How to ask a boy out

I was recently asked about this by a female student.

I’m not sure it matters how you do it, so long as you’ve got the guts to do it in the first place.

Strategy doesn’t matter nearly as much as guts. This applies to almost anything worth doing.

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From Average to Spectacular: The Story of Brenna Donovan’s Improvement

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Junior cross country runner, Brenna Donovan, ’18 (photo by Larry Levanti)

As a freshman, Brenna Donovan (Youngstown, N.Y. / Lewiston-Porter) finished her first 6,000-meter race in 26 minutes and 59 seconds. It was her first competitive “6K,” never having been a cross country runner in high school. 

Just fourteen months later her time was down to 21 minutes and 55 seconds, finishing her sophomore year as Fredonia’s second-fastest 6K runner of all-time, and a Fredonia Athlete of the Year nominee. She’s now ten seconds away from breaking the school record (Laura Morrison – 21:46).

I wanted to find out how Brenna improved so much in such a short time. My practical takeaways follow the interview:

Jon-Ryan Maloney: What led to so much improvement from freshman to sophomore year?

Brenna Donovan: I think it was building muscles that I didn’t have before. Being a soccer player in high school I didn’t have the structure built for longer running. Freshman year my body hurt all the time. My muscles were constantly sore. Over the summer after freshman year I had more time to stretch out, go for runs, and take care of my body — to let it rest a little more. Freshman year, after workouts, school, and homework I would just lay in bed. I was so tired I couldn’t even move.

JRM: What are the important parts of taking care of yourself?

Donovan: Before you run you don’t do static stretching; you do more dynamic stretching. Last summer I did that every morning. I would do high knees, butt kicks, lunges, and toy soldiers. I would do all that before I ran. Then I’d go for my run, come back, do abs, and I would stretch out. I was actually able to cool down. I felt my body actually be able to function normally — my muscles weren’t in pain at that point. Freshman year it was just constant pain. Sophomore year, after my first 10K I didn’t feel that bad. I was expecting a lot worse. I realized then how much better I felt than freshman year. My body had adjusted to it. I didn’t change that much of what I was doing, because I’ve always been pretty hard-working, but I took the training from freshman year and carried it into the summer. I never even knew how to train over the summer. Going into the fall I felt more prepared, and my body didn’t hurt. I would go for a run and it wouldn’t be painful. I would go for a run and feel good about it.

JRM: It’s amazing that it took a year. That’s probably a lot of frustration.

Donovan: It was so painful all of freshman year — constant soreness. Running the 10K my sophomore year I realized that my hamstrings weren’t as strong. That’s what’s cool about the 10K — after I run it I can feel every part of my body that needs improvement, because those were the parts that hurt. I felt my hamstrings break down first when i was running, so that’s what I had to work on.

JRM: How do you work on that?

Donovan: It’s more about strengthening the hamstrings. I looked up exercises that I would do after our normal lifting workouts. I did a Swiss ball exercise where you bridge up and roll out, and I did single-leg deadlifts. By my second 10K it felt a lot better.

JRM: Do you have an explanation for why you’ve improved so much more than everyone else? You went from average to nearly a school record-holder.

Donovan: I think the drive was always there, but my body wasn’t ready for it. Once my body was ready, the emotional side of running brought me to where I wanted to be.

JRM: When you say drive and emotion, can you describe that more? That seems to be what was there the whole time.

Donovan: My coach from high school used to say that running is 99% mental, and that you need to get over the mental barriers to know that your body can carry you through it. Sophomore year my body was strong, so I could go further and faster. It was just getting myself to believe that. People have endured worse than what I do. Have you ever read Night, by Elie Wiesel? It’s a book about the Holocaust, written by a survivor. The whole premise of the book is that they (Nazi soldiers) would make them (Jews in concentration camps) run through the night to different camps. These people were not given proper nutrition, they were starved, they were worked almost to the point of death, then they were told to run. They were still able to run, because if they weren’t then they’d get killed. So when I’m running, I think, “If these people could still run, then I can run.” These people had no food, and no energy whatsoever.

JRM: Why did they make them run?

Donovan: When the Germans were being caught at the concentration camps they needed to evacuate, so they would take everyone and make them run through the night. They didn’t want to be seen during the day. There was no stopping. There was a point in the book where a man stopped to go to the bathroom, and he was shot. They were running no matter what, even if their bodies were at the point of exhaustion.

JRM: What makes you want to continue running?

