Alumni Post: Olive is the New Me

olive 1

by Olive, Tufts 1+4 Participant

“Hi Gongga! This is … from the Tufts elections commission. I just wanted to say CONGRATULATIONS! You have a seat on the Senate class of 2020.” I was sitting at Tisch, just got kicked out from the reading room and getting ready to enter again when I saw this message. I could not believe what I just read it, because this seemed so surreal that I just won the election. It was a mixture of feelings that suddenly overwhelmed me. I wanted to tell all my friends who supported me through this race that I’m thankful for their support. I also just wanted to run around and express my joy.

I have always wanted to run for the student government since I arrived in the U.S. because that was something I always had done in China. I stopped doing it here, because I suddenly felt insecure about my skills and unconfident about myself in social places due to my “limited English.”  I was always scared of speaking out for what I wanted because I didn’t want my poor accent to betray my “Asian American Identity.” It was easier to stay silent than to speak somehow. I know now that this way of life is not what I’m looking for.

It became better for me when my English improved closer to my peers’ level,  enabling me to speak my opinions or ask the questions that I have in my mind. I became more open toward running for student government. However, my introverted personality was a really big barrier because high school elections were more like popularity contests. I hated talking to people about myself, because I was afraid I was not good enough. I never had the courage to tell my high school classmates that I wanted to run for student government.

Participating in Tufts 1+4 opened myself onto a new level – I started to challenge myself, from little things to bigger projects. I enjoyed traveling alone even when it meant getting lost 10 times a day, and asking an average 20 people for help. There were ups and downs when I traveled alone. I remember how I was alone on New Year’s Eve and walked hours and hours when nothing was open, in the popular city Seville that was famous for its warm attitude toward people; I remember how I ran 17 miles straight along beaches in Malaga on my birthday; I remember how I missed my plane to Berlin and had to take a 13 hour bus from Brussels to Berlin on Christmas’ Eve; I remember hiking the tallest mountain El Teide in Spain.

The idea of running for Tufts student government grew in my head over my gap year, because I started to realize how short and fast time goes. I wanted to take advantage of my time at Tufts, and to challenge myself. I started to tell my close friends that I made in 1+4, and my BLAST friends that I met at Tufts during the summer, that I’m going to run for the senate. I was scared, nervous and super shy about running, and I was not sure how to open the topic to my friends. I worried that they would laugh at me, because of how inexperienced I am. Their reactions were super supportive and gave me the courage to try.

Creating the poster for my campaign was also like creating a new identity for me, because I used “Olive” instead of “Gongga”. Many people often question me why I named myself as “Olive.” Sometimes I would just joke “because I loved to eat olives when I was in Spain.” This was partially true, but I also wanted to give myself a new identity before coming to Tufts. I wanted Olive to be the person that I became in Spain – a brave girl who was willing to try anything, who had a spontaneous personality and was willing to live life in the moment, an open minded girl who was outgoing and made friends all over the world. I let the old serious Gongga go, and I decided to let the internal Olive shine.

I remembered the day when I almost decided to give up on running because I saw how serious and prepared people were about their campaigns on Facebook. All those professional pages with hundreds of likes and details about their campaign ideas made me just want to quit ASAP. However, I still decided to make a page and even a campaign video. The video was a success, everyone laughed at how “funny”, and “genuine” it was. I think the video showed people that I really want to share my love and passion toward the senate.

Two days before election day, and I had to attend the candidate campaign forum. I was so nervous about the forum, I did not know how to present my platforms and introduce myself to all the students. However, finishing up the forum, when students walked up to me telling me how funny and cute I was, it made me feel relaxed. It also encouraged me that maybe I do have a shot, maybe college is different from high school, and I should bring the Olive attitude to college. I should give myself a new chance and try with enthusiasm.

One day before election day, I started to tell more friends, random people who were freshman, people I met in the gym and cafeteria about me running for the senate. I started to act more naturally, and felt more confident about my race. I even showed my campaign video in my English class.

