VPO 2017

The Travels and Reality of Griff
Griffin Sayler
Virginia Program at Oxford
England 2017


I’m Griff. You may or may not have known or heard of me at H-SC, but in any case, I am here to detail my story, perspective, and feelings about studying abroad in Oxford, England at – you guessed it – The University of Oxford. I want this blog to be more of my voice rather than an official and enthusiastically professional writing – and so in making it my voice I hope you’ll feel a lot of personality coming at you. The informal structure of each one of my blogs will come in three sections: Replying to some given questions in which I answer as much as I can about this new experience, giving a scholastic and wholly academic perspective, and finally giving a sense of reality about what is going on over the water and in my head while I’m here.

Section one:

Why did you choose your specific country and program?
Well, if we are being honest here, I chose this program because I want to expand my intellectual experience. I believe that exposure is one of the best ways to learn. Exposure to material, exposure to culture and, as cliché as it is, the experience of going and being exposed to different situations in a different country work as an incredible teacher. Another way I love to look at it is that this study abroad program was an opportunity for me to put myself into my most vulnerable state and prove that I can excel. I do not want to prove to anyone else but myself that I can thrive in an environment different than where I am comfortable. Saying “you should do that for the heck of doing that” is one of my biggest motivations because I know it will prepare me for leaving college, leaving my parents, and I’ll be ready to do what needs to get done when I am out in the world. I hope it won’t be too optimistic of a read here but I like to keep positive – bear with me!

What are you nervous about?
I am just not nervous at all. I had this tiny fleeting feeling as my momma (momma Salyer) left me at security – but once I had shown my I.D. and was in line my freedom warded off any nervousness that I had briefly felt. I cannot wait to explore England, and I cannot wait to try my hardest with the courses here at Oxford. I’m not worried about my grades, and I’m not worried about proving myself to anyone but me, myself, and I. If I can focus on trying my best and being relaxed, narrowing my concentration onto a wholesome experience – I will be alright.

What are your goals for your time in your host country?
So, here we go being honest again, being in this country and experiencing a culture separate from my own is what I want to focus on. This means taking part in pub culture, trying to learn the politics, making some friends here in England, understanding the history and landscape, and taking a step back to not be American for a brief second so that I can learn something new and different from those things I am accustomed. My overall goal that I will absolutely achieve before I leave the U.K. is to get what exactly studying abroad is for – finding a balance between learning in the host culture and living in the host culture.

Section two:

Academics. It is fascinating to me how incredible you feel when you are discussing the plays of Christopher Marlowe, or Shakespeare, or anyone else really. I have found that I have this super-intelligent organist in the background of my mind playing the most wonderful and superfluous sounds when I am discussing these intellectual topics. The reading and self-work is tiring but it just builds a mountain of knowledge you can use when critically thinking about a subject. It is awesome, as in awe – some, or some serious awe. Even more, the discussion I have shared with my classmates over some pints has been the most productive work I have done so far.

Section three:

In my head. Here, I sort of want to just put some thoughts out there. I am so very excited for the weeks to come. I am a little worn out with some normal drama that comes with people, but it is settling down and daily life is easy-going. My professors are all absolutely wonderful and I am loving it – getting beaten down a little in the work section, but I’m very glad about it. I am really excited to do this blog. I want to extend what is going on with me while I am here and try to emphasize the personality I want to convey and the reality behind every word I say. All in all, I wish I could ramble on and on and on and on and on, but I think I might already be sounding arrogant and self-absorbed. Hopefully, if you’re reading this, you are taking what I say with a little bit of a grain of salt. I plan to be unguarded and realistic about what I say (without being offensive) so that there is some unique perspective being shared. I want this to be different from any of the other blogs – and in doing so I hope to keep down the wall of fakeness – this isn’t my beautifully composed string quartet, but rather an introduction into a 20-year old’s thoughts and experiences (many experiences for the first time) in a new country.

If you cared enough to read this, thank you! Next week we will be discovering my experiences and I would love to detail the people, sights, and probably some misfortunes so stay tuned!


Japan 2017

Japan Blog 4
I apologize for waiting a week to write one of these blogs but to be perfectly honest; I have been extremely tired after class to do anything, much less be witty on the web and write about the bad decisions I make while abroad. So, the past week has been a tough one. The pair of hakama that I bought turned out to be too small for me and I was out 40 dollars until someone in the class who did fit into them bought them off of me. My sensei also thinks that I am the best kotsozumi player in the men’s group, so guess what I get to do this coming Friday…that’s right; I get to lead the male group in playing the shoulder drum in front of an audience. Even better news is that I graduated from the Seiobo dance to the Takasago dance!
Here is a quick break down of the story for Takasago; Takasago is about a god who is a pine tree who disguises himself along with his lover as an elderly couple sweeping the pine needles around the pine tree that is his wife. The other main character; a Buddhist priest asks the old couple about the lover pine trees (two pine trees separated by a river who lean toward each other showing that they are in love with one another). The old man tells him the story of the two pine trees being gods and alludes to him and his wife being the two gods of the pine trees before disappearing. Takasago reappears in his true form as a young god and sings about the pine trees, his lover and everlasting love. I dance as Takasago in his true form, as a god. It is a quick dance, but there is a lot of singing which makes it kind of hard to perform, but I have picked it up relatively quickly and love this dance a whole lot more because there are quite a few stamps and it is a huge ego boost to be dancing as a young and powerful god.
I also have started memorizing a chant known as Gekkyuden, which I will perform on the main stage this coming Friday. It is a strong piece about long life and wishing the best for the emperor. Gekkyuden can be sung at weddings and it is considered very good luck if sung for the happy couple. If anybody would like this to be sung at their wedding, I am available for weddings and birthday parties…just email me, I charge 500 dollars for entertainment to be paid in cash up front…just kidding…but seriously, I am available.

