An Impostor Syndrome Update

One week ago, I was holed up in my hotel room, furiously typing out this post as an alternative to a meltdown. One week ago, I was trying desperately to understand why I agreed to co-present a NASPA session on a topic that I was anything but an expert on. One week ago, I was predicting an inevitable professional crash-and-burn once I opened my mouth and started to talk. One week ago, the Impostor Syndrome had me in its grip and I was doing everything in my power to get it together.

I closed last week’s post with a pledge to bring the following to the conversation:

I have a story. I have a voice. I have opinions. I have skills and a great education. I have something to contribute.

So, that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to contribute and give voice to those in the room and in offices throughout the world of student affairs who feel like at any moment they are going to be discovered. To those professionals who question going into the field and feel like they have so much to learn. More than anything else, I’m going to show up and talk about what it’s like to blog bravely.

One week later, and I’m happy to say I accomplished my goals. I won’t pretend that my heart wasn’t in my throat as I looked into the rapidly growing audience, especially as I scanned the crowd and saw VPSAs, Deans, two of my incredibly supportive co-workers, my NASPA mentee, and more popular SA bloggers and contributors than I care to mention. The seats were quickly filled to capacity and there were between 20-30 people standing in the back, and it suddenly became very real. Was I really going to share my experience with the Impostor Syndrome? Was I really going to talk about the harsh criticism that almost made me stop blogging? Did I actually expect to share with 125+ relative strangers my inner critic? Guess what, I did and I’m all the better for it.

I shared my story. I put myself out there and got back not just a receptive audience, but nodding heads, sympathetic smiles and even a few hearty laughs! Our presentation team got a flurry of tweets under #SAwrites and having a standing room only crowd certainly wasn’t a blow to the ego. While all of these forms of affirmation were lovely and kind and so indicative of the field, they were easily quantifiable. One of the thoughts I shared during the presentation was not getting caught up in the numbers game. Whether it be Twitter followers, blog shares, or number of unique visitors, it is so easy to get focused on the numbers and, in the words of Teddy Roosevelt, “comparison is the thief of joy.” What really meant the most to me and brought me joy, were the people who reached out to me personally to say they found congruence with something I had to share. Personal connections matter, especially in the world of storytelling. 

The main lesson I learned from this experience is by showing courage, you can inspire courage in others. The more you share of yourself in an authentic fashion, the more others are willing to do the same. Finally, none of these actions can be done in a vacuum and I never would have thought to propose a presentation to NASPA about my blogging experience. Thank you to Renee Piquette Dowdy, who welcomed me with the a sunny disposition and open arms that prove seven years has nothing on BG love. Thank you to Amma Marfo, for not only being an awesome roommate, but also a thoughtful sounding board. Thanks to Chris Conzen, who I met in person 20 minutes before our presentation, and was singing selections from “Frozen” with a mere 10 minutes later to help ease my nerves. Thanks to all three of them for sharing my posts and bringing me along.

Finally, a most heartfelt thanks to Josie Ahlquist, my social media spirit animal. Although we worked together several years ago, I feel like I’ve gotten to know her more via Twitter and blogging during the past year. Josie was kind enough to invite me to the conversation for “Blogging Bravely,” and I will forever be grateful. We talk a lot about women’s support and leadership in student affairs, but it is another thing to put your money where your mouth is, and that’s what Josie did. She had social capital, chose to bring me along and, in turn, has opened doors for me that I couldn’t have opened on my own. I’m inspired to blog even more bravely because of you and all those in the student affairs blogging community!

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What would a NASPA presentation be without a presenter selfie? Thanks to Chris, Josie, Renee, and Amma! 

 

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Impostor Syndrome, Please Go Away

In less than 24 hours, I’m co-presenting with four heavyweights in the student affairs online world. Renee Piquette Dowdy, Christopher Conzen, Amma Marfo, Josie Ahlquist and I are presenting on “Blogging Bravely.” This NASPA presentation will hopefully serve as a reflection tool, resource-sharing opportunity, and the jump-start that some people may need to get to blogging. Sounds awesome, right? 

Here’s the issue: I’m terrified and I have the Impostor Syndrome to thank. 

If you aren’t familiar with the Impostor Syndrome, it’s a phrase coined in the late 70s after a group of researchers examined the experiences of highly motivated and career driven women and has become a hot topic in recent years after Sheryl Sandberg addressed it in her book “Lean In.” More or less, it is the feeling that you are somehow an impostor who is not qualified, doesn’t have much to bring to the table, and doesn’t deserve recognition or promotions. This also spurs on the feeling of being “found out” by others that you are indeed under-qualified and don’t belong. While this is an oversimplified description, for me it means a total sense of intimidation and feeling the consistent sense of, “Who am I to be included in this incredible group? Who am I to possibly impart my ‘wisdom’ to session attendees? When will my co-presenters figure out I’m not on their level?”

