The Travels and Reality of Griff
Virginia Program at Oxford
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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
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.”
This winter, Thomas Vinyard, III had a wonderful experience when he joined some VCU students to study biology in South Africa. Learn more about VCU’s South African Summits to Sea course through the VCU Education Abroad Office. The Global Education Office is pleased to share this article, including a few excerpts from Thomas.
Beautiful South Africa from summits to sea
VCU students take the trip of a lifetime during winter study abroad course
Shira Lanyi climbs through the mist on the famed chain ladders route in the Drakensberg Mountains in South Africa.
One of the most basic principles of biology is that all life is interconnected. A few lucky Virginia Commonwealth University globe trekkers experienced this firsthand this winter as they hiked, paddled and swam through the wilds and cities of South Africa.
The students traveled throughout South Africa from Dec. 27–Jan. 15 as part of “South African Summits to Sea: Human and Natural History of KwaZulu-Natal,” a biology study abroad course. The explorers enjoyed the South African summer, while temperatures dipped on campus during winter break.
As the undergraduates stood on the peaks of the Drakensburg Mountains and snorkeled in Kosi Bay, they learned about the role rivers play in the connections between humans and nature in ecosystems. The coursework focused on the Tugela and Pongola rivers, the mountains where they originate and the ocean where they end.
“Quite literally, from the summits of the Drakensburg mountains to the coast of the Indian Ocean in Maputaland, the synergy between the South African people and their natural resources, namely water, was palpable,” said Christine Savoie, a biology student on the trip. “This course gave me a newfound appreciation for the inextricable effects of the environment on how we live, and the biodiversity around us.”
Savoie and her peers spoke to farmers and people in the ecotourism business, examined mining company policies, and toured a dam to observe the human impact on rivers. They observed the wild dogs, zebras and elephants of the South African veldt.
More information about the South African Summits to Sea course, which was open to students from all majors and to non-VCU students through the VCU Education Abroad office, can be found on Vonesh’s lab page, wp.vcu.edu/voneshlab/news.
The class fulfills the senior capstone requirement for VCU biology.
The course was created by James Vonesh, Ph.D., associate professor of biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who based the curriculum off of his “Footprints on the James” class, which exposes students to ecosystems dependent on the James River as they camp and learn the basics of life outdoors. Vonesh also was inspired by his recent stint as a Fulbright Scholar in South Africa. Daniel Carr, biology instructor in the College of Humanities and Sciences, taught alongside Vonesh.
Vonesh and Carr urged students to reflect on the course by sketching and writing in travel journals and taking pictures along the way. The following are excerpts from class journals and interviews that capture 19 days of adventures from summits to sea. The excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.
“Every morning was a cheerful invitation to make my life of equal simplicity, and may I say innocence, with Nature herself.”
— Henry David Thoreau
Beauty in Basotho By Mahad Mustafa
There were tourists in Basotho cultural village but there were also a fair amount of native South Africans. There was one lady that I saw just standing there, one hand behind her back in her traditional clothes, just looking off into the distance.
I came up to her and asked could I take a picture of her. She just smiled. I don’t think she understood English, but I kind of just used body language to describe what I was asking her. I think it was one of the most beautiful pictures I had taken. Not only because of natural beauty, but because she was there in that moment. She was living in her own environment kind of looking around. I thought that was absolutely beautiful.
On the rooftops of South Africa By Thomas Vinyard III
We just got back from hiking the Sentinel Peak, right on the border of the Kingdom of Lesotho. We were deep in the Drakensbergs, or Dragon Mountains, and it was very rocky, unlike the route I had climbed yesterday, which was sandstone. This was mostly metamorphic rock. I have no idea why this is because we only drove an hour away. We drove through the old capital of Qua Qua Phuthaditjhaba. This was noticeably less developed than other cities. Qua Qua had been home for black South Africans in the apartheid area.
The Sentinel, a flat-topped mountain on the border of Royal Natal National Park was shrouded in mist. You couldn’t see but about 40 feet in front of you. The higher we climbed up the wet rocky trail, the smaller the flora got. Lichens and small shrubs, with some beautiful small flowery weeds, were predominant. I saw no large mammals but I did see their trails and scat. Our guide, Stef Steyn, says that Lesotho farmers illegally bring their cattle up to the plateau to graze.
