Friday, October 1, 2010

University Considers Strikes

The University of Puerto Rico system is once again considering going on strike. Students are in an uproar regarding the receipt of federal financial aide money. I’ve seen several signs across campus this week illustrating the effects of the delay in scholarship money and blaming the delay on the Governor of Puerto Rico. Today I saw a sign that included statements from students of what they are going without because of the delay in receipt of funds. The list included quotes such as “I am pregnant because I can’t afford condoms”, “I am playing volleyball in Crocs because I can’t buy shoes”, “I can’t afford gasoline”, “I can’t buy textbooks.” While I sympathize with the students, I don’t think blaming the Puerto Rican government and conducting a strike is the correct answer.

Changes made by the Obama administration to the U.S. Department of Education altered the way that federal financial aid is distributed and certified. Unfortunately, as the kinks are worked out of this new system, schools across the country are witnessing two weeks longer of a waiting period for the receipt of federal money(USDE, 2010). My Puerto Rican colleagues aren’t happy. It is evident that the organizers of this strike have not taken the time to research the reasons why they have not yet received their federal financial aide money. If they had, they would have learned that this problem is not confined to Puerto Rico and accordingly is not the fault of Puerto Rican leadership.

According to the Department of Education, federal financial aide or scholarship money is to be used only for expenses directly related to education including housing, textbooks, and matriculation fees. It is a federal offence to use federal financial aid money to purchase condoms and shoes. I will not be so crass as to tell Puerto Rican students to “go get a job”, but students simply cannot rely on the federal government to cover the costs of personal expenses! The delay in receipt of your scholarship money did not make you pregnant, choosing to have unprotected sex made you pregnant.

Obama has been one of the most pro-Puerto Rican presidents in recent years. When taking office the maximum allowance for Pell Grants was 4,050$, “Obama has worked in a bipartisan way on the Senate Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee to achieve an increase in the Pell Grant to $5,400 over the next few years. As President, Obama will continue to work to ensure that the maximum Pell Grant award is increased for low-income students, including Puerto Ricans. (OFA)” This is particularly important when considering that the average cost of public University education in Puerto Rico is under $3,300 per year (UPR, 2010). In fact, my professors at University of Puerto Rico have explained to me that there are huge numbers of students to enroll in a University with no intention of attending classes so as to take home the extra money they receive in scholarships. The University of Puerto Rico places a strong emphasis on attendance because they recognize that, if they don’t, some students will never attend classes.

Like everyone else who receives scholarship money from the federal government, I hope that measures can be taken to streamline the process in the near future. Students should have access to money as soon as is possible. In the meantime, students of the University of Puerto Rico should research the issues and write letters to the U.S. Department of Education instead of going on strike.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


Note: This entry is inspired from and a response to Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s speech which can be found at:

I stopped blogging in Ghana because I didn’t know what stories to tell. During my semester in West Africa I experienced a great deal of pain and at the same time saw some of the best of humanity. I recognized very quickly that for most of my readers and friends I would be the sole “inside look” they had into Africa and I took my responsibility rather seriously. In blogging and telling stories I felt that people want to reconfirm their ideas that Africa is full of poor starving orphans who have never before seen white people. I met several orphans while in Ghana but I doubt that I saw more than five children who were in danger of starvation. The world just isn’t black and white.

One question that I commonly faced was “how were you treated in Ghana”? Lots of stories come to mind. I remember having nearly 1,000 marriage proposals. I ‘ll never forget being called “Madame Vanilla” at the Benin border. I remember being chased by beggars and vendors who assumed that I had money. I remember the many many times that I was called a “colonizer”. There was almost a binary that Americans were both better and worse than Ghanaians and I could never figure out which label applied to which social situation.

As humans I think that we are conditioned to make generalizations. In the field of International Development we are called to observe cultures x and y and make predictions about the plausibility of success of a project in culture z. In Puerto Rico I noticed that the first person I spoke with ended a conversation with “cuidate” [take care] and when a second and third person did such I started saying “cuidate”. This has gotten me into trouble before- my friends in England used the term “bell end” as an adjective implying that someone was a jerk. I heard “bell end” so often that I assumed everyone said it and I said it in front of a group of adults and was quickly told that it is an offensive term.

