Category Archives: FAQ

How I Pay For It

  1. Financial Aid.
    Because I travel through my University, all of my financial aid applies as normal.  I’m getting regular credits, so the travel part is really an extra.
  2. Scholarships.
    NU gave me enough money that it would cost me about the same to go there as to UMass (without full scholarship tuition.)  I’ve also been looking into the additional, overlooked scholarships both at NU and elsewhere, and I’ve been coming up with some serious dough.  A thousand here and there doesn’t sound like much, but for me $1,000 is round-trip airfare to Costa Rica and at least two weeks of accommodations and food.  If your travel is for legitimate, educational purposes, you can find a lot of people/institutions willing to fund it.
  3. Loans.
    Luckily, my loans are all some sort of less-scary student loan.  But I will have debt when I graduate, so that will limit my options a bit.  While I know I can live on $100 a week in some random place, I still need to make enough to pay off my loans.
  4. My parents. 
    Because my travel is educational and embedded in my college costs, and my parents are helping me pay for college, they’re also helping pay the cost of travel.  As an aside, I honestly have no idea how much they are or are not helping, which is part of why there’s no dollar-for-dollar breakdown.
  5. I go to cheap places.
    I love the developing world for oh so many reasons, but that one I always jokingly tell people is that it’s cheap.  A three-course lunch with a beer for $1?  Isn’t Cuba sounding nice?  You can also make some places cheaper by staying in hostels, going to the local market and being careful about when you splurge.  I definitely had a couple amazing expensive nights in Egypt, but in the end they cost like 50 bucks each for a pretty five-star evening.  In downtown Boston, 50 bucks won’t get you very far.  In some places, thats the cover and a couple of drinks.
  6. I work and save.
    NU has the coop program, which means I alternate six months of work for six months of class.  I have made it a priority to only take paying jobs, which is sometimes rather difficult in my major.  But this is a necessity for me, and I’ve still been able to have interesting, fulfilling work in my field, though some people (usually those who do not get the paying jobs) claim that is impossible.  I also work during the semesters when I’m in class.  Most importantly, I’m frugal.  I didn’t pick up my paychecks for my current job until 3-4 months in.  I only spend money on the weekends.  My downfalls? Concerts, clothing, and you guessed it: travel.
  7. Northeastern is Awesome About Travel.
    A lot of the programs I do have been great bargains.  I recently calculated that I spent $11,000 less than I would have if I had been on NU’s campus the whole time.  In Cuba, we paid a stud abroad fee on top of tuition (under $4,000) but that included flights, 2 meals a day, 4 side-trips, museums and the Cuban license.  If I had been at NU, a meal plan and on-campus housing would have been significantly more, with much less pizzaz.  For Egypt and Benin, I paid regular summer tuition (remember, NU students go to school year-round!) and in exchange got the credits, airfare, occasional meals, cultural activities and lodging.  In Egypt there were even more extras, like swanky hotels with floating swimming pools and all-you-can-eat buffets.  Again, housing and a meal plan of some sort would have cost me much more, and even if I just bought my own groceries and cooked it would have cost more than what I spent in Egypt, which was less than $100/week on top of tuition.  And that $100/week is not just food–it was booze, gifts, camel rides, and Nile cruises.

The moral of the story is that even if you ignore the value of the extras attached to my travels, I still saved money.  Make sure you investigate all of your school’s opportunities for travel and additional money.  Look at Fullbrights if you’re graduated, or free travel based on your profession, like the Boston Public School Teacher opportunity.

Travel is like anything else: if you want it bad enough, you will make it happen.  And it was certainly easier for me than it would be to buy a car or something.  Travel isn’t for the wealthy–it just depends on length of stay (longer is better), area of the world (developing and non-resort is better) and your priorities.  If it isn’t a priority for your savings, it will always be too expensive.

