The Learning Journey

by Daniel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Learning. Since the dawn of humanity, learning has been the cornerstone of life. But school, now that’s a different story. Schools have been around for over 1500 years, and while some classrooms have smart boards and others have iPads, the fundamental way we teach, and learn, has stayed the same.

I, along with almost every other teenager in the developed world, spent the last twelve years sitting. In science classrooms, in english classrooms, in history classrooms; always learning different things but always sitting in rows or circles, scribbling down the teachers’ every word. But if you take an evolutionary perspective, sitting is not really what a 15 year old should be doing. At a time when we have tons of pent up energy, we spend our days still; learning almost solely by listening.

After 12 years, I was ready for a change. I knew I would have at least 4 more years of this antiquated model and I needed a year of something different; I needed a year of learning by living. But not just living in the comfort of home, living in the world. A world that today is unfathomably large (think about it, you may know a couple thousand people but there are 7 billion people out there. 7 BILLION!) and unquestionably strange (take this for instance). But there’s a lot more to the world than any 18 year old could know, trust me. If you just take the time to explore it and explore yourself you will never, ever, regret it.

The one line that stuck with me throughout the whole college application process was; “No one regrets taking a bridge year.” I looked at university after university and ringing in the back of my head this same line; “no one regrets taking a gap year”. So, try to envision yourself four years down the road; do you want to have experienced the world or do you want to have stayed comfortable in your world. I knew I would regret it if I didn’t, so I took the leap, and now I am here. Now I am a baby again, a baby Brazilian, finding his way through an unknown language. Learning to walk, to speak, to sustain myself on what at times seems like an alien world.

You don’t need a rocket ship to find an alien culture. They all around you: your neighbors, your fellow bus-riders, even your friends and family. But some still say; “why do I need to explore other cultures? I’ve got my friends, my little bubble, I don’t need to change. My bubble won’t ever burst.” Well, if a hermit crab never left his shell, how would he know there wasn’t a better shell, a better world, waiting just around the corner (Imagine! A hermit crab paradise! A wardrobe of multicolored shells and an endless supply of scrumptious decaying wood, leaf litter, plants and grasses waiting just outside his calcium carbonate domain but the poor hermit crab never knew it was there because he just wanted to watched Spongebob on Netflix inside his claustrophobic cave (PSA: Spongebob was removed from Netflix in 2013 😨)).

After almost 100 days (HOLY COW! It’s already been 100 days?) living in Brazil with an amazing host family and evermore interesting culture the only thing I can say is; “I couldn’t have been more right.” Doing a bridge year, learning by living, is doing college the right way. I can only hope that one day, it will be the only way.

Unexpected Parenthood

justin (2)

by Justin, Tufts 1+4 Participant

First, I’d like to apologize for the  misleading title. Don’t worry, no one here is “embarazada” or expecting children. However, this title does reflect my experience in my placement here in Madrid. For the last four months, I have been a father figure to four boys. The more I read that sentence in my head, the more ridiculous it sounds, especially considering I am only three years older than the eldest. But if you were in my shoes, you would feel the same way. This journey has been filled with the unexpected.

Lets begin with the fact that I was under the impression I would be working with little kids. I thought that I would enter the home and a bunch of little faces would come running at meet me ready to ask me to play with them. I thought I would have to teach them to not pick their noses or to not eat the glue. Instead, the boy that opened the door and welcomed me in was TWICE MY HEIGHT… Okay perhaps I am exaggerating, he is only slightly taller than me. To my surprise, I am actually working with boys from 12 to 15 years old. I have to admit, after realizing the kids were a lot older I thought my job would be super easy. No changing diapers, no potty training, and no glue eating. However, I see now that the job is not easier, it’s actually  a completely different job which in fact may be harder. These boys needed a lot of guidance. They had no manners, little respect for adults, and only wanted to play. Getting them to do chores was a constant battle and homework required a lecture about their future. I am seeing first hand what it is like to be a parent. I’ve even represented them at parent-teacher conferences and social-services meetings.

In these nine months, I need to work on teaching them English, manners, and respect. I need to encourage doing well in school and motivate doing chores. I need to help them with typical teenage problems as well as their individual needs. I need to inspire integrity, confidence, and appreciation. And I need to keep them safe. Whether I am teaching them how to properly make a bed or helping with diabetes, ADHD, learning disabilities and anxiety, I try to be there for them when they need me. I am a teacher, mentor, protector, provider, and a companion. I need to give advice and answer all the awkward questions about life. I am not the first volunteer that they’ve lived with, but apparently I have made the biggest difference. How? I honestly don’t know. I am just doing my best to ensure that they learn and develop like any other child. The same way I would treat my own children.

Thus, “Unexpected Parenthood” is the perfect title! I know I rambled in that last paragraph, but those are all the thoughts going through my head. Those are all my goals in an attempt to invent a dad we never had.

My Expanding Family

gonggaby Gongga, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Being a part of a family, a special kind, that consists of seven children who came from all different backgrounds and who all went through difficult situations, is hard. The trust, for starters, is difficult to build because many of the children were previously betrayed by their loved ones. Also, recently, they just moved from their former lovely homes in the suburbs of Madrid into the city itself. This was very difficult for them in the beginning, and as they were transitioning into a new neighborhood, suddenly they have an outsider… me…coming into their lives.