This is the end of the third week of college. I’m still confused and occasionally feel unmotivated. However, now I have an obligation at Tufts – I have to work hard so the students who voted will not have a reason to regret their decision. Winning this election is not like a happy ending for my time at Tufts; it is more like a tough beginning. I believe that I am and will be ready. I will make Tufts my home and begin a new future here.


Piano Man

by Eugene, Tufts 1+4 Participant

On the Global Citizen Year packing list under “other recommended items” is “small musical instrument (if you play one, can carry it, and can tolerate possible damage — music is a great way to connect cross-culturally!)”.  I realized that a grand piano was out of the question.

What about the Henninger-Voss family upright? 0/3 was not a passing grade, so that didn’t fly.   The old keyboard that no one really touched since we got the upright 14 years ago? It passed all of Global Citizen Year’s requirements, but unfortunately it didn’t fit in a suitcase and I didn’t have room for such an enormous extra carry on.   But man, I couldn’t bare the thought of not playing for a year.

After much deliberation, a few visits to local music stores, a little premature heartbreak, I remembered a midi-keyboard that hadn’t seen sunlight since we moved 7 years ago.  Again, it seemed too big, but the genius I call my mother found that if you took our largest suitcase, stood the keyboard on its side, stretched the suitcase as far as it could go, pulled back the cloth a bit, then stretched it a bit more, you could wedge the keyboard in diagonally from corner to corner as securely as a brace.  Bingo.

Now for those of you who are unsure of what a midi-keyboard is, it is a keyboard with no speakers that is incapable of producing sound, only a certain type of electronic signal that when interpreted through a software like “garage band” can be made into noise.

Maybe not an elegant solution, but I could play a piano wherever I went.

And I’ve played a piano everywhere I’ve gone.

It wasn’t just that keyboard that I’ve played, but pianos everywhere.  Being a pianist is great, because whenever someone else has a piano a) you find out pretty quickly and b) in my experience they always let you use it.  Pianos are also almost the lingua franca of music: almost every musician, and many other people too, can play at least a little piano. So they show up all over the place.   When they do show up it is magic.  The piano allows me, far from home in unfamiliar places with unfamiliar faces and incomprehensible languages, to connect both with myself and those around me.

Whatever I am feeling when I sit down at the piano, once I start playing, everything becomes tranquil. It’s hard to explain what it feels like to play.  Maybe “get in the zone.”  I loose myself in the music and that grounds me.  Wherever I go, playing the piano is the same.  I just need to sit down and tinkle those ivories and I am home, I am where I belong.  I always get up feeling more relaxed and confident than when I sat down.  Wherever I can find a piano, I know I can find myself.

It may be trite, cliché, and overused (and as someone who has spent a lot of time with high-school music programs, I can tell you it is definitely overused), but music is an international language.  It doesn’t matter who I’m with, if I can communicate “Eu toco piano” and they let me play, then I can share with them a part of myself, I can give them something.  Almost literally, where words fail (such as, per say, when English words cease to convey meaning when directed at a Portuguese speaker), music speaks.  When I first got to Brazil, all I could do was introduce myself and listen, but if I played the piano then suddenly I could speak for 20, 30, 50 minutes and everybody would listen.

More than being able to play music, being a musician has helped break down the barriers between myself and the people I meet.  Solely because I am a musician I have made friends, had long conversations, and gotten numbers from other musicians.  From pre-departure training, where during introductions I mentioned I played piano and a minute later a kid I had never met before said that he played the saxophone and that I was in his band, to just yesterday when I talked to my capoeira teacher after class, and on finding out that I too was a musician he handed me one of his band’s CDs, simply being a musician has handed me opportunities I would not have had otherwise.

Just look at the keyboard.  Just like my musicianship, after a lot of hard work I was able to bring it with me.  Remember that band I was drafted into? If I hadn’t been able to jerry-rig a portal keyboard both my band and another act would have been out of luck when the talent show was held at the ball-field, no where close to the baby-grand we all had practiced on.   At my apprenticeship at O Sitio when my mentor/boss found out I was a musician and had my instrument with me he thought that it would be in everybody’s best interest if I played and gave the house some music for two hours every day.  So now for my job I get to do what I want to do on weekends and weeknights anyways.  That keyboard has allowed me to do things I could not have otherwise.