My experiences bring to mind the story of the blind men touching the elephant and each describing a different piece of the elephant as being a description of the whole elephant. What I experienced in England, Ghana, and Puerto Rico has been a collection of relationships and stories that give me a glimpse into what that elephant may look like.

My solution to combat the problem that Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie describes is to feel lots and lots of parts of the elephants. By travelling extensively and really listening to the people that I met I hope that the generalizations that I am forced to make will be well reasoned. As she suggests, I’m not going to listen to only one story. My experiences in my time abroad have shown me how complex are people and cultures. If we really want to understand we have to listen.

My First Hurricane!

When I think of “hurricanes” I think of the devastation that I witnessed and helped to clear the week after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast. I probably got a bit white in the face as Angel Rivera, the director of International Programs at UPR-Cayey, warned me to not travel outside of Puerto Rico during hurricane season. Puerto Rico is expecting about twelve hurricanes over the next few months, all of which will have some impact on the mountainous city where I live. Last week we received notice of Hurricane Danielle headed toward Puerto Rico. I panicked, envisioning being without electricity for weeks and with a dilapidated house for the remainder of the semester. My mother’s primary concern seemed to be whether the stray dogs around my house would have a safe place to stay.

On Monday morning around 11:00 we began to get heavy rains that immediately flooded the roads around campus. Within an hour the school had lost power and we were rushed home through five inches of water on the streets. Mr. Rivera gave us the option of going to a shelter or remaining in our house. As the other residents of our neighbourhood were evacuated my first reaction was to go to the shelter. Dr. Rivera assured us that hurricanes aren’t really a big deal and sent us home. We had already lost power in our house and our lawn resembled a lagoon. Gabriel, the Canadian that lives in the other half of our duplex, was panicking and was driven to Wal-Mart to purchase a grill on which we could make food during the storm. Gabriel came home with a small Bar-B-Q grille that he set up in his house. After calling a variety of friends to ask, “How do we use a Bar-B-Que grill” we finally were able to create a flame. I think Gabriel used too much gasoline because our food smelled of gasoline fumes.

After dinner we went to bed early. I was awaked around 3:00am by the 85 mph winds that had picked up a chicken and carried her into my bedroom window. There were feathers everywhere and she looked distressed. Eventually the power came back and we went back to class. My recounts of sitting in my house scared to death were met by the laughter of my Puerto Rican classmates. Hurricanes happen here all of the time. Much like Missourians think little of tornadoes and Ghanaians think little of Malaria, hurricanes are just a great excuse to get out of class in Puerto Rico.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

The Day I Lost Nearly All of My Hair

I relish being different. My 6’1 large frame and pale skin will always make me stand out in the southern hemisphere. I’m willing to think progressively and stand up for beliefs even when I am standing alone. My general demeanour got me into some trouble in Ghana: If a Ghanaian colleague said something sexist I would point it out to them. I vocally but respectfully disagreed with the illegality of homosexuality and the way that Western volunteers treat African children. Though I was true to my values, I found it difficult to merge with the culture. In Puerto Rico I decided to do something that I have never done before- I decided to be quiet. I wanted to “sit idly by”. For me, this meant that I was going to merge as best I could with the new culture in which I was living.

My experiment began with analyzing everything I could about the behaviour of my colleagues. I eliminated the “s” sound from my Spanish so as to sound local and I began to carry a side rucksack like all of the Puerto Rican girls. I took every sip of the kool-aid that I could find. As I’ve mentioned before, Puerto Rican females naturally have very curly hair but use chemicals to relax their hair. I smeared this “potion” all over my hair and after 12 minutes of setting, had almost all of my hair fall out in the shower. I now have about ¼ of my normal head of hair and am nearly bald in the front sides of my head. I do not look Puerto Rican.

As elementary as it sounds, no matter how much we evolve there is still a part of us that will always be the same. I can’t change my hair texture any more than I can change my height. I really don’t want to wear skinny jeans in 115 degree heat like everyone else is doing. As much as I try to “be quiet” injustice still makes me squirm. I think that that is just who I am. I am a melting pot of the things I’ve learned in Springfield, Europe, Africa, and Puerto Rico. I am an amalgamation of stories and ideas and thoughts that I’ve found in the faces of the people I have loved.

