Student Journey Series: Kate Zyskowski

Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Kate Zyskowski. Kate currently lives in San Francisco where she is in her last year of her PhD in Sociocultural Anthropology. Her dissertation research is based in Hyderabad, India, the site of her first global education program.

My introduction to global travel happened through stories. I remember one book from my childhood called Material World: A Global Family Portrait. This book showcased pictures of families worldwide with all their possessions in front of their home. I spent countless nights sitting in front of the fire devouring this book, comparing the food products, clothing, and furniture styles across the world. Looking back on it now, I learned that difference was something to celebrate and I had a lot to learn about the world.

Volunteering with an educational foundation in Hyderabad while studying abroad

Volunteering with an educational foundation in Hyderabad while studying abroad

I first traveled outside of the country the summer after my sophomore in college when my family made a trip to Europe. At the end of that trip, I took a direct flight to India for a semester study abroad which was my introduction to global education programs. For my study abroad experience, I wanted a program where I would be staying with a host family and attending a local university and I found one in Hyderabad, India. Living with a host family and attending local classes were challenging. It took me weeks to figure out how the semester workload worked at the local university and to adjust to the more relaxed timings of classes (once, a professor was 90 minutes late to class). I have a vivid memory of one afternoon, a few months in, sitting on top of my host family’s roof, wanting to go home and be done with this experiment. I thought I might never travel again.

I learned quickly that I learn the most about myself, and others, by placing myself in challenging situations. By the time I left Hyderabad, I was already plotting on how to get back. The following summer I received a research fellowship to return to Hyderabad for my senior thesis on history and politics in the city. Today – eleven years later – I’m still close with my host family and I last visited their home in Hyderabad about a year ago.

Atop the Bhoolbhulaiya or Labarynth (The direct Urdu translation is "the thing that makes you forget") in Lucknow, India

Atop the Bhoolbhulaiya or Labarynth (The direct Urdu translation is “the thing that makes you forget”) in Lucknow, India

After completing college I wanted to pursue a career in global education working in South Asia. I knew that to work in South Asia I would need to know Hindi and Urdu languages, at a minimum. I applied for a year-long Urdu language study in Lucknow, India through American Institute of Indian Studies. We had classes from nine until two every day, then lunch, and then a lot of homework. Our classes covered poetry, film, newspapers, verbal interaction, and short stories. Lucknow is a city rich in music, dance, and literary history making it a perfect place for language immersion.

While living in Lucknow I applied for graduate school in education policy. I attended a one-year masters program at University of Pennsylvania and quickly realized that I wanted to pursue a PhD program. I am now in the final year of my PhD program in Sociocultural Anthropology at the University of Washington. My dissertation “Certifying India: Everyday Aspiration and Basic IT Training in Hyderabad” is based on fifteen months of ethnographic research on the everyday experiences of marginalized students trying to get ahead by acquiring computer skills.

One thing I would like to point out is that my area studies opened many avenues for scholarships and grants. I received one federally funded grant called the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship three times – this grant funds graduate students in any discipline if they take area studies and language courses. My dissertation research was also funded through area studies grants including the Fulbright and AIIS foundations.

One of my GSL groups in Uttarakhand

One of my GSL groups in Uttarakhand

Outside of academic pursuits, my initial global education experience led to numerous other career opportunities. I led global service learning programs to India with Lakeside and Putney Student Travel for four summers. I have also conducted research with both Microsoft Research and Facebook on digital labor and new technologies in India. I am currently doing a research internship at Facebook on a team that focuses on security and safety of women in India. After having a firsthand look at the impact and breadth of something like Facebook and WhatsApp on students I was working with in Hyderabad, it’s exciting to be able to apply my research skills and area knowledge to different areas.

With friends on a rooftop in Hyderabad last year

With friends on a rooftop in Hyderabad last year

An adage often used to describe anthropology is to “make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.” There are multiple educational paths to undoing familiar things and finding empathy for strange things, but one of the most effective I’ve found is global education. The process of going through the multiple layers of adapting to a culture (and finding distance from your own) and the sheer time spent surrounded by different people, foods, and customs has always had the effect on me of allowing me to grow in new ways and forge new relationships. People fear things that are unfamiliar, and I think it’s important, for our students and communities, to do work that undoes fear.

