The Division of the Island of Ireland

My name is Noelle Annonen and my Beyond the Classroom Experience was interning in Dublin, Ireland, with a content production company called Maxmedia. This dry description doesn’t do any justice to the experience that I had when I lived in Dublin. Yes, I did gain skills in writing, social media content creation, and even website development. But more than that, I learned about a surprisingly completely different culture from my own. My global theme and challenge is Inequality and Human Rights. While I lived in Ireland, I learned about a country that is still dealing with prolonged historic oppression and religious segregation and violence from the perspective of Irish people.

 

My experience taught me that even western cultures that I assumed could be similar to my own are actually incredibly different. Superficially, the island of Ireland is more socialistic than the United States. The people I met seemed more connected with each other and their communities than with career and individualistic goals. This difference seemed extraordinary to me, and prompted me to analyse my values and the values of my country. The experience and questions that were raised weighed heavily on my mind as I continued to learn and grow in Ireland. More importantly, I learned that the island of Ireland is divided, by religious differences and a past of violence between the two countries on it; the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The time period that best illustrates the extent of this conflict is known as the Troubles, and while it occurred in the 1970s and 80s, the unresolved issues are still at play. Within the discussions of the people I encountered, I learned about the love and pain that stems from this division in the lives of people on the island today. The interconnectedness of the culture, as I witnessed it, gives conflict and division an impact that stands the test of time.

The Troubles were ended by what was essentially a call for a cease fire. But while I lived in Dublin, I learned how the religious discrimination and oppression is still felt throughout a society that, only recently, threw off their British overlords and began creating their own country. This experience gave me a fresh drive to better understand conflicts like the one on the island of Ireland and to fight for the rights of people who are discriminated against and oppressed. My end goal is to lead in advocating for and helping create a more equal world and society.

Thanks to COVID-19, my 6 month experience was shaved down to only a 3 month experience. I am left with a strong desire to learn more about the culture and all the intricate details and impacts that the Troubles have and continue to have there. I would like to know how the Good Friday Agreement fell short and what moves are being made to amend past mistakes. More importantly, I keep asking myself, ‘When can I go back to Ireland?’

 

Cultures don’t meet, people do: an exchange period told through three reflections

welcome to Finland

First, some questions answered 

Where: The University of Jyväskylä in Jyväskylä, Finland 

Wait…where: About three hours by train north of Helsinki 

Was it cold and dark: Yes

Did you learn any Finnish: A little bit (I am especially good at saying “En puhu suomea” or “I don’t speak Finnish”) 

sun setting above apartment buildings at 2:29 PM

Löyly, Avanto, and Sisu. 

Sauna culture was something I looked forward to exploring while in Jyväskylä and I was pleased to learn that Kortephoja, my student living complex, boasted a proud five saunas. It is also important to clarify that the correct pronunciation is sow-na, because the Finns know best. Learning about Finnish sauna culture meant embracing löyly, the steam that rises off the rocks in the sauna when water is splashed on them, and avanto, the practice of dipping into a hole in the ice.

a hole in the ice waiting for a sauna-goer

Taking multiple sauna turns a week meant time for long conversations with friends. More adventurous sauna experiences included running into the Arctic Ocean in Norway while a Finnish bus driver yelled at me to put me head fully under the water; this gets one closer to the Finnish concept of sisu. Sisu is comprised of determination, grit, and resilience and is said to express the Finnish national character. Choosing an exchange experience in college means choosing to embrace sisu (and saunas, if one finds themself in Finland). 

Are you the one who needs a violin?

After my first day of classes I plodded through the dark, the sun set at 3:30, without an instrument, my violin was safe at home in Montana, towards the music building, a twenty-minute walk from my apartment. Groups of musicians have a certain buzz about them, and that night was no exception. Timpani drums were tuned, a saxophonist played a scale, and rosin was applied to bows as I quietly stood in the corner and observed. As the symphony tuned, a trombonist emerged beside me and asked, “are you the one who needs a violin?” I was offered her grandfather’s violin for me to borrow. I lovingly nicknamed the violin ‘Pavo’, after violin’s original owner, and slipped into my spot in the second violins.

say hello to Pavo

As the only exchange student in Sinfis, the student symphony, I found it refreshing to be around only Finnish students. Works by Grieg, Mendelssohn, Bizet, and Saint-Saëns were the soundtrack for those three-hour Monday evening practices. The rehearsals were conducted all in Finnish, but I quickly learned “yksi, kaksi, kolme, neljä” (one, two, three, four) as the count to begin as a symphony. My ever-patient stand partner, Rita, spent hours leaning over to me and whispering what measure number we were rehearsing each time the conductor offered a direction. While our final concert was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those hours spent making music remain some of the ones I am proudest I spent during my exchange. 