The chain ladders really weren’t scary at all if you didn’t look down. The water that dripped down every rock face was clean and pure, and most of us filled our canteens. The plateau at the top had short grasses and shrubs and seemed to be in a constant state of saturation. This is because it is the Tugela River catchment. We saw the headwaters of the Tugela and Mahadi rivers up there. There was one hill that, if a raindrop fell on one side, it would eventually end up in the Indian Ocean. If it landed on the other side, it would eventually end up in the Atlantic.
Somkhanda Game Reserve By Thomas Vinyard III
We left for a game drive this morning. We saw probably 60 or more impala, several kudu, nyala and black and white rhinos. The black rhino is known to arbitrarily charge for no reason, so when we saw but one, everyone hurriedly got back into their safari vehicle. The white rhino are less aggressive. We saw some from the side of the hill about 1,500 meters away, so we drove down and walked around the hill in a diminishing arc until we were about 50 yards away. They knew we were there because of our smell and our sound. Their little Shrek ears pointed to our sound. When they found us, they put their rear ends to us and squatted, looking exactly like large gray rocks.
VCU Summits to Sea students track rhinos at Somkhanda Game Reserve.
African wild dogs at Somkhanda Game Reserve By Diego Azuga
There was more game viewing in the park at 7 a.m. The crew was split into two groups and the beginning of the viewing was a good one. A nearby water hole had a pack of seven wild dogs lying by it. The alpha, a female, was larger and laying by the water.
We observed the wild dogs for a while. Their ears would twitch as they looked around and at us. They would play with each other from time to time and when moving, they stayed together. They may have finished a hunt, which explains why they were cooling down.
Canines like the wild dog have certain attributes that other predators don’t. Wild dogs have learned to store food in carefully chosen caches. They also eat after a kill, only to feed their pups safely in their dens by regurgitating it.
The city of Jozini By Christine Savoie
Driving into Jozini was eye opening and unique. It was very impoverished; there was a lot of trash. There were people selling things on the streets and a lot of really interesting looking vendors, and they were just surrounded by this dilapidated and crumbling city. There were piles of trash and people walking everywhere.
I was really surprised that if you lived in this environment, you would want your trash to be in a pile near your home. So I asked our guide Abednigo “Abe” Nzuza, why is there so much trash? Don’t people have somewhere they can bring it? Why does it pile up like this? It was everywhere. Abe responded that people didn’t really have anywhere to bring their trash, because they couldn’t get to the facilities. There was no infrastructure to pick it up. He said most people were so poor, that it wasn’t worth a cab drive and a cab driver wouldn’t want your trash in his vehicle anyway.
So, it was kind of an only option to have it near your house. Everyone in that region was sort of trying to keep it contained. Then someone who was even more desperate than you would pick through it, and maybe disperse it everywhere in a city with a considerable number of people. So, it seemed like it was an institutional problem, that there had been no infrastructure imposed to help these people manage their trash. Abe said when it was attempted, there were lots of strikes. There were a lot of problems, and eventually it was one of those issues that people kind of gave up on. So, now they were in a situation where it was sort of an accepted thing. People just accepted the fact that there’s trash everywhere. On top of that, there was a nearby mall that we visited. Naturally, the cab driver said that it added a lot to the trash.
The herd at Tembe Elephant Park By Nicolas Kelly
Elephants at water hole Tembe Elephant National Park, KZN, South Africa
Shortly after lunch we pulled up to a watering hole surrounded by elephants. It appeared to be at least a whole herd, possibly two. There were 11 elephants, with two or three babies. The babies flailed around and played in the mud while the adults used their trunks to fling mud and water at themselves. The elephant trunks were sniffing in our direction and they were obviously aware of us. They didn’t seem to pay us too much attention. The most notable defensive behavior was forming a kind of wall between the babies and us.
Watching the elephants was amazing. I had relatively low expectations because I had hoped to have only one sighting.
A little elephant coaxing By Mahad Mustafa
At first we saw just one elephant and I was floored by our guide. He talked to the elephants very sweetly and gently. It was almost how a father would talk to his 5-year-old child before he or she goes off to kindergarten. He was saying things like, “Beautiful boy come out, we came all the way from America to see you.” And the elephant would just respond. I asked him later how long he had worked at the elephant park. He said four or five years but that he had been in the bush his whole life. I think that was one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. The way the elephant responded was really majestic. It would look over right on cue. The more that our guide would encourage it in a loving and sweet voice, the more it would respond.
