Exploring Montana’s Own Backyard

Global Theme

Being a student in the Biology and Environmental Studies departments at UM, it only seemed natural for me to declare my Global Theme in Natural Resources and Sustainability. I have always had a keen interest in promoting green energy and more sustainable lifestyles. Little did I know that there was so much of a push for these interests in my own backyard. My out-of-the-classroom experience allowed me the opportunity to learn about these movements happening throughout Montana and gave me real-life experiences in the environmental sector to jump start me towards a career.

My Experience

My experience was not like most. I did not travel to exotic lands in a different continent, I did not enroll at a foreign university, and I did not exchange my dollar bills for another currency. In fact, I didn’t even leave my time zone. However, that does not mean I wasn’t exposed to new people from different places, cultures different than my own, unique languages, or academic challenges. My experience was rather unique. I chose to not leave the state of Montana. Instead, I delved deep into environmental issues that affect my daily life. I learned about my neighbors experiencing social and cultural injustices. And I learned about myself and my own beliefs and values.

My journey started in Missoula. A group of ten students, perfect strangers, gathered in the office of The Wild Rockies Field Institute (WRFI). Little did I know that these ten strangers would be my family for the next three months. We nervously sifted through our backpacking gear, anxious about what would happen next. Looking back now, I had nothing to fear; what awaited me was the experience of a lifetime. But in the moment, I was terrified. All I knew then was that I was about to leave behind my warm bed, friends and family, and indoor plumbing for a more natural and humbling experience. And that is exactly what I received, and I would do it again in a heartbeat.

The program consisted of four sections. We spent the first nine days backpacking through the Scapegoat Wilderness. Section Two included a nine-day kayak float down the Missouri River, Section Three had a week-long backpack in the Big Snowies, and Section Four concluded our journey with a five-day kayak trip on the Tongue River in Eastern Montana. These wilderness experiences were beautiful, organic, and challenging—both physically and mentally. They were truly wild. Being able to spend time in such natural and unpopulated spaces really bore a connection between me and the place I was exploring and yearning to protect.

While these sections of my WRFI course were beyond valuable and extraordinary, they were not the most memorable or impactful parts of my experience. It was everything that happened in between these backcountry outings that really stuck with me. The conversations with environmental professionals, the historical site visits, and the relationships we formed with town locals as we traversed the state are what constituted this WRFI experience. Everything that I thought of as “off-periods” during these few months, ended up being the bulk of my education.

One of the most important lessons I learned is that there is diversity everywhere you go. I thought I knew Montana since I had gone to school here for three years, but I was proven to be extremely wrong. The diversity of cultures that exist just within one state blew me away. I was fortunate enough to meet with members representing more than six Native American tribes and learn about each of their values, traditions, spiritual beliefs, politics, and languages.I learned that there are always two sides (if not more) to a story or a controversy and how important it is for all sides to be heard. But most importantly, I learned to always question my own beliefs. By testing and examining my own belief system, I can objectively see if something I think is just, or if I simply believe that due to my own culture and upbringing. Being exposed to different cultures’ challenges and struggles existing only hours away from Missoula heightened my awareness towards my own prejudices and social and environmental injustices that exist in my home. If nothing else, I learned to look outside my own culture and personal bubble for neighbors and friends that might need help advocating against a dominant opinion.

Along the way we met with artists, authors, politicians, tribal elders, environmental and industrial professionals, and everyday town people. We read philosophical, scientific, political, and cultural pieces. We learned about the U.S. as it is, and how it could be. We pushed ourselves socially, mentally, physically, and academically. And with all of this combined, I walked away from my WRFI experience as a better leader. I learned how to quickly adapt to a new group. It was very obvious that we underwent Tuckman’s stages of group development, but being able to recognize that and roll with the punches without quitting or detaching helped make me a stronger, more level-headed leader among my peers. I also learned how to better associate with people I don’t particularly like. And I learned when it is important to advocate for my beliefs and when it is important to bite my tongue. Overall, I became a better leader because I was better able to understand the needs of a group sometimes trump my individual needs. I became selfless, flexible, and understanding of others’; I gained compassion for others which is something I desperately lacked as a leader going in to this experience.

