Sunday, November 30, 2014

There's so much to be thankful for.

I stole my title from a Josh Groban song on his Christmas album--because yes, I am already listening to Christmas music, and no, I am not ashamed of it. Moving on.

I know it might be a bit overkill to make a post during Thanksgiving break about what I am thankful for, but I decided to take a page from Merrill's book and take a moment to look at life. Especially in terms of recent events in the past few months alone, I'm realizing more and more how truly lucky I am for all I have.

First and foremost, I am thankful for family. From my immediate family, to my sweet grandmother, to my cousin who will be married this April and everyone in between. For better or worse, these are the people I'm stuck with (just kidding guys...sort of...). They're the ones who have helped shaped me as a person and supported me to become who I am today. They were here in the beginning and they'll be here my whole life, just as they always have, and I think that's amazing.

I am grateful to have known all four of my grandparents, and one great-grandparent.

I am grateful to have both of my parents, still together, as a strong presence in my life. Their support, despite frequent differences in opinion, is perhaps the sole significant factor in what has most enabled me to explore and live the way I've wanted to. Though I've put up with plenty of "black sheep" jokes over the years, I know they're proud that I'm their...uh...unique younger daughter.

The Kopchik family on Thanksgiving, circa 2011. 

I am thankful for the girls of #TH214...though you definitely already knew that by now. I could (and have) go on about them all day. All I can say is, senior year won't be the end for us. Before I start crying real tears, I'm moving on.

They're my kind of crazy.

Over Thanksgiving break, I had the opportunity to return to my old high school during school hours for the first time since I walked out of those doors on the last day of classes my senior year, way back in 2011. I visited my old history teacher's class, where I spoke to his African Studies students about my semester abroad in Morocco. This caused me to reflect on a few things:

I am thankful for the teachers in my life, all of whom instilled in me a love of learning and healthy sense of curiosity. From my own father, who taught for over 30 years, to my favorite school teachers throughout my childhood and young adulthood, to my professors and mentors, and all of my informal "teachers" who have proved invaluable along the way--every single one of them showed me the importance of not only knowledge, but wisdom. And all of the other good things (eloquence, for instance...#oops).

I am thankful, time and time again, for Morocco. I am thankful for experience, opportunity, and travel, and I've had a lot of all of those. But I can't think of a better way to express that gratitude than to reflect on the time I had in Morocco, which was the epitome and culmination of all of those things and even more. I am thankful that I was welcomed with open arms into a country I hardly knew anything about before arrival. I'm thankful the the hundreds of strangers I met along the way who helped me with simple good deeds, who smiled when they saw a lost girl who just needed a little kindness, and of course who listened patiently as I tried to explain what I needed in a mixture of grammatically broken languages, bad accents and hand gestures. I'm thankful to my host families, my friends from around the world, and the cats--the CATS!

I'm grateful for Fatima and Lina, who I met in Morocco and who I still talk to on a regular basis. Though there is more distance, our friendship only grows stronger.

I'm grateful that my host family still stays in touch, and that even those who can't speak English still let me know they're thinking of me and communicate by sending me pictures of the kids or silly Facebook stickers. I'm also grateful that they seem to know exactly when I really need them. When I'm having a bad day or feeling particularly nostalgic, I open my inbox and without a doubt, there they are.

And just when I feel like some things are slipping away, or I get sad because I look back on Morocco and wonder if I'll ever experience something like that again, something happens to bring it all back. Like a former teacher inviting me to talk to his class about it. Or the time Peggy Imai asked me to speak on a panel to parents of students who want to study abroad. Or when I give a tour, and the students are particularly interested in discussing it. All of those memories suddenly come rushing back, and though it's a bittersweet experience, every time I am thankful that I get to share my story with others.

Readers, I am thankful for you.

Some other unsung heroes? I am thankful for two guys in #TH217, who vehemently refuse to make the hashtag I created for them a thing. They, as well as a bunch of other kids on campus, have been great friends since freshman year, and college would not have been the same without my extensive SMC family. I am also thankful for Sheila, who I have known since high school and have gotten so much closer with in college. She has been there for so many important moments, and there is nobody else I'd rather do my senior seminar project with this year.

She's a gem! <3

I'm also thankful for the incredible people at the Champlain Senior Center, a community that I only joined very recently but I've already grown quite attached to. While conducting research and doing interviews for a film project and for senior sem, I've gotten to know some incredible ladies who have remarkable stories to tell. My visits to the Center have easily become a highlight of every week and the warm welcome I've received there has gone unmatched to any experience I've had other than Morocco.

