A Travellerspoint blog

January 2015

Walking in a Choral Wonderland

sunny 85 °F


So this has been an even longer hiatus from blogging than usual. The busier I get the more daunting the task becomes, but I will do my best to pack it all in. This will mostly be a holiday post so gather up all the holiday spirit that hasn’t been sucked out of you in the past month and enjoy.
First of all, I have never before realized how seasonally dependent I am to gauge the passage of time. Living in New York for most of my life has made me expect painfully cold days preceding the holidays. However, living in a constant state of summer has disoriented me and December seemed to come out of nowhere. I know everyone reading this in the Northeast will resent me, but I miss the cold (to a degree), I wish I could have just one day of snow when it is beautiful and pristine. I am sick of being sweaty and all I want is to bundle up in an adorably oversized sweater. I have a feeling I am going to be an even bigger wimp that I usually am about the cold next winter, but initially appreciative (I’m sure it won’t last). Try to appreciate the nostalgic value of a snow storm next time you are cursing the weather.

For those who do not know me well, my birthday is on December 24th, Christmas Eve, and consequently I have always been quite obsessed with the holiday season. The music, chilly air, food, family and friends is enough to make my heart swell with joy. Needless to say, this holiday season was quite different than all of the rest. My birthday was lovely, I went to my field directors house with the other world teach volunteers and had a holiday party (but lets make this about me and pretend it was a birthday party). We ate and they bought me a cake (very sweet of them) and Erin even bought me an apple pie because she knows that’s what I always have on my birthday  Erin, Todd, Rebeka (another volunteer) and I danced A LOT while the rest of the lame people watched us (feeling only envy for how fun we are, I’m sure). It concluded with everyone watching the movie “The Holiday.” Overall it was a very successful evening.

I slept at Erin’s house that night and spent most of Christmas with her host family. The Marshallese are very religious (I have a few students who have dedicated their journals to saving my soul…. I don’t know who told them it needed saving, but they are on it) and I knew they spent a long time at church on Christmas. I didn’t anticipate spending every single minute of the day at church into the next morning. We woke up and had a charming breakfast with freshly fried hot dogs and pancakes (a Marshallese classic) and headed off to church for a 3 hour mass in Marshallese. It was pleasant but I had no idea what they were saying, so I ended up zoning out a few times. After the mass Erin and I slipped away to Todd’s house to skype our families. It was very nice to see everyone but also quite surreal not to be there. Also, I find skyping with several people on the screen slightly overwhelming as it is, sorry to my family if I seemed a little dazed. Then we returned to church (the others never left) and they started the beat team performances. Different groups from all around the island practice for over a month every night of the week until after midnight to prepare for these performances. They sing and dance and wear brightly colored coordinated shirts and some guy stands in the front and blows a whistle. Generally, its quite fun to watch, however each performance lasted about 30 minutes, with about 5-10 minutes of material repeated over and over again. It was really fun to watch them dance and even more exciting to hear the Marshallese music, but I could help but think they could have benefitted from an editor. There were at least 14 beat teams, each with about 30 minutes of material and at least 30 minutes in between because no one is ever worried about time in the RMI. If you do the math, you realize that church lasted until around 2am. I was on the executive board of the Musical Theatre Club my senior year of college and a major part of that job was cutting down numbers when they dragged or took up too much time as well as solidifying quick transitions. I couldn’t help but thinking of how the MTC “LadE-board” could help this show move along. Regardless of my production critiques it was fun to see the performances and even more fun to watch the thousands of young children running around without a care in the world or restraints from anyone what so ever. The best part of each performance occurred at the very end. Everyone on the beat team got into a sort of conga line and “step-touched” out of the room while throwing treats into the crowd. Candy, gum, quarters, chips, packages of ramen…you name it, they threw it. All of the kids ran around like crazy trying to collect as much as they could and the rest of us just had to hope that we didn’t lose an eye from the shrapnel. Don’t underestimate those old Marshallese women.. They have the strength of a college softball pitcher. It’s remarkable how painful a gumball pitched at your eye can feel. One group threw out some fruit into the crowd and I managed to save Erin’s host mothers life by catching a rogue orange before it smashed into her face. Am I a hero? Some seem to think so, but I try to stay humble.

