Friday, September 15, 2017

There's No Place Like Nols - Andrea Badillo '21

We saw a bear twice. We forgot how to use our phones. It was magical and absolutely unforgettable. Thus, there are infinite ways I can write about NOLS that I honestly do not even know where to begin. I had never hiked a day in my life before this trip. I also camped once, two streets down from my house with a friend in her backyard. Does that count? Regardless, it is clear that in terms of outdoor skills, I was not prepared.
However, I knew I was physically capable since I have played sports and been active throughout my life. I was also genuinely excited to see all of the beautiful scenery of Wyoming’s backcountry. I find joy in photography, and this was my first opportunity to explore a setting like such. I was aware that there were going to be challenges. But, I also knew all of that would be so insignificant in comparison to how much I would grow. That mentality allowed me to discover strengths in me I didn’t know existed. I can summarize these lessons with three simple phrases.
Empty your cup. By going in with a genuine acceptance that I had yet to learn plenty in order to have a successful trip, I was able to thrive in circumstances completely foreign to me. To empty my cup was to have a growth-oriented mindset from day one. It is not to say that I did not struggle; of course, I did. The first time I attempted to build a tent, it took me an hour. The first time I cooked using that stove, I couldn’t get the lighter to work and I eventually burnt the cheesy bagels we were having for breakfast. And, how was my first hike? Oh my god, that was dreadful! Muscles I did not even think I had were aching. My hips were throbbing and my left shoulder was killing me. I was disillusioned with my surprisingly weak level of athletic resistance; it was horrible. I also couldn’t figure out a map for the life of me. Yet, what helped me overcome those and many more struggles was this simple phrase: “empty your cup.” I had to be conscious of how little I knew about these outdoor skills in order to learn and digest them. I had to be ready to fail before succeeding. That is why I started hiking with a map in my hand every day since the fourth hike until the very end. It helped me visualize all those contour lines and figures that seemed so unfamiliar beforehand. I sought feedback from the instructors on our tasks and somehow ended up being voted as one of the two designated leaders for our Independent Student Group Expedition (i.e. ISGE) during those last two days. It was definitely an accomplishment and one that I take pride in. Well, we got lost and ended up walking 25 miles with giant blisters on our feet, but that’s another story. We made it out alive, and all the teasing afterwards made the intense ordeal pretty worthwhile… Anyway, the fact that the group actually voted for me in the first place helped me see the fruits of my effort in something I had no prior knowledge of. Now, thanks to this mentality, I believe in that cliché that anything is possible with time and effort. I intend to think this way when I encounter that Organic Chemistry class in the near future.
Go as a river. When you’re stuck twenty-three days creating friendships with strangers in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, you have to follow this rule. Conflict is inevitable. I have always thought that being surrounded by diversity is indispensable for an enriching lifestyle. But, there were certainly times during this trip that I did not want to accept this truth. Nonetheless, by keeping the essence of this phrase present in my mind, I learned how to be patient and calm when the situation deemed it necessary. While making difficult decisions when scouting rivers, choosing hiking routes, or even picking who was the one who had to go get water for your cook group, I had to overcome frustration by going as a river. Respect for others’ opinions and beliefs was crucial for a productive community, what we constituted during those three weeks and a half. I even believed in going as a river with even more intention than respect. I believed in it as a celebration and appreciation for the hardships that made us all stronger. It is not to say that being firm should be discouraged at all times. But, having a narrow tolerance would have definitely drowned the potential for growth that this trip granted to those who were willing to take advantage of it. To do so, I had to go as a river during adversity.
Remember to look up. This was ultimately my favorite phrase. This is the mentality I most want to live by for the rest of my life. I put my whole heart into religiously following this dogma, and it was thus the primary catalyst of the overwhelming abundance of laughter, joy, and fun I experienced during NOLS. It is so easy to get distracted in this world, society, and time that we live in. Technology, consumerism, and capitalism dismally govern our relationships, and it can become almost impossible to realign the way you inhale the act of living. People are so preoccupied with cellphone screens and social media posts that they forget to just look up. It can get even worse when you do not have those distractions available to you and all you can do is think about them. I have to admit I am also a victim of this. Undoubtedly, there were moments that I would crave my iPhone, but whenever that would cross my mind, I would look up. And when I’d look up, I’d see pure magic.
Thanks to NOLS and the Levine Scholarship Program, I was able to go twenty-three days without showering, washing my hair, looking at myself in the mirror; without watching television, scrolling through endless social media; without the only world I knew. I was able to have this concealed blessing of discovering everything my tiny world and all these distractions hid from me. For twenty-three days, I was solely surrounded by surreal views of mountains, lakes, flowers, rivers, valleys, and beautiful skies. I shared my days with the freshness of air, coldness of snow, the warmth of the sun, the greenness of the trees. There, I found myself more connected to life than ever. I felt my heart pump and my lungs inhale almost metaphysically. Nothing about this type of life was artificial or man-made. Rather, everything was undisturbed, pure, and showed me how human we all are. It even made me re-affirm my faith and my unwoven belief that there has to be a Creator above us, watching us enjoy His works.
NOLS helped me become a more patient, positive, and present individual. It reminded me of the many wonders that society and distractions can obscure if you let them. It showed me how to overcome stress in an effective manner and how to celebrate both diversity and the reality that learning experiences will never cease to exist if you decide to live your life in a boundless search for them. These are the acquired skills I want to ingrain in my actions and identity during my future as a Levine Scholar. I truthfully wouldn’t have wanted to discover them any other way. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