Last but not least, I am thankful to Elizabeth ("Iz", as I like to call her), who I have known since the 7th grade and have therefore gone through every awkward phase in life with. As someone I don't get to see very often these days, I've come to realize her importance more and more as time goes on. As my grandma used to say, "absence makes the heart grow fonder." Iz, my heart is as fond as humanly possible right now, so it's about time we had a girl date this coming break.

There are so many other people and things in life that I am thankful for, but I think you guys get it. Like my buddy Josh said, there's so much to be thankful for.

Best wishes,


(PS, I'm also thankful for music--currently listening to "Need a Little Sunshine" by Augustana, one of my favorite bands...who I am very grateful to have seen in concert at Higher Ground recently with my housemate Cait. Dream come true!)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Yes, I am procrastinating right now.

Good morning, readers!

After the past few tours I've given, I've been thinking a lot about the way I represent myself to students. I am a self-defined hard worker, and I do believe my professors, classmates, and colleagues would agree.

However, I am not a robot. When I first became a tour guide, I used to be afraid to admit my faults--like how, on a daily basis, I STILL struggle with time management. Normally when I'm speaking to prospective students I paint it as a thing of the past, something I "used to" have a problem with until I took my first year seminar course and learned tricks from my professor to stay on top of my work.

I will give myself the credit of knowing that my time management skills have indeed improved immensely since my freshman year. This comes naturally, as you become more used to the college routine and the knowledge that you're going to be scheduling your week and doing things differently every semester.

But if I'm being honest with myself, the struggle is still real. And I think that's true for most of us--we will always have days, weeks, or semesters when we just cannot get a grasp of what the perfect schedule is for us.
Gosh, where did the time go?

I think this is important to recognize, nothing to shy away from, and nothing to be embarrassed about. Because time management skills and procrastination are such huge issues among our generation, it's necessary to talk about.

So, back in the day when I was a first-year student, I wasn't quite sure how to handle the whole college thing. For the first time in my young adult life, my day wasn't dictated by a bell schedule. I had to keep an eye on the time for myself and get myself to class on time. I had more responsibility and more freedom at the same time--I mean, how weird it was that I didn't have to start the morning with the pledge of allegiance, that I could go put my books away in my room rather than my locker (and maybe take a nap before my next class while I was at it), and that I could freely venture off-campus during the school day if I wanted to? I didn't even have to take gym class anymore! It seemed great.

Then, a few weeks into the semester, I suddenly became incredibly overwhelmed. I realized that I had no idea when I should be eating, sleeping, or doing homework, and two out of three of those things ended up often happening at 3 a.m. (I bet you can guess which ones). I'd show up to class with dark circles under my eyes. I hadn't yet discovered coffee, but the black tea in my to-go mug was a constant. It was around this time that Professor Sloane, my first year seminar instructor, decided to talk to my class (most of whom looked as much of a wreck as I did) about time management.

Since then, I've pulled more than a few all-nighters. I've eaten pizza at 4 a.m. I've spent my weekend engaging in fun activity after fun activity (or laying around watching Netflix) until 10 p.m. on Sunday evening, a prime time to start thinking about homework (and not actually starting until 11). I've admittedly been late to class due to trying to complete or print an assignment last-minute. I've made all the mistakes and poor time-management choices one could possibly make.

Why am I telling you this? To remind you that you are not alone and it happens. We all procrastinate and we all make some of those bad choices. It doesn't make us bad people, it makes us normal people.

So, what do I do when I get stuck in a procrastination rut?

-You're working on a paper. Your research is done and laid out in front of you, you've got Microsoft Word up on your computer, and twenty minutes ago you typed a heading and your first two sentences. Since then, you've been staring at the blinking cursor on your screen in a total daze. What gives?

This is your brain telling you that you need to take a break. You need a few minutes to get yourself back into the groove you were in earlier, or something that will help you transition from the reading and processing information phase into the writing phase. Rather than letting your brain sit idle, as that can easily get you to lose interest, turn your attention to something else that will help you get into a good mindset for the task at hand. For me, that was switching over to write this blog post. I just finished my research for a paper I'm working on, and halfway into my first paragraph began to zone out. So I came over here. Is it a form of procrastination? Yes. But it's a productive form of procrastination (strange such a thing can exist, I know) and as soon as I'm done with this I know I'll be ready to focus on my paper.

-You just don't want to do it. But you have to.