Another exciting part of this holiday season was the arrival of all of the World Teach volunteers from the outer islands. It took several days of canceled boats and planes, but eventually everyone made it to Majruo. Even though we only really spent one month together it still felt like being reunited with old friends. Living with people for a whole month without privacy and experiencing something so new and indescribable, speeds up the bonding process a bit. Many of the visitors stayed in my apartment, which was way more fun than it was over crowded, to my delight. It was very strange to be constantly social though. My perspective of this year has changed significantly from the beginning and has become one of comfortable solitude for the most part. I am very lucky to have Erin, Joann and Todd as support systems, but I spend a lot of time on my own reading, playing ukulele and writing. When you are around 30 people who haven’t spoken English in the past four months, the social shock can be overwhelming. A few times, I had to pretend to go to the bathroom and just take a moment to sit in silence. It seems to me that this is a peek into some culture shock I will be experiencing when I return to the states in four and a half months. That being said, it was so fun to see everyone and hear about their experiences. Most had the same complaint, that the food was horrible for you and eating only white rice, pancakes, doughnuts and boiled fish was getting old. I am absolutely thankful that I have the freedom to both live on my own and buy my own food, it has made a huge difference in my health and nutrition this year compared to many volunteers. The type II diabetes and obesity rate in the RMI is astoundingly high and after seeing the common diet, I understand why. After complaining about all of our grievances we were able to spend time together at “mid-service,” which is a three day program funded by world teach that includes staying at the fancy resort, watching presentations and eating delicious meals. Again, hot showers are a thing of luxury and I implore you to never take them for granted again. Also, sleeping on a real mattress was a dream, but still nothing compared to the shower. Overall, mid-service was a great success and I hope that I am able to see some of the outer island volunteers again before we all leave for good.

Another extremely fun event in the Marshall Islands is “Block Party” which occurs on New Years Eve. On the night before new years, when all of my American friends were gathered around the T.V to watch a shiny ball slowly descend, the people of the Marshall Islands shut down the main road (basically only road) and set up a concert area and booths with food and booze. Everyone come out and parties in the street together, eating, drinking, dancing and laughing. It was SO much fun, probably one of my favorite nights of the year. It was especially fun getting a chance to party with all the volunteers. We also made some Swedish friends who were super cool and I hope the universe makes our paths mysteriously cross again someday. They were Alex, Henrick and Christian, all under the age of 30 (Alex was only 20, having just graduated from school the year before) and sailing around the world. The boys had saved money after graduating as Engineers and decided to buy a small boat, learn how to sail it, and sail around the world. They had been out at sea for a year and a half and had seen more countries than I can count. Alex went to New Zealand with the intention of living there for a year and working, then she met the guys and they invited her to sail with them, so she ditched her New Zealand plans and is sailing around the world instead. Imagine telling your mom that you met these two guys and decided to sail around the world with them on a tiny boat…at the age of 20. My mother would not be down, (honestly even a risk taker like me would second guess that decision), but her family seemed to take it in stride and she’s having a great time. Sweden in general seems chill based on my fast friends.

That sums up most of my holiday endeavors. Now that school has started I am back trying to convince myself that I am teacher and stumbling my way through the year. A retired professor from Dartmouth and a current junior from Dartmouth flew in a few weeks ago to start working on a musical that will be performed in March. The professor, Andrew Garrod, was a teacher in the education department for 25 years, then retired and now travels around the world bringing youth theater to populations that would otherwise go without. He has directed several Shakespearian plays and musicals in the Marshall Islands as well as Romeo and Juliet in Bosnia and Rwanda. He is a fascinating man and I am happy to say that I am a part of the production team for this years production of Guys and Dolls. It’s a wonderful, cute musical that I was lucky enough to perform in several years ago, so I am excited to see what happens with the show. I’ve led a few improvisational warm up games and am helping where ever they seem to need me the most. Dr. Garrod actually has a documentary coming out about his production of Romeo and Juliet in Rwanda entitled “Rwanda and Juliet.” It sounds really interesting and I hope I get a chance to see it when it comes out, keep an eye out for it if you are interested!

