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2011-2012 Essay Contest

The Education Abroad Essay Contest is an opportunity for students who have studied abroad to share their experiences with others in a public forum. Entrants can express themselves, win prizes, be published, and promote international education. Any KSU student who has studied abroad can apply as long as they are a current student at the time of application.

Thank you to all of our applicants for the 2011-2012 Education Abroad Essay contest! We encourage all study abroad alumni to participate in next year’s contest, which will start in November.

Check back soon for more information about our upcoming Education Abroad Photo Contest!

This year our writers submitted essays with one of four themes: A Day in the Life, Service Learning, A Moment in Time, or Before and After.

We are pleased to announce the following winners:

1st place – Johanna Leskinen
2nd place – Eddy Hallmark
3rd place – Kayleigh Palmer
Honorable Mention – Lily Wilkerson


Name: Johanna Leskinen
Program Name: ISEP Exchange Program, South Africa
Essay Theme: A service learning experience

Kayamandi: A service learning experience

A fly, that had most likely wafted in through the open window, floated lazily back and forth, making certain to pay a visit to each of our sweat-shined faces.   For a while, it was the only sound present – a familiar one, most likely, for the dusty classroom. I looked around with a growing anxiety as children’s voices drifted along the doorway, with a few materializing into grinning entities that planted themselves into plastic lawn chairs around our oblong table.  My seat, though, was a padded office chair: the teacher’s seat.  I felt like anything but a teacher.  On the first day,  I rolled around nervously there at the end of the table, attempting to maintain an air of authority with an excellent posture and clutched hands, which struck me as futile because frankly, the ninth graders before me stood at almost the same height or taller than I.  

                We spent those first few sessions standing our ground, communicating with confused glances as I flailed my arms around and scribbled pictures on scraps of paper.  Many times they would feel overwhelmed as I directed a question toward them, and they sunk into their creaking plastic chairs shyly in defeat.  The language barrier was as permissive as the graffiti-ornamented concrete wall that enclosed Kayamandi itself.  The kids struggled with the intricacies of the English language, and mumbled to each other with the characteristic clicks and drops of the Xhosa language most of the time. I realized that for this to work, I would have to get experimental with my techniques.  Many times a certain flustered student would scamper into my room after class and place a text-heavy worksheet in front of me. “How to do it, teacher?” he would stutter, not even being able to attempt the first sentence of the instructions.

I once read that the more abstract ideas one associates with a concept, the better he or she internalizes it. I would print out colorful pictures and graphs – with the least amount of writing possible .  Sometimes, when my worksheets contained a bit of text, I would go around the table and ask each of them to read a section out loud in English and then explain it to the class in Xhosa.  For lessons on material transparency, I’d point to the table, to the scratched windows, to my cellphone, and inquire “is this opaque? Is it translucent? Is it transparent?” after letting them pronounce and see the words written on paper.  For my lesson on bacteria, an empty yoghurt cup introduced the idea that bacteria can be “good” as well, seeing that they saw the word “acidophilus” written in the ingredients. When I made them tests, I would praise their mistakes and ask them to write the correct answer in a bright color, reminding them that to learn from their mistakes is nothing to be ashamed of.  I secretly hope that someday, while looking through their hand-bound cardboard notebooks, they find these and remember just that.

                After spending time in the wealthy suburbs of Cape Town, I loved my weekly escape to Kayamandi, where the scenery changed dramatically upon arrival.  There would always be at least one pack of barefooted toddlers exploring the alleys of shacks as their mothers washed clothing in buckets under the waning African sun.  Dusty old stray dogs were never far behind; they panted in the shadows as if overseeing the situation.  Children seldom failed to acknowledge me or anyone as “Sisi” or “Bhuti,” Xhosa for sister or brother.  They did not see color, but instead community. They were all each other’s sister, brother, mother, or father – the ideas of ”self” and “mine” were vague there in Kayamandi, in stark contrast to the western world where we often disappear into the crevices of our mansions,  sometimes wishing only for the company of a reflective screen on a television or laptop.

It was my last day. My transport was eager to leave before nightfall and an impending rainstorm and we had to run through the rain, through a few alleys, to get to a small athletic center where a white van would be waiting to take us back to Stellenbosch.   Just before I began my sprint, though, I looked back to two of the girls – my girls – that had followed me outside.  Unintentionally, a few tears were making their way down my cheek and onto my chin; I hoped they wouldn’t notice them as the rainfall was sprinkling my face as well. I hurriedly hugged one of my favorite students.  I looked closer. She was crying too.

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Name: Eddy Hallmark
Program Name: Social Entrepreneur Corps, Guatemala
Essay Theme: Service Learning

Mornings came earlier than expected in Guatemala.  Each morning, the family rooster would crow around 4:00 AM, again at 5:00 AM and finally at 6:00 AM when the sun actually rose.  I jokingly told my home-stay family the rooster needed a new clock to tell time.  On Saturday, the first day of our sales campaign, it was I who woke before the rooster.  At 3:30 AM, I looked out my window to see the rooster perched on an old bicycle; he appeared slightly disappointed or at least annoyed to see someone awake before he had the opportunity to crow.