More often than not, this will happen to me when I have to leave my house in order to work on something, such as when I have a project that involves using Adobe programs and I have to walk over to Bergeron or Jeanmarie and get on a computer. The way I handle this is simple, but it's effective. All I do is repeat to myself how much I truly enjoy the work I'm doing. Hopefully, especially by the time you're in college, you're passionate about what you're learning (if you're not, then the source of your problem isn't procrastination, it's that you might not be doing what's best for you, and you might want to re-evaluate what you really want to do). Once I get myself off the couch and over to a computer lab, I get completely lost in my work. I'm so transfixed on my project that I don't realize how much time passes (which explains the whole 4 a.m. thing) and I often leave the lab feeling great about the time I put in (and wishing I had started earlier).

-Your friends want to chill, but you have stuff to do.

Maybe they finished all their work while you were binge-watching Gilmore Girls and eating a tub of Cheese Balls. That was your choice. Take ownership of it, pity yourself for a few minutes, go through the stages of anger while you think about how your friends are having a great time without you, and then move on. Chances are they're doing the same thing this Sunday that they'll be doing next Sunday (or something equally fun), and maybe you can join them then, if you work your schedule out better this week. In fact, make that your goal so that you can enjoy that time.

If you do choose to hang out with them over homework (maybe they had concert tickets or something out of the ordinary was happening), you need to take ownership of that decision, too. You know you're getting home at 11 p.m. and you still need to write a speech for the next day that counts for half your grade? Well, okay, but realize that when you're still awake the next morning, you made this choice. Make some coffee, put on a nice dress and a smile, rock that speech and then go home and take a long nap. It happens to all of us. Just don't make it a habit, and remember above all that you need to take care of yourself.

So kids, that's that. Manage your time well. If you make a mistake, forgive yourself, and remember for next time where you went wrong. Now that I've had a productive hour of procrastination, I'm ready to tackle that paper. Let's get to it!

PS, I'm stealing this cute idea from my lovely housemate Merrill: What I'm listening to right now: "Brothers" album by The Black Keys

Friday, October 3, 2014

MJD On and Off Campus

At Saint Mike's we like to say nice things about each other!
Wow, is it really 5 weeks into the semester already? I can't believe how quickly time is moving. I think it definitely has to do with the fact that this is senior year, but also because my friends and I have all been so busy!

Last time I told you about my housemates and how we all have these really cool and different things going on. Cait has a major role in the Student Association and just started a blog for her Animal Rights class. Merrill is working hard with an off-campus internship. Alex just completed her LSATs and is now focused on different aspects of her business major and her role as our Blogging Coordinator. All four of us are constantly running around to get things done, but the best parts of our days are in the morning when we get ready together and at night when we can gather on the couch (or the bed in whoever's room we choose to crowd in for the evening) and discuss everything that happened since our woman-empowered dance party that took place in the bathroom that morning.

So, what have I been up to? What have I NOT been up to might be a shorter list!

I'm taking five classes this semester, although two of them are half-credit. Three of those courses are MJD (Media Studies, Journalism, and Digital Arts), but only one of them is actually required for my major. That's my Senior Seminar class, a half-credit course that helps me prep for my project next semester. Senior Sem is a little bit different in MJD than for other majors because we work on it all year, whereas most students complete their projects in one semester. This semester, we focus on doing research and planning out our projects. Next semester is all about the execution of the project and producing the book, website, or documentary that will be the final product of eight months of work. My friend Sheila and I are currently working on research for a documentary we want to make regarding ageism (and many things related to this broad subject, but I'll leave you waiting in anticipation for now).

My other two MJD courses are electives, and so far they're definitely taking up most of my work time. However, they're super cool, and I'm glad I chose to take them for a number of reasons--most importantly because they get me off campus and practicing what I've learned in the "real world," much like I did last semester in Morocco.

The first course is called Digital Film and TV ("Digi-film" for short). In this class, Professor Hyde teaches us about film and all of the techniques that go into making them. We're learning how to use Adobe Premiere to edit our own short films. Our first project has encouraged us to find someone off the SMC campus who has some sort of creative passion that helps them "escape" into another world. I had a little trouble finding a subject at first, until one day when I was out on Church Street watching all of the buskers. I came across a young woman playing an accordion and singing, and I was taken aback by the way she threw herself into the music. She'd stomp her feet, close her eyes when she belted out a high note, and throw her whole body into the accordion as it expanded and collapsed. I immediately knew that I wanted to make my documentary about Laci, and since that day I've been having a blast filming her in interviews and street performances. Not only do I now have some experience of what it's like to film in public, but I have a great new friend with an incredible talent!