I have also been stressing out lately due to the amount of work surrounding graduate school applications. I have decided to make the most of being on Majuro, rather than the outer islands, and utilize my access to technology to try to take the next step in my academic career. I am applying to dual masters programs in both social work and public health. If I get into both programs at the same school I will be able to integrate the course work and emerge in 3 year with both an MSW and MPH. I think the program would be a great fit for me and my future goals. The trouble is, you have to apply to the School of Social Work and the School of Public Health separately for every University, so it doubles the work and the stress. I have decided to apply to Ohio State, SUNY Albany, Boston University and Temple University. I spent basically every second of Friday, Saturday and Sunday this week finishing my essay for each program and am happy to say all of my applications have been successfully submitted, well before each deadline! This is only possible because I am privileged to have very supportive parents who agreed to not only support my decision emotionally, but also financially. I sincerely want to thank my parents for all of their help throughout my whole life and in this specific situation. I would not be the person I am today if it weren’t for the opportunities provided by you. While paying for graduate school tuition, books and living expenses is reasonably my sole responsibility, they agreed to pay for my application fees, which are very expensive and add up quickly. I planned on applying to the University of Colorado as well, but the cost was getting ridiculous, so I removed it from my list. Now I am just playing the wait and worry game. Hopefully I find out before I leave here. Whatever happens is for the best and if I am unsuccessful in terms of acceptance, I’m sure I will find something worthwhile to do in the meantime while I figure things out. As they say in Marshallese, “Enaaj Emman,”meaning “it will be good.” If you are interested in the specific areas I am interested in studying and pursing long term I have posted my essay for the Temple University MSW program before this entry. If you are not interested in learning more, don’t read it and rest assured that I am not offended.

This seems like a good update for now. Until next time folks!

Posted by gabbyfo 15:08 Archived in Marshall Islands Comments (0)

Excerpt from my Graduate School Application Essay

Only for those interested...

WARNING: this has very little to do with the Marshall Islands (although there is a few references). This is an excerpt from the personal statement I wrote for one graduate school program and rather than go into depth about my graduate school goals and bore many readers, I thought it would be wise to just pass along my explanation for those interested. Feel free to ignore this post and scroll up to the next one, which details my holiday endeavors and island shenanigans. Otherwise, here is a piece of my essay and a look into my future goals......

"My interest in pursuing social work has stemmed from several experiences working with low income populations. During my sophomore year of high school, I traveled to Tijuana, Mexico and helped build a house with the organization Amor Ministries. I quickly fell head over heels in love with the 5 year old girl whose house we were building and we managed to forge a bond that rivals many of those I have made in America. It was the first time I was able to truly appreciate the kind, funny and hardworking individuals that make up each piece of the statistics on “impoverished populations.” I spent the next three years of my life traveling to Tijuana every spring break, meeting new people whose lives I was blessed to play a small role in. Those experiences inspired me to pursue a college degree in psychology and a concentration in sociology.

My undergraduate experience further developed my passion to work with vulnerable populations. During my junior year of college, I was fortunate enough to acquire a job working as a counselor at the Mount Hope Family Center in Rochester, NY. The program focused on working with children who lived in low socioeconomic areas, many of whom were victims of abuse or neglect. The difficult situations these children were facing led them to seek negative attention. My job was to create lessons that aimed to help the children discuss and handle their emotions in a healthy way. I heard stories from these children daily about their heartbreaking living situations, describing toxic environments with parents who were suffering from substance abuse, mental illness and STD’s. Many of these situations led to developmental disabilities or emotional problems that limited the children’s ability to succeed in school and impeded their future potential. I also met a number of young women who were submerged in the world of teen motherhood without many supportive life lines. These situations occurred often and it was not uncommon for me to come home from Mount Hope feeling physically and emotionally exhausted. Despite the taxing nature of the job, I still found myself eager to return each day. I was driven by the prospect of a breakthrough. The exhaustion always felt worth it when I saw a child attempting to control their anger by utilizing the strategies we worked on during a group lesson. I find purpose and passion in playing a part in these tiny miracles.