Paddling the Pongola By Trevor Young
Today we set sail for the wider Pongola River on a boat trip with Peter. We were able to see many hippos and even a few crocodiles. Our guide, Peter Calverly, went into detail about his Ph.D. work with the crocodiles. I was surprised how relevant to the river’s health the crocodiles were. For example, they serve as indicators of fish populations.
We next embarked on our paddle down the Pongola River in kayaks. Sadly, there was a noticeable quantity of trash strewn about the river due to a recently built mall that had brought many more people (and trash) to the area.
Paddling up the river was eerily quiet. It reminded me of scenes from the movie “Apocalypse Now” on the Mekong River. Breaking the silence was a great many bird calls and the bird diversity was incredible. Bright blues, yellows and reds darted from tree to tree. Particularly impressive was a giant heron with a wingspan half as tall as me. Seeing all of these birds made all of the trash we saw more impactful.
Today, we did a bit more paddling and focused on the ecology of the river. We were able to do more macroinvertebrate sampling mean, to the joy of some local children playing in the river.
We were led to a local farm to gather ingredients for a Potjiekos cooking competition. [Potjiekos is a dish that is cooked outside in a cast iron pot.] Along the way, we witnessed the extent of a recent drought when we saw the skeleton of a cow bleached white by the intense sun. Until then, I hadn’t quite grasped the extent of the impact on the agrarian communities of South Africa.
Bhanga Nek Beach By Simren Bhatt
So, where do I start off about my day today? I have so many great stories to share! We ventured onto the rocky shores of the Bhanga Nek beach this morning to explore marine life of the intertidal zone. The water is this dazzling cerulean blue and it is so clear. I wish I could sketch it, but I wouldn’t do it any justice. (But I have a bunch of great underwater footage on my GoPro!) We had to go quite early to catch the low tide in order to analyze the rock pools. I couldn’t get over the auroral colors of the coral and the diversity of aquatic life that I could see with my naked eye.
Trevor found an octopus that seemed to be dying, but I think he may have revived the poor thing! I saw rows upon rows of mussels embedded amongst barnacles. They were tiny, so I am assuming they were very young (that or the mussels that we eat are commercially farmed to be large). It was a reminder of what a wonder nature really is — well, this whole trip has been a constant reminder of the magnificence of the world around us.
After inspecting the rocky shores, Shira and I walked over to a group of village women harvesting red bait. They were so kind in trying to explain to us what they were doing, but their broken English was quite difficult to understand. Nonetheless, I was extremely impressed with the time and effort they put into feeding their families. After spending hours under the scorching sun cutting through their catch, they began their 2-3 km hike back to their homes, balancing their food on their heads. Geez and I complain about walking while carrying absolutely nothing.
Hike to Kosi Bay By Shira Lanyi
Today, Dr. Vonesh woke us at 5 a.m. to take down our tents and pack up our campsite to take our last hike from Banga Neck to the Kosi Bay estuary. After quickly dismantling our campsite and scarfing down breakfast, I took some time to sit under the trees rustling both from wind and the movement of vervet monkeys. I fondly thought of the midnight wake-up call by the hippos laughing their hearty cackle in close enough range to cause a shutter of fear in the moonlight. When again will the robust gargle of a hippo startle me awake?
We began our march with Shadrek at 7:40 a.m. … After hiking for about three hours, we finally reached the top of the dunes and caught a glimpse of the reed fish traps snaking through the periphery of the water shed beneath us. Clearly, this is a place with no possibility of vehicles and children must travel three hours by foot everyday just to get to their school at the top of this dune. What a contrast to the comforts we take for granted at home.
We moved downhill and ended up traversing through thick, grassy flat lands. We arrived at a stretch of mangrove swamps where we observed the root system of these remarkable plants. These trees have evolved to grow in the saline water system of Kosi Bay using an extensive taproot system that looks like something out of a science fiction movie. Tiny fiddler crabs burrow holes all around these swamps, feasting on mangrove roots and pods.