Donovan: I know it’s a privilege to be able to run because there are people with physical conditions that don’t allow them to. There are also people who feel that they can’t because they’re overweight, or they don’t know how to get into it, or they have some other mental barrier to running. Then there’s the privilege of running at the level that I am. Coming into college I didn’t know if I’d be able to run. I’m very grateful that Tom (Head Coach, Tom Wilson) let me on the team, because that’s not a privilege everyone has. I have this privilege to run, I have abilities far greater than many people have ran in the past. I have support behind me, and strength behind me to run, so there’s no excuse not to in my mind.

JRM: Are there other areas of your life that you bring that sort of attitude to?

Donovan: I think everything, even in school. I need to study every day for every class, I need to do assignments at a certain time to do them correctly. It’s funny, too, because I improved academically a lot from freshman year alongside my running. I saw that during high school too. Seasons where I was in better shape I did better academically. In high school I didn’t do a winter sport and my grades were always a little lower in the winter. It seemed to correlate that the better I was at my sport the better I did with my academics.

JRM: How do you think about nutrition, particularly being a vegetarian?

Donovan: I think nutrition was a big part of improving from freshman to sophomore year as well. I’d always thought that I might be lactose intolerant. Now I know that I am, but freshman year I was still consuming dairy. I wasn’t supposed to be. Being a vegetarian I was always told that I needed to be consuming milk to get my protein that I’m not getting from meat. That’s what I was doing, but I was hurting myself more than helping myself. Now I’ve cut it out almost completely. I’m also eating better than I did in high school. In high school I would have cereal for dinner and call it a night. I have more time now to plan out my meals, to go shopping on my own, and it’s all under my control.

JRM: If someone asks you where you get protein from, what do you say to that?

Donovan: Beans are a good source, and nuts are fairly high in protein. I drink protein power and protein bars. I can tell when I’m low in protein, I get headaches and feel drained. I know when I’m not having enough protein, so I can eat a bar or have a drink at that point. Other than that I don’t feel depleted in any way.

JRM: What does breakfast, lunch, and dinner look like for you, particularly around your running?

Donovan: Tuesdays and Thursdays I get up at 5:30 a.m. and run before lifting. We have lifting 7-8 a.m., then I shower, then I go to class. If I ate dinner at 7 p.m. the night before, I’m going from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. eating nothing. At that point, depending on where I am in the season, it’s a big breakfast if I’m at my high mileage, or a normal breakfast if I’m at a normal mileage. Other than that it’s pretty normal, because during cross country season we practice at 3:30 p.m. I have a normal breakfast, a light lunch, and a big dinner. That’s the difference between track (and field) and cross (country). For cross you’re lighter in the morning, heavier at night, but for indoor and outdoor track I practice at 6:30 a.m., so it’s a bigger breakfast and a lighter lunch and dinner.

JRM: What do you most commonly eat during those meals?

Donovan: This summer I’ve been really into avocado toast. That’s really good for after runs in the morning. For lunch I often have salads, which is really good during the school year before running because they’re light on the stomach. I eat a lot of hummus wraps. Dinner is usually either a salad or sandwich. I have a lot of overnight oats for breakfast during the school year. It’s a good thing to eat after you run. Meet days are different depending on when I race. I don’t like eating a lot before I race for cross country, so if it’s in the morning it’s just a bagel. If I’m down a little bit I’ll have sips of Gatorade, but that’s about it.

JRM: What would advice would you give to a current freshman coming in this year?

Donovan: Know that freshman year doesn’t define the rest of your career as an athlete. You’re going to experience a lot of adjustment. You’re going to have pain, you’re going to have tiredness, and soreness. You’re going to have to adjust to academics. Everything is at a different level. You’re going to have to learn how to study differently, you’re going to have to learn to plan. I have a running agenda, a normal agenda, a journal, and a food log.

JRM: How do you organize that?

Donovan: I have my school agenda for general appointments and meetings. I have my running agenda, which I take from the compliance meetings, where I keep track of all my mileage. I try to put how I feel in those dates too. Then I have a journal for general thoughts. Between running, school, and work, you have a lot of time slots. There’s times where you’re only thinking about running, then you get a fifteen-minute break, then you’re in class. In class you’re thinking about that subject, then you go to a different class and you’re thinking about that subject. I have to devote all my energy to one task at a time. If it starts mixing I lose focus on what I need to be focusing on in the moment. That’s what my journal is for — the in-between periods where I’m thinking about everything. I need to remember those things but I can’t constantly have it in my head or else I’m going to lose focus on what I need to be focusing on.

JRM: Can you give me an example?

