Tuesday, December 22, 2009

A High School English Teacher in Indonesia

Since the end of this past August, I have been living and working in Medan, Indonesia as a Fulbright ETA (English Teaching Assistant) in Northern Sumatra. When I found out last summer that I had been offered a scholarship, and signed the paperwork to accept, I wasn’t quite sure what I was getting myself into. Having lived the experience for four months now, I can say that it has been nothing less than life-changing.
One of my reasons in coming to Indonesia was to learn another culture, and there is no better way to understand a different way of life than total immersion. I teach in a Catholic senior high school (not being Catholic, that has been a new experience unto itself), and I am amazed every day at the level of respect afforded to teachers in Indonesian culture. You are addressed by students and fellow teachers alike as “Bapak guru,” which translates literally to “Father teacher.” I’m only 22 years old; before Indonesia I had never been called “father” anything. When you enter a classroom, all of your uniformed students will rise from their seats, bow politely, and greet you in unison on command from the class president with “Good afternoon, Mister!” They are polite, respectful, and eager to learn. I have never had classroom teaching experience before coming here, but I cannot imagine a better environment to learn in. Teaching here is a joy and a pleasure, and I look forward to coming to work every day. The students are like sponges for the English language and American culture; they want to know as much as possible, and they take in everything. I had a student last week at the end of class raise his hand, and ask, “Mr. John, next week, can you teach us about Abraham Lincoln?” From my own high school days in the United States, I can’t recall very many times the students requested extra lessons.
Being an American in Indonesia is a very interesting experience, and a little like being a local rock star. Foreigners are a rarity in many parts of the country, and most Indonesians never leave their island. I have had many complete strangers just come up to me and touch my arm to feel my skin, as if they didn’t believe I was real. This also has to be one of the friendliest places I have ever been. I cannot go anywhere without people coming up to me out of the blue and starting a conversation, and complete strangers will drop anything they’re doing to help you if they think you need it. The culture is extremely generous, and being invited home for dinner is both a very common occurrence, and a special treat. The sense of community here is amazing, and even in very poor areas, you never see homeless people in the streets. There is almost always someone in the community willing to take them in before they will let them live without a roof over their head.
The Fulbright program affords many opportunities outside of the classroom as well. There is plenty of time to travel, as Indonesia has the most national holidays of any country in Asia. Besides the many cultural events I’ve seen, along with my fellow ETAs and Indonesian friends, I’ve climbed some of the many volcanoes of Indonesia, hiked through dense jungle, enjoyed relaxing hot springs straight from the ground, surfed the beaches of Bali, been SCUBA diving in some of the most diverse marine environments on Earth, and spent weekends relaxing at nearby Lake Toba, the result of an ancient super volcano that is now a lake bigger than Singapore.
However, and thankfully so, not everything here is an easy vacation. Personal growth is the result of rising to meet challenges, and there are ample opportunities in Indonesia to overcome obstacles in your path. Learning Bahasa Indonesia (literally- “the language of Indonesia”) is not required, but if you put in a little work and study it during your time here, your experience will be greatly enriched. The language is often described as very “economical,” and with no articles, tenses, conjugations, or gender, it is actually very easy to pick up quickly. Learning the language is a reward in itself, and the best way is to simply go out and talk to people. Everyone here is always eager for a conversation, and are always happy to help a beginner practice.
For anyone that is at all considering applying for this scholarship, I cannot possibly encourage you enough. This has been one of the best experiences of my life, as well as one of the most educational. For whatever field you choose to go into afterwards, you will enter that field as a stronger individual than you otherwise would. You will learn a lot about Indonesia in your time here, but even more so about yourself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009 - November 18, 2009

It has been over a year since I first stepped foot on Ireland for my year-long adventure, and I just wanted to say that the Mitchell Scholarship continues to provide interesting opportunities, connections, and experiences, even months after I’ve returned home to America. The scholars have continued to stay in contact with each other, and now that we are spread about the country (and world), I have a wonderful network of friends to visit and stay in touch with. Trina Vargo, the US-Ireland Alliance’s president, continues to keep us in touch with scholarship- and Ireland-related news, information, activities, and she reaches out to connect scholars of different years with each other. I have come to realize that this adventure was really so much more than just an education abroad. Rather, I have become a member of a huge, caring, unique, and inspirational family, consisting not only of Mitchell Scholars but of all Irish people everywhere. Incredible. Absolutely incredible!

