Success is Made of Small Victories

by Silas, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Kids mixing cement as part of a crafts project to make lamps at my internship. I got to use my experience from past jobs to help them learn how to mix and how much water to use.

In a new place, I find myself fixating on even the littlest events as wins or losses. Noting a small victory is the most encouraging part of life here, no matter how small. Redefining my idea of success was a source of the never ending culture shock of this unfamiliar place. I arrived with big goals of understanding all the bus lines, having long, in-depth conversations with my host parents, or helping a kid with their math homework at my internship. A month in and I still use apps on most commutes, I bumble awkwardly through conversations, and I’m lucky if a kid wants to listen to me. But I have found motivation in the smaller wins while building towards my previous goals.

Usually they are events that I would not have even noticed back home, such as a simple conversation with a kid at my internship. On a beautiful Saturday, I found myself sitting on the sidelines of the kids’ soccer practice. I could not see my skills matching up to the young Uruguayans so I chose not to participate. One of the fifth graders, Tomás, joined me sitting on the stoop and started asking me about my pets. As I told him stories of my dog, George, of his hatred of mailmen, his fear of other dogs, and his unusual preferred treats, I noticed I was not having to plan out what I said, as I usually must with Spanish. Lucas loved it and then loved telling me about the strained relationship between his cat and his dog. Though the conversation lasted just a couple of minutes, I continue to think about it, a testament to how powerful these small victories can be.

Not a day goes by without small defeats, too. Similarly, usually they are things I would not have noticed back home but here, they amplify the general feeling of being a foreigner. Not understanding the layout of a grocery store and then not knowing how to say the ingredient I’m looking for, the interactions made awkward by my repeating of “¿Qué?”, or when the person I’m talking to must ask, “¿Qué?” because of my accent. When these build up, it can be demoralizing,making personal progress feel stagnant. However, it’s important to recognize these as a natural part of life here so they do not cause actual stagnation. Instead, I choose to focus on the absence of small defeats. In my first week, they seemed to far outweigh the small victories but as time has gone on, they inevitably have grown less and less frequent. For example, when Uruguayans ask, “¿Qué hora es?” (“What time is it?”), they blend all the sounds so it comes out as one syllable. This led to me having to ask them to repeat it every time until I began to learn and now I no longer experience this small defeat.

The first meal I cooked for my family, spanakopita. I loved bringing one of my favorite dishes from home to them and though they considered the cheese to be ​picante​, they loved it, too.

My time in Uruguay in the end may be defined by big successes such as becoming fluent in Spanish, making meaningful friendships, or completing a long term project at my internship. But until I am able to look back on it all, my time is defined by finally mastering the secret handshake my students taught me.

The Pizza

by Christopher, Tufts 1+4 Participant

As Christmas of my bridge year approached, I wasn’t in the Christmas spirit at all. For the first time, I wasn’t going to be with my family on Christmas. I briefly fantasized that my family would surprise me with a Christmas visit, but I knew that wasn’t really going to happen: they were on the other side of the world, in Japan. During Christmas Eve festivities, I went with my host family to a relative’s house for a big gathering. I didn’t feel festive. I felt very stressed. My heart beat in a weird way. All the cordial greetings and the Spanish conversations didn’t satisfy me. I really wanted to go home.

On Christmas morning, instead of going to another large family gathering, I said that I wasn’t feeling well. I really wasn’t. But this wasn’t the flu or a cold or food poisoning. I felt so anxious, so alone. I stayed in my room for the entire day and my host family for some reason locked the house from the outside, so I couldn’t leave for a walk. I was stuck. It’s interesting to me, looking back, that in the time of most loneliness, I chose to stay by myself. I didn’t go with my host family. I rolled around in my bed, opened my computer and then shut it and took a nap, and paced around the house. At one point, I just felt like a mouse stuck in side a cage. I started crying. Why couldn’t I be with my real family? Why can’t I be with them, eating Sushi, playing with the dog, or opening presents? Leading up to the Christmas festivities in Cuenca, I tried to have a really positive mindset, suppressing what I really felt. And my real emotions just came out. It felt good. It felt so good. I was sad but I wasn’t faking what I really felt.

