Far and beyond Union’s walls

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By Katelyn Billings

For many Union students, the fall term and winter break were spent abroad in a variety of fascinating places. Near and far, they had the opportunity of exploring some of the world’s most gorgeous landscapes as well as meeting incredible people with inspiring stories. I caught up with a few friends who traveled away from Schenectady during the last few months, and learned about some of their remarkable stories and experiences.

During the fall, Lucas Rivers spent a full term abroad in bustling Shanghai, China. With some knowledge of the language, Rivers was prepared for a life-changing experience. However, he was not aware of just how much of an impact his time in China would have on him. “I’ll be upfront and honest. Before going to China, I had never left the U.S. In fact, I had never even been on an airplane!” Rivers remarks. “My first flight was an 18-hour trip to Shanghai from Laguardia. Was I nervous?  A little.Spending three months in another country was scary … at first. But once you begin to settle in, everything falls into place. Granted, Chinese culture is extremely different to what we are used to here in the U.S. Food, language, even traffic rules (or lack thereof) are completely different. But with a sense of adventure, those things actually become what you love most.”

Among some fantastic sightseeing experiences, Rivers shared a very touching and inspirational story of when he visited an underprivileged section of China. In the manner of the Big Brother Big Sister mentoring organization, Rivers was paired with a young girl named Liu who he helped to learn English while she in turn helped him to perfect his Chinese.

“Not only was I nervous about going to a complete stranger’s home and teaching her English,” remarks Rivers, “but I was also quite nervous about the etiquette of being a guest in China. On the ride there, Liu told me the backstory to the situation the family faces: the girl’s mother abandoned her to marry an older rich man when she was an infant; the father is still in the neighborhood, but refuses to acknowledge her existence. Therefore, the grandmother is solely responsible for her and has been for years.” Rivers explains that the family lives in one room and does not have the luxury of reading their favorite books. So, when he graciously gave Liu’s younger sister a copy of Harry Potter and paid for a special lunch, the entire family was touched.

Rivers recounted how lucky he felt to have helped Liu’s family, and how inspired he was to appreciate everything in his life back home. “I never had intended to ‘change someone’s life’ just by showing up to their doorstep. In fact, I was nervous I wouldn’t be able to fully teach her the English she had wanted to know. But as I thought about it more, their lives were not the only ones changed — my life had been changed too. I recognized the reality of people’s lives … and I realized how fortunate I am to have a house, a supportive and loving family and a solid education.”

Rivers was lucky enough to experience Chinese culture as well as many others from around the world.  “I lived in a 23-story dorm with people from every corner of the world. It was amazing not only to live with them, but to go to class with them, too. Since we Union students were a part of the International Cultural Exchange School at Fudan University, we took roughly 22 hours a week of intense Chinese language courses (writing, reading, listening and speaking). As part of the study abroad program through Union, we also had a Chinese culture class where we learned about Chinese politics, economics, history and sociology.” If you want to learn more about Rivers’ incredible experiences abroad, you can read his blog at sayhitoshanghai.tumblr.com.

Following the fall term, Union students also ventured to different locations across the globe. During winter break, Shannon Windle-Puente ‘16 spent time in the sunny cities of Buenos Aires and El Calafate in Argentina. “It was such a great trip; I met so many people and made a lot of great new friends.”

Windle-Puente explained that Argentinean culture is significantly different from American culture. She said that many Argentineans are very outspoken and sociable, and that they all have very strong political opinions, which came in handy when the students were studying the history and politics of the country.  “When you meet someone for the first time you get a little kiss on the cheek, and if you go to a certain restaurant you are showing support for a certain politician of a certain political movement.”

Windle-Puente explained that public political protests were frequent and a typical part of Argentinian life. “There were always protests. They were nonviolent, so the police wouldn’t shut them down, but they did close a lot of streets for the protests.” She vehemently expressed a desire to go back, as the mini-term inspired her to be a better person. “The most memorable experience I had was when we visited a poorer side of the city.  The people had so little, but they were so happy with what they did have.  We understood the social gap, but it was so inspirational.”

Meanwhile, one of the Concordiensis’ own, Danielle Coppola ‘15, also traveled out of Union’s boundaries to the beautiful island nation of New Zealand. She shared her stories of touring the many glaciers and mountains, recalling that it was truly unforgettable.

The trip allowed students to take a look at some of the country’s innovative alternative energy power plants. “Our country should take advantage of the many alternative energy options New Zealand has,” she says. “New Zealand is far more advanced for its age; the trip really opened my eyes to the amount of alternative energy the country has!”

Coppola took many pictures of the stunning landscapes, which students on the trip took advantage of through hiking and guided tours. Coppola enjoyed the fact that “the abroad program allowed us to travel to both the North and South Island to show us all New Zealand has to offer. Pictures truly do not do it justice!”

For students who are looking for a shorter abroad experience, Coppola highly recommends the New Zealand experience for those interested in breathtaking sights and insight into environmental studies and the effects of power generation and transmission in New Zealand.

These different accounts of students’ travels truly motivated and touched me, as well as the people with whom they also shared their experiences with. These students highly recommend that other Union students take advantage of the opportunity to study abroad, as it helped them to not only travel and see the world, but also to be inspired and appreciate their own culture and lives back home.

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