Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Celebrations!

Lindsay with Uncle Jimmie, our Valentine. 
With Abdoulaye's and my engagement party on Saturday and my birthday today -  there is a lot of celebrating going on!  I did not get a chance to post these photos from right before I left but wanted to share some of my favorites from Valentine's Day and bon voyage parties my parents threw me.  Hope you enjoy!
Trippy!

Dad gave a really sweet bon voyage toast - thank you!
Randy and Irene brought a tasty cake!

We didn't get a shot with all the rest of the crew but here's one of those of us that won the party :)
With my brother Michael and sister-in-law Courtney
Mahi Mahs!
Laurie, John's sister, and her husband Frank came to visit.  What a treat!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Surprise!

So many treasures!
Cassie invited Abdoulaye and I over this past weekend for dinner to welcome me back to Mali.  Little did we know she had also collaborated and invited the rest of our Bamako crew for a surprise engagement party!

We dined on heart-shaped quiches, cookies, and pita chips and enjoyed toasts over champagne and apple cider.  Abdoulaye and I are so blessed to be surrounding but such awesome family and friends around the world.  
heart shaped quiches among other delicious treats
Cassie made heart-shaped cookies and decorated them with chocolate icing.  Then Laura said "Hey, it's like Jennifer and Abdoulaye!" :)
Sweet ladies

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Back to Bamako!

Less than 24 hours ago I sat on the floor of my childhood home – luggage, carry-ons, and gifts strewn about me – and, with the help of my sister Lindsay, prioritized possessions in order to make (luggage) weight for my return to trip to Mali. Every so often I would step on the scale holding one of my suitcases and Lindsay would lean over to locate the arrow teetering between dashed numbers. After unloading some lotions and body sprays, stationery, and a few other items deemed non-critical to my return, we were satisfied that we had made it close enough to the 80 pound weight limit. We zipped up my groaning suitcases and carry-ons and rolled them to the trunk of my mom's car and just like that, after four months stateside, I was ready to return to Mali.

At the Norfolk airport I was surrounded by an honest-to-goodness entourage. All my parents saw me off as well as my aunt Laurie, Uncle Frank, and my brother, Michael. Even one of our dogs, Levi, made the trip out to bid me farewell. My luggage came in a few pounds over (and when I say a few pounds I mean...more than a few pounds) but the generous check-in lady waved me on and wished me a safe return to Mali. I think this is the first time I have ever traveled abroad and not had to unload and relocate items in the airport lobby for exceeding the luggage weight limit. I liked the feeling.

After a puddle jumper flight to JFK, I sat near my gate and settled in for a four-hour layover. I talked with Marija and Kate on the phone and people watched metropolitan Europeans with asymmetrical haircuts, metal-buckle boots, and skinny jeans walk by with Cartier and FAO Shwartz bags in hand. Next to my gate was a nail salon with a billboard the size of two unfolded pizza boxes on the back wall. The sign read:
“You won't be able to say you had any regrets. Have you considered joining the Peace Corps?”

One of the last things I delicately crammed into my carry-on was a small stack of magazines. I chose three from the top of a towering pile on my dresser – two New Yorkers and a Vanity Fair. Once on the plane to Paris I pulled out the first New Yorker dated December 5, 2011 and opened it.

After reading a review of “The Artist,” which my dad says is a must-see (I watched it on the plane!), and a spotlight on one of the Occupy Wall Street protestors, I arrived to a Personal History essay entitled Mapping Home: Learning a new city, remembering the old by Alexandar Hemon. Hemon writes about his upbringing and home in Sarajevo and then his subsequent, and unexpected, transition to life in Chicago when he came to the United States with the International Visitor Program on March 14thth 1992. When war broke out in Bosnia, Hemon's family urged him to stay and so he did. He applied for political asylum and then, he says, “The rest is the rest of my life.”

Hemon talks about how Chicago was nothing like his home in Sarajevo. He did not feel connected. He did not have a local butcher nor a movie theater to frequent and so he wandered and never felt quite at home. Then, one of his best-friends from Sarajevo came to visit in 1997 and he realized he did have a home in Chicago. He showed his friend his favorite coffee shop and his first apartment. He showed him where he got breakfast on the weekend and where he canvassed as a Greenpeace volunteer. He showed him the life he had built for himself in the United States.

During my four month time stateside friends and family would often ask when I was returning home. Then they would laugh and say, well, I guess Mali is your home now! It is something I think a lot about.