As dinner came around, I sluggishly walked down to the dinner table. At that point, I was just tired of crying. I was so happy to see my host family after they came back from the family gathering at around 6pm. They brought one box of pizza for the four of us, and my host mom served me slices of Hawaiian and another mixed pizza. I took a bite out of the first slice, and I was overcome with a sensation of gratitude. My heartbeat was feeling off, I was lonely for the whole day, and the seemingly normal pizza tasted like the best food I’d had in a while. Every piece of pineapple, every piece of ham, and every ingredient seemed like nuggets of joy to me. We savored every slice of the pizza, swallowing it with the yellow Ecuadorian “Cola.” The warm ambiance that I felt with having loving company around a box of pizza seemed to warm up my very cold and lonely day.

The moment I returned my mind back to Cuenca, Ecuador instead of Tokyo, Japan, it seemed like everything was improving. Yes, I was stuck; however, there was a lesson to be learned here. If I went to college, where I have two siblings in the same city, and would have been in an environment where I can go back to Japan for Christmas, I would have relied on external pleasures like fancy food or family members to take my mind off for the time being. However, this year, I was forced to lean towards myself. There wasn’t anyone else, literally. I was stuck in the house for Christmas. So I learned to be real with my emotions and listen to what I am really feeling inside of me.  I accepted the raw emotions as it is. These are the moments when I appreciate that I came to Ecuador.

The Modern Architecture Pandemic

By Cher, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Standing upon a simple yet elegant mansion, I was awed when I first saw how architects were able to transform white walls and wide pane glasses into such an aesthetic building. Walking through the rows of mansions by the lake, I always admired the modern houses the most. I admired how architects are able to turn such a simple shape like boxes and triangular prisms using the colors of whites, grays, and black to establish grand and beautiful houses. To me, these homes represent wealth, elegance, and power. As an immigrant, these qualities are part of the dream that my family and many other families had dreamt of when sacrificing our blood and sweat. To live in such a house meant that you worked hard to get there.

As my host brother walked me through the traditional houses and the shops, we came to a halt at a big intersection. At first glance, I noticed all the sleek and beautiful modern houses across the road. This road is where the vacation homes for the rich intersect with the homes of the people whose ancestors have lived here long before it became a destination for tourists. I admired how beautiful they were, but questions popped up in my head. Why do these beautiful houses feel so out of place? What was here before them? As I explored my new home, I noticed that these houses were by the beaches, on top of mountains, and in perfect places for houses to be located with amazing views. Everywhere I go, there is always a white boxed house with beautiful details. They all begin to look the same to me. A house that I used to admire so much now became so common, basic, and identity-less.

Modernist architect designs became popular after world war two. It was a form of design to embrace the beauty of simplicity, function, and rationality that utilized the new materials and advanced technology. These modern designs reject old, traditional, historical ideas and styles, and ornamentation. These designs were meant to improve the standard of living for all by using industrial ideals.

The inspirations drawn by modernist architecture is to make the home more functional, rational, and improve the quality of living. When you look closely to those who live in these houses and how big they are, you begin to question these intentions. The people who live in these types of houses already have access to wealth and a great quality of life. The homes that are made in this style takes up so much space for usually a family of four. Due to the fact that this style rejects the old, traditional, and historical ideas, it looks out of place, especially when it is planted in a city that has a lot of historical context such as Florianópolis. In my perspective, these houses fail to appreciate the culture and historical context of where they are built. The style is so different from those before it that it seems as if they don’t want to acknowledge the history of the land. The intention of the modernist design is to improve the home for people throughout the world, but the impact doesn’t correlate with the intention. This is because only those with access to wealth have access to this design, because it takes up more room than it needs, and it is a clear display of wealth and power. The modernist home design is a beautiful design that has great intentions to improve society, but fails to deliver the impact.

I appreciate these homes for their intention and beauty, but after seeing what the impacts are, I am beginning to question that appreciation. Architectures are a great part of history and culture of a location. When you implant something so different and it doesn’t relate to the culture, like modernist architecture, it seems as though the culture and history of that location was not acknowledged, creating ignorance and division between the new and the old.