10 Things People Say About My Travels

  1. Have you read Eat, Pray, Love?
    Good lord, no!  But might I interest you in some Ayn Rand, Ayun Halliday or Malcolm Gladwell?
  2. Have you been to___________?
    Probably not.  I’ve only been to a few places.  They just all happen to be a little scary to the average bear, and one trip right after another.
  3. Why don’t you just go where they speak English?
    I speak other languages and I want to learn more.  Also, my travel is an integral part of my education.  It is not based on areas of high booze, sex or beaches, but rather areas I want to study.  England and Australia appeal to me as a traveler, but not as a student.  It would be counter-productive and perhaps a bit unethical for me to take money from NU, the government, and my parents to go abroad for non-educational purposes.
  4. Wasn’t it scary?  And don’t they just treat women like crap? And aren’t they awful?  (you get the picture…)
    No!  I promise!  I really have enjoyed everywhere I have gone, and I have never felt truly unsafe.  I research where I go pretty heavily, and I have turned down opportunities because I deemed them unsafe.  And if you come away from reading this blog thinking the people were awful and mistreated women everywhere I went, then I’ve failed.  I tell it like it is, and that means mentioning the harassment.  But I also get an alarming number of doors opened for me, and strangers who make sure I’m not lost, and people giving me presents at random.  It’s a mixed bag, like anywhere else.
  5. I wish I could do that!
    You can!  And please do!  If you’re in college, travel is super-easy.  If you go to Northeastern, absolutely no complaints out of you!  Leave a comment or shoot me an email if you want help figuring out how you can go abroad.
  6. But did you go sky-diving/bungee jumping?
    Absolutely not.  I think I would vomit profusely if I ever tried.  It doesn’t really appeal to me, and that’s a lot of money for something I don’t have any interest in.  We don’t all have the same tastes or the exact same experience on study abroad, even if it sometimes seems that way.  I prefer wandering around a city solo, meeting little kids, going to lectures and impromptu fun over the dare-devil type stuff.  I guess I’m just not that brave.
  7. Stop going to scary places!
    Again I say: absolutely not.  Also, as the person who actually went, they’re not so scary.  My old apartment in Roxbury was scarier than anywhere I’ve been abroad.
  8. Is that from place x/y/z?
    While I do LOVE to buy jewelry, clothing, decorations and accessories from abroad, lots of it is just Made in China and sold at H&M.  Sorry, I’m just not that exotic.  And suitcases are small.
  9. …But I bet it cost a ton of money
    It didn’t!  I swear!  Look for a dedicated post on this soon, but Financial Aid and my NU scholarships applied, so that certainly helped.  Also, I would be going to school anyway and nothing cost much over tuition.  Finally, I go to developing countries where my dollar goes farther, and I’m a pretty frugal person in general.  So I live happily average at home, and abroad I can often stretch that to average with many nights of excess if I feel like it–but I usually just save it for my next trip!
  10. You went to…Turkey (or Lebanon or Costa Rica or South Africa or wherever), right?
    Hehe no, but that’s fine.  I don’t expect everyone to remember everywhere I went and when and why, especially if you don’t see me that often.  Let’s make a deal: don’t get mad if I forget the names and schedules of your kids, and I won’t get mad when you forget all my countries.  Just don’t refer to them as “vacations”!

Why I Travel: A Sense of Clarity

Reflecting on Pico Iyer’s Why I Travel, the many ensuing responses, and the current political climate in the US, I thought I would try my hand at it. 

I’ve noticed that often, people try to hijack my travel experience and use it to reinforce their world view.  “Oh, you must have loved Cuba–but I bet you’re so happy you live here with all this stuff and where we’re all FREE!”  Or, “Oh wow, you must have loved Cuba, getting to see how awesome a country is even though it’s not capitalist and America’s trying to keep it DOWN!”

I generally don’t feel comfortable responding in the affirmative to either statement.  The “you must really love our wealth/infrastructure/freedoms” people are right, I am happy to live in a country with pillowtop matresses, good water pressure and wings whenever I want them.  But their statement almost always contains an inherent pejorative of wherever I’ve just been, a sense that it was a lovely/educational dalliance, but now I was back in the REAL world, the good one.