In my dragon yukata on the main stage of the Keita School.

In my dragon yukata on the main stage of the Keita School.

I have been rehearsing really, hard and trying to memorize everything in a totally, different language. It has been really, really, rough and I have been able to do it, but it has come at the cost of me passing out at 8pm sharp every night. Later on in the week, I went yukata shopping and hakama shopping for my personal use. I found a yukata with a really, cool dragon pattern along with hakama that fit and complemented the color of the yukata, and a white obi which brings together the whole outfit. This yukata makes me look really intimidating and powerful when paired with the mask that Takasago wears for his dance in his true form.

Sunrise over Tokyo after our adventures in the gay district.

Sunrise over Tokyo after our adventures in the gay district.

The week flew by and before I knew it, it was Friday! As soon as class was over I went home took a nap and got ready to go to the gay district of Tokyo. Quick disclaimer; Legal drinking age in Japan is 20…I am/was 20 at the time I went out to the gay district. Needless to say I had a good time and I remember everything that happened, but I have to save some stories for my friends…let’s just say it was a night I won’t forget anytime soon, along with my classmates. We made it until 5 am when the trains started running again. As soon as i got home, I fell asleep and wasted my Saturday. On Sunday, I went to the Tanabata Festival.

Me putting on a mask before my Takasago dance (note this is not the mask to be used for the dance, this was just for practice. This mask would be used for the Seiobo dance)

Me putting on a mask before my Takasago dance (note this is not the mask to be used for the dance, this was just for practice. This mask would be used for the Seiobo dance).

The Tanabata Festival is known as the Chinese Star Festival.The Japanese adopted the myth and the festival into their own culture and it has become a big deal here. The Tanabata Festival celebrates the day that two stars are allowed to see each other. The story goes that there are two stars who are in love,  but can never see each other because they live on opposite sides of a river known as the Milky Way. The gods decided that the two should be reunited on one day. So, on the seventh day of the seventh month the stars are allowed to cross the Milky Way to be with each other. The festival goes on to celebrate love and it is believed that during the festival you should write a wish and it will come true. Well, guess what I did at Tanabata…yup, I was selfish and wrote a wish down for myself…look, I have prayed for the world at a bunch of Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples, I thought it was time to look after myself now.

I am entering the last week of my class and I couldn’t  be more excited. I am going through an emotional rollercoaster, because in this week I will say goodbye to some really, good friends that I have made here as they travel back to their respective countries, while I explore Tokyo and the rest of Japan for the following two weeks.  But, I am also excited, because I can’t wait to perform on the Kita School’s main stage and make Professor Dubroff as well as Oshima Sensei, Nagashima Sensei, and the two Awaya Senseis proud with how much I was able to accomplish in only three weeks. To put this into perspective; most professional Noh actors have their debut on stage at the age of three with beginning their training around age two. I would also like to point out that I am twenty years old and I have been doing this for less than three weeks. Actually,  pre-professionals training in Noh, train with the senseis for months on one aspect of Noh, focusing on one piece and it takes them about six months or so to make the same progress I made in three weeks. I have studied two dances, three chants, and one instrument…I just can’t believe how much progress I have made

Making a wish at the Tanabata Festival.

Making a wish at the Tanabata Festival.

I can’t wait to learn even more this week, but I don’t want it to end because I won’t know what I am going to do with all my new free time when the class is over.
Another side note; sitting seiza is still killing me and I don’t understand how people can do this for over an hour when a full length Noh play is being performed.

Japan 2017

Quinn Sipes

Japan Blog #3


Chanting Gekkyuden in seize position.

Chanting Gekkyuden in seize position.

Sorry for not blogging about my Japan adventure but I have been very busy with my Noh Training. For those of you who don’t know why I am here in Tokyo, I am studying the traditional Japanese theatre form known as Noh theatre. The theatre form was created by Zeami in the 1300’s and became big when the first Shogun was created. Most of the noh plays revolve around the Tales of Genji and many of the plays focus around a main character that is otherworldly like ghosts, demons, and gods.

This theatre form focuses on the combination of singing, chanting, dancing, poetry, and instruments. All noh plays take about an hour and a half to perform even though the overall script usually is no more than 5 to 10 pages. Needless to say, noh plays move extremely slowly and the storylines are extremely tragic.

I am in Tokyo studying this ancient theatre form at the youngest of the five schools of noh; Kita. By school I am referring to the style of how the Noh is performed. There are five schools Kita being the youngest and I believe Kanze being the oldest school. I am actually studying at the same school as my professor, Professor Dubroff with the same teachers that he had! I just mention his first name and everyone at the school is like, “ah yes! Matthew!” It’s kind of like he is a Rockstar or something and I am elevated by sheer association.