Presently, I am working as a volunteer teacher in a low-income high school in Majuro, Republic of the Marshall Islands on a yearlong contract. My experiences here have bolstered my ambition to work with low socioeconomic communities. It has also increased my desire to study social welfare issues in at-risk areas with focuses on mental health and sexual health. Teen pregnancy is remarkably high in the RMI, leading dozens of girls to drop out of high school each term, many of which are my students. However, sexual health is a taboo topic that is rarely discussed within families or schools. Similarly, youth suicide rates are alarmingly high and nationwide surveys have indicated that families seriously underreport them due to cultural stigma. I have made these issues a priority and I am currently organizing a two-week intensive seminar to educate my students about sexual health strategies. Additionally, I am creating a program that will educate students and community members about the realities of mental illness and the suicide statistics in the country, in an attempt to start a dialogue concerning these issues, provide resources and offer myself as a source of support for students suffering from depression. My experiences in Mexico, Rochester and the Marshall Islands have impacted my life on a personal level and subsequently a professional level, inspiring me to pursue a career in social work.

I am most interested in studying stigmatized social issues including mental illness and sexual health in vulnerable populations. Stigma surrounding mental illness stems from the unreasonable expectation that mental illness is a matter of personal strength and that suffering individuals should “toughen up and get over it.” This mentality leads to decreased self-esteem in victims and a de-valuation of their problems. In the Marshall Islands, even when grieving the loss of a loved one, it is highly discouraged to exhibit feelings of sadness or depression. Similarly, the students I worked with in Rochester found it difficult to discuss their emotions for fear of appearing weak. Mental health is not considered to be as legitimate as many physical ailments. It would be unreasonable for someone to claim that a cancer patient just needs to change the way they think about the world and “toughen up” as the sole treatment option, however it is a common suggestion for those suffering with mental illness.
Stigma surrounding sexual health issues are most detrimental in the lives of women raised in vulnerable communities. These individuals often have little access to sexual health education and resources, increasing their chances of STD’s and teen pregnancy. Society often expects women to accept criticism and sole responsibility when dealing with these issues, ignoring their cultural context. My Marshallese students facing social stigma due to teen pregnancy are exclusively young women; the fathers are rarely involved, escaping the shame and long term repercussions of their actions. Despite the astoundingly high rates of teen pregnancy, social stigma has led these young women to remain uneducated about basic genital anatomy, birth control and sexual health in general. Society condemns these women, holding them solely responsible and offers no resources or means of support, largely due to the “discomfort” that surrounds discussion of the topic.

Overall, the realm of mental illness and sexual health includes social stigma that projects feelings of shame. This shame leads the victims to de-legitimize their own problems, viewing their troubles as a sign of personal weakness that should be hidden and ultimately perpetuating the stigma surrounding the topic. Members of vulnerable populations are already faced with oppression in terms of inadequate access to resources and societal de-valuation of individuals. Women, immigrants, racial minorities, disabled and homeless individuals must prove themselves as legitimate and capable, as opposed to privileged groups who are assumed to be so. This de-valuation leads privileged groups to assume that the aforementioned populations are merely trying to gain government resources and sympathies when they are faced with mental illness, substance abuse, teen pregnancy, STD’s or single motherhood. The generalization of these groups is detrimental to the wellbeing of these individuals, yet the contextualization of their lives is necessary to consider when addressing their hardships. The lack of awareness concerning cultural influence and discomfort surrounding these topics leads to social stigma that not only prevents support from society as a whole, but also impedes discussion and support between victims within these communities.

Recognizing the influence social systems have over the lives and struggles of individuals, especially in vulnerable populations, is the core reason I am so passionate about dedicating my life to the pursuit of social justice. Social justice is only possible when facilitated by others and I feel that I am most capable of achieving this goal through a career in social work. I believe that working with individuals concerning stigmatized mental health and sexual health struggles by legitimizing their problems and encouraging self-respect is necessary. However, only working on the individual level is not truly addressing the root of the problem and is placing a band aid on a gunshot wound, so to speak. Cultural influence is an equally important issue to address and social support is necessary while striving to increase the overall wellbeing of these victims. My professional goals are to create and implement community outreach programs that address issues of mental illness and sexual health in an attempt to facilitate conversations surrounding these stigmatized topics and provide resources that can be shared and utilized. These programs could act both as preventative measures as well as supportive means for victims. Opening up the possibility for community support could lead victims to seek the help they need and emerge from the isolated depths of shame that society has projected on their situations. I believe that the combination of individual therapy and community outreach is necessary when seeking social justice for vulnerable populations dealing with mental illness and sexual health, and I would like to spend my life facilitating this union."

Posted by gabbyfo 15:02 Archived in Marshall Islands Comments (0)

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