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009 - June 30, 2009

As I expected, my ten months on the Emerald Isle are over before I knew it. Wasn't I just writing my first journal entry yesterday? I can't believe my time in Ireland is already over! Time really does fly when you're having fun! Well, where one door closes, another opens.

Eh... actually, none of these or any other nostalgic, reflective clich├ęs really does justice to the way I feel about saying good-bye to Cork and hello (again) to America. (But they sure do provide a nice crutch to fall back on, right?) It is no stretch of the truth for me to say I've had the best time of my life over the course of this past year. I've made fantastic friends, traveled extensively, and made a palpable connection to a gorgeous, exciting, and culturally rich country. I've made the most of my time here. And that feels really good to say.

Perhaps that's why I'm so much looking forward to going home; I'm not leaving behind missed opportunities -- just my newfound second home that I know I will return to many times throughout the rest of my life, come hell or high water.

And the year couldn't have ended on a sweeter note with which to leave fond memories of my time here at the forefront of my mind. Since my last entry, I underwent an ordeal of six straight weeks of almost nothing but work on my thesis and studying for exams, day and night, weekends included. Then followed four weeks of actually taking the strenuous exams. But this made the rewards that followed all the more worth it: the end-of-the-year Mitchell Scholars retreat at Parknasilla (amazingly relaxing and delicious is the best way to describe it) and a month of relaxation and traveling, including trips to Iceland (the most amazing place I’ve ever been in all my travels), Amsterdam, Athens, and even some Ireland sightseeing that I had not previously gotten around to (e.g., kissing the Blarney Stone and driving the Ring of Kerry).

The retreat at Parknasilla was so outstanding that it really deserves some further explanation. I mentioned in an earlier entry that the Mitchell Scholarship gave its scholars the royal treatment. This fact was raised to a fine art on a whole new plane of existence on this retreat. Parknasilla is a resort on the beautiful Ring of Kerry in west Ireland, with a luxury spa, a golf course, and 500 acres of forests, trails, rivers, and sea. Its director is a friend of the Scholarship, and he decided to allow us to stay there for a few nights. We got to stay in private chalets, gorge ourselves on incredible food, enjoy a relaxing massage and spa treatment, and explore the nature of Ireland at one of the country’s most beautiful and serene locations. Then, to top it off, we trekked back to Dublin for a day where we got to stay at the 5-star luxury Westbury Hotel off the famous Grafton Street. The following morning we were treated to a visit to the U.S. Embassy where Ireland’s Prime Minister, Brian Cowen, presented each scholar with a commemorative class ring. The “extras” that come along with this scholarship are seriously mind-boggling. All the places that we the Scholars got to go, the people we met (especially Senator Mitchell and Ireland’s President and Prime Minister), and the treatment we received were completely and unlike any experience I’ve ever had. It was as if we were true ambassadors from America to Ireland. And this trip at the end of the year really topped it off in the most amazing, once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity kind of way.

But don't let me convince you that these year-end trips were enjoyable only because my previous time in Ireland was not. No, I know I'll savor and treasure every moment I had this past year (a relatively simple task with my 4000+ photos).

Actually, that inspires the most-probably-best way to think about my time here: regardless of whether I was doing something adventurous, every moment abroad felt adventurous in one way or another. That's something I'll miss when I return to the familiarity of home. But hey, all the more reason to come back. And that day won't come soon enough.

