Have the time of your life...
This week's Global Citizen Spotlight is Amanda Lewis!
Name: Amanda Lewis
Major: International Relations/Globalization, Political Science
Class year: 2018
Hometown: Berea, Kentucky
1. Describe your Education Abroad program(s):
My first study abroad program was the KEI Fall 2015 program in Nairobi, Kenya at the United States International University-Africa. The program includes trips/excursions all over the country throughout the duration of your stay that include going on a multi-day safari in the Maasai Mara, a multi-day stay on the island of Mombasa, and a trip to Lake Nakuru, including many more. During the weekends where nothing was planned with the program, I often traveled around Nairobi or to other cities, such as Sagana and Naivasha. I was immersed in an environment with people from every corner of the globe whose friendship I still value and hold dear more than anything, and to whom I owe my favorite memories abroad to. I took classes in Swahili and Terrorism/International Security, among a few others, and what knowledge I did gain inside the classroom was dwarfed in comparison to what I learned outside of the classroom from my interactions with people and the environment. While I greatly enjoyed my entire year abroad, my few months in Kenya were some of the best times I’ve had in life and was an experience that had a profound and lasting impact on me and my future.
My second study abroad program was the KEI Spring 2016 program in Bangkok, Thailand at Mahidol University International College. The program includes trips/excursions to the northern provinces of Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, a multi-day trip to the island of Koh Samet off the east coast of Thailand, and to the Don Wang floating market an hour outside of Bangkok. Similar to Kenya, on the weekends off from the program I often traveled around Bangkok and to cities in Thailand. As juxtaposing as it sounds, I often found myself in Little India and Soi Arab (Arab Road) in Bangkok due to the incredible variety and mix of cultures that I still cannot find a rival to from anywhere I’ve been, and because the Indian food was top notch. I took a solo trip 12 hours north to a cabin in the mountains to wind down after midterms, and I worked in a camp teaching English to Thai children, among many other incredible experiences I could list. I studied topics from Russian History to World Religions while there, and I learned to cook Thai food (a vast overstatement if I’m being honest – I can make spring rolls and Pad Thai.)
2. Is this a good program for other students in your major?
Both of these programs are excellent choices for other students in my majors. In my completely bias view, Thailand and Kenya are two of the best countries to do study abroad for those studying International Relations and/or Political Science, because of the unique and complex domestic and international roles both countries hold.
Another selling point for those in my majors to choose either country is because of the diversity in students at each college that allows you to gain first-hand knowledge from people about their home countries. For instance, while in Kenya I became friends with a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had been living in a refugee camp in Uganda since she was 5 before coming to Kenya to study, and she would often talk to me about the conflict in DRC and how it has affected the lives of those living there and in the refugee camps. Or another friend I made from Saudi Arabia who would discuss the domestic and geopolitical policies of his home country, as well as talking about what life is like inside Saudi Arabia. The variety and scale of the intermingling of cultures in Kenya and Thailand are unparalleled and extraordinary, and the opportunity it brings for students to study those cultures from someone of that culture is an invaluable experience.
3. Was this your first time abroad?
My study abroad in Kenya was not only my first time being abroad, but my first time traveling anywhere outside of the east coast of the United States. Apart from a two-week trip to Washington State a few weeks before leaving, I had never been in an airplane either so 22 hours of flight with two layovers in New York and Amsterdam was a completely new experience for me. Subsequently, traveling to Thailand was not my first time abroad.
4. How do you feel that you benefitted from studying abroad?
In August 2015, I left Kentucky as a naïve 19 year old with ignorance that ran deep and thorough in ways that I look back on and can only laugh about (for example, my first week in Kenya I asked a Pakistani girl why she didn’t speak Arabic since Pakistan is in the Middle East). I had never even met someone that was Hindu or Muslim until I went to Kenya, let alone met anybody that wasn’t from America and very few not from Kentucky, so my diversity horizons didn’t stretch very far. But fortunately the university I attended in Kenya – USIU - was diverse beyond imagination with students from allover Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia with very few Americans, so I was essentially thrust into a multicultural environment where I was the minority. In those four months, I improved leaps and bounds with my ability to communicate effectively beyond cultural boundaries and how to connect with people from drastically different cultures and backgrounds than my own, and the same can be said for Thailand as well. From those two study abroad programs, I matured ten years in the span of a less than a year when it came to real-world knowledge and experience, connecting with people and recognizing cultural sensitivities, and how to survive and thrive on your own thousands of miles away from home. I also benefitted from gaining friends for life that I cherish and who made my year abroad such a wonderful experience, whether it be from introducing me to new kinds of food (thank you Eric for teaching me how to cook Ugali and Sukumawiki) or taking me to Navratri spur of the moment and teaching me garba (thank you Rupen for not judging my slow learning curve.)
5. How do you think this experience will impact your future plans?
I originally elected to study abroad due to that all-too-common existential crisis many of us have while in college. Mine came my freshman year when I realized that while I wanted to change the world, I didn’t know where I wanted to start or even how I wanted to. So after a year of studying and volunteering abroad, I [finally] have a specific education and career path that I’m [sporadically] following in the hope of working in humanitarian aid in South Asia. I know that my experience has equipped me with the necessary tools to work in that field as well as having some beef to my résumé: I have basic critical language skills, the ability to communicate across cultural boundaries, first-hand regional and geopolitical knowledge of East Africa, Southeast Asia, and South Asia, as well as having connections with people from every corner of the world. So in a nut shell, the only reason I know what I’m doing (and confident in) with my future and having the resources necessary to be successful are owed directly to my study abroad experiences.