For me, all of this leads to two main takeaways. First, it further cements in my mind that music is more than just an activity, and is not in the same league as other hobbies but is so much more.  Music has done something for me that I do not think model airplanes, sports, or even debate and theater could.  Nothing else I have ever heard of centers you, opens doors for you, and speaks for you as easily, quickly and accessibly as music.  Secondly, go after what you want to do.  I bent over backwards and bent my suitcase wider to get that keyboard to the other side of the equator, and I have been more rewarded for that bit of preparation than I have been for almost any other single action.  It seems like we should not just be ready to seize opportunity, but actively put ourselves in a position to seize the opportunities we most desire.  I wanted to play the piano, and I put myself in a position to, and as a result I have played, and will play, the piano again and again.  Next time you are packing for a trip, maybe an eight month trip to a different country, I recommend you bring whatever you are passionate about.  It doesn’t matter how small it is if it is big enough to you.

Except maybe a grand piano.


Living on Nica Time


by Mateo, Tufts 1+4 Participant

As of today, I have officially lived in León, Nicaragua for a whopping two weeks! Granted, that’s not all that much time in the scheme of things, but I’m already beginning to notice so much about the culture that exists here. From the food and the language, to basic things such as how people greet each other, it’s truly the myriad of rich cultural differences that add up to make life here so unique. However, with that being said there are also a lot of differences that aren’t necessarily all that great, or rather are just—different. For me, the most difficult transition has been accepting the way that time functions here in Latin America.

As an individual, I am the type of person that has to have every aspect of my day organized. I wear a wristwatch, have two agendas (because let’s face it, one is not enough), and you can bet I have a five-year plan. However, here in Nicaragua, if you ask someone what they’re going to be doing later in the day, chances are they won’t even know the answer to that. Everything here is done in the moment.

At first this was very hard for me, especially when I’d go into stores and expect workers to come rushing to help me as if they’d been anticipating my arrival for several days. However, I was sorely disappointed and found out that things here run more on an “eventually” schedule. This attitude spills over into all aspects of life, and coming from the land of ‘everything on-the-go,’ I even had trouble learning how to sit and enjoy my own breakfast.

Interestingly enough, somewhere amidst this paradigm shift, I think I had my first ever existential crisis during my Bridge-Year. I was reading in the living room late at night with my host brother nearby, and stopped for half an hour thinking about what it meant to ‘be’. Before then, it never occurred to me how important it was to be mindful of what I was experiencing right in the moment.

Just before going to bed, I wrote this in my journal:

“I want to BE, to be present, to exist in the here and now. I want to take in each and every breath as it is, and to feel the swelling in my lungs as my chest expands and fills with life!”

If being in Nicaragua has taught me anything thus far, it’s that life is happening right now. It isn’t just some aspiration or goal that you hope to achieve far off into the future. When I leave this place I hope I can remember how to exist in the present, but as for now I’m not too worried, because in this moment I am here.

León Scavenger Hunt

by Sawyer, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Today we were given some time to explore what León has to offer on a poppin’ Saturday afternoon. The objective was to get to know the city through a series of monumentally derived activities. Take a walk in my shoes, get lost with me, and witness the wonders of a vibrant city. León, Nicaragua, I am starting to fall in love with you.

Rubén Darío Statue
Rubén Darío Statue

As the leader of the Modernismo literacy movement, Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío made a generational influence on Spanish literature. Mr. Darío even has his own street, coined Calle Rubén Darío, littered with many dedications throughout. Below is a plaque in the Rubén Darío Museum, commemorating him by his original nickname “Poeta Niño,” or Boy Poet in English.



If you happen to ever get lost in León, look around until you find the nearest church. Trust me, they’re everywhere! I don’t mean lost as in finding Jesus, however, in such a Catholic based community that may be an option, but rather utilizing these feats of architecture to navigate around the city. Take a look at a few of these beauties below.

