff as outlined in the Principles of Community and the Diversity Strategic Plan…” and “assisting with incorporating inclusion efforts into university messaging, events, and activities by providing a collaborative approach to enhancing institutional knowledge.” In terms of this goal, the institute has been successful in creating programming, such as the Spring Workshop entitled “Race Matters: Thinking About Racial Issues in the Classroom and Beyond”.

However, I see a flaw in that the institute has focused on how to handle individuals based on the student’s based on racial background. I am not refuting the importance of different cultural awareness, but I am asserting that awareness needs to extend to discrimination and derogatory connotations.

I was recently reading a story by James Baldwin, entitled Stranger in the Village, about a black man who seems to be a stranger within a small, white Swiss city.

“I knew that they did not mean to be unkind, and I know it now; it is necessary, nevertheless, for me to repeat this to myself each time that I walk out of the chalet. The children who shout Neger! have no way of knowing the echoes this sound raises in me. They are brimming with good humor and the more daring swell with pride when I stop to speak with them. Just the same, there are days when I cannot pause and smile, when I have no heart to play with them; when, indeed, I mutter sourly to myself, exactly as I muttered on the streets of a city these children have never seen, when I was no bigger than these children are now: Your mother was a nigger. Joyce is right about history being a nightmare-but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” (pg. 179).

Although the children were not knowledgeable about the impact of their words, the hurt still continued. The first step to this issue would be making the children aware of the power of their words, especially ones which they do not know the meaning.

I was just talking to a student the other day who was denied a job offer because of her racial background.

This is not acceptable!

We are not trapped by history, like Mr. Baldwin claims in his story. We have the ability to write history. Write our history. We have the chance to change the future.

The biggest constraint to fixing this issue is societal acceptance. For far too long we have allowed others to make racist and discriminatory jokes, while we pretend to go along and laugh. Embracing these racist jokes does not stop the pain or stop the person using them. However, it is not until something serious happens, like death, that we begin to become defensive.

I am sure most of you are aware of the recent murder case of Trayvon Martin. “Zimmerman, a Hispanic American, shot Trayvon on Feb. 26 in Sanford, Florida, claiming that he acted in self defense. However, Martin’s parents and lawyers insist that the shooting was racially motivated, a claim that a significant section of American people tend to believe, with President Obama saying that if he had a son, ‘he’d look like Trayvon.’” (NBC)
Whether Mr. Zimmerman was protecting himself or not is irrelevant within our context. What does matter is how the nation is viewing the case. One cartoon drawn by a student at the University of Texas shows Zimmerman as a “big bad white man” who killed an “innocent colored boy”.

The case has become a racial issue of black vs. white, despite the fact that Mr. Zimmerman is a Hispanic American. I am not saying this should be a black vs. Hispanic American issue either. I merely want to point out this tear within our society. We have decided to diminish people according to the color of their skin and racial background.

We are all people. Let’s start treating each other that way. No it’s not easy to break those embedded, society-driven stereotypes, but most things in life aren’t easy. It’s not impossible unless we decide to make it impossible.
We must start somewhere, and educating our students is the first step.

“We can do better!” (Nikki Giovanni)

Not My Own

The other day in class Dr. Giovanni had us watch a film The Remains of the Day. The movie is about an English butler, Mr. Stevens, who reflects on his life of loyalty and service to Lord Darlington. These next two weeks as we ask the question: Whose story is it? with Dr. Giovanni, I can only think about the lack of Mr. Steven’s story. Throughout the movie, Mr. Stevens continuously lives his life at the heels of others, letting them make decisions for him. Due to his loyalty to Lord Darlington, Mr. Stevens ultimately loses himself in supporting his lord. Even though Lord Darlington was cruel to two young Jewish girls and sent them back to Germany to live the rest of their lives in concentration camps, Mr. Stevens remains silent. He is even more conflicted when he finds out that Lord Darlington supported Hitler and the Nazi regime. Although Mr. Stevens openly denies ever knowing Lord Darlington,he cannot lie to himself. He knows that he never was able to stand up for what he believed. Mr. Stevens lived a seemingly unfulfilling life and even lost the woman he loves. Reflecting upon this movie, I wrote the following poem that portrays how I think Mr. Stevens felt looking back at his life. This movie has challenged me to stand up for what I believe and never let others speak on my behalf.

I tell my story.
But is it really mine?
I read through the pages and don’t recognize the lines.
There are things that I would never choose.
Regrets I have made and continue to do.
Times I wanted to do something else.
But something kept me from being myself.
Why have I let others write the pages I claim?
I have watched my book be written and it brings me to shame.
Never possible to changes the things of the past.
Finished living my life of which this page is my last.
My story has been told.
The book has been closed.
The ink has been sealed.