The past 3 and a half months have been a new learning experience for all of us. I know how it feels to leave your home and move to a completely new place because it happened to me so many times throughout my life. Many of these children are afraid to share their feelings, so I started to tell them what was on my mind and how I’ve felt throughout my short time in Madrid. I shared lots of silly, embarrassing things that I’ve done, and it often made them laugh out loud. I wanted them to feel that it is okay to share your feelings and say what comes to mind.

My feeling of being an outsider changed the other night when I went to a street amusement park with the children and one of the educators. When I saw those attractions, it suddenly brought me back to my old childhood memories. Walking in the street at night with the children and holding hands together made me feel like I’m part of their family. I remember how special it made me feel, when one of the children would occasionally run up to me and hug me saying, “Gongga, Gongga, Gongga,” and I would hug him back and laugh with him. Even though it might look weird from an outsider’s point of view, a petite Asian girl blending in with a family of Spanish children so perfectly, I remember feeling like I was watching my own children at play when I saw Carlos and his sister on the Bumper Cars. I know there can and will be good and bad times, and feelings are constantly changing, but I know I care about these children and I want to be a part of their lives.

gongga 2

The Arrow

zoeby Zoe, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Culture shock. Homesickness. Loneliness. Lingual incompetence. FOMO (fear of missing out). Just a few on the list of difficulties I should be prepared to face during my eight months in Brazil. It was no surprise when these topics were introduced in both orientation at Tufts and upon arrival in Curitiba for in-country orientation, as they were things I’d been worrying about and mentally-preparing myself for since March of last year. So, by mid-September when I left Curitiba and moved to my permanent host community in Imbituba, I felt prepared. I felt as though I’d been briefed on all the problems I could possibly face and I knew exactly how to deal with them, get back on track, and move on. But where’s the challenge in that? I thought that because I’d paid attention in orientation, I had a manual on how to deal with every problem that could possibly be thrown at me. This would be true if life was in black and white. The problem is that about 99% of this world is grey area, every situation is different, and most problems cannot be anticipated.

Rain. I never thought it would present such a problem, primarily because when I thought of Brazil, an intense weather pattern spanning the entire country never crossed my mind. I came with the expectation of sun day in and day out, rather than constant rain. I never guessed that one of the first words I’d learn in Portuguese would be “chuva,” and that I’d see the sun only five times in my first two months in country.

In Imbituba, I worked at an organization called Projeto Baleia Franca, which monitors that activity of the Southern Right Whale in this area of Brazil. Unfortunately, monitoring was canceled more often that not due to the unusual weather conditions, and there was little activity on the days we could work as the whales migrated north early this year. The problem with the rain was that it instigated the types of problems on which I was briefed at orientation. The types of problems I was expecting to have in the first place. The unexpected amount of free time allowed more time to think about my family, friends, and old life I left behind in London and the United States.The rain made me pity myself and it gave me a negative mindset.

About four weeks ago, I moved north from Imbituba to the island of Florianopolis. Here, I work as a volunteer an organization called R3 Animal which rescues, rehabilitates, and releases all types of animals brought in as a result of injury, sickness, illegal trafficking, or absence of parental care. I leave my house at 6:25 each morning, run three miles to the center of the town in which I live, catch another bus to work, work from 8am until 5pm, and then make my way home again. It’s an incredibly busy day that requires a concrete schedule. It’s tiring, but being on the go makes me happy.

Yes, it’s still raining. No, I don’t harbor such resentment towards the rain anymore. It’s not because I actually like it. Like anyone, I’d much rather be lying on the beach than having to constantly peel wet clothes from my body and hang them to dry. But I thank the rain for teaching me so much about myself. The two months in Imbituba were challenging and uncomfortable, but I look back on those two months and can’t believe how much I learned about myself. I learned that I need structure in my life, and that I don’t do well with a blank schedule. I learned that I do better in an environment in which I have more independence and am able to change settings when necessary. And maybe one of the most difficult things; I learned to accept something that I could do absolutely nothing to change: Mother Nature.

“An arrow can only be shot by pulling it backward. When life is dragging you back with difficulties, it means it’s going to launch you into something great. So just focus, and keep aiming.” This year is all about difficulties. And if I leave Brazil in April having had more challenges than comforts, I’ll feel successful. Right now is about focusing and refocusing, aiming and re-aiming. I’m not sure when I’ll be launched but when I am, I know I’ll hit something great. Something I wouldn’t have dreamed of hitting before this year.

A Letter to the Editor

stormby Isabel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Dear Isabel,

I’m writing this letter to you to let you know everything is going to be OK. This is for you when you first arrived; scared and confident in equal measures. This is for you when you moved in with your host family; terrified, lonely, and unsure if you could make it. This is for you a few weeks in; feeling like you should be more adjusted than are. And this is for you last week, or the other day, or yesterday, or even days or weeks from now. This is for you whenever you were or are feeling lost, dispirited, confused, scared, or apathetic. This is for you.