I started my first day on Monday with 5 hours of noh. I thought I was ready for a couple of noh plays but I was sorely mistaken. The plays were sooooo sllloooowwww and I didn’t understand the Japanese being spoken but I was able to follow along with an English synopsis that was provided. The first two plays were kind of boring. The first one was about a dead poet who urged a priest to sleep under a cherry blossom, and the second one was about a woman spirit asking a priest to pray for Genji and when the priest prayed for Genji the woman turned into a dragon and disappeared. The last play was by far the most interesting. It was about a demon that lived in a rock. A priest exorcised the demon from the rock and on stage the rock exploded and out came a demon and the dance that the demon did was so intense you could feel the tension in the room as the demon repented and was exorcised from the rock.

shimai for Seiobo

That was my first day along with a group meal at a restaurant near the theatre in Meguro. On the second day we wasted no time getting into the meat of noh performance. We started the day off with a greeting and sat seiza for 20 mins chanting a very celebratory song called Gekkyuden. We were then broken up into two groups to learn shimai (dance) from two different plays. I am currently learning the shimai for Seiobo. The character that does the dance is a beautiful princess…yeah imagine me as a beautiful princess if you are capable of doing that. Over the first week I learned the shimai for Seiobo pretty well and I think I am ready to learn a harder shimai but I am not the master at this and they haven’t asked me to move on and they know better than I do…I just hope they ask me to learn another one because I would like to challenge myself in my shimai. We also learned some hiyashi (instruments). We started off learning how to play the    kotsozumi also known as a shoulder drum. The drum can make five different sounds depending on how you hold the drum. We have learned three so far known as Po, Chi, and Ta.

Learning kotsuzumi

Learning kotsuzumi

Out of Utai (chanting) Shimai (dancing) and Hiyashi (instruments) I enjoy shimai the most and hiyashi the least. For the most part, that happened everyday through Friday. On Friday I went into Harajuku proper and found a cheap pair of hakama (samurai pants) because I am putting together a traditional Japanese Yukata for the Atsumori play that Professor Dubroff will be putting on this coming spring semester. I also went down the busiest street in Harajuku and found the store and designer where Lady Gaga bought her outfits for her Fame Monster album. I really want to buy something from there, but I can’t completely justify purchasing anything from there.

The busy street in Harajuku.

The busy street in Harajuku.

On Saturday I went to the Ueno Zoo and saw my favorite animal ever; the Giant Panda. I  bought a small panda magnet for the fridge that I don’t own…I guess I know my next purchase before I head back to Hampden-Sydney… I went back to Harajuku and ate gyoza (pot stickers) for less than 3 dollars! I also went into Shinjuku’s gay district and got to look around at all the crazy nightlife that I will probably be partaking in next weekend with some friends. I also went to the extremely sketchy area of Shinjuku known as Kabukicho it is not as sketchy as Roppongi, which I will not be going to anytime soon. I was kind of concerned about getting pick pocketed but I made it out okay.

Giant panda at Ueno Zoo.

Giant panda at Ueno Zoo.

I am really enjoying my time here and I love the class even though sitting seiza is killing me. I hope I have some more adventures to talk about in the next week!

Japan 2017

Quinn Sipes
Japan Blog
It has been two days since my last blog post and already so much has happened! First off, I would like to say that the crazy and overwhelming city of Tokyo is now easier to navigate after I wised up. Now, before I leave, I look up the address of the places I want to go while I have Wi-Fi and then screenshot the map and the directions to get to that place. I also have decided to just let the whirlwind that is Tokyo, take me to where I need to go rather than try to control it and live by the idea that “it happens.”
Other good news is that some of my money has been deposited and I can’t convey to you just how happy I am! I was so worried that I would have to make about 100 dollars stretch for 3 weeks, which would more than likely be impossible in a city where one dish usually averages 10 USD. But, I have money now and I am eating more than one meal every two days, and my goodness the food here is so delicious!
One of the things that I was looking forward to the most, when I was preparing to go to Japan, was to visit Shinto and Buddhist Shrines and Temples. I had the privilege to visit a shrine relatively close to where I live. The shrine known as Meiji-Jingu is a Shinto shrine located in Yoyogi Park right in the center of Tokyo’s famous Harajuku. The shrine, encased by a huge park that drowns out the sounds of modern day Tokyo, makes anyone who visits feel like they are in a rural Japanese town. The towering skyscrapers around the area are replaced by huge trees, and the sound of Tokyo traffic is replaced with the sounds of the birds and crickets.

Meijijingu Shrine- purifying my hands before entering.

Meiji-Jingu Shrine, purifying my hands before entering.