On the other hand, the business about seeing places so different from America, without our “rampant consumerism, corrupt politicians and danger around every turn” does ring true–a little bit.  There really are other ways of carrying on life and a country, ones that are far less selfish and just as succesful.  But these views tend to put the rose-colored glasses on for foreign countries.  And let’s be honest, if I won’t wear them for my own country, I’m certainly not going to wear them for anyone else’s.

I love travel because it sorts the wheat from the schraff.  I get to see other communities where people don’t have the same assumptions as we do here, and see how successful they are in carrying out their lives based on their own values and assumptions.  I get to compare different ways of respecting or interpreting civil rights, and see what I like about different the approaches.

Traveling helps me better see the world for what it is.  To see past the stereotypes, politicians and social constructs that have been ingrained in me (or others) for the duration of my life.  To discover best practices on everything, from recycling to child-rearing to dating to cooking.

Travel doesn’t make me hate America, and it doesn’t make me overwhelmingly happy I live here.  It just helps me see and understand the truth about every community I interact with, including my own.  And the hope is that someday, this aggregate knowledge will help me in my dream of developing communities into places that are better at recyling or child rearing, dating or cooking, no matter where on earth I end up doing that.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes

What is Service-Learning

Sometimes I get so into what I’m doing that I put the horse WAY before the cart, and forget entirely about step one.  Sometimes even steps one through five, and I think I did that a wee bit with explaining this trip.  It wasn’t until I read a helpful e-mail from my confused father that I realized if he didn’t know what I was doing here, I don’t think anyone else could.  Most people are still wondering what the hell I’m doing in Africa, and where this Benin place is, anyhow, and what’s this service-learning I keep waxing philosophic about.

Service

Service is volunteering one’s time at an organization, be it related to your church, school, workplace or other community.

Learning

Learning is your typical class room education, with objectives, goals, lectures and homework.  Pretty straightforward.

Service-Learning

Obviously, this is a combination of the two.  It’s a great example of Northeastern’s philosophy of Experiential Education.  The field of education and type of service are related, and as the French say, il y a un rapport entre les deux.  The service is supposed to inform the learning, and vice versa.  Classroom discussions are enriched with anecdotes from the field, and volunteering is more useful because of the knowledge gained in the clasroom.

While this has typicaly been used in hands-on, service-oriented fields like Human Services (which is similar to and includes social work), sociology, etc, it has also been used in the medical field and with engineers.

Why is this trip Unique?

Generally, service-learning is localized to one’s community–our international setting is out of the ordinary.  The idea is that a person is helping their own community, where they understand the language, culture, geography, et cetera.  Also, service learning typically lasts for a semester, with students volunteering at their placement for a few hours each week.

The Logistics

Our group is broken up into 5 smaller groups, each of which works for three hours a day (9am to noon) with a local Beninois organization.  The groups are the same every day, and each group sticks with its own organization the entire time.  One group is working at a music school/recording studio that also has an AIDS clinic, another is an orphanage, a third group is working at our very own residence, the Songhai Center, the fourth is at a vocational school for women ages 10-20, and finally I am at a micro-enterprise of a group of women who pool their resources (time, money, childcare) to create four products to sell in the market.

The Schooling

We fit lectures in during afternoons, as well as site visits (like to UNESCO or the US Ambassador to Benin).  In France we had a week of language classes in the morning from 9am to noon, and we have been receiving reading assignments throughout the trip.  We have started picking topics for a research paper due after our return to the states, and we were also graded on our presentations to the Universite d’Abomey students in the city of Cotonou.  Finally, there is the capacity building project, which synthesizes our classroom knowledge about aid, NGOs and evaluating efficiency with our experience in the field with our organization where we volunteer.

Conclusion

I hope this offers you all a little clarity on why I’m here and what the program is all about.  Feel free to leave any questions in the comments!

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.

Benny-what?

Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!

Service-Learning

While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link