After trudging through mud as thick as cement and as smelly as a sulfur spring, we arrived at the mouth of the lake. It was about a mile of army walking through shin-deep water. We paused at one of the fish traps to take a close look at the mechanism and workings behind these 700-year-old structures. Reeds create a long, serpentine pathway for the fish to migrate toward until they are met by a claw-like gate that traps them inside until a hungry fisherman decides its dinnertime. This is a beautiful example of sustainable fishing and an ancient one still used today as it was by the Thonga people centuries ago.
We finally exited the swamp and what was supposed to have been a four-hour hike had turned into a nearly six-hour hike. Still not to our final destination, we passed the sweetest old Thonga man with no front teeth and a smile to light up the world. He spoke to Shadrek in their native tongue as he looped together a line of caught fish. He laughed at our crazy long hike and clearly saw the exhaustion and dehydration in our eyes.
When we finally made it to Kosi Bay and the “aquarium” where we would have the opportunity to snorkel, we had to cross another body of water. Weary, tired, hungry, thirsty, burned and delirious, we collapsed on the shore with the snorkeling gear at our feet. With whatever last bit of strength we could muster, we splashed into the warm water and allowed the current to carry us down as we gazed at the most glorious array of subtropical fish species. It was a spectacular sight and a beautiful way to experience the biodiversity in this tiny strip of Kosi Bay.
Kosi Bay “Aquarium” Snorkeling with Diego
Only the beginning By Shira Lanyi
Today is the first day back at VCU for the start of the semester 2017. As I sit in a fluorescently lit classroom in the Trani Center for Life Sciences to reminisce on how lucky it was to spend three weeks in South Africa for school credit, I miss the sights, smells and tastes of South Africa. But mostly I miss the people. As soon as I set foot back in the U.S., I was met by the terse and bustling nature of our Western culture. Time suddenly sped up, and taking the time to observe and reflect was suddenly an inconvenience to those around me. On campus, students stand before class, leaning against the cold walls and staring intently into the screens of their cell phones. They’re not interacting with the world around them.
There are things about being home that are pleasant and remind me how lucky I am to have unlimited access to clean potable water. I remember fondly the afternoon when we paddled down the Pongola River and the golden shores were dotted with locals bathing, playing, washing and socializing in the shallow turbid water. We take for granted the ease with which we live. We are unaware of the source of our water and how much legislation, cleaning, processing and infrastructure is required to make this valuable resource readily available.
My classroom was my playground for three weeks. Sitting by the Indian Ocean in the Isimangaliso Wetland Park, with our lecture notes written in the sand by a truly jovial South African, is a special memory and experience that I had the unique pleasure and opportunity to share with 10 others. PowerPoint slides, classrooms of 200 people, cold weather and the whirlwind of city life are my new reality. I will continue to carry the many lessons, experiences, insights and observations from my journey in South Africa with me. All of this positively impacts my education as a biology scholar and lover of science. My eyes are opened to a whole new world, and it is only the beginning.
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The Office of Global Education and Study Abroad is pleased to republish this article from The Record about one of our international students, Gui Guimarães, who is studying abroad by earning his bachelor’s degree here on the Hill.
International Student Reaches New Heights
By Karen E. Huggard
Through a translator at a youth basketball clinic in Brazil, Guilherme “Gui” Guimarães ’18 and his parents received an offer for the then 17-year-old to finish high school and play basketball in United States. The catch? He had only two weeks to make the decision, secure a visa, and get himself 4,500 miles to Charlottesville, Virginia. The other catch? He spoke almost no English. With little deliberation, however, Gui remembers, “I went with the moment, packed my bags and my dreams, and headed to America.”
The journey itself was not without drama. A mix-up with his paperwork meant that Gui spent his first few hours in America in an immigration holding room at Dulles Airport. Unable to understand the agents and unsure what he was missing, Gui sat in a room crowded with crying people until his new high school supplied the correct information for his visa. He arrived in Charlottesville late that night, only to attend his first class—U.S. History—early the next morning.
Within four months of that confusing first day, the six-foot-eight Brazilian was writing essays and joking with his teammates in English. Asked how he mastered the language so quickly, Gui replies, “First of all, I had no other choice. When everything around you is in a foreign language, you have to learn it. Second, I’m an extrovert—I wanted to talk to people!” His two years at the Miller School, a boarding school with a welcoming and warm environment, prepared Gui well for college studies in the U.S.
When the time came, however, he found himself without the financial resources to attend an American university, until his first interaction with Hampden-Sydney’s alumni network came in the form of the Davis Fellowship.