It gets better.

I know you know this. But I also know that some part of you doesn’t believe it – that some part of you is thinking “but what if it doesn’t?” “What if I always feel unsure of myself?” “What if I never improve my Spanish skills or make friends or feel useful at work?” I know that a very small but insistent voice in your head is telling you that because you’ve felt down for a while, you’re always going to feel this way. And that’s an easy trap to fall into. Your mind projects your past experience onto the future and assumes that the patterns will hold true. And generally this works pretty well. However, in the case of adjusting to a new situation, the future is nearly always better than past experience would indicate. And, even harder for the brain to grasp, it gets better in an exponential way. That is, as things get easier, they get easier much more quickly as time goes on.

I know this is hard to remember when you’re uncomfortable and irritated and just want to go home. But although things may be hard now I promise they look up in the future. You are going to have so many wonderful experiences here, many of which I haven’t even experienced yet, that I hate to think of you pining away in your room, grumpy and frightened of the world. I promise, it gets better. Or, as my parents like to put it, “this too shall pass.”

And if you still don’t believe me, think of it this way: remember all those bad memories from days or weeks ago? Yes, I know I just told you not to, but bear with me a little. Do have them in your mind? Good. OK, now look at how far you’ve come since then. Look at how much more comfortable you feel with your family, your work, and León in general. You’ve had long(ish) conversations entirely in Spanish. Kids at work come and hug you on sight and ask you to play. And you can take the bus or walk anywhere you need to go. I know you think you can’t do it, but look at you! You are doing it!

And sure, maybe there will always be those days or moments when life just seems impossible. But there are also moments that make it all worth it. And after all, wouldn’t you rather be having those hard stressful moments here in Nicaragua than back home at college? I know I would.

One last piece of advice: marvel at the good, take the bad in stride, and always remember, this too shall pass.


An older and hopefully slightly wiser Isabel

Friend or Foe


by Gabriel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

I make the trip to R3 Animal Monday-Friday with the goal of helping the struggling animals that have wound up there. Yet still, with these caring thoughts in mind, I get pecked on the head repeatedly by toucans, attacked mercilessly by many a parrot and have to play chicken with angry marmosets (squirrel-sized monkeys) on a daily basis. I forgot to mention the marmoset and the agouti that take pleasure in purposely peeing on me after I pet them. There is also the parakeets that I let ride around on my shoulder…until they attack my ears like the mango they just finished eating and then proceed to poop on me from their new perch. Then there are the Capuchin monkeys. Oh the Capuchins. Insane does not even begin to describe them as they scream and frantically try to grab my hands, meanwhile shredding my rubber gloves every day while I simply try to remove their food dish.

Well I may have gotten a little carried away there and forgotten to mention their not so evil counterparts. I will grudgingly admit that not EVERY parrot is evil, just the vast majority. Some of them are ready to say “oi” or spin in circles in memory of their owners. The agouti and marmoset who seek to pee on me also happen to be very lovable and some of my favorite animals at the rehabilitation center. The baby howler monkey and oncilla (little spotted wild cat) are always ready to cuddle and the anteater is all too happy to rest in my arms with its bottle. The baby tayra (weasel family) is a little different and chooses to attack strangers but remain loyal to his caretakers, which I give him credit for. Some of the younger Capuchins happen to be quite adorable and very curious, always seeking to grab a human finger with their little hands.

As I hope you can begin to realize these animals each have a unique personality and response to the help they are being offered. They vary from hostile to almost grateful, and everywhere in between. Their response is strikingly similar to that of humans in their time of need. People are always going to react differently when kindness is presented to them. Whether you be human or animal there are people out there that are willing to help and expect nothing in return.

Besides these everyday adventures I had a very unusual opportunity one day. I was able help remove a humpback whale from the ocean and perform an autopsy on it. The Environmental Police failed to tow the 8 meter whale from the ocean with a four wheeler, truck and a backhoe. Finally they slowly removed it by pulling it little by little with the rear bucket of the backhoe while the stabilizer legs were down. After the whale was high on the beach, we put up caution tape to keep the crowds at bay and got to work. The whale was identified as a female humpback, a little over a year old, on its way from the ocean near northern Brazil, to spend the summer near Antarctica. After removing large tracts of blubber we discovered large hematomas (blood in the tissue similar to a bruise) which were the cause of death. The marine veterinarians on site believed that this was most likely the result of a collision with a boat. Did you know that whales have lice? Neither did I, but this one had lots. The whale also had a small piece of fishing net stuck near its mouth as well as about ten large, parallel scars, probably from a boat propeller. We discovered a type of small shrimp in the whale’s stomach that are not supposed to exist in this region of the ocean as well.

Obviously humans had not been friends to this whale, but a male Capuchin monkey at R3 Animal had been a victim of more purposeful crimes. I was shocked when I heard his story. He came to R3 Animal with stomach cancer and can never be released into the wild because of that. He developed this cancer because he had been illegally held in captivity and given alcohol and cigars for entertainment.

On the bright side a troop of Capuchin monkeys at R3 Animal is getting released this week. Wish them luck!