I am now sitting on the plane that will take me back to Bamako. The sun has just set but the sky is not yet ready for night to fall. A blood orange strip slices the horizon while a deepening blue shades upwards to a few stars that are in a rush to make their nightly appearance.

Hemon's personal essay was powerful and, while I could never imagine what it is like to be pulled from my home because of war, he makes his experience a relevant one for people like me who have more than one place they call home. He closed his piece with this statement:
“The two places had now combined to form a complicated internal landscape, a space where I could wander and feel at home, and in which stories could be generated. When I came back from my first visit to Sarajevo, in the spring of 1997, the Chicago I came back to belonged to me. Returning from home, I returned home.”
Returning to Mali with heavy luggage, a light heart, and no regrets – Alexandar Hemon captures how I feel.

Check out this link for some fun photos my friend Valerie Demo took at First Landing Park!

Monday, February 13, 2012

On my way!

I am on the train (my last ride for this trip/extended stay in the US) and heading back to Virginia Beach after three weeks spent in Boston and Vermont.  My two weeks on campus at SIT were delightful - even if they were a bit exhausting - and I am excited to get started on my course work and for the rolls of graduate school to finally be turning.

There is a lot going through my mind right now as I prepare to step into the next 'stage' of my life.  As a recently engaged graduate student picking back up with USAID/PHARE via Peace Corps Response and with some other things on the back burner - I have a few things to think about!  (then again, who doesn't?)

And while my own concerns are often in my mind's foreground - Mali's civil unrest has also made its way to the front of the queue (read more news about the Tuareg rebellion here).  I have recently begun to follow a few blogs which I would like to share here since they are exactly what I have been looking for - thoughtful, well-rounded accounts of what is actually happening in Mali (and Africa) rather than abstract news articles that feel a little colder. 

Africa is a Country features a wide range of topics concerning Africa - music, politics, culture and sports.  I am excited to learn more about other countries through these lenses rather than a strictly political/NGO perspective.  Monthly Development Magazine provides "in-depth news and commentary on global trends that affect relief, refugee and development work."  Some of their recent articles have touched close to home for me with my current school and work situations.  Check out these articles about SIT in Rwanda, World Learning's partnership with USAID and taking learning out of the schoolroom.  I also fell upon the African Studies Association website which will be a great resource when I begin more focused research in Mali. 

I am grateful to Alex Thurston, a Ph.D candidate in Islam in Africa, and his Sahel Blog which linked me to a couple of the sites I listed above.  Definitely not a site to be missed if you are interested in the Sahel region!

God willing I will return to Mali in one week (yay!  I finally heard from Peace Corps that my ticket is en route!) and pick back up where I left off in October.  There are so many people I am looking forward to seeing (you know who are - I won't list you since I'm afraid I'd accidentally leave someone off!) and things to do.  I am refreshed from my time home and ready to get back to work.  I will get back on the wagon with my Africa from A-Z series and hopefully add a few new features to the blog once I get settled back in Mali - though who knows how long that will take! 

Thanks for reading!  Is there anything on your mind these days?  Do you have any other blog suggestions? 

Monday, February 6, 2012

Talking 'bout people: SIT Master of Arts in International Education (Low-Residency)

Image source
Adam Weinberg, President and CEO of World Learning - SIT Graduate Institute's parent organization - dropped in on one of our classes last week to speak to the most recent cohort of Low-Residency International Education Students.  When my professor said he would be coming by my first thought was 'Wow, we must be important if the CEO is coming to see us!' 

And I get it, we are putting forth money - and not a small amount - for our graduate education.  Nonetheless, I appreciated hearing from someone so high up in the chain of command and his perspective on the field I am pursuing.  His visit to our class made me feel better about the investment me and my family are making in my education.

He proved to not only make an impression on me with his visit but also with his words.  After a brief introduction noting some of his significant achievements at World Learning, Dr. Weinberg made a high impact speech in a short amount of time.  I will bullet here his speech:
  • He congratulated us on being wonderful students and contributors to the international education field (a little flattery never hurt anyone :)
  • He welcomed us to SIT and likened the school and the international education field to Hotel California.  You can check out whenever you like - but you can never leave.  (I think there are worse places to be stuck.)
  • He said education reaches its peak with phenomenal faculty - something he strongly feels SIT possesses. 
And then he concluded with two points:
  • International education has the best hope for our generation for creating solutions to the problems our countries face.  (OK, let's get to it!) 
  • Then he challenged us to think about the direction of international education.  Is it really a good thing, he asked, that we are - at this moment - unleashing 40,000 undergraduates on cities like Florence, Italy for study abroad programs?  What is the best direction for international education?
I appreciated his brevity and also the food he gave us all for thought.  While I have a few ideas cooking for how I would like to maintain a presence in the international education field before and after I receive my master's, it is inspiring to be surrounded by so many students, educators, and leaders who are pushing me to ask new questions and look at the old ones from a new perspective.

