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At lunch today my co-workers and I joined another office on campus for burritos at one of the local favorite spots. It’s always a nice change of pace to meet up with new (read: not new, but rarely seen) people so we can back and forth about what’s going on in the office. On this occasion though we got onto the subject of student tour guides and one of the other individuals adamantly expressed “I HATE when you walk backwards, it’s so wrong.” It would come out that “you’re not supposed to walk backwards because it makes people nervous.” I didn’t expect to be so vehemently opposed to this line of thinking…but, you know, I was. 

As the coordinator for tour guides and a former tour guide myself, I’d say I’m pretty well versed in the ins and outs of what works and what doesn’t on the campus tour. And here’s the really important thing, something my fellow co-coordinator and I have always emphasized with your guides–DO what you’re comfortable with, DON’T do it if you’re not. I think it’s that simple. The best tour guides are students who engage their groups and are confident in what they’re doing. 

Personally, I probably spend less than a quarter of my time walking backwards on tours. That said, it serves a great purpose in how I execute my tours: 1) I have the opportunity to make eye contact (see: connect) with each of my group members. 2) I familiarize myself with their faces and they have the chance to do the same with me. 3) It engages my group in what I’m saying. I’m talking to them and with them, I’m not talking AT them and I’m not talking toward them. 

If the strongest argument against backwards walking tour guides is that it makes visitors “anxious”, then pfffffft, can’t we just get over it? There are a million things in this world that make people anxious. Pickles make my pledgesister uneasy. Little kids on scooters make me incredibly nervous. My coworker feels queasy at the mention of the word “moist”. Anxiety is a part of life, and in the event that I do trip over something while backwards walking…so what? We laugh it off, keep going and have a funny, quirky story for our visitors to tell when they leave. This isn’t the end of the world. 

That said, I don’t walk backwards all the time, I would trip and I would get tired of it. So I adapt my tours to my own pace, style and the desires of my group. My tour guides are encouraged to do the same. If they want to walk backwards they’re free to; if they want to walk forwards, go for it; and if they have their own mish mash of patterns then that is fine too. 

Pentagon tour guides receive extensive training on how to navigate the twisty, winding pathways of that building (which, for the record, includes 19 escalators and 131 stairways) seamlessly while walking backwards. So I say this, if the Pentagon can do it…so can we. 

:D

Yield

Many people know that I have a tattoo on my shoulder which reads “and so it goes that I shall bend to love and love to time…”. I’ve had this tattoo for close to three years now and I wear it as a constant reminder to embrace life’s experiences. I’ve decided to post the poem from which I drew my tattoo for the first time. I titled it “Yield”. 

As the winter frost must yield to the springtime light,

So must the moon fade for the rising sun;

Neither less glorious, less worthy for its finite stretch.

To absorb the beauty, to feel, is the ultimate feat.

And so it goes that I shall bend to love and love to time…

Never fail to endure when the end is nigh,

Never forego love for lack of time,

Never sacrifice life for lack of eternity. 

Unrequited

Speak.

Desperate words planned out,
Stumbling and tumbling through heart to head.
I choke on the words I’ve left unsaid.

Say something. Say something.

These desperate words, these pleading words,
Ravage my brain and course through my veins
Until feeling is all that remains.

Say something, say anything.

Nothing comes out, no words,
For fear that the passion I’ve ignited…
Is naught but unrequited.

Working in the sphere of higher education, I find myself consistently reflecting upon my own experiences as a college student in a new light. Global education is a constantly evolving realm but the concept of culture shock has been an unrelenting force. In layman’s terms, culture shock is the state of confusion/bewilderment/anxiety as an individual confronts the differences between his or her own culture and the one which he or she is experiencing. It’s a relatively simple notion but I think the discussion/education surrounding culture shock ultimately has resounding negative effects on travelers.

For as long as I can remember, I have been utterly fascinated with other cultures. The first trip abroad birthed in me a desire to never stop traveling, never stop devouring new experiences and never stop delving in to, sometimes uncomfortably, different environments. So it’s no surprise that I have always pushed myself to make international travel possible. My first international experience occurred in Mexico, a short vacation with family that introduced me to pan dulce from tiny tiendas and roosters crowing at the crack of dawn. After that I was, undeniably, hooked. From then on, I’ve been motivated by a passion for learning about unfamiliar cultures. This passion has pushed me to study abroad in Brussels, Belgium, back pack through Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Germany, Italy and Greece, spelunk in Budapest, abseil in Assisi, and spend countless hours inexhaustibly planning future excursions. Throughout my travels, one philosophy has been every present and ever abhorred—culture shock.