Let’s talk about my co-presenters for a moment. I’ve known Renee since grad school and she is incredible. She does consulting work for fraternities and sororities to help build their educational curriculums, is a big-time blogger, and has an incredible reputation in the field. Christopher is a leading advocate for community colleges, has developed an amazing online presence, and never fails to push the field forward. Amma just wrote a freaking book, you know, in her free time. Josie is getting her doctorate and has quickly become a go-to content wizard when it comes to technology, social media, and college student identity development in digital spheres. She’s also married to a celebrity. Combined, these four people have 7,700 Twitter followers. 

I’ve been blogging for less than a year, have a fraction of those Twitter followers and I am still very much finding my voice as a writer and blogger. Every time our group chatted via Google Hangout or sent around emails, in the back of my head was the voice saying, “This time they are going to figure out you are out of your depth. This email is going to be about trimming down the presentation panel. THIS Google Hangout you’re going to say something that ‘outs’ your lack of experience.” If I’m being completely honest, I’m also thinking about all of the folks reading the abstract thinking, “Oh, I follow Josie on Twitter…I’ve read Amma’s book…I love that Chris says what he truly thinks…Renee is an incredible example of a strong, successful woman…Who the hell is Marci Walton???” I have little doubt that most of the folks in the room tomorrow aren’t just coming to hear about blogging, but also to hear about blogging from these specific people. 

So where does that leave me? Ironically, researchers suggest that folks with the impostor syndrome should write out their accomplishments as a way to give perspective and shine a reality into what’s truly going on. With this in mind, here’s what I plan to bring to the presentation tomorrow:

I have a story. I have a voice. I have opinions. I have skills and a great education. I have something to contribute.

So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to contribute and give voice to those in the room and in offices throughout the world of student affairs who feel like at any moment they are going to be discovered. To those professionals who question going into the field and feel like they have so much to learn. More than anything else, I’m going to show up and talk about what it’s like to blog bravely.

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The Only Job Search Advice You Need

It’s job search season in student affairs. ACPA’s Career Central and NASPA’s Placement Exchange are just weeks away, and the furor on Twitter from job-seeking grads and professionals is palpable. I’ve been noticing this chatter, understandably, grow as the date gets closer and it made me reflect on my two wildly divergent job search processes. My first one was straight out of grad school and was actually documented as one of the 2007 Job Search blogs from StudentAffairs.com. I anonymously blogged for the site as a way to make sense of my process and it also helped pay some of my bills. The search was nationwide, sky’s the limit, and with the clarity of hindsight, incredibly idealistic. I read through some of my posts last night and I was struck by both can candor, as well as my naivety. Here’s a sample of what I mean:

The job search sucks. Every single insecurity you have is placed in front of your face and you are asked to defend it. How do you answer the question “What is your worst quality/characteristic/trait?” I usually reach for the standard “Well, I think I am somewhat overcommitted to my job. I usually work more than what is asked of me and often find myself at the office later than I need to be, just to make sure everything is perfect for the next day,” when all I really want to say is “I think I’m too emotional, too attached to the students that I work with, sometimes defensive, I judge ignorant and non-accepting people, I really think students are getting increasingly stupid, sometimes I think theory is all a crazy scheme concocted to make me fail Comps, and I have had visions of strangling meddling parents.” The problem is that nobody really wants to hear the truth during a job interview. It is a little dance that we play in order to make each other feel good. I make the people feel like they are getting a quality candidate and they make me feel like I have fulfilled their expectations.

Wasn’t I quite the sassy grad student? While age and maturity have allowed me to giggle at the person I used to be, the same feeling of struggling through the search persisted during my last job search. This one was quite different as I had identified the job I wanted early in the process and pretty much poured myself into securing the job. Luckily, it worked out am I’m currently in the early identified position, but it didn’t mean I was any less stressed or questioning of my abilities.

Here’s what I realized from two unique searches and serving on professional search committees for the better part of a decade. You will get advice from everyone, including your mom. Your professors have something to say, as does your supervisor, not to mention your cohort members and co-workers. You have Twitter accounts and Tumblrs who have almost solely been pumping out job search advice. You have webinars and candidate information sessions and I haven’t even mentioned this little thing called Google. While all of these resources are great and can answer your practical questions, what really matters is this and this alone:

Calm down and trust yourself. 

I’m going to say it once more, with feeling: Calm down and trust yourself. The energy around a job search, especially if you are a grad student can be both intoxicating and toxic. You’ve spent months or years processing theories and struggles and it’s only natural to default into the same habits when it comes to the job search. However, the job search can often shift people’s priorities because this is a new type of stress for many. You may compare number of interviews or the quickness of your search in comparison to others.

Calm down and trust yourself. 

Trust yourself. Trust your skills, trust your education, trust the skill set you have been diligently working on for the past few years. Trust your resume and cover letter. Trust your ability to have a good interview. Trust the flow of the search and know that every rejection isn’t a personal attack, but rather a step to bring you towards a better future.

I’m not saying that you should rest on your laurels and not seek out some practical advice for the search. You should still have several people look over your cover letter and resume. Take up people on their offers for mock interviews. Listen carefully when advice is given and incorporate it appropriately into your candidacy. But at the end of the day, calm down and trust yourself. 