Established by Norwood ’63 and Marguerite Davis, the scholarship offered Gui a ray of hope, but he never imagined that he would be chosen. In fact, he was back in Brazil when Hampden-Sydney requested an in-person interview, so once again he made last-minute arrangements to fly to Virginia. Honored by his acceptance as a Davis Fellow, Gui has approached all of his many activities at Hampden-Sydney with enthusiasm, excellence, and a strong competitive streak.
On the basketball court, Gui has started in 43 games over two years, averaging a 58% shooting percentage his sophomore year. Because of his athletic skill and leadership, he was named team captain this season.
In the classroom, the chemistry major’s academic achievements have led to multiple awards and recognitions. At Opening Convocation 2015, Gui received the Omicron Delta Kappa Award for academic achievement and constructive leadership; at Opening Convocation 2016, he received the President’s Award for Scholarship and Character. He is a Patrick Henry Scholar and has been inducted into both the Omicron Delta Kappa national leadership honor society and the Chi Beta Phi national science honor society.
Around campus, Gui says he “tries to inspire excellence in others.” In pursuit of that goal, he serves as a Resident Advisor and a member of the Student Court. “R.A.s are the first people freshmen see when they arrive on campus, so I know I’m a role model.” He appreciates the fact that “at H-SC, students get rewarded for doing the right thing. There is an incentive to be a man of character because people are watching.”
Gui also appreciates the College’s strong alumni network. Twice he has received the Roy B. Sears ’42 Endowment for Student Internships, which he used to pursue both of his passions, chemistry and basketball. He is grateful to Rob Geiger ’94 for an internship at AmbioPharm the summer after his freshman year, where he saw firsthand what he can do with a chemistry degree. This past summer he taught basketball in his native city of Ribeirão Preto, coaching 5 to 7-year-olds during the day and 15 to 17-year-olds in the evening. It also meant the opportunity to see his native country gear up for the 2016 Olympic Games, and a chance to carry the Olympic torch when it traveled through his hometown on its way to Rio. As an R.A., he had to return to H-SC before the games began, but he is proud of Brazil’s efforts as host country.
Although he isn’t sure what the future holds, Gui knows in some way it will involve taking what he has learned at Hampden-Sydney—as a chemist, an athlete, a leader, and a citizen—back home to make a positive impact in Brazil.
The International Club celebrated on October 7th the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival, one of the biggest festivals in China. More than 80 students, faculty, and staff attended the event at Crawley Forum. Among them were Eric Dinmore, Assistant Professor of History, and Dr. J. Z. Zhao, Assistant Professor of Economics.
The celebration started with a video to introduce the Mid-Autumn Festival. The Chinese have a special affection for the moon, and there are many stories about the Mid-Autumn Festival. The most popular is the myth of Chang’e, the lady who lives on the moon with her rabbit. On Mid-Autumn Day, millions of Chinese worship the Moon Lady. In addition they hold family reunions. Since a full moon represents the family, all the members will try to reach home on this day no matter how far apart they are.
Together, the family will enjoy the moon on a cloudless night and eat moon cakes—an essential and special feature of this festival. The tradition of moon cakes started as the sacrificial offering to the moon and later became symbolic food. The first slice of the moon cake is always offered to the oldest one in the family to show respect to the elders. Although the general features of the Mid-Autumn Festival are the same, different regions have their own unique traditions. The video also showed the process of making moon cakes.
After the video, Professor Anthony Zhang, Chinese Fulbright Scholar and professor of Chinese, led nine students from his class in reciting a traditional Chinese poem, “Shui Diao Ge Tou” (Thinking of You). After the recitation, the students sang the poem as Professor Zhang played the piano.
Next, the Tai Yin Chinese Lion Dance team from Maryland performed the famous lion dance for the audience. This performance was made possible by the generous help of Mladen Cvijanovic, Assistant Dean of Students for Intercultural Affairs. The lion dance team consisted of five members who were passionate about this traditional Chinese art. They first explained the history of the lion dance. According to the myth, thousands of years ago, the Lion from the mountain would frequently go down to the villages and harm the livestock. However, after confrontation with the villagers, the Lion became their friend and protector. Therefore, to honor the Lion, people developed this highly acrobatic lion dance.
