Halfway There: What I've Learned From My National Student Exchange

Halfway There: What I've Learned From My National Student Exchange

A once in a lifetime experience I'm glad I've had the opportunity to do.
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I have spent this semester away from my home school thanks to National Student Exchange (NSE). I’ve been able to escape the cold of Massachusetts for sunny Miami, Florida. My journey has taken me to Florida International University (FIU). I went into this semester hoping to try new things, explore places I’ve never been, and learn about a culture completely different than my own. So far, this semester is exceeding my expectations.

My host school has an NSE club that includes members from outside schools that have come for the semester and students from FIU that have gone on exchanges in the past. This group has been amazing at coordinating events (most of them free of charge) for me to partake in. One of my favorites was a meal at the famous Bubba Gump Shrimp Company followed by a bay cruise through the port of Miami and past the homes of the rich and famous. The views are stunning and the homes are breathtaking. Seeing Miami from the water made me fall in love with this city so much more.

My group has also done events on campus such as attending movie nights and football games. It’s great to know I have a group of people I can turn to if I need someone to attend an event with me. The next two months are going to be packed with more events: Jungle Island, snorkeling on Key Largo, a Chainsmokers concert, South Beach trip, and more! Being able to experience all that Miami as to offer in the short time I’m here has made the adventure more than I ever dreamed of.

It’s important to remember that it isn’t all fun and games; you must do well in your classes as well. I decided to venture out and take a science course that they don’t offer at my home school: Ecology of South Florida. I’ve learned about the unique plants and animals that call this area home and have had the chance to go on field trips throughout South Florida. We explored the beaches of Key Biscayne, went snorkeling, and hiked trails in Johnathon Dickinson State Park. Coming up, we’ll be exploring the Everglades and going on a swamp walk through Big Cypress Swamp. These trips are taking me to places I never would’ve gone on my own and I they’re some of the most beautiful places I’ve been.

I’ve been able to practice my Spanish quite often as there is a large Hispanic and Cuban population in Miami. Being a picky eater, I was hesitant to try some of their traditional foods, but pastelitos are my new favorite treat. I’m still getting used to the southern hospitality where everyone goes out of their way to say hello and make you feel welcomed. Many people run on “Cuban time” meaning 15 minutes late is actually on time (this is great for class). It’s amazing to be able to experience a unique culture without having to leave the United States.

If you’re considering doing an exchange, look into National Student Exchange. They have over 200 schools in the United States, Canada, U.S. Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Guam from which you can choose to visit. Many of the options are more affordable than an international exchange which is why I chose this program. I’ve never felt so welcomed and part of a community like I do at FIU. Deadlines to apply for next year’s programs are coming up soon so start doing your research! I promise you won’t regret it.

Cover Image Credit: Florida International University

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I Visited The "Shameless" Houses And Here's Why You Shouldn't

Glamorizing a less-than-ideal way to live.
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After five hours of driving, hearing the GPS say "Turn right onto South Homan Avenue" was a blessing. My eyes peeled to the side of the road, viciously looking for what I have been driving so long for, when finally, I see it: the house from Shameless.

Shameless is a hit TV show produced by Showtime. It takes place in modern-day Southside, Chicago. The plot, while straying at times, largely revolves around the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. While a majority of the show is filmed offsite in a studio in Los Angeles, many outside scenes are filmed in Southside and the houses of the Gallagher's and side-characters are very much based on real houses.

We walked down the street, stopped in front of the two houses, took pictures and admired seeing the house in real life. It was a surreal experience and I felt out-of-place like I didn't belong there. As we prepared to leave (and see other spots from the show), a man came strolling down on his bicycle and asked how we were doing.

"Great! How are you?"

It fell silent as the man stopped in front of the Gallagher house, opened the gate, parked his bike and entered his home. We left a donation on his front porch, got back to the car and took off.

As we took the drive to downtown Chicago, something didn't sit right with me. While it was exciting to have this experience, I began to feel a sense of guilt or wrongdoing. After discussing it with my friends, I came to a sudden realization: No one should visit the "Gallagher" house.

The plot largely revolves the Gallagher family and their continual struggle with (extreme) poverty. It represents what Southside is like for so many residents. While TV shows always dramatize reality, I realized coming to this house was an exploitation of their conditions. It's entertaining to see Frank's shenanigans on TV, the emotional roller coasters characters endure and the outlandish things they have to do to survive. I didn't come here to help better their conditions, immerse myself in what their reality is or even for the donation I left: I came here for my entertainment.

Southside, Chicago is notoriously dangerous. The thefts, murders and other crimes committed on the show are not a far-fetched fantasy for many of the residents, it's a brutal reality. It's a scary way to live. Besides the Milkovich home, all the houses typically seen by tourists are occupied by homeowners. It's not a corporation or a small museum -- it's their actual property. I don't know how many visitors these homes get per day, week, month or year. Still, these homeowners have to see frequent visitors at any hour of the day, interfering with their lives. In my view, coming to their homes and taking pictures of them is a silent way of glamorizing the cycle of poverty. It's a silent way of saying we find joy in their almost unlivable conditions.

The conceit of the show is not the issue. TV shows have a way of romanticizing very negative things all the time. The issue at hand is that several visitors are privileged enough to live in a higher quality of life.

I myself experienced the desire and excitement to see the houses. I came for the experience but left with a lesson. I understand that tourism will continue to the homes of these individuals and I am aware that my grievances may not be shared with everyone -- however, I think it's important to take a step back and think about if this were your life. Would you want hundreds, potentially thousands, of people coming to your house? Would you want people to find entertainment in your lifestyle, good and bad?

I understand the experience, excitement, and fun the trip can be. While I recommend skipping the houses altogether and just head downtown, it's most important to remember to be respectful to those very individuals whose lives have been affected so deeply by Shameless.

Cover Image Credit: itsfilmedthere.com

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I Was Thrown Into Dragon Boat Racing And I Loved It

I tried dragon boat racing for the first time not knowing I was going to be doing it and loved it.

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I recently was invited by my boyfriend to paddle a dragon boat. Little did I know this was going to be a race. Neither of us expected it to turn out as intense as it did. I thought it was going to be a semi-leisurely paddle around a lake. There were twelve teams that raced in two heat races then were seeded in a final race. Our team ended up taking 5th place out of the 12 teams which was pretty good for a team who's never raced a dragon boat.

The teams were made up of 21 people each and a coach. There were 20 rowers and one drummer. The drummer's job was to keep the beat of our pace so that we all knew what speed to paddle at. As rowers, we had to paddle in sync. I didn't think it was going to be as difficult as it was. The coach steered the boat and somewhat directing our moves.

The tricky part of paddling is that you had to keep your top arm straight. To propel the boat forward you lean forward and pull your core back to pull water to the back of the boat. There was very little arm movement involved in paddling. The bigger people with more muscles were seated in the middle of the boat as "the engine" while smaller and weaker individuals were towards the front and back. I sat in the very back of the boat next to a female about the same size as me.

The boat was the shape of a canoe but was much longer. There were 10 rows of benches and a seat in the front that faced the rowers. The front and the back were much narrower than the middle. The front and the back of the boat had a dragon head and tail on them, respectively. The coach stood in the back with a large paddle that hooked to the back to steer.

Rowing the boat was therapeutic. It was a great way to focus frustration from my week into something productive. It also made me feel strong and powerful. Additionally, it fostered a sense of team between the people rowing the boat. We all were enthusiastic and went out there to have fun but also try to win. Many of the people on the boat were my boyfriend's family who I have never met. I think this was an interesting way to meet the family and I would definitely do it again.

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