Studying abroad has further solidified the teachings I have gained from Skidmore.  I have looked at the same issues, but instead of learning about them from a professor, I have seen them with my own eyes and interacted with people whose daily lives are affected by these issues.

~Allison Gretchko, ’17

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In this OCSE student blogger feature, I caught up with junior Allison Gretchko (third from the bottom), who has been blogging for us from around the world on her IHP program about city development in the 21st century. Here’s what she had to say:

What class year are you? What is your major/minor?

My name is Allison Gretchko, and I am a member of Skidmore’s class of 2017. I am an English and sociology double major.

Is your program related to your focus of study? If so, in what ways? How is it shaping the way you interact with your studies? If it is unrelated, what inspired you to go on this program?

My program, IHP’s Cities in the 21st Century: People, Planning, and Politics, was related to my sociology degree partially. The course primarily focused on social justice issues and urban planning, which let me look at issues such as housing, transportation, sanitation, (etc.) and the inequality that surrounds those basic human rights.

It was not directly connected to my degree as it was for most of my classmates, but I could take these issues and use my sociological lens for a more in-depth analysis. The program was a travel semester that included spending five weeks each in Sao Paulo, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; and Ahmedabad, India.  By going to all these places it forced me to look at the faces I read about in class back on campus.

I was drawn to this program for its travel opportunities and focus on experiential learning. Going to meetings with NGO’s, visiting community leader advocates, and questioning government officials was a life changing experience that forced me to think more critically about how city systems work for certain populations. It didn’t matter that this program wasn’t extremely related to my major because I knew it would be an important learning experience. I discussed issues with people that have no voice in society, I saw conditions I didn’t know could even exist, and I saw that love and friendship can cross boundaries.

What is the living situation on your program? (Homestay, apartment, dorm-style, etc.) How has that impacted your semester and your interactions with the host culture?

My program was all homestay based. I had one family for my stay in Sao Paulo and Ahmedabad, and two families for Cape Town. I loved all of my families and each added great insight into the cultural differences and local issues we studied. At times, it was hard to constantly be a guest in someone’s home — but eating breakfast and dinner every night with my families was something I always looked forward to. Coming home everyday, after discussing emotionally disturbing subjects, to a hug and kiss from someone was a sense of comfort. As someone who isn’t a fan of forced conversation, I enjoyed the homestay aspect tremendously. It truly was a cultural exchange that allowed me to realize that love is universal. Eating homemade local cuisine every night may have also added to that love…

Have you encountered language barriers? If so, how have you maneuvered through those situations? (Any funny lost-in-translation moments?) If you live in a city where English is not the first language, have you attempted to learn the native language?

In Sao Paulo, English is literally nonexistent and no one in my homestay family spoke it. That was definitely a challenge, but it really wasn’t that hard to overcome. Nonverbal communication is a huge skill I gained on this trip.  I am terrible with foreign languages, so hand motions and Google translate really helped.  When you face a language barrier you realize that sometimes all that is needed is a simple smile to communicate. Ahmedabad was also predominantly non-English speaking, but again, non-verbal communication and asking strangers for help pulled through in navigating the city. Home stay families who spoke English also were extremely helpful with directions and haggling. It was hard to overcome language barriers but at the end of each day it didn’t really matter. It actually was refreshing to see that the world isn’t all English-centric, and picking up bits of survival words in Portuguese and Hindi was fun.

How is blogging for the Skidmore OCSE office going so far? Does it play a role in how you interact with the city at all?

Blogging for OCSE was such a great experience and I cherished its opportunity for creative freedom.  I got to study and write about issues that faced college students across the three cities I studied in, as well as my fellow peers on campus. The issue of access to education was something always on my mind as I blogged, and I hope that pops out in my writings on fees, public education, and unequal access to resources. I found it important to relay issues that affect college students across the globe.

How is studying abroad supplementing your education here at Skidmore? In what ways do you think your experiences abroad will enhance and fuel what you learn on campus?

Studying abroad has further solidified the teachings I have gained from Skidmore.  I have looked at the same issues, but instead of learning about them from a professor, I have seen them with my own eyes and interacted with people whose daily lives are affected by these issues. It has made me become a more outspoken advocate and aware of how my privilege can both positive and negatively affect people in different situations than I. Studying abroad has reinvigorated my passion of learning and opened my eyes to how the world truly operates.

Check out more of Allison’s writing and adventures here!