San Francisco Church
The Recollection Church
Marching band at The Cathedral


In León, it’s too hot to spend your time walking around a museum. That’s probably why they have so many historical monuments outside. No matter where you are, there’s history waiting to be heard. These dedications add to the ambiance of the local squares. Below are some examples.

sawyer6 sawyer7One word: Raspado. I learned from a local tonight that there are two seasons in León, the summer and the harsh summer. I am currently living in the summer and it’s already unbearable. Can it really get worse than this? Luckily I learned about Raspado, which is basically shaved ice. You can get it from a local vender in Central Park, which is right outside of the Cathedral. There are also different flavors you can choose from, I got dulce de leche, or caramel. This is the best snack to cool you down internally, I think it will become my best friend over these next 9 months.



Looking for artistic inspiration? That muse will not fall short in León. Adding to the atmosphere of the city, there are random murals to gaze at. Part of the scavenger hunt was to pose in front of them. Check ’em out.

sawyer9 sawyer10 sawyer11All in all, my experience scoping out León was very successful. The people here are so welcoming, though I think they overcharge me at the market, most likely because I’m chele. As I continuously get more eager to move into my host family, I have to complete my training with Amigos de las Americas over the next few days. I hope to check back in as soon as possible. Adio. (Nicaraguans don’t usually pronounce the s)

How Not to Miss Nicaragua: A Short Guide

isabelby Isabel, Tufts 1+4 Participant

Don’t be surprised by all of the different smells. The pine and grass and carpet instead of dust and mango and the cleaning fluid everyone used.

When you hear the sound of a lawnmower don’t mistake it for the fumigation that happened regularly in León.

Try not to die of hypothermia in the 70 (or 80… or 90) degree weather. And don’t talk about how cold you are. Just be glad you’re not sweating out of your clothes.

When you walk down an empty street don’t remember how in León an empty street meant it was probably raining. Or like 2 in the morning or something. Don’t think about all the street vendors and school children and abuelos you would see on your walk to the bus station. Don’t long for that extra human factor added to the landscape that made it so much more interesting and vibrant.

Don’t speak in Spanish to strangers. Also try and remember that strangers who overhear your conversations in English can now understand you.

When you put your laundry in the washer don’t think about the lavendero where you washed your clothes for nine months. Don’t remember the clothes lines loaded with colorful shirts waving in the breeze, and how you could tell who was doing the washing by the way it sounded.

When your mom wants you to try on some new earrings try not to overreact, refusing because the earrings you have in now are from Nicaragua and you’ll never take them out because that would mean you had moved on. Try on the new earrings. Your gap year experience is more than just a pair of jewelry.

Don’t listen to all the Spanish songs you love and cry because they remind you of how your host family always had music on, of how they used to sing karaoke, of how they would sing and dance.

Don’t think about all the Nicaraguan food you won’t have anymore – the gallo pinto, the nacatamales, the repocheta and cuajada and pithaya and sopa Indio Viejo. Don’t think about Sunday mornings in the kitchen with your family, or squeezing oranges for juice at work. Do remember all those times you longed for American food and appreciate it now that you have it.

Don’t let the deafening silence keep you from falling asleep. And don’t strain your ears for the sounds of reggaeton, the neighbors baby, the dog down the street, or your family doing the washing, all of which were simply a part of your life not too long ago.

But mostly, ignore all the dont’s on this list (except for maybe the Spanish one. That’s kind of important). Do them anyways. Miss Nicaragua. Miss it with all your heart. Talk about it till your friends are tired of hearing about it. Then talk about it some more. Cry. Sob. As much and long as you need. Don’t be afraid of that horrible lonely aching feeling – that just means that what you experienced was real. And don’t, don’t, don’t ever let anyone tell you to get over it. It will get better – maybe not soon but someday. So until then look at all your pictures. Remember and try to write down the best stories. Laugh. Cry. Take some deep breaths. And take it one day at a time. Or one hour. Or ten seconds.