The second course is my internship class, instructed by Allison Cleary. Though a full-credit course, it only meets once a week because the rest of our time is filled with working on-site at our internship locations. In class we get together and discuss how our work is going. We also learn how to properly represent ourselves on social media outlets like LinkedIn and touch up our resumes. We took a Myers-Briggs personality test with Ingrid Peterson from our Career Services office. I just had a mock interview with Ingrid the other day as an assignment for class as well, and I was really happy to get some feedback on where I can improve my interview skills (I've got to work on my handshake!). Overall, the class itself is a great way to collaborate with my MJD friends about how to carry ourselves in a professional setting and how to resolve issues that may arise during the learning process.

In class yesterday, we went out to the Word Garden and chose two words that describe our experiences so far. I chose "roam" because I've been enjoying walking to my internship site in the lovely weather we've been having. I've found that it's good to walk and let my mind wander before going to sit at a computer and focus hard on it for hours at a time. I also chose "enthusiasm" because while I may not do everything right, I do it with enthusiasm!

Professor Cleary led the class in our Word Garden exercise.

My site location is at the Emily Post Institute. I'm their Web Development and Marketing intern, and so far the experience has been great. I'm learning a ton about web maintenance and I have one huge web project that will take a good deal of the semester to complete. So far, I'm in a nice friendly environment where I can truly learn and grow from my supervisors and coworkers.

In another class exercise, we went around the room saying what we thought each others' strengths were. My classmates and professor had such nice things to say about me!

I'm definitely loving my off-campus experiences so far. It's showing me that I can apply everything I've learned here to a larger setting, and I appreciate the feeling of knowing that I will be just fine after graduation!

Friday, September 5, 2014

#TH214 and the First Week (Senior Edition)

Hello everyone; welcome back to school and back to Saint Mike's!

I arrived on campus a week before classes began for interviews and tours. It was so nice to get back into the swing of things with Founders Society and the Office of Admission, which is admittedly my favorite place to hang out on campus! It's crazy to think I hadn't given a tour in eight months, and to be honest I was pretty nervous for the first one. But it went really well, and I'm so glad that I now have this new incredible study abroad experience to share with prospective students (even though I probably go on about it for too long!).

It was awesome seeing so many familiar faces in Admissions and I immediately felt at home again. I truly loved catching up and attending back-to-back tour guide and blogger training sessions this week made me realize what an amazing group of people I have here for support.

It's good to be back.

Not gonna lie, Morocco still creeps into every day conversation and I miss it like crazy. But what's really helped me, besides talking about it with my friends and professors, is just getting back to classes and a routine schedule. I'm a senior(!) this year, which means that I need to put some serious thought into my post-graduation plans and of course, the senior seminar project. To be honest though, after ISJ I feel like I'm ready for anything. BRING IT!

To be honest, the workload feels light compared to last semester and the "classroom" vibe was just weird after doing the whole freelance journalist thing. But since this is "syllabus week" it's only going to get more challenging. I'm ready to take it on!

I'll give you more on the specifics of my class schedule/senior sem stuff later. For now, I want to show off the new digs.

I'm living in Townhouse 214 with some of the greatest young women the planet has to offer. But really though. My housemates are so incredible I have no words. They're smart, kind, hilarious, unique and beautiful. They inspire me and motivate me to be my best self. I rarely ever want to leave the comforts of my home when they're all there because what else would I want in life?

Here I am with Alex, Cait and Merrill at a tour guide training session. My housemates are the coolest because we're all incredibly different--we're from different states, we have different majors and interests--but we all have a ton of similarities too. We very involved on campus and we're all a part of Founders Society as tour guides and bloggers! (Oh, and we all really love Mexican food...)

So, not only is #TH214 full of cool people, it's full of cool stuff too. We're all a bit eccentric and have distinct personalities, and that comes out in how we decorate our rooms. But none of us take ourselves too seriously either, so the common spaces turn out the funkiest with little touches from each of us.

We added this sign to our door to encourage visitors to use our hashtag...we're really into personal branding.
I found this fish hook at a yard sale in the "free" box last summer. We used it to hang our keys in #103 last year. He had to come with us again for senior year. It's become a landmark!

The entryway with our new tapestry. There's a HUGE coat/shoe closet behind there!

It's very spacious downstairs!

The kitchen table is already being reclaimed as our study space. But we do have family meals together!

We got stools for a nice breakfast bar.

Al always shares her vegetables <3
Of course, you can tell which room is mine, always characterized by bright colors in the form of tie-dye and WAY too many pictures on the walls (but how does one choose?).

I love my room!

It's really starting to feel like home! Then again, with these chicas it always will. :)

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Pre-Return Jitters

Hello, friends. You're witnessing a makeover.

As you can see, "My Mosaic" has returned to "Lauren Likes Saint Mike's". The background has returned to a school-spirited theme, albeit more subdued with a simple Purple Knights color-scheme rather than anything obnoxiously designed (I hope). I have returned to America. And very soon, I will return to Vermont.