Donovan: Last night I was making bullet points: I eventually need to make a doctor’s appointment, I need to pick up my check in Gregory for one of my jobs, I need to pick up the check for my other job.

JRM: It’s sounds like a form of stress-release. You need to do these things, but by writing them down you can put it aside for now.

Donovan: Yes, and I’ll write down goals too. Goals for today, goals for the week, and goals in general.

JRM: And that’s in the journal?

Donovan: Yes, it becomes a little bit of everything. If I’m feeling overwhelmed it becomes a list of things that make me happy. It helps me de-stress. Or it becomes a schedule of my day. I go through the day and list what I did — what I did when I woke up, after that, and so on, until I get to the present moment. Then I start listing the things I still need to do and try to check them off after. They carry over to the next day if I don’t check them off.

JRM: What other advice might you have for incoming freshmen?

Donovan: Remember that freshman year doesn’t define your career as a runner, or an athlete in general. Even though you might not be feeling your greatest, or doing everything you want to be doing, it doesn’t mean that you have to stop there. You can push through it even though it’s not what you want. Just know that summer training will come, and you’ll have more time and more knowledge of what you need to do. Take that summer to reflect on your freshman year and plan for the years ahead.

JRM: Is there anything else you’d like to say in relation to what we talked about?

Donovan: Don’t let other people get you down. If you’re improving there are going to be people that won’t like it. There are going to be people that, even thought they love you, are not going to say the nicest things. Don’t take that the wrong way, because sports are competitive. The only person I’m really competitive with is myself, but some people strive to compete with others. If you strive to compete with yourself, don’t let other people influence what you’re doing. It only tears you down. I’m very hard on myself, which is how I improve, but when you have other people on top of that it can tear you down. If you know in your mind that it’s right, don’t let other people influence you. Just keep going with what you know to be right, and keep striving to better yourself.
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Practical takeaways:

  • Importance of recovery — Freshmen athletes are often overwhelmed by the combined demand of athletics and academics. This is normal — Brenna didn’t start to blossom until her sophomore year after she got used to the higher work load. She noticed more progress the summer between freshman and sophomore year when she had time to do a dynamic warm-up before each workout (video here), stretch after each workout, and pay attention to what she ate. It’s also worth nothing that there are tremendous recovery benefits to sleeping seven to nine hours each night.

  • Gratitude — In response to my question, “What makes you want to continue running?,” Brenna’s answer demonstrates a deep sense of gratitude, both for her ability and for the opportunity. Two years ago I asked 6K school record holder Laura Morrison the same question and got a nearly identical answer. Research indicates that daily gratitude training results in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, optimism, and energy. It results in experiencing less depression and stress, and making more progress toward goals (1). Grab a journal and write down five things you’re grateful for every day.

  • Organization — Brenna describes an intensive practice of planning, scheduling, and journaling. Her running agenda serves as a reminder of her athletic goals and progress, her academic agenda to remember appointments and meetings, and a personal journal as a form of stress-release.

References:

1. http://www.ucdmc.ucdavis.edu/medicalcenter/features/2015-2016/11/20151125_gratitude.html

How to be smart

It’s the most uncomfortable spot to sit in a classroom: in front, dead center, right where everyone can see you.

Everyone knows that the smartest students usually sit at the front of the class. They also raise their hands the most often, speak up most often, and go to the professor’s office hours most often.

But I think we get confused about the direction of causality. We tend to think it’s this:

Smartness –> Confidence –> Sit at the front of the class

But it’s equally likely to work like this:

Sit at the front of the class –> Confidence –> Smartness

Or:

Raise your hand and ask questions –> Confidence –> Smartness

Indeed, action often comes before confidence.

The difference between men and women, as demonstrated by chicken wings

Fredonia’s chef did a cooking demonstration for two of our women’s sports teams during preseason this year. He made chicken wings, but instead of frying them he baked them, resulting in a more nutritious meal.

You’d think the best part of the demonstration would be eating the chicken wings, but that’s questionable, because only half of the female athletes ate even one wing. “I’m already full,” was a common reason for not eating.

I felt bad because three quarters of the chicken wings the chef had prepared were left uneaten. Then I noticed there was a men’s team in the dining hall, so I told them there was a pile of chicken wings available, free for the taking.

As you might guess, a swarm of male athletes devoured the chicken wings. They were gone within a few minutes.

A few days ago I had a conversation with a faculty member at our New Student-athlete Picnic. She lamented the fact that so many females are scared to eat in public. They don’t want to be seen eating too much.