Brunch

Because my roommates and I had the largest apartment, it was decided that we would host brunch. Miriam and I pulled out the desks from our room to make the dining room table longer. Shannon took muffins out from the oven while her ‘brunch’ playlist played out of her phone. Sienna stood ready at the door to hop in the dangerously small elevator and let our friends into our building.

a bounty from some creative exchange students

About once every two weeks this was our ritual. Gathering for a meal with friends from Spain, France, Hong Kong, Madagascar, and Russia meant lots of food, conversation, and laughter. Our earnest interest in building lasting friendships was born out of these meals together and has continued since. In late March when the composition of our study abroad experience was altered due to the global pandemic – this group of friends rallied in an impressive way. When universities called some of us home, others showed up to clean the entire apartment top to bottom while we packed. Our last hodge-podge meal all together was composed of only desserts and food we had purchased in an attempt to use up our food stipend for that month (can’t let good euros go to waste). Though I spent half the amount of months I had planned to with this friend group, we’ve stayed connected: reminding each other of inside jokes, bi-weekly zoom calls, and plans to see each other have kept the spirit of our brunches very alive.  

our kitchen before our last meal together

Cultures don’t meet, people do 

With a focus on the global theme of culture and politics I tried to construct my schedule at the University of Jyväskylä around these large concepts. As a Communication Studies major I had never previously studied intercultural communication. The University of Jyväskylä specializes in instruction and research in this field. I took multiple courses with an underlying focus on intercultural communication. My main take away from these courses, and my time outside of the classroom in and around Jyväskylä, was an awareness of the simplifications we tend to make when we take about intercultural communication.

One of my most impactful instructors at the University of Jyväskylä took a critical view on commonly held beliefs about intercultural communication and borrowed a subtitle from a book by Hoffman and Verdooren to remind her students that “cultures don’t meet, people do.” This lesson was solidified around a table constructed out of desks, while rehearsing music I understood in a language I did not, and in a cedar plank sauna in the Artic Circle. 

My Experience with Open Aid Alliance

My GLI theme is public and global health. I worked with the Open Aid Alliance to achieve this theme. The Open Aid Alliance is based out of Missoula Montana and they are committed to serving the people of Missoula who suffer from substance abuse disorders and/or have STIs. COVID drastically affected my experience, instead of working in an office in Missoula we had to resort to an online environment. Unfortunately because of this I have no photos of my experience. Because of that change I worked out of my hometown of Billings Montana. With working from home I wasn’t put into a new environment in the traditional way. Instead I was introduced to different people and different ways of life by way of webinars and articles. With the various perspectives and lives I was introduced to it changed how I look at the issue of substance abuse and how it is treated as of now. Also it made me look at my own bias and background. This experience taught me not to take things for face value and that you never know what someone is going through. A lot of the webinars and articles I was introduced to challenged the American culture towards people with substance abuse disorders. To be completely honest this experience has changed my perspective not only on my theme and challenge it changed how I look at modern health care. I saw so many people not being treated correctly or not being treated at all. It also introduced me to subgroups of people I wasn’t aware of and their challenges and whether or not they are getting the help they need. With this experience being online I had to be my own boss. I pushed myself everyday to put out the best products I can. I also had to insert myself on various projects. Since I was the first person to do an online internship with the Open Aid Alliance, my drive and motivation was a big component to what made this internship so successful. Some of the questions that came out of my experience were about our current healthcare model. How do we better serve people who need it? How have I not heard of these issues earlier? I realize that this is a complicated issue but we need to make some drastic changes so people can get the help they need. One of my final questions was: How is the United States so far behind?

This experience has changed my life and I am extremely thankful for the opportunity. I would like to thank the GLI program not only for the scholarship that made this possible, but for helping me find an experience that best fit my interests. I would also like to thank Amanda Reese at Open Aid Alliance, she could’ve just cancelled my internship but instead she worked with me to find a way to make it work. And finally I would like to thank Kevin Hood at the University of Montana. He helped me figure out the details that made this internship work. I know that a lot of this internship was self motivated but with out the team of people that helped me navigate this experience it wouldn’t have been possible

If you would like to see some of the projects I did during this internship attached is a blog I created for the experience. Along with some of the projects posted on my blog I would say that the most memorable project was creating an educational tool for high school students to learn about harm reduction.