Enshrined in Meiji-Jingu is Emperor Meiji and Empress Shoken, Japan’s most revered royal family. When the Emperor died, the Japanese people built the shrine to honor him. The shrine burned down during World War II but was rebuilt by the Japanese people and the original shrine will turn 100 in 2020. When I visited, the copper plates on the roof were being refurbished and replaced for the centennial celebration and the Olympic games in 2020. I was also extremely privileged to witness a Shinto wedding procession into Meiji-Jingu. I sadly did not take any pictures, because I didn’t want to be irreverent to the couple getting married, and I wasn’t too sure about the policy on photographing Shinto wedding ceremonies.
The bride and groom were in beautiful traditional clothing and were being led in on a carriage. In the front of the procession seemed to be the head Shinto priest, followed by a drum, and then a few more priests (I think they were priests) who were chanting, and then the bride and groom came in on the carriage. It was very beautiful to witness and I wish I had been able to take a few stealthy photos.
Once I was in the shrine, I went and prayed for world peace and universal harmony. Through my prayer at the alter, and through my ema (a wooden plaque where you write your wish and prayers on) I prayed for myself and I received an omikuji, a small poem written by Emperor Meiji, which tells you about what to expect for the year and words of wisdom to be followed. The whole shrine was very beautiful, and the people there were extremely kind and welcoming to all foreigners and their religions. One Japanese woman was asking every person that finished praying at the alter what their current religion is; a few of the answers were Islamic, Jewish, Christian, Hindu, B’hai, and Buddhist. It is very beautiful and wonderful to see religions that have had bad blood with one another, come together and be peaceful toward one another, and wish and pray for the same thing. It just shows how we are all human and want the same thing; to be loved by one another and be peaceful toward each other.
I returned to my share house at about the middle of the day and relaxed a little bit before heading out to Shinjuku to register for a class the following day (today). Out in Shinjuku, there are a lot of very tall skyscrapers and shopping areas, which reminded me of Midtown Manhattan in the way that it is sensory overload almost the whole time. I found this one place called the robot restaurant, which costs about 8,000 (80.00USD) yen for one dinner. It seems that the robot restaurant is one big show, along with a dinner, and the people that I saw leaving the restaurant said it was worth the 8,000 yen for the show alone. So, I think when my class is over and if I have enough money saved up, before I leave, I will go and see what the robot restaurant is all about.
Today I went to Asakusa, about an hour away from where I live, to take part in traditional Japanese arts and crafts. The share house company that I am staying with while in Tokyo is known as Sakura House, and they put on events for their residents every month. This month one of the last events was making traditional crafts in the form of Zabuton and Hanko.

My Zabuton

My Zabuton

A zabuton is a traditional Japanese cushion, which has a trademark of being balanced in all four corners. You are able to tell the quality of the cushion by holding it by the thread in the center of the cushion, and seeing it hold steady and flat while being suspended in the air. Needless to say, mine was less than perfect. One of my corners was too heavy, and if you tried to pick it up by the center thread, it leans to one side. Building this zabuton was a lot of work too! I had to rip the cotton apart, lay each layer out, open each layer, rip some more, then feel for depressions, and add left over cotton to my cushion before I could even shape it into a cushion! Then came getting it into the cover, which is another long and drawn out process. In total, making one zabuton took me over 3 hours!


Senso-Ji in front of the temple and incense burner

Senso-Ji in front of the temple and incense burner

I had a little break between the two crafts so I went to Senso-Ji, a Buddhist temple in Asakusa, which is famous for how massive it is as well as the shopping street in front of it. I got lost there for a few hours and had some really, good fried chicken. It wasn’t like Granny B’s where it was fried with a breading, but rather just straight chicken fried in sesame oil. Some of the best fried chicken I have had in a while, actually. I explored the surrounding area of Senso-Ji until it was time to make a hanko.
A Japanese hanko is a traditional name stamp used by the Japanese to sign their name on contracts and loans from the bank. Every person in Japan has a hanko and uses it for official documents. The process started with us writing our names and then having someone write out a few modern Japanese characters, which mimic the sounds of our name. My name, being hard for them to wrap their minds around, because Quinn doesn’t exist in their language, ended up being a square. As I waited for them to explain how to make the hanko, I stared at my character, extremely upset that my stamp will just be a square. I felt terrible and like it was a waste of time at this point. Then something amazing happened! One of the professionals came around with a book of ancient Japanese characters, saw our modern day characters and then translated them to the ancient characters that they came from.

My Hanko

My Hanko

My little square “gu” turned into this face with two outstretched opened hands. I asked the professional why we were using the ancient characters, she said the ancient characters are more symmetrical and can be given meaning to them more so than some of the modern day characters. I then asked what my character meant now, and she said that it means giver or offering to the gods. I was thrilled and to be perfectly honest, the character looks really cool! After she wrote the character onto our stamp, we took an engraving tool and etched our character into the stone. It was rough work to do it by hand, but it was extremely relaxing for some reason. My stamp turned out to look pretty good, and the professional didn’t have to do too much in order to fix it. After I finished making my hanko, I stopped for dinner at this little place known as McDonalds. I know, I know, hate on me as much as you want for eating McDonald’s in a foreign country. However, I had only 500 yen that I was willing to spend and I didn’t want to go looking for a place that was selling traditional Japanese food at 500 yen…so I ate at McDonalds. I will say that it is a lot better than American McDonalds. Here in Japan, when you order something off the menu, the item actually looks like the picture on the menu compared to when you order something and it looks like it was run over by a truck.
That pretty much concludes my past two days here, and tomorrow I start my class in Noh theatre. I can’t wait to meet everyone in my class! I know this class is about to be super intensive, but I am ready for it. The only thing I may have a problem with is sitting sezah for long periods of time.

Japan 2017

Quinn Sipes
I arrived in Japan extremely jet lagged and confused. My flights went over without many problems. It was a 13 hour flight from Toronto to Tokyo and I ended up staying awake the whole flight because the guy behind me decided to knee me in the back every few minutes. Luckily I was able to power through and saw that by staying up the whole flight would help me get onto Tokyo time.