The lively music of drums and gongs and the energetic performance of the lion dance pumped up the atmosphere in Crawley Forum. The audience gave a round of applause whenever the team performed a breathtakingly difficult move. For example, very often the young man in front would jump in the air and land on his partner’s shoulders.
After the dance, the team also demonstrated Chinese Kung Fu such as Small Five Animal Fist, Big Five Animal Fist, Chinese Broad Sword, and Big Buddha Stick. The audience was amazed at these moves, which had been seen only in the Kung Fu movies.
After a question-and-answer session, the performers taught the children present how to lion dance.
As the final part of the event, the organizers served moon cakes and refreshments. All the guests left with a new understanding of another culture, the taste of delicious moon cakes in their mouths, and smiles on their faces.
On September 16, the International House continued its annual tradition of an Open House. The event was a huge success with a turnout of more than a hundred enthusiastic guests including faculty, students, and staff who were eager for a taste of exotic Asian food. The foods served at the event did not disappoint the guests as each was gone shortly after it was served. The specialties were Shan rice noodle, Kung Pao chicken, Chinese meat pies, spring rolls, stir-fried bean sprouts, fried rice, and Navajo fry bread.
The celebration started at 5:30 PM, and, as the first dish, my Shan noodle was presented to the guests. It is noodle soup with pork curry. Shan noodle is very popular in Myanmar (Burma). Since my parents run a noodle shop back home, I had no difficulty making the family food. “We are noodle folk. Broth runs through our veins,” if I may quote from the movie, Kung Fu Panda. The guests enjoyed the Shan noodle but commented that the serving was too big as they wanted to try other food as well. Luckily for Shihao Tian ’12 from China, I had reduced the serving size, so that the guests were able to enjoy his Kung Pao chicken, the glorious outcome of his decision to learn to cook during summer. Kung Pao chicken is fried with garlic, onion, cashews, and dry chili peppers. Tian’s authentic specialty proved to be especially popular among the guests as two large bowls of chicken were gone in a very short time.
After Tian’s Kung Pao chicken, Professor Anthony Zhang (foreground), Chinese Fulbright Scholar and professor of Chinese, and Ke Shang ’13 from China served the highly-anticipated Chinese meat pies. These meat pies were fried dumplings stuffed with a mix of grounded beef and vegetables. The demand for the meat pies was very high among the guests. Even after the event was over, there were still many people waiting about in the hope that there might be more these delicious pies.
Originally, we planned to serve only the above three dishes for the event as we anticipated no more than 50 people to show up. In fact, more than a hundred guests showed up, and this unexpectedly large number pleasantly surprised the organizers. To accommodate the greater number of the guests, we decided to cook more dishes—stir-fried bean sprouts, spring rolls, fried rice, and Navajo fry breads. For the stir-fried bean sprouts, the duty fell into the hands of Tian, our main chef of the evening, who also impressed the people in the kitchen with his masterful pan-flipping skill.
Tan Le ’10 from Vietnam, President of International Club, cooked spring rolls and Vietnamese fried rice. Moreover, two American students, Alex Burner ’10 and Will Thomas ’11 contributed to the variety of food by making Navajo fry breads. The Open House event finally closed at 8, an hour later than originally planned. Although the organizers, especially the chefs, were tired and hungry after the cookout, they were delighted with the success of the event.
This event showed the rising level of diversity and cultural awareness at Hampden-Sydney. The Hampden-Sydney International House has contributed significantly to this higher level of awareness on campus. It is located in the Fraternity Circle between the Minority Student Union (MSU) and Women’s Guest House, and the house has an open door policy to everyone.
You can do anything with a degree from Hampden-Sydney College. That is only partially true; a Hampden-Sydney Man can do anything. Along with eleven high school students and five other adults, I spent a week in Tijuana, Mexico, at the end of last July. During this week, we built a house and a retaining wall, and we also spent two of the days working at a local orphanage. Working in the orphanage gave us the opportunity not only to work with the kids in the orphanage but also in the surrounding community. The orphanage system in Mexico greatly differs from that in the United States. The Mexican system runs under the one strike policy which means that if the government takes children from unfit parents, the children stay in the orphanage until they are 18. As a result, many parents voluntarily turn their children over to the orphanage in the hope of retrieving them when the parents’ lives become more stable. Although these children live in less than desirable situations, they have a tremendous spirit of hope as their lives in the orphanage are better than their lives would be in the community.