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009 - April 1, 2009

In the two months since my last journal entry, my daily amount of schoolwork at UCC has increased tremendously. Thus my last two months in Ireland have had a very different character than my previous five -- but don´t think that that´s a bad thing! One of the main reasons I was excited to move to Ireland and pursue a master´s degree in computer science was that I couldn´t wait to study the field I knew I was so passionate about but had yet to pursue in my previous degrees. (I was passionate about my previous degrees, too, though!) School has been much more difficult lately, with most weeks including at least three all-nighters of coding. But whereas most people would shudder at the thought of such a situation, I´ve never been happier with the way school has been going. I´m proud (albeit unfortunately, depending on my mood!) to say that I could easily be happy sitting at a computer for days on end solving complex programming problems, fine-tuning programs until they work juuuuust right. And the Mitchell Scholarship and UCC have given me that opportunity. I feel so lucky to have had this taste of a career I know I will be passionate about. I´m really looking forward to getting started with computer science work and research in the "real world" and through a PhD (once I narrow down my specific research field of choice).

Of course, as much as I love programming computers, my life would be pretty unwell-rounded if sitting in front of a screen was all I ever did. And my experience in Ireland and elsewhere abroad would certainly not, in my opinion, have been spent to the fullest. So I have made every effort possible to travel and experience the outdoors in my free time. One of my favorite recent travels was to Venice for Valentine´s Day. Neither my girlfriend nor I had been before, so we were incredibly excited to experience one of the world´s most romantic cities on one of the world´s most romantic days (according to Hallmark, at least). The city certainly did not disappoint! The twisting, narrow alleys, devoid of cars, and bordered by gently flowing canals was absolutely enchanting, made moreso by the delicious food and wine, beautiful weather, and all-around pleasant atmosphere, architecture, and environment. And, lucky us, we arrived at the beginning of Carnival, Venice´s annual special holiday where everyone wears masks and costumes and overflows their parties from the bars and restaurants into the streets and squares. If you´ve never been, you must go. I´m so glad I did and can´t recommend it enough!

If you´ve read any of my previous entries, you would know just how much I have enjoyed the mountaineering club at UCC. Well, I wouldn´t want to disappoint my faithful fans by not mentioning it in this entry as well. One of my recent favorite trips other than Venice was a 3-day weekend hiking excursion to the southwest of Ireland to a city (rather, a small town) called Portmagee in County Kerry that overlooks the Atlantic. The trip was by far my favorite hike with the club and provided possibly the best scenery I´ve seen yet in the Emerald Isle. The highlights included giant, Celtic crosses atop a mountain shrouded in mist, smooth green hills rolling out into the ocean, and some of the best craic (Irish for extreme fun) with tons of great new friends I´ve had in recent memory. I´ve said it before, so why not say it again: if you attend UCC sometime in your life and enjoy hiking, join this club!

Another highlight of the past two months was getting to meet Senator George J. Mitchell himself, an incredible opportunity provided by the Mitchell Scholarship. (Though, technically, HE provided the Mitchell Scholarship… Chicken and egg, anyone?). All of the scholars who could attend met up in Dublin along with Trina Vargo (the US-Ireland Alliance´s founder, president, and dignitary-extraordinaire) and eagerly awaited Senator Mitchell´s arrival. He soon sat down with us and spent the next hour and a half or so telling us some great stories from his life, including his experiences with the Ireland/Northern Ireland troubles and with his new role as the U.S. envoy to the Middle East. His resolve, passion, and intelligence (all of which were easily evident in our rendez-vous) make him a true inspiration, and I feel privileged both to have met with him and to participate in a scholarship program in his honor. (My raise in funding will arrive any day now! Hah... Just kidding!) And as if meeting Senator Mitchell weren’t amazing enough, we were subsequently privileged to meet Ireland’s President Mary McAleese at Ireland’s version of our White House. Similar to our meeting with Senator Mitchell, President McAleese sat with us for a while just sharing some stories and thoughts, and the whole time I just kept thinking to myself, “I can’t believe I’m talking with the president of Ireland right now.” The sheer excitement of opportunities like this through the Mitchell Scholarship was matched only by their surreal quality.