Thank you all for the expirence

-Drake Leonard

https://openaidsallianceinternship.blogspot.com/

A Pomegranate Paradise

I wasn’t sure what to expect from living in Granada, Spain. My preconceptions included beautiful beaches right outside the city, a huge palace right next to campus, and live music everywhere. I thought maybe there would be pomegranate trees everywhere, since Granada translates to pomegranate. It turns out, the beaches were farther away than I thought, and the giant palace was about two miles away from the Cartuja campus on the hill. There were no pomegranate trees, but pomegranates were printed on everything and they were sculpted in metal everywhere. Granada ended up throwing me lots of surprises and was not a place that I could have dreamed up.

It had it all. Big city, traffic, hiking, beautiful hills and night lights, a river, art shops, and the picturesque Albaicin, which is full of narrow cobblestone streets and white buildings. It had orange trees, fruit stands, statues, and protests, and an entire district full of beautiful, high-end stores. One area of town was entirely Moroccan. The blend of happenings in the city was amazing.

The Alhambra palace from la Mirador de San Miguel.

My GLI experience abroad took me to this beautiful place. My global theme is Public and Global Health, and as part of my experience I took a class called Antropologia de la Salud, or Anthropology of Health. This class focused on health disparities in both Spain and around the world, between different demographics of people, as well as different types of attention and medicine practices in various cultures. This gave me really good insight on how medical attention systems differ around the world and gave me the opportunity to really delve into health disparities. It also further proved just how much work the American health care system needs, given that it is completely unaffordable and unattainable for so many Americans to even receive care.

In Granada, there are a few different programs that as an exchange student you may enroll in. Two of them are taught in English, are off-campus, and are mostly Americans who want to learn Spanish. The third option is the one I chose, which was to directly enroll into the main University of Granada and take the same classes that the local Spanish students take, alongside them.

What this choice meant for me is that I had to quickly adapt to the language, accent, and slang to succeed. It was incredibly challenging, but it pushed me to listen closely, be a good student, and improve my fluency, which was my reason for choosing Spain in the first place.

I’ve studied Spanish for a long time and am a Spanish minor at UM, but part of the learning curve during this culture immersion was finding out that the dialect in southern Spain is difficult for even native Spanish speakers to understand. I picked up on a lot of differences between the central/southern American Spanish that I had studied and the Andalucian dialect, and learned from my Spanish friends that I apparently “talk like a gangster.”

I’d say that being forced to focus so heavily on my communication is a skill that translates really well into leadership. Not only was the language a focus area for me, but a lack of understanding made me use nonverbal cues a lot more and find alternative ways to express myself or ask for clarification. These are essential leadership skills, because as a leader you have to understand what is happening with your team on a deeper level than simply what is said – you have to read into what is left unsaid. It’s also important to really listen and be able to develop an effective response as a leader, which are two objectives that require more effort when becoming fluent in another language.

A view of Granada.

There were lots of culture differences between Montana and Granada. The biggest adjustment for me was probably the schedule. Spaniards stay out late every night of the week, and often they don’t even leave the house until midnight and then stay out until seven am. For several hours in the afternoon, everything is closed for siesta. Another big difference for me was social, as people here at home are much more willing to have a conversation with a stranger. In Spain, people aren’t as chatty with someone who isn’t part of their group. The culture obviously goes much deeper than these basic functional level differences, and I got the privilege of learning a lot about the history of Spain and how it has affected its people.

I took a History of Modern Spain class that focused on the last three centuries and gave me a lot of insight into the instability and politics that have shaped the country. I learned how big of an impact the recent dictatorship had on the way that present-day Spanish society functions, and especially how it affects women and education. I also learned a lot about Spanish culture from the friends I made there who are from Spain. Some things I was shocked to learn. For example, my friend Lucia explained to me that it’s actually rude to ask somebody what their job is, because the Spanish completely separate their work lives and personal lives, unlike Americans. If you do ask, it could be interpreted as you trying to find out how much money they make to take advantage of them.

Though I had to leave suddenly and early due to COVID-19, by the end of my experience I had picked up on a lot of these cultural nuances, and Granada felt like a second home to me. I was left with more questions though. Since I left so early, I didn’t get to do or see a lot of the things I had planned on. The palace I talked about earlier, the Alhambra, is a huge part of Granada’s history. I had booked tickets for about two weeks after I had to go home. I also only got to travel out of Granada three times: once for a hike, once to Cordoba, and once to Bordeaux, France. I would love to return to travel around the rest of Spain and visit the beaches, the islands, and cities like Sevilla and Barcelona.