Student Journey Series: Spencer Tilger

Each month, the Student Journeys Series will feature a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They’ll write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Spencer Tilger. Originally from Seattle, Spencer currently lives in Brooklyn where he works as the Program Associate for the Forum + Institute for Urban Design, a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the influence of urban design in creating dynamic and livable cities.

Wow, mucha gente,” I said to my host mother as we walked through the crowded streets of Mexico City late one Tuesday night. She looked at me puzzled, and not just because she had not yet grown used to my fragmented Spanglish.

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Sunset over the Mexico City

Si, siempre ay mucha gente,” she shrugged. Yes, there are a lot of people. What to her constituted an unremarkable stroll through her neighborhood revealed to me an entirely new conception of what cities could be, of what forms communal life could take.  I was shocked. In Mexico people actually interacted in public. Not just in their houses or in coffee shops, but everywhere.  And not just on weekends, but all the time. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. Or Seattle, for that matter. Here, public parks in city centers were not dark abysses to be avoided at night, but were instead full of young couples, young kids playing, and venders selling toys and snacks.  Far beyond the fact that people stayed out late, I found experiencing this different mode of living exhilarating.

GSL India

GSL India

I was in Mexico as part of a yearlong study abroad program run by the International Honors Program, entitled “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice.” IHP: BG, as we called it, was an intellectually daunting interdisciplinary program with an equally ambitious travel itinerary. Consisting of two months in four countries across four continents, the program traveled through Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico focusing on the effects of economic globalization on people and their environments. As a geography major studying the forces that shape space and the built environment, I was drawn to the chance to study how economic forces shape vastly different places in unique but similar ways. Additionally, ever since I’d had the chance to go to India as part of a Global Service Learning (GSL) trip through my high school, I’d been searching for an opportunity to return.

My host mother in Mexico

My host mother in Mexico

I had incredible and complex experiences in every country we visited, including India, but I was surprised to find myself so enamored with the country the closest to home. In our classes in Mexico City I learned the history of the neighborhood I was living in, and felt at home in a place very different than my house in Seattle. My host family lived in Santo Domingo, a neighborhood that had been settled in the 1970s by an organized land occupation by landless peoples, who created their own plots, street grid, and even school.  They had to petition the government for many years to provide any basic amenities, including electricity and water, but they eventually got them. Many houses there are still topped not with a finished roof, but exposed metal support rods ready to provide the foundation for another level. One of our teachers remarked that, “Some people consider them ugly and unfinished, but I think they’re beautiful because they represent hope and aspiration.”

My IHP group at Teotihuacan

My IHP group at Teotihuacan

This sense of possibility is what I felt I really learned while there. Experiencing the lives of my host family and living in their home and neighborhood completely changed my perception of how cities are built, who does the planning, who gets to make decisions. A whole new world of possibility came into real life focus. I believe that for many American students the value of international education can be found in its ability to jolt them out of the delusion that their way of doing things or their way of thinking is the only one of value or logic. And for me, those realizations about myself and about my culture was very freeing.

Me at Casa de la Cuidad's map room in Oaxaca City

Me at Casa de la Cuidad’s map room in Oaxaca City

When I returned to the States after eight months abroad, it was great to be with my family but I had a gnawing sense that something was missing. I felt sad when the downtown streets of Seattle emptied after work hours, and lonely walking around my neighborhood.  I felt out of sorts, but also hopeful. My time in Mexico had infused me with those aspirational qualities I mentioned before. I wanted to help make places that were meant for people.

A little more than two years later, I now work at the Forum for Urban Design in New York City. The Forum hosts discussions about urban issues, especially around public space and how to build more livable cities with stronger communities.  As we explore issues ranging from mixed-use zoning to how to provide affordable housing, I find myself returning to my time abroad for inspiration and the assurance that there is beauty in the unfinished work.

Me with my host family in Zanzibar

Me with my host family in Zanzibar

My IHP group at the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania

IHP at the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania

IHP at a mountain sacred to the Maori in New Zealand

IHP at a mountain sacred to the Maori in New Zealand