Shibuya Crossing

Shibuya Crossing

I travelled to the heart of Tokyo in Shinjuku to sign over my life to Sakura House and receive my keys to my house near Yoyogi Hatichiman Station. I originally got off at the wrong station…actually I went on the wrong train line all together. To say that my brain was fried when I arrived is an understatement. While trying to navigate the train stations in Tokyo is hard enough; picture following signs that are in both English and Japanese but then suddenly turn into solely Japanese, during rush hour in Tokyo’s busiest train station with one hiking backpack and one suitcase weighing approximately 15 pounds and 26 pounds respectively. I was in total sensory overload and everything moved so fast that I had a really hard time trying to keep up!
I finally made it to my room and quickly unpacked while also stripping down to wash the grime of 24 hours of travel and 3 hours of Tokyo train hopping off. After getting comfortable in the quiet neighborhood where I will be spending the next month I quickly slipped into a coma. When I woke up I met my two roommates; one from Hawaii and the other from Tunisia. I woke up at about 5 am in Tokyo time and went outside to explore the area I now live in. Now comes literally all my advice; to make it easier to digest they will be listed below:
1. Nothing is open at 5 am in Tokyo, especially in a quiet residential area filled with elderly people and children.
2. Take out enough Yen in cash because card isn’t accepted everywhere.
3. Make sure you have enough money before coming here! (I do have enough, but I am actually waiting on it to all come through so I have to budget literally everything!
4. Don’t wander with no sense of direction…(I walked about 4.5 km in a big circle because I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going).
5. Before you leave write down as much information about the places you need to go, in case google maps and your phone decide to be dead weight (you guessed it I am going into this month long experience completely blind).
6. Watch what others do and just copy them, until you figure out what to do in certain situations.
7. Walk on the left! And on escalators you stand on the left walk on the right.
8. Wait in line for the subway and trains…don’t rush into the car!(this one came a little naturally for me, during rush hour everyone was in a line so it was easy to just follow behind).
9. Learn the language!! I can’t stress that one enough! I have 0 experience with this language that has 3 alphabets and sounds absolutely foreign when people are speaking (obviously it will be foreign…good observation Quinn…).
10. Buy a Passmo or start walking (a Passmo/Suica card is what gets you on the trains, subways, metros, and bus lines throughout Tokyo and other parts of Japan. Pass up a Passmo and you may as well just start walking because buying tickets at every stop is a real big hassle).
The above points are only some of my advice…if I added anymore it would be a sensory overload and I can’t do that to you. I got very lost the first full day in Tokyo.

Meguro shopping area

Meguro shopping area

I started walking in one direction hoping that if I got super lost I could consult Google Maps to get me back on track. However, my phone is not supported in Japan even if I bought a Japanese SIM card. I guess that’s what I get for getting some bootleg off brand smart phone. Also Japan is sorely lacking in its ability to provide free Wi-Fi so be prepared to buy a mobile hotspot if you really need it (like me). I somehow got from my house to where my class will be held at the Kita Nohgakudo in Meguro, a Tokyo neighborhood about 20 minutes from where I live, to Ikebukoro which is about an hour from where I live! How did I get there? I have no clue! Luckily I made it back to my house at about 8 pm and ate my first meal in two days: a cold soba noodle with tea from the 7/11 down the street from the station near my house.
After these past few days, I am so exhausted from all my walking and getting lost I really wish I studied this language a little bit more. I think when the class starts in a few days I should be okay as I will be in class for like 12 hours a day from 10 am to 10 pm with like a two hour break. I plan on doing a little more exploring, but maybe less spending until my outstanding checks make their way into my account! Until I go on another crazy adventure in a land where I am hardly in tune with the culture or language or direction of things, I guess that means tomorrow, have a wonderful day filled with a whole lot less confusion than mine! If you want to see pictures of the craziness that is Tokyo follow me on Facebook or Instagram.

Alumni Abroad

The Office of Global Education and Study Abroad is pleased to share news of alumni as they travel abroad, republished from the recent issue of The Record.



James Seldon “Sel” Harris, Jr. ’80

The Rev. Dr. JAMES SELDON “SEL” HARRIS, Jr. ’80 and his wife Liz recently traveled to Cuba with Covenant Presbyterian Church of Austin, Texas—a church that Sel formerly served. In 1997, Sel and Liz took the first group from Covenant to Havana. At that time, Sel and the Rev. Carlos Ham of the Luyano Presbyterian Church in Havana started a partnership between the two churches that remains strong. Pictured with Sel is Georgina, a 91-year-old member of the Cuban church whose late husband was the personal secretary of Che Guevara.



THOMAS J. ROBINSON ’91 has been teaching IB chemistry at the International School of Kenya in Nairobi for almost four years. He writes, “Kenya is a very dynamic country. Despite the challenges of living far from America, the opportunity to teach at a strong International Baccalaureate school is great. I encourage other alumni to consider teaching internationally!”



Michael James Rutkowski ’07

Dr. MICHAEL JAMES RUTKOWSKI ’07 recently moved to Sweden, started a new position at Stockholm University, got engaged to Ms. Gina Moorhead, and rang in the New Year in Longyearbyen, Svalbard, the northernmost town in the world (78 degrees N., about 800 miles from the North Pole). He is pictured on the Lars Glacier and writes, “I was going to leave in the morning, but sunrise won’t come until mid-February.”


