Out of the Classroom, Still in Missoula (and loving it)

In High School, I studied abroad in Peru for a month of the summer of 2012. The experience was breathtaking. I learned more Spanish in a single month than I ever could have in the classroom, my understanding of other cultures and the U.S. expanded and I found greater confidence in myself. I joined GLI three years ago because I wanted to study abroad again. The essence of a study abroad experience is in its challenge to understand another culture and foreign environment and so I couldn’t imagine discovering that kind of experience here in the United States, let alone Missoula. And yet, I chose to fulfill my Out of Classroom experience right here in Missoula and feel that I have learned more about the world and myself than expected. I am working with Congolese refugees relocated here last September, helping them direct their own short films under the New Neighbors Project. This month two of those refugee directed films and the feature-length documentary of the project as a whole premieres (check the New Neighbors Project Facebook page or website, newneighborsmedia.org, for details) at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival!

The experience has pushed me to grow emotionally and professionally. Working within the nuances of a different cultural mindset requires an open heart, forgiveness and patience. Working with trauma requires empathy, but clear boundaries. My technical skills have improved and I’ve gained confidence in my abilities after working with a team of established filmmakers. I feel equipped to address my global theme, Social Inequality and Human Rights, beyond the scope of the New Neighbors Project. My challenge against Social Inequality and Human Rights is to think globally and act locally. I can see the positive impact this project is having on the refugee crisis and I see positive changes for the Missoula community. I met once a week with one of the directors to talk film and help with the camera, but I also helped him develop his English, practice driving (he passed the driver’s ed test on the first try!) and explore the city and community of Missoula. In this exchange I’ve acquired the tangible skills of some Swahili and French conversation and the recipes for ugali and sweet breads. Most importantly I’ve learned how to navigate the tricky ground of mistranslated conversations, informed consent and transparency in how to admit failure and celebrate success.

I want to encourage other students to complete their Out of the Classroom experience here in Missoula. The refugees need a lot of help and resources, but the call to action has seen an increase in programs and projects (like New Neighbors) that is strengthening our community and pushing us all to grow as a support network. This project has a huge production team and works closely with multiple organizations in Missoula to provide a well-rounded support network to the refugees. I am confident that there is just as much effort put towards other global issues like Climate Change and poverty at the local level here. After all, there are more than 1,200 registered local non-profits in Missoula. The director I work most closely with told me the other day that “Missoula is my home now”. I cannot express how strongly his words affect me. I am proud of Missoula and feel strength in this community to tackle global issues, one day at a time.

Jumping into the Unknown

3 months, 90 days, 2160 hours, I got the wonderful opportunity to spend in the land of the Kiwis. The beautiful country southeast of Australia should not be overshadowed. New Zealand, the land of rugby, Lord of the Rings, beautiful beaches, bungy jumping, left-side-of-the-road driving, strong coffee, Maori Culture, etc., was my home for the summer.

The Kiwis (local people) welcome new travelers with open arms and open hearts. I interned for a non-profit organization, Recreate New Zealand, working with people with intellectual disabilities. Everyone I worked with, both participants and staff members, were the nicest people I have ever met. I become close friends with other staff members and interns. I even got to play on a soccer team for two games with a staff member (something I never thought I’d get the opportunity to do).  One staff member’s family was kind enough to host a traditional “kiwi feast”.

My Global Theme and Challenge for my time abroad focused on engaging children in physical activity to give them a healthy start to life. While the population I worked with in New Zealand would not be considered children, but rather young adults, they are just as important of a population to be teaching healthy habits. Health and nutrition were not the main focuses of most of the programs (a few programs were focused on health habits), but all the programs did incorporate it one way or another. On weekend getaways, we would plan healthy meals. We would always try to get out for some physical activity during the day as well. Everyone enjoyed walking along the beach or in the bush (forest). I have learned that health encompasses more than just physical activity, but social interaction as well. Recreate NZ focuses on creating the environment where participants can receive and participate in a fun, social environment. Many of the participants have met their best friends through Recreate NZ.

New Zealand is a well-developed country like The United States and thus extremely similar. I easily made friends with my co-workers at Recreate NZ and always went to them with questions if something about the culture confused me. Interacting with the participants really strengthened my role as a leader. Everything I did was being watched and possibly copied by the participants. I was a role model they looked up to.

As a going away present and a thank you, Recreate NZ took me and another American Intern to the Auckland Harbour Bridge. They pushed us off the bridge!! Just kidding, we jumped and were connected to harnesses. Bungee Jumping is a great representation of my experience going abroad. I was nervous all up until the final step off the edge. But, looking over over the edge, feeling all the safety equipment, and knowing everything was going to be okay, I made the jump. I’d never been abroad, let alone on the other side of the hemisphere. The whole experience was a leap of faith and brought me out of my comfort zone, but I knew everything was going to be okay. And it was more than okay. It was amazing. Just like the bungee, I would love to do it again.

I had a wonderful experience abroad and I would give anything to go back to New Zealand to work with Recreate NZ again or to just see all the wonderful friends I made. I loved learning first-hand about New Zealand and being immersed within the culture. I am forever grateful for the Franke Global Leadership Initiative for giving me the opportunity to have the most amazing experience of my life.