Travelers become acquainted with the concept of culture shock at the early stages of our journeys; for those of us pursuing lengthy sojourns, one of the first questions we are asked is “aren’t you worried about culture shock?” and one of the first assignments we seem tasked with is a game plan for how we’ll deal with the phenomena once we greet it. For students planning to study abroad, there are often whole pre-departure planning meetings focused on how to recognize culture shock, get over it and move on. Incontrovertibly, discussing how one will approach these differences in culture is an important part of preparing for any journey. While proper education about the nuanced (and not so nuanced!) differences in culture is an integral part of keeping travelers safe abroad, instilling such a consciousness of culture shock into our travelers is perhaps not the best way to do so.

There are so many lists floating around the internet advising travelers of what to do abroad, what not to do abroad, what to be wary of and situations into which they should never put themselves. These are wonderful resources for travelers. But when we consider that culture shock is a problem of adjusting to new/unfamiliar environments does it make sense to constantly point out, often with a negative air, all the differences that travelers MUST be aware or something bad might happen or they might never be accepted or *insert some possibility here*. Whether we intend to or not, our speech instills a sense of fear and while a healthy dose of fear is necessary, shoving travelers into this mindset is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. When we teach them to be anxious about culture because things could happen, we inevitably begin their spiral into “culture shock”.

There will always be some degree of anxiety over culture differences for travelers. Most experts agree that “culture shock” will occur in some capacity for travelers at SOME stage. But it’s a pretty ambiguous territory. There’s no golden rule for when it will happen, how it will manifest itself, how long, etc and in the end we seem to use the term “culture shock” to explain just about any emotional/psychological response to experiences in new cultures.

I so often hear things along the lines of “Wow, why do you eat at 10 o’clock at night? That’s so weird.” Or, on a similar note: “They take naps in the middle of the day. Are they lazy?” People are quick to slap the label of culture shock onto such statements, but should we really be excusing making rash conclusions about other ways/walks of life just because an individual is experiencing confusion over a new culture? Isn’t the point of travel to embrace our differences, not to excuse making a point of them?

I’ve never seen myself as a decidedly strong or weak person but through my experiences abroad I was able to learn more about the core of myself than I had ever before or have ever since. I learned how I deal with stress, what I’m capable of enduring and how well I react under pressure. While, all in all, I am proud of the trials and accomplishments of all my travels, I learned something about myself of which I was not at all familiar. When I face situational change, I am prone to clinical depression. Scientists would assert that I’m not alone in this; in fact, change is one of the most common influences in depression. According to WebMD “even positive changes — like getting married or starting a new job — can sometimes trigger depression.” I loved traveling abroad, I had always wanted the opportunity to do exactly what I was doing then, and I wasn’t disturbed by the differences in culture. I constantly repeated the mantra in my head “You wanted this, you’ve always wanted this.” But this was my first battle with a psychological disorder—one I didn’t understand and felt helpless to confront. Despite the constant reassurances from my study abroad advisor that it was just culture shock and I would get better, despite the pre-departure preparations that told me I just needed to throw myself into life in Belgium and it would get better….it didn’t—because I wasn’t experiencing “culture shock”.  I was told to not call my family too often, I was told to not reach out to friends from back home because all of these things would lend to my inability to assimilate into the Belgian culture and would just aggravate my culture shock. So I suffered two months of grueling, heart breaking depression in a foreign country, without the support I desperately needed. All of which could have easily been avoided if we recognized that not every emotion or psychological response we experience when abroad can be attributed to culture shock.

I would learn that one of my roommates had experienced this exact same uncomfortable situation. When I returned to the United States, a friend would tell me that she too had suffered depression while studying abroad. The overwhelming majority of world travelers will be between the ages of 18-39 and 40-49. Coincidentally these are also the two largest majorities of individuals suffering from depression in the US and in the world. It may be easy to say “it’s okay, it’s just culture shock, and everyone feels this way at some point” but when we consider the masses of travelers who may be suffering from depression, is it really prudent to tell them not to call their parents, not to ask for help, because it’s just culture shock?