上海的经验 The Shanghai Experience - Sydney Welch '19

               Here’s some background about me: I am the first and only daughter with two younger brothers and I am from a small rural town in the foothills of North Carolina.  Now, I would like you to take a moment and imagine my parents’ reactions when I said the following sentence; “Mom? Dad? I’m going to Shanghai, China for a month this summer.” I would say that your imagined scenario would not be far from the truth. They were excited, of course, for me to gain more global experience, but equally terrified that I would get sick or injured or that the world would spontaneously combust in the time that I was abroad.  So, fast forward through several rounds of optional-to-everyone-else-but-not-to-you-young-lady vaccinations, packing list after packing list, and lots of hugs and prayers, my beautiful biological family sent me off with my beautiful LSP family to the wondrous world of The East. 

             There really is no way to holistically describe what my first major trip abroad was like.  Shanghai is lightning-paced in the race to modernity, but respectful of history.  It is westernized, but saturated with tradition and culture.  She is interlaced with ideas of structure and organization, but rich with diversity of experience and lifestyle.  We began to realize these things as all 18 of us students woke up in this incredible, yet contradictory, city that first morning.  From there, we started our journey for the next three and a half weeks.  We got to eat, sleep, breathe, and live in the city that we were studying during lecture in the mornings.   We rode to the top of the second-tallest building in the world, Shanghai Tower, to see the breathtaking views of urbanization that seemed to extend to the ends of the earth.  We walked through museums that showed Shanghai’s history and connection with other cultures, including the Jewish Refugee Museum and the Wuzhen water town. And, we saw museums that exhibited Shanghai’s progress and future, like the Shanghai Planning Museum.  We also took class trips to places like the Yu Gardens, the Bund, Suzhou, the French Concession, Xintiandi, and the Disney Research Lab to learn about Shanghai’s past and its future in sustainability, infrastructure, and overall urban planning. 
           Although these were all unforgettable activities, the most magical parts of the Shanghai Experience weren’t the lectures or the museums or even visiting Shanghai Disney (believe it or not!).  The most captivating moments were those that didn’t seem to be capital-M Moments at all.  They were the times that we spent squished against the glass in the metro during rush hour, or when we wandered down West Nanjing street and suddenly, the downtown skyline opened up before our very eyes.  Or when we traveled in loud-American-style groups to the shawarma place across the street to grab a bite to eat of the most ambiguously labeled, but most delicious meat wraps you would have ever tasted. We watched the annual Dragonboat races and made plans to race next year.  The wind made curly halos out of our hair while we overlooked a massive wetland restoration site.  We tasted snail, fried scorpions, black ice cream, and Big Macs.  Moments like these are the ones that brought us closer together as a group, but also provided unending opportunities to try new things and push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and that’s exactly what happened. They were the times where I could really get to know myself, the unbelievably beautiful city, and my wildly fun classmates. 
           I learned so much during my trip to Shanghai.  Academically, I learned about how history and culture affects urban planning, public health, infrastructure, and sustainability.  I also learned about how important it is to the Shanghainese to retain their own identity and history while integrating western culture, ideas, and practices.  We studied how Shanghai will continue to operate in the future and how its unique position within China and the world makes it a global city.  I am forever grateful to our incredible professors for providing us with that information and experience.  However, I also learned lots outside the classroom.  I learned how to travel on my own in an unfamiliar country, I learned how important the pictures are on menus that have ZERO English titles, and I learned how absolutely vital it is to be present and an actual participant in your surroundings.  Without that last one, I don’t think I would have appreciated the Bund at night, or lovely little schoolchildren who only want to talk about hamburgers, or the experiences and feelings and thoughts of the other 17 students with me.  We truly became a small tribe on this trip and made memories that I will never forget.  你 to the Levine Program, my fellow world travelers, and of course, to the living, breathing, gorgeous Shanghai. 

(我你 is pronounced wo ai ni in Mandarin and means I love you!)