One other very important highlight from the past few months was the Mitchell Scholars’ Belfast retreat. Like the previous fall retreat, the twelve of us met up, though this time in Belfast in Northern Ireland. We got to stay in the infamous Europa Hotel, and our activities included sit-down meetings with representatives from each of Northern Ireland’s different political parties, a tour of Crumlin Jail by former prisoners (held there as criminals during the “Troubles”), and a driving tour of the city’s divisive murals. It was truly an eye-opening experience to the strife and hardships Northern Ireland has faced over the years due to political and religious differences. On the lighter side, we also made a trip to the northern coast to see the Giant’s Causeway (a fascinating geological structure surrounded by myth and mystery), the Carrick-a-Rede rope bridge from whose dizzying heights fisherman once reeled in massive quantities of salmon, and the original Bushmills (whiskey) Distillery. In spite of all its turmoil, Northern Ireland remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve seen. (And it is in large part thanks to Senator Mitchell that the turmoil has all but disappeared!)

I´m in Barcelona writing this now (another FANTASTIC destination), so I will close this entry and continue to enjoy the rest of my time here. My time in Ireland really has flown by, but I´m so glad that I´ve had experiences like this one and those mentioned above and in previous entries, and I´m so glad to met the people that I have and to have formed a lifelong bond with one of the most amazing countries and peoples in the world. Excitingly enough, I know that even when this program is over, because of the bonds I have formed and the memories I have made that have made such an impression on me, I know I will continue to strengthen them and make more throughout the rest of my life. And I can´t wait! Adios!

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009 - January 21, 2009

Wow, where to begin... I left off my last "Reflection on Ireland" with anticipation of all the new activities I could enjoy after my shoulder healed, so I suppose I should start by saying now that my shoulder has healed (from its dislocation during my second week in Ireland), I have been even more thoroughly enjoying my time here on the Emerald Isle than before! This is due largely to the following three factors:

1) I am no longer injured.

2) I am actively participating in the UCC Ultimate Frisbee Club, which is loads of fun and provides a great opportunity to meet people and travel around the country (for tournaments).

3) I am actively participating in the UCC Mountaineering Club.

I think the third one is perhaps the most important. If there is one thing I can recommend above all else to do with your time in Ireland, it is to join the mountaineering club (if one exists at your university)! The experiences with the club have so far been absolutely, incredibly, superbly rewarding. So far I've gotten to hike up the Galtee Mountains in Ireland's "Golden Vale" region, Purple Mountain in the Macgillycuddy's Reeks in County Kerry, and the Knockmealdown Mountains on the border of Counties Tipperary and Waterford. Each hike I go on, I fall in love with the country more and more, as the views from the mountain tops overlooking the Irish countryside below are some of the most breathtaking, inspiring, and, dare I say, magical sights I have ever seen.

But it is not just the rewarding views that make the Mountaineering Club so wonderful. Rather, the fact that each hike is more of an expedition/adventure/bonding-experience carries more weight in my high opinion of the Club. Unlike the hikes that I'm used to (mostly in the Southeast and on the Appalachian Trail), the hikes here have no trails, no trailblazes, no paths. I couldn't believe my ears on the first hike when the guy leading the group looked at his map, looked to the top of the mountain, looked back at his map, then looked up and said "Well, I guess we're just going to have to find some way across this river here and then go up whichever way gets us to the top."

This adventurous spirit, combined with the relentless rain and the ubiquitous bog-like terrain, makes the hikes more like expeditions than hikes. (In fact, on that same first hike, we got so high up the mountain that the rain turned into hail, and the wind was literally blowing people off the mountain. We had to huddle behind a rock for thirty minutes to stay warm until the storm passed!) After trudging through six to eight hours of bog, rain, hail, wind, rain, stunning views, fresh air, rain, and more rain, we then all head to a nearby pub to enjoy great conversations over some Guinness or Murphy's.(Murphy's is a stout local to Cork, even tastier than Guinness in my opinion! If you ever come across it, give it a try!) It's almost like once per week heaven comes down to Earth for a day.

Well, now my journal entry looks like one big advertisement for the Mountaineering Club. But I can't stress enough how awesome it is and how much it has made me feel like I've been enjoying this country to its fullest!

