Study Abroad Essay Contest 2013

Second Place
Susan Biskup

I'm 56 years old and the middle of seven children born to hard working and loving parents.  As a large family with financial limits, we were unable to travel internationally while I was growing up.   However, I “traveled globally” through books and movies, vicariously exploring the world through the stories and pictures of other’s trips secretly longing for an international adventure of my own. I even traveled through the "adoption" of children sponsored through Compassion International from Tanzania, exchanging letters and pictures as our sponsored children grew into adulthood.  While I learned much from these cultural experiences, I excitedly realized that global connections were strengthening in our country and around the world.  International travel was fast becoming more accessible to so many often through educational opportunities.

My personal “Global Connection” came when I least expected it. As a campus counselor at Wilkes University, I curiously read 'Wilkes today' announcements daily.  Perusing the activities one morning, I saw it...the announcement of a trip planned by Louise and Tony Berard, faculty of Wilkes University and Kings College Campus's respectively.  I felt as though a personal invitation was coming my way to join together with faculty, staff, and students of the Wilkes University and Kings College communities to travel to Sienna Italy, a trip fondly referred to as “Under the Tuscan Sun” by Tony and Louise!

When we arrived in Italy, I felt an overwhelming sense that we were walking back in time in the presence of greatness of those who had walked before us.  From the moment our tour guides Rita and Marguerite spoke to us in their “Italian English” and our feet touched the cobblestone streets of Italy, I was filled with a sense of awe.  The magnificent cathedrals filled with marble and sculptures and the sacred inscriptions connected us with the twelfth century artists and cultures. Our palates were delighted by home -made pasta, chick pea soup, veal, gelato ice cream, pastries  and wine all served with Italian hospitality.  Our eyes were awakened with spectacular artistic expression as we visited Florence, the home of Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci.  I imagined these artists working tirelessly as I walked through the Uffizi art gallery filled with Renaissance art and viewed the magnificent and detailed masterpiece of David.  As we explored medieval museums, our whispering group was quietly and reverently connected.  Conversely, during the wine tasting trip, our traveling companions whom we had only known for a bit became robustly engaged.  I remember fondly the Italian woman who took the time to explain the stories of the frescos.  We communicated deeply through gestures and smiles while our son unexpectedly met a priest at the San Gimignano who had previously taught at Villanova, his alma mater.  These meaningful and diverse moments throughout the trip allowed us to become increasingly aware of our universal human connections. Undoubtedly, our world view was changing.

As I reflect on this experience during Thanksgiving, I realize that all my vicarious experiences of traveling abroad up to this point prepared my senses and "wetted my appetite", but did not compare to the real feast of the actual experience.  The wafting aroma that the books, movies, pictures, and stories provided was but a glimpse of the taste that I so appreciated and savored. Nothing prepared me for the connections I had once only dreamt about.  Our global connections made on our journey bonded us to one another as families, as college communities and most especially to all that was “under the Tuscan sun”.

During my limited experience of traveling abroad, I humbly realized that international travel familiarizes one with rich connections of others, making that which was once deemed foreign as familiar while creating a deep appreciation for the diverse and beautiful culture of others all over the world.  As such, I am profoundly grateful for my travel abroad experience and encourage our Wilkes community to explore every possibility of international travel. I especially invite our students, as future leaders in a global world, to take every opportunity.  These experiences will allow you to be better prepared to work with and appreciate the interwoven beauty of contributions that others from varied cultures bring to education and the workplace.  In doing so, you will come to know that diversity is the true motivator for innovation, success, and human connection.  By experiencing international travel, you will open your eyes and your hearts to the uniqueness of all that abounds and in the process find your authentic self.

Third Place
KarenBeth Bohan

When asked why I went to Africa, I always say, “I didn’t choose Africa but rather Africa chose me.”  And once I decided to go, I thought I was bringing my expertise and charity to help the people of Uganda, but instead I have been the greater beneficiary.  Five years ago, visiting Africa was not on my radar. Sure, I always had dreams of traveling but it was the traditional tourist destinations of London and Paris that made my bucket list. Little did I know that my life was about to change – not just my ideas about where to travel but the whole direction of my scholarly work and focus of teaching as a Pharmacy faculty member at Wilkes University.

I visited Uganda the first time to conduct research on the impact of access to safe water and sanitation on the health of rural villagers in Masindi, Uganda.  The Water Trust (TWT), a non-governmental organization, had asked two Wilkes faculty colleagues in Communications and Anthropology to assess their community water and sanitation project and in turn these faculty offered me the chance to collaborate and work on the health aspect.  As a clinical pharmacist specializing in infectious diseases, the treatment of waterborne infections was part of my teaching curriculum and participating in this research would be a great opportunity to use my knowledge and skills to help others.

Having obtained research approval by the Ugandan government and armed with oral questionnaires to discuss with villagers in communities with and without access to clean water, in the summer of 2011, a pharmacy student and I set off for Uganda. I also wanted to bring some sort of gifts for the people of the country that would be allowing my student and me into their lives.  That summer I distributed 94 knitted and crocheted baby hats and 95 Little Dresses for Africa lovingly made by friends, church members, pharmacy students, and alumni to orphans, health clinics, and a church group. 

Although all of the charity items were graciously received and TWT is thankful for the research efforts, the warmth of our welcome by all the Ugandans we met, the new friends I’ve made, my newfound knowledge of and eyes now open to the health challenges faced daily in the developing world are worth much more. I know first-hand what it means to a village to receive a well and how thankful they are to give their children clean water rather than that from a mud hole.  I’ve also seen villagers collect water from an open, unprotected water source that looks as cloudy and brown as a light café latte.  When asked if they will boil the water prior to drinking the answer was “No, we can’t afford firewood to boil water and make dinner.”  In addition, when ill they walk many kilometers to the health clinic and then wait all day to be seen, just to find out the clinic ran out of medications.  Despite conditions that would easily make Americans outraged, these Ugandans don’t live a life of despair.  In their quiet manner, they patiently walk back to home and set out the next day to a clinic that is even farther away. Living in large family groups, they value community and chip in to help each other in a way that is not common in the U.S.  I learned not to take their patience for lack of caring or understanding about health issues.  The women I spoke with knew that clean water and proper sanitation is critical for improving health and they were as curious about why sickness occurs and what they can do for prevention, as any American parent would be. 

Fast forward a year and I have returned from my second trip to Uganda.  This time I took four pharmacy students who completed an Advanced Pharmacy Practice Experience rotation.  They shared learning experiences with Makerere University pharmacy students in Kampala and volunteered with the Masindi Red Cross, Masindi-Kitara Medical Center, and The AIDS Support Organization.  I have developed a collaborative project with Makerere University, The Pharmaceutical Society of Uganda, and D’Youville College of Pharmacy in New York to help advance the practice of pharmacy in Uganda and develop a curriculum to train pharmacists in Pharmaceutical Care.  As I continue to pursue these projects, I hope to encourage others to step out of their comfort zone, experience the world, and open their eyes.

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