It’s similar to the conversation I had with an exercise science professor a few months ago. In a study he conducted he noticed that females were more likely to lose muscle mass throughout a sports season because they’re scared to eat enough food to replenish the lost energy.

I’m not sure what the solution is, but I am sure that the first step is being aware of the fear.

3 credit card tips for the young person

1. If you’re not responsible with money, don’t get a credit card.

2. If you’re responsible with money, get a credit card with good rewards. This article is a year old, but it’s a good primer on picking one: The best credit cards for 2016.

3. Never carry a balance on your credit card. Use it, and pay it off immediately. If you can’t afford something without the credit card, then don’t buy it (see #1).

That said, if you’ve already gone into debt, start here.

A 60-second solution to being happy(er)

Since 1920, infant mortality rates have dropped by 90%. Maternal mortality rates have also dropped by 90%.

The cost of food has dropped thirteenfold. The cost of energy has dropped twentyfold. The cost of transportation has dropped a hundredfold.

The poorest Americans today are likely to have luxuries that the wealthiest Americans couldn’t have imagined 100 years ago.

Steven Pinker has even demonstrated that we are living during the most peaceful time in human history.

And yet, most of the conversations I have on a daily basis include some degree of complaining. Humans have a tremendously hard time overcoming their negativity bias.

There’s a better way. Here’s a 60-second solution.

(h/t Peter Diamandis)

The Antidote to the Travel Ban: Erin Willis on the Transformative Power of Study Abroad

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Erin Willis, Fredonia’s Assistant Director for Study Abroad and Exchange Programs, in Jerusalem

“What’s your major?”

The most frequently asked question in American higher education might soon be accompanied by one that more accurately reflects the college experience: “Where have you traveled?”

Jeff Selingo, author of There is Life After College: What Parents and Students Should Know About Navigating School for the Jobs of Tomorrow, advocates for colleges and universities to start defining themselves through a set of experiences rather than a set of majors.

“When you look at the research on study abroad, more and more students talk about how that was a critical experience in their undergraduate career,” Selingo says. “But the fact of the matter is that it’s becoming increasingly expensive to study abroad, so can we create more cross-cultural experiences for students, whether it’s just within the United States, or even shorter experiences overseas?”

Erin Willis is in charge of creating those experiences for students at Fredonia. The Assistant Director in the Office of International Education, Willis works to find affordable study abroad experiences that create meaningful change in students’ lives. 

Her own life changed in high school when she met her best friend, Thawab, a Syrian-American Muslim now living abroad. Their relationship precipitated an unfolding path in Willis’s life that led to study abroad experiences in South Africa and Rawanda, volunteer experiences in the Middle East, and an intense curiosity about how Americans relate to cultures abroad.

Given her curiosity, it’s no surprise she finds current events distressing;

Jon-Ryan Maloney: You’ve told me that the news often makes you angry. What’s making you angry in the current political climate?

Erin Willis: I would say that there have always been things that were upsetting, but as of late I’ve lived in a bubble which has made today’s news stories all the more troubling. Around the time I graduated from high school I had started thinking about how Thawab and her family were perceived and how I could change that. For my first semester of college I went to a small liberal arts school in Rochester and I took a freshman seminar focused on world religions. We had to read a book by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who is a former Somali Muslim who had terrible experiences as a child. But she was representing those experiences as, “all of Islam is evil, it’s so awful and oppressive.” In many ways her experiences were true of the culture she grew up in, but I remember students in that class taking that to be the ultimate truth — that this one experience is all that Islam is. I was so angry that this was the one view that everyone was getting. I asked the professor if I could do a counter-argument and present it to the class. At that point I was interested in documentary filmmaking, so I made a documentary about my best friend and her family and what their lives were like as Muslims, and I presented that to my class. For every experience there’s a counter-experience, and if we can show some compassion and understand that that’s true, it can help us relate to people.

But going back to the news today, what’s making me angry is that for a while we lived in this bubble where many of us perceived our culture as post-racial. We thought racism was long gone because we had Barack Obama as a black president, or Islamophobia doesn’t really exist anymore because we’re living in this liberal democracy. We’re seeing that that was never true, and continues to not be true.

JRM: How so?

Willis: Obviously our president has said some pretty awful things related to Islam, but we’re also living in a society that has demonized an entire religion, and has forgotten that there are many experiences in a religion with more than one billion people practicing. We see a lot on the news about Islam, we hear a lot of scary language about it, but the people that I know that practice Islam — that’s not who they are.