Larkin, Maggie. “A Brief History of Modern Architecture and Design.” Daily News, The Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., 22 July 2013,

Connections on the Commute

By Madeleine, Tufts 1+4 Participant

A photo of me, Tufts 1+4 Fellows Gio and Silas, as well as our friend Sophia, on a crowded bus

Being from a small town, the longest daily commute I had faced was the ten-minute bus ride to school in junior high. Now, my daily commute involves two buses and over two hours round trip to and from my internship. When I first began riding the bus alone, I was a little nervous about navigating the bus system efficiently, and for good reason- the number of times I’ve had to give up on the bus system and Uber for at least a part of the trip is embarrassing. Beyond the complicated bus routes, however, I was nervous about being bored senseless during the ride. On my first few times riding the bus alone, I downloaded movies to watch, wanting to enclose myself in a bubble of entertainment and familiarity. One day, my bus was overcrowded, and I had to stand, as there were no more seats left to take. When I’m standing on the bus, I usually don’t like to hold my phone, because the often bumpy ride can make me drop it, and since I hold on to a railing or post anyway, I don’t have a free hand. So, there I am, sandwiched between a few others, and through the crowd of people, I noticed a baby staring at me, wide-eyed and adorably fascinated. I stuck my tongue out at her, a simple way to charm most infants. After about a minute, she stuck hers out at me, as if she was proud to have gained a newfound knowledge. Her mother’s eyes widened and she smiled warmly, telling me that was the first time her baby had done that. From then on, I made a more conscious effort to be more present with the people around me on the bus, even if they were strangers, because even a small interaction like this one was so much more valuable than another minute scrolling through social media.

A few days ago, I was sitting next to a girl about my age reading a book so thick that she almost struggled to hold it open. Though I couldn’t see the cover of the book, I glanced over to see if I could follow along and, noticing the names Bill and Eddie, thought, “Oh, wouldn’t it be funny if she were reading ‘IT’ in Spanish.” Then, I began reading along, and saw several mentions of a “payaso,” which means “clown.” I debated for a minute whether I should venture into conversation with her, since I’m not really one for talking with new people, much less in a language other than my native tongue. I recalled how my interaction with the mother and baby before had sparked joy on the dreary bus ride, and I eventually mustered the courage to ask her, “Estás leyendo ‘Eso’?,” to which she responded, “SíSíSí! Es uno de mis favoritos!” My Maine-raised heart skipped a beat, pounding with excitement to have found a connection with someone, especially a connection over something so important to me such as my home state. I told her that I grew up in a town not far from the place where the book is set, and she began enthusiastically inquiring about the settings of Stephen King’s other books, prompting a fun and unexpected conversation discussing his literature. When the bus arrived at her stop, we shared our social media information, and as she walked away, she turned to smile and wave goodbye. Afterward, I felt so rewarded – because I had been present during what I thought would be a painfully mundane hour, I had been able to form a friendship.

Taking the bus every day can be boring, don’t get me wrong, but, I have found that being involved in my surroundings has allowed me to learn more about the people of Montevideo. I no longer “give up” when I face boredom during my commute, succumbing to the bubble of entertainment that my phone gives me. I have found that leaning into the boredom allows me to be with those around me, even strangers, and I have found those experiences so much more rewarding. Through my many trips on the bus, I have been able to make unlikely connections, and I feel lucky that I can continue to explore Montevideo in this way.

A Silver Lining in Feeling Stupider

By Kaylee, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I don’t think I quite thought through the omnipresence of language in everyday life until I faced the language barrier in Ecuador. Even though English is technically my second language, by the time I was 5 it surpassed my level of Chinese proficiency (which on the other hand has only deteriorated since [Sorry Dad, you were right]). Since being a toddler whose best and possibly only English word was “cookie,” I’ve been able to take my basic, daily communication in the US for granted.

It was couple weeks into my internship at Casa de La Diabetes, a foundation that supports people with diabetes by providing access to education, and cheaper insulin, supplies, and medical care. I understood immediately that my supervisor was asking me to run an errand at the municipal office downtown, but every single other detail was lost in the rapid-fire Spanish. Which floor? Who? Which permit? Leave what? Ask for what? I ventured to confirm what I thought I understood in a hesitant voice, knowing I was wrong and feeling awkward and useless; my supervisor responded by giving me a questioning look and repeating each step so.much.slower.

Here, every sentence with my supervisor or the patients felt like a crowded minefield of grammatical and vocabulary errors, and I was plowing through with a tractor and setting off as many mines as humanly possible. Numbers. Boom. Names I don’t know how to spell. Boom. Talking on the phone. Biggest boom. (A patient hung up on me on my second day because I didn’t understand what they were saying.)