My experiences on “the Hill” enriched my time in Mexico. I took with me the Hampden-Sydney tradition of saying “Hello” to everyone you pass. A smile and the simple word “Hola” go a long way in attempting to cross the language barrier. The other Hampden-Sydney experience that paid off in Tijuana was the numerous hours spent in Bagby Hall learning Spanish from Professor Iglesias.
On our second night, we visited a local area church to participate in worship. On the way home, our van got separated from the rest of the group and we found ourselves lost in downtown Tijuana. I resorted to my Mesa de Español days in trying to pick out key terms in order to understand what was being said. Although the only directions that I could make out from the man at the gas station were, “You need to ask the taxi driver at the Chinese restaurant,” we were still able to find our way back to the church where the rest of the group was waiting.
It is the liberal arts education that I have received at the College which makes life outside of these gates so promising. An example of this promise is my brother Justin, a 2003 graduate and the youth minister of the church whose members went to Mexico. It is the experiences in and out of the classroom and the knowledge of broad and diverse topics that allows one to thrive in the world. The ability to understand the struggles people are facing because of NAFTA, the ability to communicate with those of a foreign country, and the ability to be an example of a “good man and good citizen” are all things that come with studying on “the Hill.” It is not the degree he receives that makes a Hampden-Sydney Man, it is the experiences he receives while earning that degree that prepares him for the future.
In the summer of 2002, John David Gibson ’03 interned for the United States Studies Institute within the University of London. The program has around 30 students and seven professors. Subjects focus on American politics, history, and economics. His work involved contacting American universities and spreading the word about the program.
He also attended many of the seminars held by the Institute. Professors from several universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, gave lectures on various topics including the relationship between America and Great Britain and on America’s foreign policy after September 11.
According to John David, “To my surprise, I learned that Lady Thatcher had been the sponsor of the program for 11 years. She retired this summer and the institute held a celebration in her honor. I had the privilege of not only to meet her but also to discuss her relationship with Ronald Reagan, the potential of war with Iraq, and how beautiful she thinks Virginia is.”
For “International Week,” November 11 – 17, President Walter Bortz and Mrs. Bortz hosted a dinner at their home, Middlecourt, on Monday, November 12, for the 15 students who attended semester and year abroad programs in 2000-2001. Students had the opportunity to talk directly to the President about their abroad experiences and for him to hear first-hand some of the wonderful stories. (See “An Incredible Experience,” )
Sharon Sercombe, H-SC Coordinator of International Studies, was part of the panel that discussed “International Exchange” on Wednesday, November 14, at Longwood College in nearby Farmville.
On September 6, many of the nearly 60 Hampden-Sydney students who had engaged in international study during the past year gathered to talk about their experiences.
Most frequently used expressions: “I would go back in a heart beat,” “It was good for me,” “I made great friends,” “It made me appreciate Hampden-Sydney.” Consensus: the food was so, so; it rains a great deal in the British Isles, much beer and wine was consumed; we learned a lot, and it was an incredible experience.
For Hampden-Sydney students who grew up in small towns, one of the greatest adjustments was to city life. During a metro strike in Paris, David Price ’02 from Collinsville, VA, who was with the Sweet Briar Program, had to walk two and half hours to class. “Really, once you get to understand how the French think and what their ideas are and what their customs are, they are very nice people, and I made numerous friends.”
For Edward Finnerty ’02 from Charleston, SC, Dublin was a challenge. Good public transportation is nonexistent, “everyday something happened, but you just had to laugh.” Despite the municipal shortcomings, Teddy, who studied psychology at Trinity College, asserts that in Dublin, “every night was a brand new experience; it was really fun. Anybody our age should definitely go there…just to witness the madness.”
Logan Wanamaker ’02 spent a year in Granada. He stayed with a host family for the first semester. “It was a little overwhelming when they picked me up and drove me into the city; I am from a small town [Durango, CO] and had never lived in a city.” Second semester, Logan lived in an apartment downtown with two young Italian women and two young Spanish women, which was “a big switch from Hampden-Sydney. First semester I got in a rut and I was hanging out with Americans and going out with Americans but once I moved in with my other roommates, my Spanish really took off.” He spent free days on the beach at la Costa del Sol and on weekends went skiing in the Sierra Nevada. “I brought my skis over and made great friends up at the ski resort, so I had buddies that I got to go skiing with. To have something that you really enjoy to share with someone from another country was really special to me.” He traveled all over Spain, to southern Portugal, Morocco, into the Sahara by camel to Marrakech, to Majorca, and through the Basque country. “Now when I look at a map of Spain I know what every town looks like and all the history behind it. It was an incredible experience.”