JRM: When you made that documentary, what was your counter-experience?

Willis: It was about what it’s like in an American Muslim family. It’s a very small view for sure, but for many people in my class they probably didn’t even know what it looked like to be in a Muslim household. That’s what I was trying to portray, that this is what it looks like here in the States to be Muslim. Not everyone that practices Islam is this violent, aggressive, oppressive person.

JRM: So when the travel ban was announced, what was your reaction, as a person or as a public figure here?

Willis: Personally I felt sick and heart-broken. I didn’t know anyone directly affected by the ban, but it was scary for me to think, “Okay, this is the first step. Where does it go next?” For example, I have a friend who is Yemeni who travels to Canada often for medical treatment, and I was thinking, “Even though she has a U.S. passport, does that really protect her from what might come next?”  Or my best friend who now lives abroad, when she tries to return to the United States and her passport says that she was born in Damascus, Syria, will she be able to enter freely? So personally, that’s what I was afraid of. As a public figure, the travel ban was complicated. I remember the day after the ban was announced I was having a conversation with Terry Brown (Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs) and Naomi Baldwin (Director, Office of International Education) about our role and about what we’re supposed to do as staff. If we do nothing we’re alienating a certain group of people, and if we do something we’re alienating a group of people. The travel ban put us all in a hard spot as administrators. In the end we decided that we should take a stand in some capacity. Terry Brown asked our office to do educational programs based on the ban. In our weekly international student coffee hour we had Political Science professors come in and answer questions from the international students here. We also did a group reading of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in Reed Library, which was one of my favorite events that I’ve ever done. We had about 200 people. We printed the UDHR in different languages so people could read it in their native or second language.

JRM: I’m thinking back to my college experience. Study abroad seemed like something nice to do, and something I probably could have afforded, but it would have been hard to get me away from campus. You’ve said that it’s still difficult to get students away from campus. How do you market study abroad to students here, and meet them where they’re at?

Willis: Students love Fredonia’s campus so much. They have so many leadership opportunities and clubs, or they might be doing research, so it’s hard to get students to think beyond this campus. First of all, meeting students where they’re at is about working with current students to market study abroad to their peers. I don’t believe in passive recruitment — me waiting for students to come to my office and see me. If they were like you, or even me, as an undergraduate, they’d probably never do that. I believe in a more active form of marketing. We have study abroad ambassadors who go into classrooms and talk for ten minutes about their experiences. It’s not so informational as it is personal. They’re telling stories and engaging the class in a way that allows students to imagine what it would be like to spend time abroad. I like that because you’re reaching students who may have never thought about studying abroad.

JRM: How many of our students choose to study abroad?

Willis: Right now we’re at about 16-18% of students.

JRM: What else can students do besides study abroad that would get them a global experience?

Willis: What’s really good about study abroad is that it takes students out of their bubble, puts their lives on pause for a second, and makes them see a new way of being or doing. Other ways students can do this are service learning projects within the United States, which is large enough to have different issues and cultures to give students a chance to experience something new. I have a friend who has led service learning projects in Appalachia, and she has also taken students to a homeless LGBT shelter in Raleigh, North Carolina. It allows students to dig into social issues in those areas, and get to know people that they never thought they’d have anything in common with, then take that experience back with them as formative. They can also do Alternative Spring Break.

JRM: What’s Alternative Spring Break?

Willis: The same thing as service learning, it’s just that instead of going on a traditional college spring break they do a service project somewhere in the United States.

JRM: Terry (Brown) and I talked a lot about the presence of international students on this campus. I tried to explain that that isn’t something I would have noticed when I was in college. How do you talk to students about the importance of having an international presence on this campus?

Willis: I would even add having an international student here as a way to gain a global perspective. One of reasons I think study abroad is so important is because it helps our students understand international students more. I just read an essay by a student who studies in Italy, and she said that as a result of her experience in Italy she could understand the struggles that international students or tourists have here in the States. That is such a profound thought and that kind of empathy will be so valuable to use in her future personal or professional life. When I was abroad I remember having to go to a grocery store for the first time in Nairobi, Kenya, and how overwhelming it was: everything was different and scary. If we look at that on the flip-side, think about an international student going to Walmart for the first time. It’s probably unlike anything they’ve experienced, it’s completely massive and there’s so much stuff, it almost leads to sensory overload. Think of how scary that must be, especially if they’re going by themselves.

JRM: I never thought about that.

Willis: Every semester Bond Benton (Associate Professor of Communications) does a panel with the international students in his classes. The American students can ask the international students questions about their home countries and culture. That’s a really great way to bring that idea to students without intimidating them.