I ran into a herd of longhorn cattle blocking the trail on my hike.

So, I bid Granada a “see you later,” and hope that one day I get to return to revisit these unanswered questions and my pomegranate paradise. I’m so grateful that I got this opportunity to explore, learn, and better myself through GLI.

-Haylie Peacock

From Belgium to Bosnia: Reflections On Europe

Fries, beer, chocolate, and waffles all quickly became staples in my Belgian diet. As well as the removal of the word ‘French’ before fries because, as I learned, there is an ongoing dispute between France and Belgium about where the fries were invented. Regardless of the dispute, the Belgian fries were delicious and you eat them with this tiny fork, which I love. A small aspect of my weekly routine that I miss.

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Traditional Belgian ‘frites’ at an outdoor concert by the Atomium

I spent this past fall studying European peace and security studies in Brussels, Belgium. This specific program, while through my host institution, pooled the expertise of the Belgian military, NATO, the European Union, and the Global Governance Institute in discussing contemporary security challenges from a distinctly Brussels view. These courses were incredibly difficult as the professors were very distinguished practitioners in the field of security studies (a bit intimidating to say the least). The students were also primarily graded based on a midterm and a final, something I was not used to at UM. These courses were perfect for studying my GLI theme of social inequality/human rights and the balance between human rights protection and international security concerns. 

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Bosnian ćevapi at an outside restaurant in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina

In addition to Belgium, I was able to do a fair amount of traveling, and visited 13 countries over the course of 5-ish months. However, one country caught my attention that I wanted to highlight in this post because of the impact it had on me both personally and professionally. Before I proceed, I want to write a trigger warning in this post as I will be talking about a very emotionally difficult subject: genocide. As many of you might know, Model United Nations has been a big portion of my life and something that I enjoy doing. I love stepping into the shoes of other nations and seeing international issues from their point of view. Last year, the UM Model UN team was assigned to represent the Eastern European country, Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the annual New York City conference. After intensely researching the country for well over a year, I decided that I had to visit this place as plane tickets were not too expensive and I had a week off of school in October to travel. 

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Olympic Tower in Sarajevo Commemorating the 1984 Winter Olympics

I landed in Sarajevo and it was one of the most beautifully complex places I have ever seen. It reminded me of home in Montana, with the mountain ranges and the river flowing through town. It was my first time in a Muslim majority country, and the mosques were so intricately constructed that I could stare at them for hours. Yet, beneath all of this natural and man-made beauty, the scars of the deadliest European conflict since World War II looked fresh and raw. Holes from shrapnel puncture the walls of buildings, graffiti telling stories of the war through art were scattered across town, thousands of white and grey tombstones line the many city graveyards, and 200 ‘red roses of Sarajevo’ mark a spot where at least three people were killed by a mortar shell explosion during the siege of Sarajevo from 1992-1996. The town, which was the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, looked as if it was a city slowly coming out of a coma. 

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Srebrenica–Potočari Memorial and Cemetery for the Victims of the 1995 Genocide

During my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I visited the tiny town of Srebrenica, a place synonymous with a massacre where 8,000 perished. My tour guide was a former soldier who fought for the Bosniak Muslim army during the war when he was my age, and he recounted the war from his perspective. After the tour of the Srebrenica cemetery and memorial, my guide took me to see a woman on the Serbian border who lost many male loved ones during the genocide. She made us traditional Bosnian coffee and snacks, and I was able to have a conversation with her (through my guide as an interpreter) about her life and ways she coped with losing those around her. The woman told me, “for what I have been through, and this country, things are finally okay.” Even though I could see incredible sadness in her eyes, I saw someone who was resilient in the face of unimaginable loss. Courage does not always come from someone who fights with a gun during a war or politicians who command an army, but through individuals who try to pick-up the pieces of their lives even when there may only be a few pieces left.   

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The historic village of Počitelj in southeast Bosnia and Herzegovina

My trip to Bosnia and Herzegovina was a surreal experience, one that brought me to tears at times, as well as almost to the bathroom to throw-up from the stories. It pains me that the country is still synonymous with war, chaos and destruction. Many of those close to me, at times, strongly urged me to reconsider travel there because the war stories are still etched into people’s memories. But what I found was a country teeming with beautiful landscapes and the warmest people I encountered in all of Europe. Inspired by my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the year I spent researching the nation, I intend to pursue a law degree focused on humanitarian law, an area of study closely related to my GLI theme of social inequality and human rights. I believe my time in Bosnia and Herzegovina has given me a new, powerful perspective on how international organizations, for lack of a better word, fail to protect human rights during times of conflict. And the thing is that it is (and can) happen again. In various roles at UM, I had learned how to discuss uncomfortable issues in a professional matter, and that was a vital skill that I exercised during my excursion to Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Thank you for reading this somber part of my post. I promise Europe for me was more than learning about the dismal record that international organizations have on protecting human rights. As I adjust back, I am still processing all the ways that I am a different person and, to be honest, while I am, it is hard to exactly write in what way. I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t planning my trip back to Brussels to visit my lovely, smart, free-spirited, 82 year old host mom from Germany and her, sometimes terrifying, cat named Blair. 