I couldn’t just stop communicating with my supervisors or with the patients I was supposed to help, whereas in more casual conversations I could just step back and be quiet. I had to keep speaking Spanish and making mistakes as part of my work, so eventually I got more comfortable in accepting those inevitable various mistakes. I was a newbie, a rookie, a neophyte—not only in language but also in working with people with diabetes—and I hadn’t ventured into such unfamiliar territory, alone, since I don’t know when. This was a reminder to be patient with myself and to be willing to be the clueless beginner, since everyone has to begin somewhere to get where they want to be. And with being more comfortable with failure, it’s less intimidating to approach the possible minefields.

An example of full-fledged failure: I bombed one of my favorite jokes with my uncle and cousins the other week when we were around the dining table and they demanded that I share a chiste. Here it goes, pre-translated: “I was at a bus stop with a friend the other day. She told me I didn’t understand the meaning of ironic, which was ironic since we were at a bus stop.”

It was fair to say: The timing was off. The translation was not perfect. I had to explain the joke. It’s not that great of a joke to begin with since I usually have to explain it even in English. My family and I laughed at the attempt. It was also fair to say: I’m glad I shared it anyways.

Me walking into my metaphorical minefield, this time without my tractor. Oh wait no it’s a gnarly forest in Cajas National Park.

My Visit to Thiès

by Calvin Zhao, First-Year Global Programs Coordinator

Drinking Ataya with host families, visiting community organizations, navigating through bustling local markets…here are seven highlights (in chronological order) from my site-visit to our newest Civic Semester location: Thiès, Senegal!

  1. I looked across the Atlantic Ocean – from a different vantage point. My visit began at Toubab Dialao, a peaceful village by the beach where Civic Semester Senegal students will have their end-of-semester retreat. Here, I spent time chatting with staff from our partner organization, Where There Be Dragons, while appreciating the stunning views and peacefulness of the area.
  1. I fell in love with Senegalese food. One of the best meals I had in Senegal was courtesy of Samba’s (a Where There Be Dragons staff member’s) family. In Senegal, families typically share a communal plate filled with a grain and meat/vegetables in the middle. The host will distribute the meat and vegetables around and everyone eats from the section of the plate in front of them. As soon as you’re making any progress with clearing your section, the host will replenish it again and again. Delicious and very filling.
  1. I visited six incredible local organizations. Each of the organizations support the Thiès community in different ways, from providing skills-training for visually-impaired young adults to empowering women to join the workforce. I met with leaders of each organization, all of whom inspired me with their passion and dedication to their work. I’m excited for Civic Semester students to work with and learn from these organizations! A full list of civic placement possibilities for students can be viewed here.
  1. I drank a lot of Ataya. Ataya – a minty, sweet tea – was served after big meals as everyone relaxed and chatted with one another. For many Senegalese, the quality of the Ataya you make is a point of personal pride. During one host family visit, I watched as the mother chastised her children for making Ataya that was too hot and not bubbly enough. The tea was even sent back to be “fixed” before being served!
  1. I explored local markets…and discovered fabrics. In downtown Thiès, there is a bustling local market with practically everything, including the most beautiful fabrics! Every few shops seemed to have different types of colorful fabric, which locals purchase and take to a tailor to have something custom made.
  1. I learned about local superstitions. One of them involved attaching a small, kid-sized left shoe to your car while throwing the right shoe away. The superstition goes that as long as the two shoes are not reunited, you will be safe while you drive. As I took taxis around town, it was interesting to note the different places where drivers hung the little shoe.
  1. I visited Dakar. On the final day of my trip, I visited the capital city, Dakar. About an hour away, downtown Dakar has more of an international and touristy vibe compared to Thiès.  I also spent time with Dragons staff in Yoff, a small fishing village, and visited Gorée Island, which is known for its role in the Atlantic slave trade as a final stop before slaves were sent to the Americas. Seeing the former slave house was a powerful and chilling reminder of the history of slavery.

Overall, I had an excellent site visit to Thiès and we can’t wait to offer it as a Civic Semester site for Fall 2020!! If you have any questions about Thiès or about Civic Semester, please feel free to email me at