Not only did WRFI provide me a unique outdoor experience, I always gained invaluable leadership skills and relationships with people across Montana. I might not have traveled across the globe, but I was able to have intimate experiences and gain deep insight in a place that means so much to me and where I will be able to continue to apply my knowledge and experience for years to come in the field of environmental sustainability.  

Studying abroad in the world’s most livable city

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From 2011 to 2017 Melbourne was named most livable city in the world by The Economist. This stand out city, among other top dogs like Vienna, Vancouver and Toronto, is set on the southeast coast of the Australian state Victoria. Victoria, although a smaller state, is well known for its beautiful coastline, mountains, seasonality and, especially, Melbourne. Having now lived in this hip, coastal city for five months, there are three things that really stand out to me as the city’s top brags: art, food and people.

 

Art

The art scene Melbourne is unlike anywhere else in Australia. Dubbed the culture capital of Australia the streets are filled with informal art galleries. No matter where you go in the central business district and surrounding neighborhoods your eyes are flooded with street art, some commissioned, some done freely. With everything from portraits of Hollywood stars to more traditional graffiti script, there is something for everyone in Melbourne’s ever expanding laneways.

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Food

          A literal melting pot of cultures, it only takes a few blocks to discover why finding food is not a problem, but what to eat is. Since 40% of Melbourne’s population is from overseas, everything from authentic Chinese dumplings to traditional Greek gyros is a regular find in the city.You also won’t find too many Starbucks in Melbourne and that’s because Melbournians know good coffee. Trust me, you and your coffee addiction won’t get too far without being taunted by the delicious smells that fill the streets of downtown.

 

People

Much like any other destination, the locals can make or break how enjoyable the place was. Being from Chicago I’m used to midwestern hospitality and “over-niceness” and, much to my surprise, Melbourne was no different. There is a certain level of community that is hard to come across is other big cities. The diverse cultures of its 4.8 million inhabitants makes it so there is always something new to do and new people to meet. Plus, if you lucky you might find a few people to take you surfing on the weekends.

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Fighting To Stand Out

Taiwan is often a place people don’t hear about. With the small island being off the cost of mainland China, it is often forgotten or placed as apart of China.  With my GLI Global Theme being culture and politics I decide to explore Taiwan, wanting to excrescence the difference of the small island and the many stereotypes that is placed upon it. I wanted to focus on how Taiwanese people see themselves and how they are different then other Asian countries.

When you first arrive to Taipei Taiwan you notice one big thing; the kindness of the Taiwanese people. Taiwanese are known for being extremely friendly and going above and beyond to help foreigners. An example of these is when me and my good friend Hue-Quyen were lost. Looking at our very confused faces, a Taiwanese women approached us and asked if we were lost and need help. Instead of telling us how to get to the restaurant we were looking for she decided it would be best to just take us their personally. Both me and Hue-Quyen were shocked by her willingness to escort us to the place we wanted to go to instead of point us the right direction and hurrying along her way to her original destination. Seeing this, especially in a big city with nearly 6 million people living in one area, is extremely rare in the United States.

It is important to know that Taiwan prides themselves as being very progressive and tends to think as themselves a example for other Asian countries. While this may sound arrogant but the have reasons for thinking this way. While they are under the One China act, meaning no country can recognize Taiwan as it’s own country without breaking all tie they have with China. This is a huge issue that I will touch on through out this blog post. Even though they are under the One China act they have the same as Hong Kong, they are able to have their own government system as long as they don’t defy China and their rules they have for Taiwan. They are progressive because the adapted a democracy, and have a female president. They are also currently fighting for women rights and gay rights.