I have to admit, parting with "My Mosaic" is one of the more difficult things I've done this summer. Hence the header photo of the kasbah in Ouerzazate. I decided that can stay just a little bit longer.

Life is a mosaic. I'm not in Morocco anymore, but don't worry, I'm still working on mine.

The truth is, a part of me will always be in Morocco, and a part of Morocco is always in me (they don't call them cliches for nothing). I get so frustrated when I can feel so much of it slipping away the longer I am home. The general themes of what I learned stay, but minor details--the things that really made the whole experience special, made it mine--change or fade away altogether. I very badly want to go back. In my worst moments, I sometimes wish I never came home.

But I know that Morocco would have never been possible if it hadn't been for Saint Mike's. If I never went to college I never would have studied abroad; perhaps I never would have traveled at all. If I had gone to a college other than Saint Mike's, I would be on a completely different path. Maybe I would've gone somewhere else, maybe I would've stayed at my school all four years (a very distinct possibility, since many colleges don't transfer financial aid to students studying abroad--something I was very shocked to hear from my friends at other schools who I met in Morocco. Luckily, they found other ways to afford it). Would I be happy? Probably. I am naturally a pretty happy person, after all. But I'd just be different.

Despite my heartsickness for the people, sights, places, food, smells, and everything else I fell in love with in Morocco, I have a lot to look forward to. In just over a month, I will be back on campus for senior year. I will be working hard on my senior seminar project with Sheila and at whatever internship I end up with through my experiential learning course with Professor Cleary. I will be enjoying the company of friends who I consider family, most of whom I have not seen in over seven months (wow--it's about time). More importantly, I will be welcomed into a place that's ready to accept who I am now, with all of my new experiences and everything that has changed me while I was off venturing through the "real world". Almost all of my friends went abroad at the same time I did, meaning they know what it's like to make the rough transition back into normal life. Those who didn't have already endured long hours of "Why Morocco is the Best Place Ever" rants over the phone or Skype, and will most likely hear hours more when I see them in person (really, guys, thanks for being willing to do that). The Study Abroad office, creative writing folks, Office of Admission, and plenty of other groups on campus will welcome me with open arms and ears, asking me to speak as much (or as little) as I want about this past semester. I couldn't ask for a better place to go after something so profoundly influential happens in my life. I left Morocco and had some time at home, and now I'm ready to go home, if you know what I mean.

There are worse places I could return to.

Worse people, too. God I miss these guys. (Yes, I did intentionally choose the most unflattering photo of us all that I could're welcome.)

Even though this year is going to be crazy and go by in a flash, I'm excited to return. It's actually weirding me out a little that I haven't been to Vermont in so long. It'll be another bittersweet transition when it's over, since I'll be graduating in May and I still have no idea what I want to do with my life. But we won't think about that just yet.

Anyway, my summer has been broken up in to a bunch of strange little segments. They've been great-- after a month of being home, I returned to South Dakota to visit old friends in La Plant for three weeks, working with Simply Smiles again and keeping that Saint Mike's connection going (another opportunity I would not have had without SMC). Then I went to California for a week to visit a friend I made in Morocco and plan to keep for life. I returned back home to New York last week, where I started up a great internship at Mark & Phil, a local non-profit that does marketing and web design for other non-profits. It's awesome to be home and learning in a new environment, but much of this summer segment feels a lot like waiting. I'm now in the home-stretch, so all I can think about is getting back to school and everything that has become so familiar to me over the past few years.

I'm being pulled in so many directions now. If you attached little strings to me and then placed the other ends on the people and places that have influenced who I am--South Dakota, California, New York, Vermont, Morocco, Ceuta, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Canada, and on and on--you'd have me bursting at the seams, ready to spill the stories of thousands, and also you'd have no string left. (Sorry, that ended up being a lot less deep than I thought it would be.) I want to explore and keep moving forward and find even more stories to collect, but I also want to return to all of the places that started my momentum in the first place. It's like I expected myself to do a marathon, but instead I'm on track for a relay.

Who knows where I'm going next?

I didn't know then, don't know now.
But it'll be fun trying to figure it out! (I'm making excuses to post Morocco pictures, I am fully aware of that.)

I want to go, I want to stay, I want to turn around, I want to rise up, I want to take a nap. I'm happy, but I'm confused. I'm not quite content with where I am right now, but I think that's a good thing--that means there's still something driving me to keep going and learning and loving and being and doing.