And… I’m going to stay away from potions.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Process of "Getting It"

This week has been one of the most terrifying of my life. Minute by minute I am challenged to fit in an environment where I am brand new. As I try to piece together the words to set up a payment plan for my rent I am reminded of how very exhausting this all is. I’m a square peg that is becoming transformed to fit in a round hole and the process is so very difficult. My primary objective this week has been to make friends. I found myself googling things like “conversation starters” and “fashion in Puerto Rico” which made me feel very trivial and lame. I can already notice myself being absorbed into the culture. Interestingly, Puerto Ricans speak much more rapidly than other Spanish speakers and also leave the “s” sound out of language; for example, instead of saying “adios” a Puerto Rican says “adio.” These regional language differences have called me to pull my head out of my Spanish textbooks and make the streets my classroom.

I have made a lot of friends thus far in my classes. My colleagues are so very kind and quick to loan me notes or explain concepts to me after class that I did not understand. Now that we are past the introductory-let’s-read-the-syllabus part of the semester it is easier for me to understand the course material. Today’s lecture in my “Historia de Hispanamerica” regarded geographic features of Hispanamerica. I understood about 90% of the lecture, which was exactly the confidence boost that I needed.

In each of my eight classes I have occasionally taken out my Spanish-English dictionary to look up a word that I do not understand- every single time that this has happened the professor has interrupted his/her lecture to explain the word to me and has told me to ask for clarification when needed. In my experiences in the USA, UK, and Ghana international students were all functionally left to figure things out by themselves; I think that at home it would be kind of audacious and selfish to interrupt the class to ask the professor to explain a word that one doesn’t know. Puerto Rico stands out to me because the learning environment really is a community of people trying to help each other- my professors and my classmates really want to help me to learn Spanish. My colleagues have also been very generous in giving me rides around town.

As my professor was explaining pre-Columbian trade during lecture this morning it hit me how surreal it is that I can be in a classroom of people from a different culture learning together in their native language. The world that is opened to me by being a fluent Spanish speaker- the life changing conversations with non-English speakers, the chance to attend schools in South America, and the opportunity to explore Latino culture- justifies every bit of challenge I am having.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

My First Day of Classes

“Bravery is being the only one who knows you're afraid.” –Franklin P. Jones

I have a feeling that I wasn’t the only one who could tell how afraid I was today. I felt like a Kindergarten student getting ready for class- I wore a new dress, hoped that the bullies with water balloons full of bleach didn’t attack me, and tried to put on my biggest smile. As I walked to class I literally stopped traffic as dozens of cars idled in the middle of the road to watch me. As I entered the Humanities building I could feel the watchful stares of the other students. It isn’t easy being white in a Latino world. My first class was scheduled to be “Sociology of Religion in the Caribbean.” I listened intently to a lecture about Buddism, surprised that there was a significant population of Buddhists in Puerto Rico, until I realized that I was in the wrong class. The professor never showed up for the class for which I am scheduled.

My second class was a survey course of Puerto Rican history. The professor spoke so quickly I could barely decipher words. Verbs, nouns, and pronouns ran together as though they were in a high-speed blender. I couldn’t pick out enough syllables that I could look up the words in my dictionary. Friends, this isn’t easy. I wanted to melt in my chair. I could feel my eyes widen in that deer-in-the-headlights way and I considered excusing myself from the class.

But, I’m not giving up. There are so many brave womyn who have tackled things so much bigger than this. As I sat in my chair waiting for the moment when I could return home I thought of all the times Hillary Clinton must be really scared. How does she get through? Rosa Parks must have been terrified when she sat on that bus and watched the scornful eyes of her peers of both races. I think that Clinton and Parks are able to be brave because they both know that they are working toward goals that are bigger than any of us can imagine. Without sounding cliché, I think that Hillary put on her big-girl panties every morning fully aware of the cracks that she was (and is) making in the proverbial glass ceiling. For me, studying in Puerto Rico isn’t just about eating new foods and taking classes- it is about working in the context of a different culture to build a better world. It is about building the fluency in the Spanish language that will be critical for my future work in development in South and Central America. It is about becoming flexible and aware enough that I can be placed in new setting and be fully functional.

I’ll never forget how kind my colleagues were to me today; the girls next to me even reviewed with me the homework assignment after class to be sure that I had written it down correctly. Unlike Rosa and Hillary who were met by the stares of hatred and disdain, I’m being met by stares of curiosity. All in all, I am in a wonderful position for cultural exchange. I am going to take some deep breaths and prepare for the five classes that I have tomorrow.