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The medieval castle Gravensteen in Ghent, Belgium

If I had to take-away one reflection from my time in Brussels, and Europe at large, it is to learn how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. You won’t always have all the answers or know exactly what’s going on. You might dress differently or be forced to eat a food you hate because it is the social custom (Brussel sprouts for me). Or you might have to quickly (and discreetly) google translate the words on your menu before you order at a restaurant. I walk away from this experience with a whole new meaning of the phrase ‘c’est la vie,’ and the knowledge that change is possible if we allow ourselves to step into the shoes of other nations.

Finding truth in the desert

My semester learning and living on the Colorado Plateau

Cake for breakfast, five espresso shots, Ira Glass’ voice and midday naps.

This is what I craved upon emergence from the backcountry after two months. After tending to these adventitious desires, I gathered my rather satiated self and began to reflect on the events of the past nine weeks.  

As fall had settled into my home in the Montana Rockies, I chased the waning summer south to Green River, Utah, where I began my semester with the Missoula-based Wild Rockies Field Institute. The concept of place-based learning was one that intrigued me, but it would soon become apparent how much my trio of mind, body and soul craved exactly what my WRFI experience provided to me. 

The desert of the American Southwest was always a dear landscape to me; As a child, my parents, driven by their passion for inhabiting wild places, would tow my younger brother and I south on I-15 to interrupt our high-altitude norm with adventures through deep red rock canyons. When I was presented with the opportunity to study this unique setting through the lens of topics such as land management, geography, geology and indigenous studies, I bought a sun shirt and applied. 

Moving from “classroom” to “classroom” on the Green River. The first section of my WRFI semester was spent in Labyrinth Canyon studying water management, botany and biodiversity among other topics. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

WRFI is unique in many ways, one of which being its setting. The classroom changed on a daily basis, as a component of the semester was traveling and living in the backcountry. This began on the Green River, where I eased into a new way of life cruising down slow late season water in tandem canoes. This was a great way to get to know each of my seven other classmates. After a week on the river, we laced up our boots and set out for a more physically demanding approach. 

My WFRI peer, Phia (right) and I enjoying instant coffee before a morning class at the boundary of Dark Canyon Wilderness and BLM land. PHOTO BY ELIZA DONAHUE

Our first day backpacking, we entered into the Dark Canyon Wilderness, a region formerly encapsulated in the 1.3-million-acre Bears Ears National Monument designated by Obama in 2016 and reduced in size by Trump just shy of a year later. Our packs were 50-plus pounds, and our feet were soft after the plush week on the lazy river. The first stretch was a mere five miles, but our group struggled to find a comfortable rhythm. A few students had never backpacked before, and it took a few tries to adjust packs before they finally joined the rest of us in the conclusion that carrying life on your back is inescapably awkward and sometimes painful. Despite the initial challenges, we fumbled into a reliable groove. By our third day, we moved like a well-oiled machine through our routine of boiling breakfast water, packing, hiking and settling in for the evening at a new camp. Throughout the entire semester, our boots carried us through Dark Canyon, the Dirty Devil River (yes, through the river) and Horseshoe Canyon.

Just as we were not limited to four walls, classes were not limited to a Monday through Friday schedule. Depending on the weather, energy and a number of other factors, our two instructors would gather my peers and I either before or after a day of hiking for a daily discussion-based class informed by reading materials we were individually responsible for covering prior. With a small and enthusiastic group, our discussions were vibrant and constructive. 

Throughout the course, we discussed the importance of observation. On a solo hike up Cherry Canyon, I practiced my naturalist skills. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER
Eliza observes a rare find: a potsherd, possibly a remnant left behind by a group of Ancestral Puebloans. NOTE: This potsherd was left where it was found. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER

The beauty of place-based learning is that readings, lessons and classes are immediately applied. One day, after a morning class, we packed up our gear, helped each other hoist packs into position and headed out on the trail. That morning we had discussed the different types of land management and use. Our trail weaved in and out of Wilderness and BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land, and as we hiked, we made verbal note of the clear and present juxtaposition of the less-disturbed Wilderness side of the fence, which was devoid of the cow patties and hoof prints that littered the BLM side. Classes often informally bled throughout the day, and even most nights as we laid in a row of sleeping bag bundles under the stars, debating, lamenting and celebrating the day’s topics. 