NAY MIN OO ’12 has been chosen as a DeBoer Fellow in Myanmar. The DeBoer Fellowship is a one-year program designed to help promising Myanmar citizen leaders reach their potential and better serve their organizations, communities, and country. The Fellowship was created by Jack DeBoer, founder of Residence Inn.


Stephen Woodall II '15

Stephen Woodall II ’15

STEPHEN LESTER WOODALL II ’15 attends St. George’s University Medical School in True Blue Grenada, West Indies. There he is a member of Iota Epsilon Alpha, the International Medical Student Honor Society; the SGU Surgery Club; and the SGU Emergency Medicine Club. He is pictured below in the Grand Etang National Rainforest.

Alumni Abroad

The Office of Global Education and Study Abroad is pleased to republish this article from The Record with Pierce Buckingham ’10.

The Adventure of a Lifetime
By Karen Huggard

On the windswept plains of the Mongolian Steppe last August, a group of extreme adventurers recreated the famed postal relay routes of Genghis Khan. Dubbed the world’s longest horse race, the Mongol Derby pits riders against each other in an endurance race across the rugged territory of northern Mongolia. Although more than 40 riders attempted the 1008-kilometer course with its varied terrain of flat grasslands, steep hills and valleys, river crossings, and rocky passes, only 27 finished—among them Pierce Buckingham ’06.

No Horsing Around
Over the course of ten days, Buckingham and his competitors had access to 1500 semi-wild Mongolian horses spread out among the course’s 28 checkpoints. All of the horses had been ridden before by local herdsmen, but most had not been ridden consistently or even recently. With their saddles, backpacks, and helmets, the derby riders “looked a lot different, smelled a lot different, and acted a lot different” than the local herdsmen, according to Buckingham. As a result, many of the ponies spooked easily and proved difficult to mount and control.
At six-foot-three-inches tall, Buckingham was at a further disadvantage on the small-framed ponies; in choosing a new horse at each checkpoint, he recalls, “I had to play charades with the herdsmen to pick out a horse strong enough to carry me.” He didn’t rely on charades alone, but also used his ten years of experience as a racehorse trainer to his advantage. “I’d look at the horses’ gums for scars. When horses really take off, riders pull on the bit so hard that it cuts their gums. So I’d choose a horse with cuts or scars, because I knew it would be fast.”
Choosing that type of horse had its disadvantages, though. “You had to know where you were going before you got on, because once you were on, it would take off like a shot. You wouldn’t be able to stop for a few kilometers, and you didn’t want to be headed in the wrong direction.” Using GPS, Buckingham clocked a top speed of 28 kilometers per hour at full gallop—about 17 miles per hour—a pace some ponies would maintain for a full ten kilometers before calming down.

Nothing Typical about It
For nine days straight, Buckingham averaged a grueling 70 miles per day. Starting at 7 a.m. and riding till 8:30 p.m., he took advantage of every minute that the course was open. Water, a snack or a meal, and a fresh pony were provided at checkpoints spaced approximately 40 kilometers apart. Meals were simple, typically consisting of mutton stew, goat or yak milk, and stale bread. Mongolian families along the way came cheered the riders on, often offering them local delicacies like Aarull, dried milk curds, or Airag, fermented horse milk.
Some checkpoints provided tents for sleeping, but racers could also ride further and camp under the stars or stay with a herdsman and his family. A booklet with translations of phrases like “I’ve lost my horse,” “Where’s the next town?” and “Can I stay here tonight?”—coupled with more charades—helped Buckingham find shelter on the nights he chose to sleep on the Steppe. Each time, he found the Mongolian people warm and hospitable, willing to share what little they had with a stranger. After staying with one family who had no water or food to spare, he was careful to stop at tents with a large number of livestock and a solar panel—signs of prosperity that meant his stay wouldn’t be an imposition. Although the language barrier was difficult, Buckingham says, “Smiling and looking appreciative is a universal language.”
The Mongol Derby is ultimately about adventure and danger, though—not tourism or cultural exchange. The warning at the bottom of the official website says it all: “You cannot overestimate the risks involved in taking part in these adventures. Your chances of being seriously injured or dying as a result of taking part are high. Individuals who have taken part in the past have been permanently disfigured, seriously disabled, or lost their life. These are not holidays. These are adventures and so by their very nature extremely risky. You really are putting both your health and life at risk. That’s the whole point.”

The Lost Days
Although derby participants typically travel in small groups, for two days and nights Buckingham rode the windswept plains of the Mongolian Steppe alone—isolating days that blurred into each other. Severely dehydrated on the third day because of a broken water filter, Buckingham encouraged his group to continue on while he remained at a checkpoint to rehydrate. It took him two days to catch up.
“I was in even more of a race mode those days, pressing the horses to see what they could do. I didn’t have time to worry about what would happen if I fell off and couldn’t send an emergency signal, or if I got thrown and injured my spine, or if I got dragged by my horse. I had to be in the moment, thinking of how I would get from point A to point B.” He could have sacrificed time and waited for a group that was a day behind him, but his competitive edge wouldn’t allow it. “The entire time,” he says, “I had no other thought but to catch up.”
He did have some company on his solo ride: “Herders who saw me riding came over on their horses to gallop with me for a while. Even the little kids would come out on their horses and ride with me. Then they’d pull off,
and I’d push on.”
Making those days even more challenging was his malfunctioning GPS, which lost the race route and showed only the checkpoints instead. “The only information I had was an ‘as the crow flies’ line, so I had to think a little bit more. I figured the race coordinators had done it to everyone—taken away the race line to make it even more of an adventure.” But when Buckingham casually mentioned it to someone at a checkpoint, he learned he was the only one who had lacked the information for two days. Although he had to swim across a few rivers, he says, “I made it, and it was fun.”