I think a lot of this has to with not just a longing for the past, but for the future. My immediate future is set (as soon as I pay that tuition bill that came in yesterday). But the finish line is in sight, and after that there is so much uncertainty. Sometimes it freaks me out. And sometimes, on days like today, it excites me. It's the first time in my life where I will have to choice to do anything, go anywhere. I could return to Morocco, or South Dakota, or California. I could look for a job in New York City, or stay in Vermont for a while. I could backpack Europe or South America. I could couch-surf America. Or I could (and let's face it, I probably will for a few months at least) hang out on my own couch in good ol' Poughkeepsie, just as I am now.

Time moves in a circle. Seasons change, people change. But I always figure out a way to return home.

"So no one told ya life was gonna be this waaay..."

Here's to one more year at Saint Mike's!



Wednesday, May 7, 2014

"What do I do with my hands?"

During our ISJ period, my friend Fatima and I constantly had this saying. Whenever something awkward would occur, or we were just fed up with a situation and didn't know where to turn, we'd make a joke out of it by looking at each other and saying, "What do I do with my hands?"

Well, now ISJ is completely over. Rachel and I gave our presentation today, to many tearful reactions as well as plenty of heartfelt comments about our progress. And you can bet I was asking myself this question as soon as I sat back down in my seat. The work is done, my schedule is suddenly wide open, and I only have two days left in Morocco: what do I do with my hands?

My friend just informed me a little while ago that I can now consider myself a college senior. Right. So everything is really hitting me right now.

Today was just very heavily emotional. After a long night of very little sleep, I was up and going at 8:30 to get to school for our program evaluations and then the first round of presentations (the rest of our group will present on Friday, our last day here). It was nice to spend the day with the whole group, but seeing a number of people cry today was draining. Not only were we discussing really heavy subject matter, but we were all experiencing mixed feelings about the semester ending and having to go back home.

This week marks the end of something incredible. During this four-month stretch of time, I've grown more as a person than I have in my whole life. This past month I stopped referring to myself as a student and instead as a journalist. It's kind of like the first time someone describes you as a woman, rather than a girl. Like trying on shoes that are shwiya (a little) too big but you start walking in them anyway, and soon enough you forget they were big.

The truth is, this isn't over. This week marks the official end of ISJ and the program, but my classmates will agree with me when I say that we have all had bigger goals in mind from the outset. We're all going to continue working on edits and stay in touch with our advisors to get their advice about pitching our stories to media outlets. We're not stopping until we're published--with the work that we've put into these projects, it would be silly to stop now.

And as heartbroken as I am to be leaving this amazing country and the beautiful people I've met, I know it's time to take what I've learned here and go back to my "normal" life in America and apply it. I'm going to work hard to improve every facet of my life that I'm even remotely dissatisfied with. I've "done Morocco right," as another one of our sayings here goes, and it's given me the confidence to go after the things I want and to take more chances. Ultimately, even if I fail, my experiences are more rewarding.

Besides, something is telling me that Morocco hasn't seen the last of me. Someday, inshallah, I will come back. Just as Vermont became a second home for me 3(!) years ago, Morocco has become a third. I am forever grateful for that.

I'm having a really hard time formulating words about what this experience has meant to me. I find that the thing I fear the most about going home is constantly floundering to find the answer to "how was it?" I don't think I will ever be able to describe it in a way for others to understand. I won't be able to understand my friends' experiences, even though I will be able to relate to the frustration of describing them. So I ask all of my dear friends at home, please be patient with me. I know everyone will be excited to see me and hear about it, and I'm so excited to see you all too. But I am also incredibly overwhelmed, and unless you want to sit with me for hours so that I can adequately describe, "How was it?" then all you're probably going to get as a response is "Good." But with time, you'll hear plenty of anecdotes. Those little stories will come together to give you an idea of Morocco, or rather, my time in Morocco. This is My Mosaic.

I highly encourage you, if you ever get the chance, to make your own.



Saturday, April 19, 2014

Birta, ISJ, and So Many Feels

Hello friends, I'm sorry that this update is so long overdue.

As you can imagine, so much has happened since I last made a post here. In fact, going back and looking at my old posts seems quite surreal, as Morocco is so different for me now. Since moving out of my host family's house, I've been having a completely different experience. It's not better or worse, just different, and I feel like I was another person writing those old posts.

But I don't want to get ahead of myself. I left off in my last post saying that I was getting ready to leave for my village stay, so I'll start there.

A long time ago, there once was an old woman who gave birth to seven children at once. Unfortunately, the babies were not in good health. All seven of them died soon after they were born. Their mother, overcome with grief, held seven burials, with each baby buried in a different place. This is how Sbaa Rouadi ("Seven Cemeteries") began.