Lucy (left), Eliza (center) and I observe tafoni, a surreal-esque feature often found in Wingate Sandstone. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST

.In the middle of the semester, we were privileged to have been hosted by members of the Hopi and Diné (Navajo) tribes in their homes on indigenous land. In Montana, I grew up only a few hours from various indigenous nations and regrettably knew very little about them and the ramifications of a history of genocide and systematic racism that embattle Native Americans on a daily basis. During this time, my peers and I were forced to confront alarming and sickening truths, leaving us with a still shallow awareness of major injustices that occur in our country, many that we even play a role in– and awareness I now seek to deepen in my everyday life.

Exploring slot canyons during a lunch break. My semester with WRFI was academically rigorous, but there was plenty of room for fun and exploration. PHOTO BY PHIA SWART

From these indigenous studies to land degradation to climate change, my brief two months studying with WRFI gifted me a perspective that shed new light on much of the life I’ve already lived but more importantly illuminated the life I hope to live yet. 

Siena (left), Eliza (right) and I probe for quicksand while traveling through and along the Dirty Devil River, a salty tributary to the Colorado. This particular section was 12 days in the backcountry studying geology, climate change and policy among other things. PHOTO BY EVA CHRIST
During our frontcountry section, we visited the Black Mesa Water Coalition on the Diné nation. BMWC shared with us their important work on energy and climate justice. Locally, they work to establish sustainable agricultural practices that combine their traditional knowledge with new innovation. PHOTO BY KATIE NELSON
A late afternoon scene from the property of Tommy Rock, a Diné man who kindly hosted our group for a few days. We were privileged to have the opportunity to learn from Tommy, who earned a PhD studying uranium water contamination on indigenous land. PHOTO BY BELLA BUTLER, SHARED WITH PERMISSION FROM TOMMY ROCK

On our last day in the backcountry, we emerged from a canyon that had been home for two weeks. As we traversed and climbed the crumbly cliffs and slopes that served as our exit ramp, I frequently looked back over my shoulder, begging myself not to forget any detail of the place I was leaving behind. Finally, we reached the top. Joe, one of our instructors for that section, offered us a parting gift; his last nugget of wisdom to echo off of the stoic red sandstone that had come to feel like a friend. He told us we were about to leave behind a place that had both sheltered and challenged us, that had fostered our growth and forged our bonds for two months. Between the daily pursuits of covering miles, studying and taking care of ourselves and others, there had been little time to look backward or forward– life in the backcountry is inarguably lived in each present moment.

The “real world,” where our smartphones, 24-hour news cycles, friends, family and distractions awaited us, existing in the moment was a hard thing to achieve. We had spent a series of weeks submitting ourselves to a process of growth and self-improvement, and what lay beyond the trailhead threatened all of that. Joe challenged us to consciously consider the people we had become, the people we wanted to continue to be; the characteristics we hoped would live on in us and the ones we preferred to leave behind. 

We took a few moments, breathed in a collective breath and called our wandering desert selves back in. 

Life post-WRFI is an unpredictable blend of grounding and chaos, and always nostalgia. The takeaways I carried with me out of the canyon country give me clarity in many ways but also remind me to question my surroundings, to be curious and brave and to challenge the status quo when change is in order. 

A bittersweet moment at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, where we celebrated and mourned the end of our time in the backcountry. PHOTO BY SIENA HESTER

Nights nowadays, I close my eyes as the heater hums in the corner of my room and place myself back in the desert, where nights were spent buried in synthetic down and fleece layers. I imagine I can still hear the lullaby rhythm of seven sets of lungs breathing in crisp desert air around me and see the soft light of twinkling stars through my closed eyelids. I picture this until I fall asleep to dreams of red dirt and slickrock, and the truths I found in those places and the courage I cultivated that allows me to share the story with others. I know that one day I will return to this magical landscape, but for now I’ll remain in its trance, abiding by its teachings and honoring its gifts through reciprocity and gratitude.

*To conclude my WRFI semester, I wrote a paper that weaved together concepts from the course with my personal experience. Follow this link to read it.