This morning was unlike others, because instead of going into the city of Antigua, we were headed into the country to a small village called Chimaltenago.  We traveled multiple hours in a series of buses and ultimately in a small, motorized taxi or an auto rickshaw called a Tuk-Tuk.  When we finally arrived in Chimaltenago, there was a small line of local villagers waiting outside the community center.  The regional coordinators, Yoli and Clara Luz, had traveled to the village earlier that week and informed the local people the KSU students would be coming on Saturday.  We unloaded eye glasses, solar lamps and water filters from the motorized taxis and began setting up for the sales campaign.

We were greeted by Paola, the local Mayan Katchequel entrepreneur, who had been trained by Yoli and Clara Luz.  She was excited to see so many volunteers and equally pleased by the line of local customers.  For Paola, social entrepreneurship has two benefits:  first, it provides needed products, such as eye glasses and water filters, to the local people; second, it gives local entrepreneurs, like Paola, the opportunity to earn income for their families.

Krista, another KSU student, and I started speaking to the people who were waiting for their free eye exam.  A number of the older people spoke very little Spanish, and it was difficult for us to communicate with them.  A local girl named Maria helped us translate from Spanish into the Mayan dialect of Katchequel.  Unlike some of the other children who appeared frightened to see so many foreigners in their village, Maria welcomed us and was eager to help us.  She spent the entire day with us and later took us on a walking tour of her village.  Her bright eyes and big smile told us she knew she was not just helping us, but more importantly, she was helping her entire community improve their lives.  Maria’s mother and two of her neighbors each purchased eye glasses that day.

Around 3:00 in the afternoon, we said good-bye to Maria and started our trip back towards Antigua.  Waking up around 3:00 in the morning and traveling 3 hours by bus and motorized taxi was not an ideal way to spend a Saturday in Guatemala.  Reflecting upon that day, I felt like we had made a real difference in the lives of others.  It was clear the individuals who visited the sales campaign were truly grateful.  Some of the men who worked in the fields now had sun glasses to protect their eyes.  The women, who used Mayan waist looms to weave beautiful fabrics, now had eye glasses to see the multi-colored cotton strands.  One group of four women, who represented a neighboring village, purchased 19 water filters so that each family would have clean, safe drinking water.  And Paola, the local entrepreneur, had the biggest smile of all, because this was her most successful sales campaign ever.  She said she would always remember the day in Chimaltenago when the six Americans from KSU came to help her and her people.

I will always remember the people of Guatemala:  Clara Luz, Yoli, Paola, Maria and others.    Their lives are not easy, but they taught me to value simple things and to help those in need.  Many in Guatemala cannot see without eye glasses or do not have clean drinking water. 
Upon arriving home, I realized I wanted to help more people in Guatemala.  As a result, I will be returning with another group of KSU students this May.   In addition, I initiated a project through S.I.F.E. (Students In Free Enterprise) to sell hand-made, naturally-dyed bags and scarves.  The proceeds will be sent back to Guatemala to help local women artisans and their families.

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Name: Kayleigh Palmer
Program Name: ISA - Lima, Peru
Essay Theme: A Day in the Life

Lost and Found

Growing up, my parents always encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone. On May 31, 2011, I not only left my comfort zone but my comfort planet and universe. It was my first day of class in Lima, and my host mother Rosa agreed to ride the bus to Universidad del Pacífico with me to help me figure out my daily route for the next five weeks. As we boarded the raucous, overcrowded bus, she began asking people how to get to the university. Apparently Rosa never took the bus since she and her husband Emilio owned a car. They were very lucky that they did, because the bus was full of curious people like the guitar man yowling about the beauty of life.  

             With the help of a kind lady, we arrived at a stop that was a twenty-minute walk from the school. Since I was late for class, Rosa hailed a cab for us. It was quiet, fast, and free of strangers who fall asleep on the shoulders of unsuspecting gringas (an actual occurrence later that month.) I was mentally praising the merits of the taxi when the driver screeched to a halt in the middle of the street and whipped us into reverse. Forget traffic laws, we had missed our turn, and backing up into horn honking, rapidly approaching traffic was apparently the only solution. Rosa was not perturbed in the slightest, so I did my best to stifle my anxiety.

            After class, we had a break before we would need to return for an afternoon meeting. Since all of the other students lived close enough to walk back to their homes for lunch, I set out to find somewhere to eat alone. I walked indecisively for over half an hour trying to find a place that seemed safe yet affordable. During my search, I tried to find the bus stop where I would catch the bus home, but I never found it. I was ravenous and utterly lost at this point, but in an effort to blend in, I kept walking confidently toward nowhere. Every student wants to appear as though they are native to the place in which they are living, although I knew there was no one else in Lima with hair as red as mine. I had walked at least two miles before I reluctantly chose Bembo’s, a hamburger chain. I devoured an Inca Kola and a chicken taco, which incidentally is not a Peruvian specialty, but I felt it would be sacrilege to order a hamburger on my first day abroad. With the last bite still in my mouth, I rushed back to school.