I know it's not the happiest of myths, but hey, that's how it apparently got its name. Anyway, the Sbaa Rouadi commune (located in a rural area just outside of Fez) consists of seven villages. One of them is Birta, where my MOJ classmates and I stayed for a week way back in March (how time flies!).

So Birta is part of this commune--a commune is a territorial public with its own legal personality and financial autonomy. Basically, the residents of Birta rely on themselves to sustain their livelihood. Everything is shared among the village, and every person pitches in somehow. Pretty cool, right?

We were welcomed into this small village immediately. All of our host families put us to work in the fields, the kitchens, and the school center, and had us tending to animals. You can't get a more immersive experience than this!

(The center, by the way, is called the Association of Development and Solidarity, and was founded by 5 village women in 2008. The main founder, Sebah, had realized the lack of public spaces for women in this traditional village, and she wanted to create a comfortable place where women could develop their own self-sustaining practices and skills. Basically, she's a hero and a role model to women everywhere.)

My fellow classmate, Susan, and I spent the week living with an AMAZING host family. We had five sisters. Three of them--Faiza, Amina, and Sumia--are around our age, and then we had two adorable little sisters, 9-year-old Wiam and 5-year-old Zenib. Our father, Abderrahim (who we called Baba), is a sweet and soft-spoken man with a smile as big as his heart. Mama Khadija has a beautiful smile and a comforting sense of tranquility about her that made me happy just to be in her presence.

I can't even begin to describe how amazing this week was, and how much it changed my life. Although we could hardly communicate with each other through words, I felt immediately accepted as a member of the family. Whether it was playing jump-rope with Wiam and the village kids, herding sheep (which I actually became quite good at!), cooking in the kitchen or weeding out the fields, I felt as though my contribution mattered and more importantly, I felt loved. Both Amina and Mama Khadija cried the day we left, and Sumia walked us to the end of the road and gave us huge hugs before we met with our group. I so badly wanted to go back and visit them again during ISJ. Then again, there were a lot of things I wanted to do and thought I'd have the time for during ISJ...(we'll get to that in a moment.)

Wiam loves to sing and dance, and is overall a beautiful soul. 

I think we spoiled Zenib a bit--she constantly wanted to be carried everywhere, but I didn't mind. How could anyone resist that face?!

Amina and Susan in the back of our mule cart (the "car") on our way to the fields.

Baba has a great smile, but he was a bit shy here. One of our funniest moments was when I told him (in VERY broken Arabic) that the olive oil in Birta tastes much better than the stuff we have in the US, after he was noticing how much of it I ate. He thought it was hilarious and repeated the story to everyone else when they came to sit at the table, and we all had a good laugh. The next morning at breakfast, they gave me my own plate of olive oil!

Our family taught us a game that's sort of a harder (but more fun) version of tic-tac-toe. We stayed up late every night playing because we got completely addicted. Baba loved it whenever we won--definitely not a sore loser!

One of my favorite neighborhood kids, Simohammed. He followed us everywhere! Some of his favorite shenanigans involved jumping onto the back of our mule cart, tree-climbing, calling out to me in animal noises, and playing with my camera (thanks for all of the blurry photos of the ground, Simo...).

I met Houda on my first day in the village and instantly fell in love with that smiling face. I spent some time playing with her and taking pictures, but I didn't want to be out for too long on my first day with my host family so I left shortly after. A few days later I saw her on the playground and she came running straight toward me and gave me a big hug and kissed my face. She was attached to me for the rest of the day!

Amina (L) and Sumia received their certificates from the center the week we were there. They are both embroidery professionals and their work is incredible! 

From left: Myself, Faiza, Sumia, Susan, Mama Khadija and Wiam in front. This was after a long round of picture-taking...we gave up on trying to get Zenib to sit still!

Sumia was the one to pick us up on our first day and drop us off on our last day. My Birta village sisters are beautiful and incredible young women, and I will never forget them!