A Semester in Central Asia

Bride-kidnapping, dining on horse meat, bribes, corruption, a city-wide heating failure in January, stray dogs, the worst air quality in the world… all points of interest that were revealed to me as I researched my host country after enrolling in the Russian language and Central Asian studies program for my out-of-classroom experience.

I was first drawn to Kyrgyzstan for its mountainous terrain and beautiful scenery. After Russian influence and Soviet rule, Kyrgyzstan is a great place to practice Russian. With a population of 6.2 million, this small Central Asian country holds over 80 different ethnic groups, perfect for my global theme of Politics and Culture, and my challenge: exploring multiculturalism in Kyrgyzstan and how it influences the political and cultural activity of the region.

Identity in Kyrgyzstan is fascinating. In the capital city Bishkek, where I lived, demographics were flipped after the fall of the Soviet Union. Kyrgyz people comprised only 12% of the population; 80% were ethnic Russians. After Kyrgyzstan gained its independence in 1991, steady gains have made Kyrgyz 66% of the population and Russian less than 20%. Russian remains the lingua franca and dominant in the city.

I had several opportunities to visit rural Kyrgyzstan, significantly less affluent and more conservative than the city. Islam re-emerged as the dominant faith after the Soviet Union repressed religion for most of the 20th century. Kyrgyz people are also incredibly proud of their nomadic heritage. Some of these traditions are in direct conflict with Islamic practices, convoluting the religious aspect of Kyrgyz culture, already balancing Russian influences.

As a new, democratic nation located between two global superpowers (Russia and China) vying for influence in the region, Kyrgyz politics offers a unique vantage point for international relations and foreign policy playing out on an international scale. Ethnic conflicts at borders and recent revolutions to promote democracy are important topics of national politics, revealing the role identity plays in Kyrgyz culture and politics. The SRAS program included a month-long stay with a host family and many opportunities to engage with locals in their language, which created opportunity to understand differences in culture and there were a lot.

Yes, I ate horse (once), and felt lucky to experience Kyrgyz hospitality. No, I was never in danger of being kidnapped to be a bride but several of my teachers shared personal stories of misfortune and dissatisfaction with arranged marriages, prompting discussion of women’s societal expectations. I pitied the “no-touch dogs” locals ignored. I often had to defiantly argue (in poor Russian) my way out of unfair “extra fees” made up by scheming taxi drivers but could appreciate that the fare was already so low.

There was the one time I was memorably stranded visa-less with my fellow students for four hours on the border between Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, the latter being an authoritarian dictatorship. An oversight between our school and tour company left us without visas, a guide, and a way to contact anyone. After pleading with border guards and friendly locals who were crossing that let us use their cell phones, we got a hold of the right people and were sent safely back to Bishkek.

These experiences had me practicing patience, flexibility, and receptiveness, all necessary for understanding Central Asian cultural dynamics and valuing my own. I’ve returned to the United States with a much broader perspective, very glad I put myself out a little bit further into the world and in a place so incredibly different from my comfort zone.

hiking in Ala Archa National Park

A Semester Across the Pond

I spent last fall semester studying at the University of Central Lancashire in Preston, England. I study Health and Human Performance with a concentration in Exercise Science so for my global theme I chose to look at the obesity epidemic. In Preston, I was able to take classes to study this further through their school of Sport and Wellbeing. This was an incredible opportunity to see another culture’s approach to health and wellness firsthand. Following graduation, I plan on continuing my education to become a physical therapist. This is a career that involves constant interaction with people and building relationships with them. Study abroad was the perfect opportunity to learn how to effectively communicate with people from all over the world with vastly different backgrounds. Quality health care is important throughout the world and taking time to learn another culture’s approach to global problems will influence the rest of my career. My time abroad helped show me how important globalization and integration between people are, especially in today’s world.

In addition to taking classes, I was also able to play soccer for the University. Being on the team allowed me to gain a different perspective on the culture’s approach to health and wellbeing. I was able to meet many people through this experience, many of whom were also pursuing careers in health care. I learned so much about the culture through the conversations with my teammates which will greatly shape my future career. I was able to travel throughout North England with the team for games which allowed me to see parts of the country which I never would were I there for vacation.

I am incredibly thankful to have had such an amazing opportunity to learn about the culture in England as well as travel throughout Europe. I learned more about myself and how to navigate new situations while gaining experiences that cannot be learned in a classroom. It wasn’t always easy but the people I met along the way and this unique experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Global Inequalities at the Heart of Western Civilization

I spent last spring semester studying abroad in Athens, Greece. In GLI, my global theme is Culture and Politics. With this in mind, I took classes on Greek history, cultural communication and globalization. When I wasn’t in class, I explored downtown Athens, and various places within the Greek mainland and islands. During my stay, I found myself challenged by living in a foreign country and confronted with issues I had never experienced. 