When I was in Taiwan I was able to witness a referendum vote in Taiwan. One topic up for vote was same-sex marriage. With Taiwanese people wanting to continue the image of them being progressive millions of people came out to vote on this topic. While almost all young citizens of Taiwan voted for same-sex marriage many elders and parents voted against. When the verdict of the same-sex marriage being turned down I witnessed the impact it had on Taiwanese people. Just weeks before the vote their was a pride parade in Taipei that thousands of people attended to show their support. This verdict of turning down same-sex marriage was considered a huge plow to the island reputation of being rights pioneer. After the verdict many flooded to social media to express their disappointment and support for the Taiwanese gay community. Stating that the battle has just began and to not give up hope. Witnessing the unity of the youth of Taiwan was something that was powerful for me to witness.

Apart from looking at the major political happening in Taiwan I also learned about the pride the Taiwanese take in their own culture. Even with Taiwan often being looked at as mostly Chinese culture, the citizens see themselves separated. With both China and Taiwan speaking Mandarin Chinese, China writes in simplified Chinese (examples:爱 [love],
还[still,yet] ,头[head,top,first] ) while Taiwan writes in traditional Chinese (example:愛 [love] , 還 [still,yet] ,頭 [head,top,first] ). The Taiwanese people see this as staying true to their culture and stepping away from China. The Taiwanese also have natives and they take pride in the original culture and traditions of their tribes. (I talked more about this in my first blog post) Learning about Taiwanese culture made me understand better why Taiwan is fighting to become it’s own country. The Taiwanese have many unique cultures and their own political system that is different for China. I can also see how the United States influenced Taiwan, it’s adopted our governmental system and college system. There were a lot of connections between the United States and Taiwan politically. Besides politically younger Taiwanese people have adapted a western style.

Night View of Taipei 101 from Elephant Mountain

While being immersed in Taiwanese culture I have been able to re-think what it means to be proud of where you come from. Taiwanese people are constantly being told that they are Chinese and that they don’t have their own culture. But everyone that lives in Taiwan know and continue to fight to prove that they are different, whether that politically or celebrating their unique culture. Being able to observe the referendum vote and the argument for their native cultures I have been able to see many different challenges that other face.


National Taiwan University (國立臺灣大學)Palm Tree Boulevard

During my Time in Taipei I noticed many other thing other then the kindness of the Taiwanese people. With Taking class at National Taiwan University, the top university in Taiwan,I was able to take classes that expanded my knowledge of my GLI theme. I took two different classes, one focused on Taiwanese women and society today and how it came to be. The other focused on culture and film, looking at how Taiwan has grown from its struggles and how film has portrayed those moments. Both of these classes gave great insight to how the culture of Taiwan developed into what we see today as well as seeing the struggles it faced. Both classes were interesting and thought provoking. Along with those classes I took intro to east Asian studies, global market management, general Chinese, and enhanced Chinese.

My time in Taiwan enhanced my leadership skills by forcing me to put myself in awkward and stressful situations. With the main language being Mandarin I often had to speak in Chinese to get around. My Chinese is good enough that I can get around Taiwan pretty well. Ordering Food, no problem, Finding/ asking questions about Trains and buses, easy. But I had to do many things that I was not comfortable with. Small talk is really easy in your own language but I often had to have everyday conversations with locals. This caused me stress because I didn’t want to be rude or seem indecisive. It challenged be to communicate efficiently in a language I am learning. Also being one of two people in our twelve person group who knew Chinese I often had to speak and help my friends to get around. For example I would get phone calls when they are lost, I would then be handed to a local and translate for them the best I could to help them. Helping them through their challenges allowed me to grow my leadership skills and problem solving skills. Not to mention overcoming my own challenges with the language.

My time in Taiwan is something I found to be very educational and beneficial for me in the future. Have to adapt to a culture so different then the one we have here in america and take classes that were challenging has made me a better person and student. I can talk about many other experiences that I had that made my time in Taiwan one to remember but it’s mostly stories about how we got lost and stumbled upon something extraordinary. The friends I made also made my stay something that I will always look back on with found memories. I am forever great full that I was able to participate in GLI that allowed to broaden my education and experience. Giving me knowledge and memories I will always cherish.

My Taiwan Family
(Natasha, Csenge, Mina, Rio, Hue-Qyen, Stijin, Maria, Jan-Willem, Me, Kris, Francesca, Renate)