So that was Birta, although I could go on forever. Anyway, after we got back we had a few more weeks of school and living with our host families. We also had the Northern Excursion, which was just an overnight trip to Ceuta, a Spanish enclave, pretty much only because we needed to get our passports stamped again so that they wouldn't expire for the rest of our time here. It was a great mini-vacation, and I was glad to be able to dip my toes in the Mediterranean--definitely the most beautiful water I've ever seen. Ceuta was gorgeous, and everyone is pretty mad at me for forgetting my camera on that trip, but it was pretty freeing to just take everything in without being bogged down. I guess that means y'all have to come with me next time! ;)

Shortly after that excursion, it was time to pack our bags and say goodbye to our host families. It was time for the final stretch: ISJ. It stands for Independent Study in Journalism, and it's what this whole semester has been leading up to and preparing us for. During ISJ period, we have 5 weeks to pursue a story of our choice, traveling anywhere our research leads. I'm working with my classmate and good friend Rachel on a story about illegitimate children. She's a photojournalist and I'm writing, and we've been spending the past few weeks going back and forth between Rabat and Casablanca gathering information from NGOs and trying to find a single mother with undocumented children who would be willing to speak with us and let us spend time with her and her kids to take photos. As it's a very taboo subject here, it's taken a lot to find women to open up, and we've run into countless roadblocks along the way. However, Rachel and I are very stubborn people, and although we've thought about giving up in search of another story, we found that we were far too committed to this already. Things began looking up a bit yesterday, so here's to hoping our instincts were right and our hard work doesn't go to waste!

Even though ISJ has been super frustrating, a incredibly heavy and emotional at times due to the content of our strory, it's been an amazing experience so far. Since we don't have school during ISJ, we're really living the life of freelance journalists. It's not a school assignment, it's the real world, and the potential this project has for publication is not only a stressor but a motivator as well.

I've also never felt more like an adult or more independent in my life. It's pretty cool that the first apartment I've ever rented is in Rabat. I'm living on my own (well, with roommates, but you know) in AFRICA. If I can do it here, I can do it anywhere! It's a little weird living outside of the medina, but it's nice to get to know a new area of Rabat (it's easy to forget how huge it is when you live in the medina, which really isn't that big). I also miss my host family, but since I'm still living in the same city (I'm not a Casablanca fan and it's easy enough to commute) I can still visit them when I'm free. I went home for lunch yesterday and they were so happy to see me--it was a wonderful reunion!

Of course there have been slip-ups, but I'm alive and well and learning every single day. I'm pretty proud of how far Rachel and I have gotten with our project, and that I've been able to handle budgeting my stipend and balancing work with fun (even though sometimes it feels like too much work--I just realized I've spent most of my Saturday in front of a computer...what are weekends?).

Sometimes I wonder where I'd be if I had chosen to go to South Africa or London, the other top options I was looking into for studying abroad. I can't really imagine it. In moments when I'm incredibly stressed out or wishing that I could just go to Spain (my program doesn't allow us to leave the country while we're in session) I often think of my friends who have a lot of time off and are able to travel and experience other places and I get a bit jealous. But then I think of the type of experience I'm getting here, and I realize I can't really compare. This is a journalism experience first, and a study abroad experience second. And I'm honestly so grateful for that. Even if I don't end up as a journalist one day, it's something I can check off my list of Cool Things I've Done (along with dance atop a camel in the middle of the Merzouga desert).

Yes, that actually was a thing that happened. Photo by Elise Campbell.

A week or two ago, I was walking through the medina with my host brother when we ran into a group of American students he had met earlier that month, because his cousins were hosting them. They were also SIT students, but they were in a program that had started them in Vietnam and brought them to several other countries before ending somewhere in South America, I think Bolivia. They only had a few weeks in Morocco, and they were really excited to meet me and hear some of my stories. They said that even though they were glad they got to see so many different places, they were pretty sad that they didn't get to "know" any one place in particular very well. My conversation with them once more made me grateful, and I realized I definitely chose the right program for me. Thinking back over these past few months, I can't even imagine going somewhere and not getting to know my host family (families, after Birta!) the way that I did, or not having the time to befriend the locals. From the people I hang out with on a regular basis who consider me one of their best friends to the man at my favorite snack shop in the medina who gets excited for me whenever I use a new word in Arabic, I feel that I've made deep connections here. I've found a second home in Morocco and I couldn't be any happier.

Which means I've also gotten very attached to this place and these people, and I'm dreading the day I have to leave them. Today while Rachel and I were furiously typing emails and trying to figure out our next steps, I was complaining about the stress (forgive me, I hadn't had any coffee yet). She simply looked at me and said, "we're going to miss this in three weeks." I felt like something hit me then. What am I going to do when I have to say goodbye?

The only thing I can do for now is enjoy the time I have left. I've made some amazing memories and I have three more weeks to make as many more of them as possible. And, hopefully ("inshallah," as we say here), it's not really goodbye, but more of a 'til next time kind of thing.

I'm off to go binge on snacks from my favorite non-medina snack man and make a game plan for tomorrow's journalism shenanigans. Happy Easter to those who celebrate it. To my family--Christos Vos Kres! As much as I love the food here, you can bet I'll be missing the paska and the nutbread tomorrow.

Shine on,