Of course, I'm making sure to enjoy the other countries in Europe to the fullest, too. I have done so in particular by undertaking one of my greatest achievements to date: a roadtrip across Europe. Over the Christmas break, Jose (one of the other Mitchell Scholars) and I joined one of his friends, Berni (who is from Vienna), on a journey from Dublin to Vienna, a distance spanning more than 2100 km, and a trip covering a total of ten countries! We took a ferry from Dublin to Wales, then drove through Wales to England. We explored London for a day, then left from London to Dover (as in, the Cliffs of Dover!) where we boarded another ferry to Dunkirk, France. Then we drove through France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany (where we got to experience the glory that is the autobahn), and finally Austria (Salzburg, precisely). Six countries in one day! Wow! Then we explored Salzburg for a day before driving to Berni's home in Vienna, where his mother made us homemade Kaiserschmarrn, and then Wiener Schnitzel the next night. Berni drove us to Bratislava, Slovakia the following day where Jose and I said goodbye to him and caught a flight to Rome, where we had the delight of seeing the Pope come out on the balcony to say Merry Christmas! Then the following day, I was off to the Netherlands. My girlfriend flew over, too, and we got to celebrate the New Year in Amsterdam!

All I can say is: Phew! What a trip... A roadtrip is DEFINITELY the best way (at least that I've come across so far) to see Europe. We got to see so many different countries and cultures and had so much freedom in our travels. Three straight weeks of living out of one carry-on-sized bag with great company and plenty of sites seen and fun had... It was an irreplaceable, simply fantastic experience.

Aside from these travels, two memorable experiences stick out in my mind that were direct byproducts of being a Mitchell Scholar. The first (which I forgot to mention in my previous entry) was the ability to attend the U.S. Election Party, sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Ireland, at the Guinness Storehouse. All of the Mitchell Scholars received private invitations, and we got to witness the Presidential Election while drinking free Guinness all night. It was a great way to make up for not being able to be home in America for such an important historical event. Then, later in November, all the Scholars got together at the home of one of the Scholarship donors for a home-cooked Thanksgiving dinner. There we got to have a wonderful meal with several Irish men and women, and the conversation flowed as sweetly as the red wine on the table and as richly as the gravy on the delicious Thanksgiving turkey. (I have learned that such is the case with nearly any conversation with someone from Ireland.) Like the Election Party, it was a great way to make up for not being home for Thanksgiving.

Now a new semester is upon me, and it's back to school and homework. I've got plenty of adventures left ahead of me, though: Venice with my girlfriend for Valentine's day, ten more hikes with the Mountaineering Club, trips planned to Switzerland, Sweden, and Portugal, and plenty more Murphy's to be had in Cork's many wonderful pubs. Hopefully my next "Reflection" journal entry will be even more exciting than this one! Slainte!

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009 - November 17, 2008

When I arrived in Cork, Ireland, the first thought that came to mind as I stepped off the airplane onto the tarmac was, "Is this really what Cork looks like? Or is this some big landscaping project that was performed to make the airport look nicer?" Right by the airport were beautiful, green, rolling hills and an expansive sky with clouds dramatically thrown across it. After going through customs and hopping into a taxi, I realized along my way to my new apartment that it wasn't just some landscaping project; there was beautiful countryside everywhere. I couldn't believe it. (And I've since realized that this countryside isn't even the most breathtaking in Ireland!)

Before coming to Ireland I had heard that it would be beautiful. The country has far surpassed my expectations. (I still can't decide if the grass here really is greener than in Georgia, where I'm from, or if I've just convinced myself that it is.)

The countryside is not the only beautiful aspect of Cork: University College Cork's (UCC's) campus is outstanding! And not just for its aesthetic qualities: I REALLY enjoy my classes. My professors are fantastic (and most of them are Irish, which makes me feel especially like a part of the Irish culture), and the course material is interesting and challenging. As fascinating as my Statistics program at Georgia Tech was, it's nice to finally be taking classes again in a subject I'm especially passionate about (computer science). Surprisingly, my program (M.Sc. Mobile Networking & Computing) has only seven people in it, and only one guy is Irish. It looks like some international friends and I are going to become a tight-knit group!