The meeting turned out to only be a celebration of a student’s birthday. I ate the chocolate cake, swallowing the growing panic I felt inside from not knowing how I would get home that afternoon. As everyone was leaving, I asked one of the program directors where to find a bus to Avenida Benavides. He walked me to a group of people waiting at a hectic street corner. I waited and waited, seeing not a single bus with the word Benavides painted on the side. I had been waiting for half an hour when Emilio called me asking where I was. I had no idea.  Suddenly, I started crying. Through watery eyes, I read him the name on a street sign. Emilio recognized it and told me to stay there. At this point, I was not sure I was up for the challenge of living here. I seriously contemplated catching a cab to the airport and cleaning out my savings just to return to the comparatively safe tranquility of Atlanta.

But before my daydream could coagulate into reality, Emilio poked his head out of a green sedan across the street and shouted “Keeeeleee!” I wiped my eyes, waved my hands vigorously, and waited for him to pull up to the corner. As soon as I buckled my seatbelt, we said a prayer of thanksgiving for my safety. It was comforting to know he had been as concerned as I was. It made me feel a little less insane.

Throughout the rest of my stay in Lima, I often remembered this day and took courage. After spending the better part of a day lost and alone (and probably a pickpocket’s easiest target) in a city approximately the size of Chicago, I had withstood the challenge and not run away. I felt I could survive anything. Even backing into oncoming traffic.

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Name: Lily Wilkerson
Program Name: To Dublin, Galway & Beyond: Irish History and Literature, Ireland
Essay Theme: A Moment in Time

As a girl, I wanted to be the Queen of England. Not a girl swept away by a handsome knight, or a princess in pearls and gowns, I simply wanted to be the Queen. I believed she was the personification of class and dignity, and a high school trip to England cemented my admiration. I wanted to grow up and be somebody.

Years after this girlhood dream, as a young woman I stand in front of the General Post Office, O’Connell Street, Dublin. Ireland’s police force, the garda, barricade the street. I can hear distant, angry chanting and closer, the crackle of an officer’s radio. My classmates surround me, conversation giving way to the cold. The sky is gray, and the city is nervous.

We are about to witness the Queen’s first visit to Ireland in nearly a hundred years. I am about to set eyes on my longtime idol, and Dublin, the city that has lately captured my heart, is in chaos.

I want to choose sides. The history between Ireland and England is bloody, and the scars have only barely begun to heal. I feel that I should join the protesters, as Dublin clearly still lacks a sense of identity. I want Dubliners to make this city their own, and I want them to do it without assistance from the symbol of their subjection. At the same time, I want to grab hands with those around me and talk in hushed whispers about the Queen making history, her goodness and goodwill, and the past finally being put to rest. I want to support the Queen, how can I not? My whole life I have put the monarchy on a pedestal, but now everything I have learned about this city wants me to tear it down.
A young boy stands with a British flag, and his mother holds his hand underneath one of few remaining posters: we want FREEDOM, not Royal visits! Protesters grow louder and we feel their presence, though they are restricted to areas the Queen’s motorcade won’t pass. The garda search the bags of teenage boys who have joined us along the road, still in their school uniforms. Ireland is protecting the Queen by treating its people like criminals, and I watch the boys’ faces turn red as their belongings are tossed aside.

 After hours of waiting, we hear the first of many approaching sirens. The garda begin to push people back, and the motorcade passes: horses, motorcycles, SUVs filled with dignitaries, and finally the Queen. Waving her small hand out the window of a green Suburban, in a mere second she passes the General Post Office, which was all but destroyed by British forces in 1916. I wonder if she even looked.

Ireland as a nation was divided about the visit, and I have since struggled to understand why I was as well.  I have no significant ties to either country other than my own opinions and travels. What I have since realized is that for me this isn’t about the Queen and the Post Office, or Ireland and England, it is about absolutes. Sometimes you can’t choose between then and now, or label a person or place with certainty. Sometimes things just are. Maybe the Queen’s visit was only a symbol, maybe it was too little too late, or maybe it was something meaningful. But I have learned to accept life, to not struggle with defining my world but to live, to absorb each moment. As the last of the sirens faded and the hushed crowd returned to life, I finally understood that I didn’t always need an answer as long as I kept asking questions.

Months later, I will tell people about my experience with study abroad. I will throw around empty words like amazing and unbelievable and IwishIcouldjustgoback. What I can’t explain, and wish I could, is the realization I had on O’Connell Street.

I want to explain that I haven’t left! I’m in Ireland now! I want to tell them that my heart has changed; I have grown and I have learned, and when I need perspective I see the Queen’s hand, waving through a window at a country who doesn’t know how to accept her gesture. There is no absolute wrong or right; there are only the decisions we make. In that moment I made mine to not live a life driven by the compulsion to categorize my world into absolutes, but by the longing for exploration and experience.

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