JRM: In terms of study abroad, what are you thinking about right now?

Willis: I’m concerned about how the new U.S. budget will affect some of the things that I do here. Nothing is necessarily on the cutting board, but I have some fears that the new budget will cut scholarship programs and Fulbright exchange programs, and how that will affect the ability of some of the students that I work with to go abroad.

JRM: You’re talking about people who might not otherwise be able to afford to go abroad?

Willis: Exactly. This is something I have to worry about all the time, but this year it feels more real than before. For example, our office has worked really hard to promote the Gilman Scholarship on campus, which gives students up to $5,000 to go abroad. It’s only for students that receive the Pell grant, so these are high-need students, and preference is given to first-generation college students, students of color, students with disabilities, and veterans. I just hope that we can keep encouraging students to go abroad with that kind of opportunity in mind. At this point, we’ve had ten Fredonia students win, and they’ve won over $40,000 to support their experiences. That’s money directly in their pocket which goes a long way in helping support what can be the most important thing they do as undergraduates.

JRM: Are there many students who can’t afford to go abroad?

Willis: It’s pretty evenly split here. Some students have the privilege of their parents paying for the majority of their college education, including study abroad. Then we have students who are really high-need. For those students I try to find programs that aren’t going to stretch their budget exponentially. Luckily they have so many choices that sometimes it’s possible to find programs that are manageable for them.

JRM: I want to come back to talking about the travel ban. I listened to a conversation between the writer Sam Harris and Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert comic strip. Adams explained the travel ban as a business negotiation in which you make an outrageous offer, then work your way back towards the middle where you wanted to be all along, in this case on immigration policy. But on the other hand you think about how much damage this rhetoric does. What do you think of that, because I’m not sure what to think?

Willis: To some degree I wonder if that’s even a concern. I watched Trump’s inauguration address and I remember how much it was about, “America First.” I think that’s really troubling because I have a belief that there’s no country or culture that’s better, or first. But I wonder if it even matters to them, how this rhetoric might affect our relations with our allies, and how it might affect our reputation in the world.  Certainly, the rhetoric is a means of negotiation, a way of saying that other countries need to pull their weight. But I think that the world is so connected at this point, so complex, that it is not as easy as “America First” makes it seem. There are major concerns all over the world that require more collaboration than ever before. It feels to me that this is not the right time to be choosing such nationalistic rhetoric. But, of course, this is something that we are seeing in other parts of the world, though perhaps not as pronounced as it is here. Based on my own experiences, and hearing from students who have been abroad, the majority of the world is concerned with what is happening here, and that should give us pause.

JRM: That’s interesting. I lived in Montana for a year and I had a friend who was concerned about Americans going abroad and teaching English. She explained it as a way for us to spread our influence around the world. “Be like us.”

Willis: There’s a sort of colonialism to teaching English, or doing volunteer projects abroad. I actually did teach English abroad for a short time. Before I went I had this idea that I was going to be able to change everything and help everyone. What was even worse was that I had no knowledge of the complex cultural and social issues that existed in Beirut, where I volunteered. Now I know that is not a good mindset to go into a volunteer experience with. I now try to teach outgoing students to research their host culture before going abroad, because it will not be like the United States.

JRM: Given that a lot of college students will eventually do these things, what sort of mindset should they be going in with?

Willis: They should be going in with the idea that they aren’t there as much to teach as they are to learn. It’s really important to be open to learning about that culture without being judgmental. Here in the States we’re taught that we do everything right and we’re the best culture in the world. One of the best things about going abroad is that you see a culture that’s very different, but you’re able to see the good and bad of that culture, and the good and bad of your own culture. You’re not going in with this white savior complex, but, “What will I learn from this experience? And how can it change me?”

JRM: What else is important in this conversation that we haven’t talked about?

Willis: I think that one of the most important things that students can get from an experience abroad is the realization of how little you actually know about the world, and even the U.S. We do an evaluation for all our students that go abroad. I was just reading through them this morning. One of the questions is, “How have you changed as a result of your experience abroad?” A lot of students say that they’re more independent or more mature, but one student said, “I realized I don’t know anything about the world.” That’s a good thing, because you learn some humility, you learn empathy, and you can take the best parts of your host culture home and embed it in your life.
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If you’re interested in studying abroad, you can visit Erin Willis in LoGrasso Hall, call her at 716-673-3451, or e-mail her at erin.willis@fredonia.edu.