6. How did the experience differ from your expectations?
Going into Kenya, I was adamant about not having any expectations for my study abroad experience. I would say that I went a little too far and figuratively stuck my head under a rock by not researching much about the country in an effort to not formulate any expectations so that once I did begin to experience life in Kenya, I would not be disappointed or disheartened by overzealous expectations.
However, my experience in Kenya was such a wonderful time for me that I was carried away with how I thought my time in Thailand would go, naively believing that it would be the same or at least very similar to my time in Kenya. It was obviously not, due to incredibly varying cultural norms between the two countries that I was not expecting (for example, the students I met in Kenya were the most outgoing and social people I have ever met whereas the students I met in Thailand were a bit more reserved.) Expectations nonetheless, Thailand went above and beyond my original notions and I had a spectacular time.
7. What other countries have you traveled to?
While in Kenya, my visa did not permit me to leave the country so I was not able to travel to neighboring states (although traveling to Tanzania would have been relatively easy and is still a dream of mine).
In Thailand, traveling to neighboring countries is one of the easiest places in the world to do so due to the flexibility of a Thai visa and the cheapness of flights, trains, and bus rides to surrounding countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, or Vietnam; however I decided to stay mostly in Thailand, visiting only neighboring Laos.
After Thailand I volunteered in India for a few months, and while there I flew to Nepal to the north for two weeks. So far I have been to Kenya, Thailand, Laos, India, and Nepal.
8. Favorite thing about studying abroad?
There isn’t one specific thing, or even a mash up of many things that I can name as my favorite thing about studying abroad, so I guess I can best answer this question with a broad generalization. For a year of my life I traveled alone and out of a suitcase, thousands of miles from the life I had spent the last 19 years living and creating, but it never really bothered me. I may have gotten homesick every now and then, and I lived for the times when I could skype my friends and family back home just to hear a semblance of familiarity in their voice and the shared jokes between us, but that never overshadowed my time abroad. Why? Because all of the negative feelings you may feel about being so far from home are wiped away when you go to a Hindu festival in Nairobi with your Tanzanian-Indian friends, or when your friend from Saudi Arabia somehow tricks you into thinking he’s a Saudi Prince because he’s the grandson of the King. Or when you ride through the mountains of northern Thailand for a week to wind-down after midterms. Or even when you, as an American, are sitting in your Swahili class in Kenya next to your friend from Japan as you’re being taught by a Russian professor. That is my favorite thing about studying abroad.
9. Suggestions for future students?
Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to pick the “exotic” locations that are outside of western Europe like Tanzania or South Korea. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Ask any and all of the questions that you feel are dumb and will sound ignorant - you learn so much more this way. Don’t be afraid to talk to strangers because often times they are just as nervous to talk to you as you are them, and people in other countries are incredibly happy to see Americans and so deeply curious about them (despite the misinformation widely propagated that wouldn’t make it seem so). Don’t be afraid to say yes. If it frightens you, do it. Absolutely do it. You’re interested in joining a Botswana Beat Box and Breakdance Club on campus but you don’t known anything about Botswana or Beat Box or Breakdance? Do it. Your best experiences in life come from the times when you throw away personal constraints to dive straight into whatever it is that is calling you. If you are going to be studying abroad you have already proved that you overcame your fear of leaving your home and everything you know, so transfer that energy to your host country and keep doing all of the things that scare you.
10. Anything you'd like to add?
A point of contention with students studying abroad is in regards to safety. Often times areas outside of western Europe are viewed as dangerous and that connotation often deters students from traveling there. I would like to firmly oppose that viewpoint. I feel like I have some knowledge on this since I have traveled to many countries. Not once in my year of traveling to countries outside the sphere of eurocentrism did I feel unsafe, and I want to shout it from the rooftops that no country is as unsafe as we make it seem. Yes there are areas where crime is higher than most, and dangerous and compromising situations do exist in these countries I’m speaking of, but they do everywhere else as well. As a student you can be put into an unsafe situation no matter your placement in the world, whether it be in Kansas City, Paris, or New Delhi, so limiting yourself from the great and eye-opening experiences to be had studying abroad outside of western Europe due to safety concerns greatly constrains your horizons.
This overzealous security PSA isn’t to prevent those choosing to study abroad in western Europe from studying there, however, because countries like England, Ireland, France, and Germany all have incredible merits and opportunities to them and I applaud anyone that decides to study abroad, regardless of location. If French is your thing, go to France. Thrive, prosper, and have the time of your life there. If Flemish Renaissance art is your thing, go to the low countries. Thrive, prosper, and have the time of your life there. Don’t look over these countries, but look beyond them. Have Paris in your study abroad options, but have Ghana in there also. Have Germany, but South Korea. Ireland, but Argentina. It’s a great, big world and unfounded concerns of safety should not limit you from experiencing it.
My favorite quote about traveling will sum up my argument, so thank you to Aldous Huxley for providing it: “To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” Maybe you should go discover that you’re wrong.
Published on May 15, 2017