With the low-residency program at SIT, we spend two weeks on campus during our first year establishing rapport amongst students and faculty while taking introduction courses to our first classes.  After those first two weeks we return home where everyone is either working or volunteering in the field of international education.  Then, much of our work consists around reflecting on, and learning from, our shared experiences in the field while we simultaneously take courses on theory, practice, and policy as well as research-based courses.  I continue to be impressed by the diverse experiences and paths my classmates have had and taken and so I wanted to compile a list of some of the organizations with whom they work.  After checking out their websites I am even more excited to learn more from my cohort and the field of international education:

Reboot workshop - helping veterans transition into civilian life.
U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services
SIT Study Abroad
Lewis & Clark Study Abroad
International Student Services at Franklin University
University of Wisconsin Study Abroad Office
World Endeavors Study Abroad (site and blog)
Humboldt University Study Abroad Office
Growing Hope - A VISTA program
AFS Study Abroad
World Learning.  Bridging Cultures.  Transforming Lives.
International Student Volunteers.

Second year graduate students have not yet come back to campus but first-year students are here and excited to have us low-residency folks (or so it seems!) around.  One of the components I appreciate about our program is the emphasis on recruiting qualified international students to campus.  So far, from my program and the on campus program, I have met students from, or with families from, the following countries - not to mention all over the United States!:
Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Senegal, Kenya, Zimbabwe, Egypt, Haiti, Ghana, and Eritrea

And there are only about 75 students on campus!  I am looking forward to week two of our seminars and getting a bigger glimpse of what this adventure is all about!

Have you ever done an online degree program?  Had you ever heard of SIT/World Learning before?

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Gemstones of International Education in Brattleboro, VT

I like how this map shows the most important cities. Go VB!
After driving three hours northeast of Boston and carefully navigating small, country towns and gas stations equipped with bathrooms of questionable quality, Suzy and I made it to Brattleboro, Vermont.  Tucked away in a mountainside with a main street of cute shops, the city bustles with weekend visitors and seasoned locals shopping and grabbing a bite to eat at one of the many restaurants in town.

We peek into the local farmer's market and I find myself drooling over tables laden with homemade savory & sweet treats.  Rosy cheeked women with kind eyes and rough, textured hair and a unique piece or two of silver jewelry stand behind tables and invite us to try local breads and jams, syrup tapped from Vermont maple trees and to hold for ourselves hand-knit hats made from local sheep's wool.  Places like this make me want to sell my computer (or yours) and move to a farm and wear hand-knit sweaters while making lavender infused goat-milk lotion and soap.  One day.

Orientation began Saturday night with a group dinner for myself and the rest of my cohort (the 17 other folks who will complete their Master of Arts in International Education low-residency style along with me).  Dinner was a delight and our immediate sharing of experiences showed me what a breadth of diversity our group brings to the table.  With backgrounds spanning the globe and languages to match them, I know I have a lot to learn from my fellow students and I also look forward to sharing, and learning from, my experiences in Mali along the way.

We will spend two weeks together this January/February exploring the field of international education while laying the foundations for the courses to follow this Spring.  Our first two classes are Foundations of Intercultural Service, Leadership & Management and Practitioner's Inquiry.  I will also take a workshop this weekend entitled 'Data-driven Decision-Making' which looks to be quite interesting.  After meeting with my adviser I feel more confident about undertaking this degree and reassured that it is something that will help me along my path (be it on a goat farm in rural Vermont or in a study abroad program at a university or otherwise!

One of our professors asked us what made gemstones special.  "Their rarity?"  I ventured.  "Their colors?" said another.  "Yes and no," he replied.  "I believe it is their multi-faceted nature that makes them special.  Their ability to refract light and shine in different ways in different settings."  He went on to note that our unique abilities and experiences are what make us distinct, too and if we can harness our ability to communicate those abilities and experiences our time with SIT will be that much richer.  I appreciate the analogy and look forward to all the refracting that will be going on!
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Who knew International Education could look this good?
Here are some of the hot spots around town I've heard are must-dos (I've already gotten to do some!):
Have you ever been to Brattleboro?  Do you have any Vermont favorites?
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