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The first thing I noticed when I landed in Greece was the graffiti and the crumbling structures. There seemed to be a roughness, an almost worn and tired feeling in the air. It became clear rather quickly that there are two different sides to Greece, the Greece that is featured in Condé Nast Traveler and movies such as Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants and the Greece that is run-down, struggling with the long-term effects of the 2010 Debt Crisis, migrants and refugees and what the future of Greece holds.

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As a history major, I was fascinated to study in Greece to experience the history of Greece and the Mediterranean and how that history is still into play today. I was overjoyed to be able to explore historical sites such as the Parthenon, Delphi, etc., however when I left for Greece, my knowledge of Greek history was limited to Ancient Greece. What I was unaware of was what followed the Golden Age of Greece, which was centuries of conquests, take-overs, military dictatorships and instability. While, this is the history, Greece actively tries to ignore and forget, I found that this historical trauma has shaped the character of Greece and continues to haunt the development of Greece. This history of being taken over by the Ottoman Empire and later in the 20th century being encircled by soviet states has created an identity crisis for Greece, who has tried to align itself with the west, but has continuously been influenced by Eastern forces. I saw this identity crisis play out in dispute and bitterness of the creation of the Macedonia state.

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Greece has been ground zero for refugees and migrants from Africa and the Middle East. I was not prepared to experience this reality. I have been interested in and planned to research this issue, however I was not prepared to be confronted with it so aggressively. While, I never felt particularly unsafe in Greece, it became the norm to have beggar and migrants follow you, try to sell you trinkets, or simply beg. I had gotten used to it by the end of my study abroad, I remember a particular incident where my study abroad group had taken a day excursion to the coastal city of Nafpilo and while we were in the city square listening to the instructions of our trip, a child, who’s face was dirty and had no shoes on came to each and everyone of us and cupped his small hands to beg. In these incidents I did not know how to act, while I wanted to help, I found myself unsure how and worried about the potential consequences of such actions. Looking back, I wished I did more to educate myself on how to help.

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While in Greece, I was unsure how I fit. I felt like an outsider, a person who was intruding in on other people’s way of life, customs and issues. However, despite the struggle for me to adapt and find my place, many Greeks went out of their way make me feel like home in their country. I traveled to many different places in Greece and everyone showed so much warmth and kindness that it truly humbled me.

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Greece was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned more about global issues then I have from my entire time at the University of Montana. Greece taught me how to be independent and really recognize both the beauty and and the trauma and difficulties of a place. Moving forward I hope to become a better global citizen, and educate myself on global issues such as immigration, climate change and the harm of politically instability. In my GLI Capstone, I want to address this issues by open a dialogue about the importance of cross-cultural communication and addressing bias, prejudices and racial, gender, socioeconomic inequalities.

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The new era of Berlin

Berlin has long been an interesting city, but for vastly different reasons depending on the era. Its streets have seen a copious amount of bloodshed and sadness and even today the coldness of the soviet union hangs limply between grey buildings streets.

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The “Fernsehturm” or TV tower in Mitte, Berlin. Shot on a Canon A1 film camera

However, when you look a little bit closer at this austere appearing city, you find a vibrant and pulsating atmosphere filled with art and artists, creativity and creatives. A new era of humanity has rebelled against the pain and reclaimed the hurt to create a beautiful and welcoming environment.

Berlin isn’t without its struggles and just like the rest of Europe is trying to figure out what type of player it wants to be in the world scene. As the seat of power in Germany, Berlin deals with its fair share of the new tide of populism and immigration is a top issue across the country.

I lived in Neukolln, which is a primarily arabic neighborhood home to refugees and immigrants from Lebanon, Turkey, Sudan, and Syria. During my stay in Berlin, I took language courses, interned at a radio station, and further developed my photography and storytelling.

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January in Berlin, around the area I lived in for the first few months. Shot on a Canon A1 film camera

I spent a lot of time alone during my stay in Berlin and the many challenges of German bureaucracy and life in a foreign country were extremely formative in how I am now. I had to confront bias I didn’t know I had, I had to learn how to rely on myself, how to self-motivate, how to deal with language barriers, and much more.

Berlin wasn’t always fun and it definitely wasn’t easy, but it was the sort of experience that gave depth and meaning and fulfillment.

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Tempelhofer Feld, a park that used to be an airport.