In higher education, our function is always first and foremost the safety and wellbeing of our students. So while I imagine we’ll never manage to strike culture shock from the dictionary, we owe it to the young travelers out there to stop writing things off as culture shock, stop excusing negative perceptions of foreign cultures and stop pushing our students into places of fear. We will all experience some reaction to being immersed in foreign cultures but when we consider the negative repercussions of lumping all that into the “culture shock” bin, maybe it’s time to adjust our talking points. Instead of culture shock, let’s educate our students on HOW to assimilate into culture AND how to be safe, let’s teach them how to embrace culture without talking about the differences, and, lastly, let’s teach them that it’s okay to ask for help—no matter where you are in the world.

Littlesby

There are times in life when we meet someone and just KNOW in our core that this person will be life changing. Whether it is romantically, or through friendship, or through a serendipitous encounter with a complete stranger—I can remember the exact moments I’ve encountered these life changing people. Today is the day of birth of one such amazing character. I met her at a party, she was wearing a sequined, multi colored dress and she ate IHOP with me the next day when I creepily knocked on her dorm room door. I didn’t know that she would become my little in my sorority or that she would become one of my very best friends. I also didn’t know that we would come to help each other through some of our lowest times or that she’d witness me at both my best and my worst. All that said, I could not be more thankful to share so many memories with this incredible young woman. She’s an inspirational person and an unconditionally loving friend. Ultimately, she’s one of the numbered few in my life who I trust wholeheartedly. I’ve never felt the need for secrets or pretenses or false personas. So here’s to my littlesby, one of my soul mates, my lovely Ellie on growing another year older, wiser and closer to one another. I love you more than I could ever accurately express.

Life is a constantly changing, constantly moving, always alterable vortex. The possibilities are endless, the mistakes we make are fleeting and while it may all seem impossibly random…somewhere near the center we can find the axis to which everything and all of us are tied.

I have never been a religious person but you will find books on taoism, buddhism, judaism and, now thanks to my wonderful friend, Jennie Nichols, christianity in my home. And while I am not actively religious, if I have learned one lesson from these spiritual studies it’s that we are all connected. That connectedness has lent itself to this realization: we are never alone.

The physical concept of being by oneself has birthed confusion. While I have been by myself, I have never been alone. Maybe this is a peculiar thing to say, and maybe I’m relying too heavily on semantics but I can’t help but reflect back on a Language and Communication class I took while studying in Belgium:
A=One
Lone=having no company
Company=association with another

There have been times in my life that gravity has seemed too heavy a weight for my shoulders. While I have felt weak because of this, I have also felt strong because, well, I’ve always kept moving. At the center of that strength lies one fundamental truth: no matter what…I will never be without company. I will never be alone.

We are all a part of this great, big vortex called life. We share fundamental similarities with millions of people we have never met. My favorite color is grey. Traveling is the key to my soul. I love to read. And I will never be alone because no matter what, there is someone in this world who loves the same things I love and who has felt the same things that I feel.

I am here and I am not alone.

Profoundly

I am having one of those days. One of those satisfying, inspiring, life changing days. Right now, as I write, I also realize that I am having one of the most profound moments I have ever experienced. 

I am listening to a beautiful woman play the piano at the Hilton as she sings to Only Hope by Mandy Moore. She’s already played a beautiful rendition of “River Flows in You” that nearly brought me to tears…now I’m sure that I am about to enter the kind of catharsis that we only find when we reach spiritual awareness. 

Right now I am aware of myself. I’m aware and I’m okay. Okay for the first time in quite some time. I feel like I’ve been drifting for months. Rocking back and forth between floating in space and spiraling off into oblivion. I haven’t felt this free in a long time. A weight has been lifted by utter inspiration. 

I’ve spent the day and the night before interviewing students for admission to Austin College. I’ve met students who are exceptional, and students with exceptional stories. While I couldn’t share their words because they aren’t my own, I really wish I could tell you how amazing our youth can be.

These are kids who have experienced more than I could ever imagine and yet they smile–smile and count their blessings every day. They’ve inspired me to be better, to do more, and to take more pleasure in all that I do. Which has inspired me to do more things that satisfy me. I’m going to take in the beauty of my surroundings, I’m going to write more, paint more, talk to people I love more, I’m going to listen to classical music in the car with my windows rolled down and let it build me up. 

I’m going to take to heart what one of my student’s said today. I’m not going to settle. I’m not going to settle for anything less than I deserve and I’m not going to settle for anything less than I can give–not anymore. I owe this world (and myself) more.

Today was beautiful. 

And starting today I’m going to live profoundly. Or at least with profundity in mind. 

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