McKay Johnson ’02 from Atlanta, GA, studied international business at the University of Victoria in Wellington, New Zealand. He traveled all over New Zealand, which is “absolutely beautiful, very green, mountains everywhere.” The New Zealanders call hiking tramping, and McKay did plenty of tramping. The study was initiative based. There were no textbooks; it was up to you how much you learned, and people there study “real hard.” The New Zealanders are “absolutely great people, friendly, real nice.” He encountered the indigenous Moari culture that, although poorly treated in the beginning, the New Zealanders did not try to exterminate them as was done to the indigenous populations in the United States and Australia. Today, the two cultures live well together. McKay visited Australia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Burma. “It is incredible [in Burma] to see the struggle that is going on for human rights.” He spent a month in China traveling from Hong Kong to Beijing meeting local people. “It was an incredible experience. The government is screwed up, but I cannot tell you how nice the people are and how beautiful the country is.”
Bert Drummond ’02 from Hampton, VA, participated in the Antioch College Program in Germany, Poland, Hungary, and the United Kingdom. There were 11 students in the program with a 23-year old Polish leader: according to Bert, “she is beautiful with a moving personality.” The program centered on an independent research project based on interviews and experiences. “Our professor, Manfred McDowell, is a brilliant man and an atheist, which contrasted to me as a Christian, and one of my majors is religion. My independent study had to do with the theory of secularization in terms of Europe. I had to be extremely objective and use nothing but facts and data in writing. It was really challenging for me and healthy. Poland and Hungary are extraordinary places with extraordinary people. Hungary has a large Romanian population who, believe it or not, are more discriminated against than African-Americans in the United States. In the Polish villages, people are under such [economic] duress. They are in a completely different situation than we are; yet, we had so much in common when we talked to each other. I lived with a Jewish family in Budapest; Jewish life in Europe, especially Central Europe, is an whole different world.”
“We stayed in London for a month. We went from Poland where people are warm, compassionate, and friendly to London where everyone is not so warm, compassionate, and friendly. England is an extremely secular society. I think I saw the sun for maybe two consecutive hours on one day, but you get used to it after awhile. It was so fun, so fun.”
Six Hampden-Sydney students participated in the Virginia Program at Oxford and studied at St. Anne’s College. According to Kerr Ramsay of Raleigh, NC, dormitory life was less than luxurious, “the shower was the size of a toilet,” but “the library you study in was founded by James I, I think about the time of Jamestown. In the upper reading rooms you can see where Charles I had his government during the English Civil War and there is a place where you can still see the burn marks where Bloody Mary [Mary Tudor] burned Protestants at the stake.”
Andrew Walshe ’02, from Herndon, VA, spent a year at the London School of Economics. “It was more work than I thought it would be, but it was a good experience.” The school was filled with a very diverse group of people and “absolutely brilliant” people. “I was just hanging on for dear life at the beginning, but, by the end of it, I was doing OK, and everything worked out really well. We had amazing lecturers. It was tremendous. After lectures, you go to class with graduate students; every graduate assistant I had was from a different country: England, Germany, Italy, Greece, and Holland. On all, it was good experience and a good time. Living in London was tremendous.”
Andy Yarborough ’02, Gulf Shores, AL, studied for a semester at James Cook University in Cairns, Australia, a small, about 3000, university on the northeast coast. He lived in student lodge with students from all over world. “The land is unbelievable: it is nearly impossible to be bored: you can draw so much enjoyment from the land.” In his indigenous studies courses, Andy learned that the treatment of Aborigines was comparable to that of Native Americans, and race relations in Australia are still delicate. He went out into different aboriginal communities and befriended a head of a clan who took him out into the bush, interpreted aboriginal rock art, and to ancient initiation sites. “I was lucky to be able to go and to get in with the people I did. I saw places where land is still totally pristine and untouched by civilization, a far cry from anything that I have seen in the States.”