The realization that I am satisfied and content with my being matched with UCC in Cork is profoundly important to me in such a positive way. See, the Mitchell Scholarship allows twelve U.S. students to study in Ireland each year, but we don’t have complete control over which university we get to attend. Instead, we submit a “top five” list with our scholarship application, and the following factors determine which Scholar attends which university: which programs are offered at each university to provide a good match for each scholar, how many scholars each university is willing to accept, and the scholar’s interview performance. I had some reservations about being matched to UCC and Cork since it was such a small city “in the middle of nowhere” (by American standards) with a university I hadn’t heard of prior to applying to the Scholarship. I have come to realize, however, that I actually got the best deal I could have hoped for. The university provides a wonderful academic and social environment (and is very highly ranked internationally to boot), and the city itself is a dream come true. Cork is the perfect compromise between Irish countryside and city-life: the hills and pastures are a stone’s throw away (unlike the industrial Dublin), while the city center provides an incredible downtown experience with seemingly unlimited choices of shops, restaurants, bars, pubs, clubs, and cafes. I have the best of all worlds in Cork. Serendipity at its finest.

I've tried to get involved in a few things on campus to meet new people and get the most out of my experience here, but for the past couple months or so it seems as though fate has been working against me. I joined the Ultimate Frisbee team, and at the end of the very first training session, I dislocated my shoulder. If you've never done this before, I can't recommend trying it. I had to be rushed to the hospital, and I was placed in a sling for four weeks. This prevented me from doing the activities on campus I was most interested in (ultimate frisbee, mountaineering (a hiking club), and running). But of course, I did not let this prevent me from making the most of my time here! Sling or no sling, I've been sure to get in plenty of traveling, including trips to Prague, Paris, Barcelona, London, and all over Ireland. Traveling around Ireland is especially great since I get to visit the other Mitchell scholars and see what their experiences are like. I'm so glad we all get along so well. I feel very fortunate to have been picked for the Mitchell Scholarship when I see what amazing people they are.

I felt like I really got to know the Scholars well, and realized how close we could potentially come, on our fall retreat. One of the greatest advantages of the Mitchell Scholarship is the plethora of opportunities that it provides beyond just the education, travel, and stipend. Our fall retreat is one fantastic example. Soon after the twelve of us arrived on the island, we each hopped on trains to Limerick and proceeded to travel around the west coast, see some common and not-so-common sights, meet some locals, and get introduced to the Irish way of life. This included a trip to the staggeringly impressive Cliffs of Moher, an Irish cooking class at a local lodge, and a stay at the five-star Doonbeg Golf Resort where we got to meet several of the benefactors and donors of the Scholarship after the US-Ireland Alliance’s annual golf tournament there. I couldn’t believe the royal treatment we received! I feel like there was no better way to begin to fall in love with this country.

Similar opportunities cropped up as time went by, such as the chance to see famous Irish actress Fiona Shaw’s portrayal of Samuel Becket’s “Happy Days” play at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, including the chance to meet her after the show. I would never have had this opportunity had I not been on the Mitchell Scholarship here!

I can't believe I've already been here in Ireland for two months. The time has just been flying by, and I've been having so much fun. Getting to be a part of Irish life, seeing all of the beauty, history, and activity this country has to offer, getting to meet so many amazing people, and getting to travel so many places has really been a dream come true. And, now that my shoulder has finally healed, I can't wait to get started on all the other things I've been looking forward to so much. I'm having a blast, and it looks like the rest of my year here is going to be even better. I can't wait!

Adam Tart - Mitchell Scholarship 2008-2009

It has been two years since I was awarded the Mitchell Scholarship, one year since I thus began my adventure in Ireland, and about six months since I once again stepped foot on American soil. Although much time has passed, I made sure to document my travels and experiences throughout my time there in my journal, and I am happy to share these journal entries with all of you out there who might be interested in applying to the Mitchell Scholarship. (I would highly recommend doing so!) My year abroad in Ireland was the best time of my life, and I hope that the following journal entries help convey that and convince you that the same could be true for you.

And as soon as I have a little more time, I will go through these posts and add some of my favorite photos to them! :-)

Note: Because each of these entries was written a while ago, ignore the actual timestamps of them on this blog and instead note that their dates of writing is mentioned in their titles.