Pierce Buckingham

Photo courtesy of Richard Dunwoody

The Key to Success
As a thoroughbred-horse trainer, Buckingham is used to 12-to-16-hour work days in the South Carolina heat, sometimes going several months without a day off. No amount of physical labor, however, can approximate the physical demands of the Derby, which Buckingham found more taxing than he ever imaged. There is no way to truly prepare for the event, he claims; only through sheer willpower can riders endure the pain. “You have to get over the fact that your body hates you, your brain hates you, and the horse doesn’t really want you on its back,” he says. “At that point, it’s more mental than physical.” He also notes, “In the Derby and in life, it’s easier to do things you didn’t think were possible when you surround yourself with like-minded people.”
The Derby came at a time of transition for Buckingham; after ten years of six-day work weeks training horses for owners the likes of the ruler of Dubai, he was getting restless. “My wife and I were looking for a change and needed a little adventure in our lives to spunk things up. Reading an online article in December of 2015, I saw a suggested article from Outside magazine about a guy who had completed the derby a year prior. I read the article, looked on the Mongol Derby website, talked to my wife about it, and knew I wanted to do it. We decided if I was still as excited about it in the morning, I would submit my application.”
Seven short months after he first learned of the Derby, he was waiting in the Moscow airport for his final connection to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. “The timing was right,” Buckingham recalls. “I thought, I’m in shape, I have the time to do it, I’ve been working my tail off for ten years, and it is time to do something for myself. I needed
an adventure.”
There is no doubt that Pierce Buckingham has chosen a life outside the norm. His philosophy? “You can’t stay in a box, look at other people living life, and think, Why can’t I do that? Test yourself and your limits. Live life with a purpose. Only you can make it happen.”

A Year in London 2016/17

April 2017: Reflection and Growth
Guy Cheatham

I have had several moments of reflection in the past month, even if at times they are difficult to come by.
I was in Prague a few weeks back with a friend, sipping on good pilsner and looking out over the city (the Czechs know how to make excellent beer). We were talking about what we were going to do upon our return to the states, and at the time I was not thinking about this much, as I still had over two months in Europe before my departure back to the states. One month later, in the midst of exams at LSE, that reflection is starting to mean more, and I understand that it is necessary to make time for such, to think about my experience in London, how I have grown as a result of the environment here, and readapting back into American culture after being away for a year. I was grabbing a pint with a good friend on Fleet Street this past Thursday night at a pub called Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a quintessential seventeenth century pub with aged wooden floors and ominous lighting. We both came back from a final event at one of the LSE societies we’re involved in, and considering how busy the exam period is, I realized that I may not see some of the people I have formed such good relationships with before I fly back to the U.S. in early June. That feeling began to hit both of us there; it made me realize that despite the intense environment at LSE and the gloomy weather, leaving London is going to be difficult.
London is a city in which you can love and have issues with simultaneously, but it grows on you, and it is a city with a competitive intellectual environment that forces you to grow up fast, if you want to succeed. It is a city with a stressful academic environment, especially when you face the pressures of getting a 2:1 on an exam, in which determines your final mark. Despite these pressures, it is important to keep a positive outlook and take advantage of what LSE and London offer, and the possibilities are endless. It is a place in which you can walk out your front door and do just about anything, and as my friend and I were discussing why leaving London is going to be difficult, we knew that it was because of the friendships formed. Having friends from all corners of the world is an absolute treat; I have been grateful of having the privilege of learning where people come from and how that affects the development of their views of the world. This is my favorite part about the endless possibilities this city has to offer, and it has certainly refined my outlook on the world. Leaving will be difficult, but I am looking forward to being back with friends and family back in the states.
I entertain the idea of coming back to London in the future, perhaps living here as well, as it has become a second home for me, but in the meantime I must focus on my revision, and I am excited about taking what I have learned here over the past year and apply that thinking to wherever my path takes me in the future.


“Bon Voyage” 2017

Greetings from 38° 54.34’ N 009° 51.47’ W!

Tillmon Cook

Since my last blog post I have been to three different ports including Cape Town, South Africa, Tema, Ghana, and Casablanca, Morocco. All three of these places have been incredibly different and each have their own culture. In addition to time in port, ship life has been really fun as well. There was a crew talent show that was phenomenal! Who would’ve known that the people on our ship’s crew were so talented! Also, everybody that was on the ship became Emerald Shellbacks. If you don’t know what that is, an Emerald Shellback is a person that crosses the point 0° N and 0° E by ship. And, if anyone ever asks, there actually IS a buoy that marks the center of the world.

South Africa was amazing, but unfortunately, I didn’t immerse myself into the culture like I had wanted to. Like many others on the ship, I did a lot of adventurous things. The first day was spent exploring the city. We went to various restaurants and bought good food.

Table Mountain



The next day, I hiked Table Mountain with a group of friends and spent the rest of the day laying on the Beach in Camp’s Bay.



A new friend.