Hygge+Growing Pains= Height

by Madeline, Tufts 1+4 Participantmadeline

This jacket is my bear. My bear was bought for 16 euro on a sunny Sunday morning to the music of the bustling Rastro market. The Rastro is a flea market where everything from hammers to artisan pottery to bear jackets are sold. Every Sunday in Madrid, the streets of Tirso de Molina and La Latina are filled with Europe’s finest strolling up and down the crowded calles. You can find anything your heart desires for a relatively reasonable price. But back to my bear.

Madrid’s city symbol is a bear leaning up against a tree because Madrid used to have tons of bears roaming around its fields and forests. Other than the enormous statue in the center of the city that everyone uses as a meeting spot before going out, you’d never really know to care. For me, after I brought my new jacket home to Calle Los Mesejo, my roommates immediately began calling it the bear. It definitely had something to do with the fact that it is absolutely giant, fuzzy, and black. For me, it symbolizes my back and forth love affair with Madrid. When I am wearing my bear I am the warmest and coziest I can be. There’s a word in Danish, hygge, that goes far beyond our definition of cozy. It’s cozy X10. That’s how bear makes me feel. But, that is not always how Madrid has made feel. There have been many days throughout the year where I have longed for the warmth of my bed in Buffalo- the comfort of my childhood home and family. Madrid was foreign. My friends weren’t here. I only half understood the language. Work in the foster home challenged me every day. I felt far, far away from hygge. But then I would realize, that is the challenge of growing.

Madrid - Puerto del Sol
Madrid – Puerto del Sol

Do you remember laying in bed when you were little suffering from evil growing pains?  The aching and the soreness that seemed like it would never ever end. But then one day, you’d look in the mirror and think… wow, maybe I have gotten a little taller. Or grandma would measure you against the growth chart and there would be a huge gap from your last spurt. Right now, I am looking in the mirror with my life measuring me, and I cannot help but see that I really have grown. It’s all the obvious things… I’m more confident. I can speak with much more fluency in Spanish. I feel needed and useful at work. I can travel Europe with ease. I maneuver my way around an enormous city all alone. I went from high school SAT prep to Europe adapted, adult social work in real time.  At the beginning, they asked us how we wanted to change and grow from this year. My BS answer was always “I want to be fluent in Spanish.” I didn’t know what to say because I just wanted to experience it without a plan. Traveling as much as I did had a huge impact on my growth. Mostly, however, it was the social situations in Madrid and the work with the girls that gave me growing pains and, in turn, the height.

Moving to a new country, making friends and adapting to a completely new work environment were crucial but hard.  For both of these challenges, I was incredibly fortunate to have my bear, but mostly Eva, the seven year old girl in the foster home. Because of scheduling, she is the one I tend to spend the most time with. Before this September, she had never been to school, the doctors,  or the dentist. Her father passed away from an overdose in February 2015, and she was left  an orphan because no one knows where her mother is. She didn’t know how to read. She’d never done a math problem. She was a seven year old four year old. This year, Eva has become my best friend. We have both grown so much this year, and we’ve been able to do it together. We learned to read in Spanish together. When I teach her something, she teaches me something. We love dancing around to flamenco music and drawing princesses. We can talk about almost anything and we love to go on the swings. She has brought out my inner kid every single day while still shocking me with her natural maturity and sassy intellect. She is soo bright, hilarious and innocently pure. She made my transition through my growing pains bearable on the days that I really struggled. And I think I helped make her transition into living in a foster home and education a bit smoother. I am so lucky to have made a best friend as beautifully as I have with Eva.

Leaving Spain in two and a half weeks doesn’t seem real. I am going to miss Eva and all of the girls so so much. I am going to miss being hygge in my apartment with my roommates who are now my family. I am going to miss everything about Madrid and yet am so incredibly thankful for this experience. And even though the growing pains hurt like hell some days, I have a lot of height to show for it. I am so lucky to have spent time in this city, in my bear.