A new friend

On the third day, I was lucky enough to sign up for a field program that traveled to a township.  This trip was extremely eye opening because it uncovered the sad inequality between races in South Africa. The legacy of apartheid is still extremely visible in South Africa, and affects millions of people.  In the township, we visited an orphanage, afterschool program called Happy Feet, and took a bike tour.

SLR Pic 0133

Birds-eye view of South Africa


The following days consisted of adventure. The third and fourth day consisted of sandboarding in sand dunes and skydiving. Both activities were so incredibly fun! If you ever get the chance, I highly recommend jumping out of a perfectly good airplane.


Awaiting the others


City of Refuge


Orphanage Library



I went into Ghana with no plans, and honestly did not have any expectations about what I would see. When we got there, I was extremely overwhelmed with the street vendors trying to pull me into their shop. Moreover, the streets were packed with people due to the market. A couple of my friends and I spent the day walking around Ghana exploring the different shops and tasting Ghanaian chocolate. The next day I was fortunate enough to sign up for a field program called Life of a Fisherman. This program was another eye-opening experience. Our group traveled to a local fishing village and learned the everyday life of someone that lives in the village. We witnessed the men, that had gone out the day before, bring back the fish they had caught during the night. Next, we walked around the village and saw how everyone lived. This was extremely difficult to observe because of how different the culture is. For instance, I saw a man hit a woman and nobody did anything about it to stop him. I can’t explain how hard it was to watch the man’s actions. Our tour ended and I spent the rest of the day relaxing on the ship. On the third day, I had another field program called City of Refuge. City of Refuge is an orphanage that rescues children from slave trafficking. We attended a church service with the children, took a tour of the facilities, and spent the rest of the day playing soccer. I now know why Ghanaians are so in shape. It was close to 103° F and we played for almost two hours straight. Needless to say, I was dead after that game.



IMG_4775 (002)

Hassan II Mosque

After another six days at sea, we ported in our final city, Casablanca, Morocco. Like Ghana, I had no expectations. It’s funny how traveling will do that. I was excited, but I didn’t know what I was excited for. I guess I was at the point where I just want to see what different places have to offer. Our stay was only four days, so that meant we had to be quick about whatever we did. A group of friends and I got off the ship and took a train straight to Marrakech (about three to four hours south of Casablanca). When we stepped out of station and were all mind blown because of the beautiful city. The art and architecture were so unique compared to everywhere else. If I could describe it in words, I would tell you to think about the Disney movie Aladin. The next two days were designated for traveling and a camel trek in the Zagora desert. On the way to the desert we stopped at Aït Ben Haddou. This is an old settlement on the old caravan route from the Sahara to Marrakech. This spot was really cool because there have been a lot of movies shot here. Later, we continued to the Zagora desert for our camel trek. We camped out under the stars, had good food, and talked with many people all around the world. The following day, we drove back to Marrakech (about a ten hour drive), and walked around the city. There were all kinds of street performers and shops set up. On the last day, we travelled to Casablanca and split ways. I walked to the Hassan II mosque. It is the largest mosque in Casablanca and faces with its back against the sea. This was the last thing I did in country, and sadly walked on to the ship I’ve called home for the past four months for the very last time.

I’m currently sailing to the last port of call, Hamburg, Germany. Everyone’s final exams are wrapping up and we’re all preparing to exit the ship and say our goodbyes for the last time. This has been the best voyage of my life and I can confidently say that Semester at Sea is one of the best decisions I’ve made. Moreover, this has been (and probably will be) the most bitter-sweet moment of my life because I have to say goodbye to everyone I’ve become best friends with. I have had the most fun I’ve ever had while traveling, but most importantly, I’ve learned more about myself than I ever have. This voyage is a chance of a lifetime, so if you’re a student and trying to decide if you want to travel abroad for a semester, it WILL be the best decision you have ever made.

“Who got to live this life? For one brief moment, we did my friends… we did.”

-Dan Garvey AKA (Dean Dan)

A Year in London 2016/17

Adrian Guerra

April has been a good month, we are out for spring break and I took some time from studying to travel a bit. I visited Crete, a small island in Greece, Athens, Budapest, and Vienna. Greece was just so beyond beautiful, we visited Elafonisi beach, which is known for its pink sand and clear waters. The ruins in Athens were definitely something I would recommend anyone to see, given the opportunity. The sights from Acropolis were definitely breathtaking. Budapest surprisingly had the best cuisine, and since the Hungarian forint is at approximately 369 for every 1 British pound it was also the least expensive meal. Vienna was unfortunately only a day trip, so I did not get to explore it fully however, I did see some great sights and bask in the sun, that is so often hidden in London.

In my earlier blog’s I mentioned how the food in London was not so great; however, now that I have been here for more time I can admit I was wrong. I am a huge fan of food markets here in London, and you can find the most amazing foods there. My favorite meal here is from the Camden market, it is a fettuccine Alfredo pasta made in wheel of cheese.

I think my greatest accomplishment here is passing all my classes, I never imagined they would have been this challenging, but it has definitely helped me out in the long run. Classes are very different here. We have both lectures and classes separately for the same subjects. Lectures are usually given in large auditoriums, I have my Econ lectures in an actual theater so it’s very nice. Classes are a lot smaller and are usually given by a graduate student, so unfortunately the availability of teachers outside of class is not as great as one would hope.