I wish you luck in your process and if you ever need another set of eyes for your resume, need non-partical mock interview feedback, or simply need someone to tell you how awesome you are, please don’t hesitate to contact me! You can find me on Twitter: @MarciKWalton

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One Coat Too Many

Last week, out of nowhere, my coat rack fell off the wall. It was covered with coats, jackets, fleeces, a variety of purses, dog leashes, and more reusable grocery bags than I could count. I was flummoxed. I’ve had this $10 Target gem since grad school and for the better part of a decade, it has hung in three different hallways. Since I’m in Residence Life, I have to make the apartment I am given my home. This includes creating a hall closet where there isn’t one. My current apartment only has one designated closet, so this sucker is isn’t a luxury, it’s a necessity.

The part that threw me so completely was that it was out of nowhere. It didn’t fall after placing a particularly heavy coat on it, or brushing past it or even a big gust of wind. It just fell. I scooped up all of the items on my kitchen floor and ended up doing a much-needed spring cleaning. Items found new homes, things got donated and I was left with only the essentials. A few days later a friendly Facilities worker anchored the rack to the studs in the wall (which I had failed to do when I originally installed the thing) and I had a good-as-new, much leaner coat rack.

What the heck does this have to do with anything? Well, I couldn’t help but make the connection between my coat rack experience and the continuing conversation on mental health and wellness in the field of student affairs, particularly as we approach the planning season for professional and student staff summer trainings. For the sake of the analogy, the proverbial coat racks are student, graduate and professional staff; the jackets, coats, bags, and more are all of the sessions and obligations we pile onto ourselves and our teams with the expectation that just because it has held up in the past, we can assume it will hold up in the future.

The problem with my coat rack is that there was no warning. There was no creak or groan, or the splintering of wood, or any indication that it was struggling. It just broke. All too often, I see this with my colleagues and student staff members as well. One day they are plugging along just fine and then the next minute, they are a puddle of tears in my office or over a cup of coffee. For me, my breakdown happened in the middle of the glue aisle at a local craft store. 

During the crazy months of training, I always ask myself if it has always been this way and if it always has to be this way. Is there simply so much information that packed days, busy nights, and weekends full of work necessary or are we so conditioned that we’re unable to say anything until we are broken down, in a puddle on the floor, much like my poor coat rack? I am an eternal optimist so I think we not only can do better, but we must do better.

If you have a free moment, take a look at your upcoming training schedules or any time-consuming processes that your office offers. Honestly, does every session have to be included? I’m not suggesting that we toss the duty presentation out the window for RAs or fail to go over the core curriculum for academic advisors, but maybe that session on time management would be better served during a staff meeting when students are actually struggling instead of three weeks before the year begins.

Additionally, how are you using technology to enhance or even take the place of sessions that usually feature talking heads in a room full of students either struggling to stay awake or trying harder to hide their phone usage than paying attention. Interactive presentation tools, flipped classroom models, incorporating YouTube videos, or a variety of other methods could not only appeal to a diverse set of learning styles, but also cut down on the time, energy and effort usually required of a traditional training model. I see this having a direct impact on both student and professional staff leader’s ability to role model appropriate health, wellness, and self-care techniques for students. Is it really fair to ask students to go 100 miles an hour for weeks before school begins and then expect their behavior to change once they get into their actual day-to-day lives? We’re setting ourselves and our students for failure and its time to change. Are you up for it?

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Lunch Lady Life Lessons

One of the very first people I remember meeting as a first-year student at Wittenberg University passed away last week. It wasn’t my roommate, or a professor, or even a friendly student affairs administrator. Ann McGree, the woman who swiped your dining card to let you into the cafeteria, passed away peacefully in her sleep. I found out through a Facebook post from one of my sorority sisters and immediately burst into tears. 

ImageImage and text posted to the Wittenberg University Facebook page on January 31st

Ann was the spirit of Wittenberg. She was friendly, helpful, engaged, knew everyone, and was the honorary grandmother of every single student on our tiny, 2,400 person campus. She was rarely without a smile and somehow remembered your name and something about you, regardless of whether you were the star basketball player, the student body president, or like me, a quiet young woman from a tiny town two hours away. Ann made an impact on everyone and took on the role of honorary Wittenberg mascot. She was invited to programs, attended events, and was the key role in many publicity roll-outs because she saw nearly every student, every day. Ann was so deeply loved and respected by the Wittenberg community, that she received one of only a few “shout-outs” in the letter outgoing President Mark Erikson penned to say farewell to the Witt world. Quite simply, Ann made an impact. 

Ann made a particular impact on me because my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s soon after I left for college. It was a confusing time for our family because my Grandma West was the keystone of our family. She was the grandma who, quite literally, had anything you would ever need. It didn’t matter if it was a button to a jacket, a specific kind of cookie cutter, or the best damn apple pie recipe on the planet. She was the grandmother that baked a special treat every single day and had the house that all the neighborhood kids flocked to because snacks, books, hugs, and whistling along to Conway Twitty tunes were always in abundance. My favorite part about my Grandma was that she had a feisty, sassy side. Every once in awhile she would let a curse word fly, turn to us kids and say, “You know what? Sometimes it just feels good to say ‘shit.'” This also came up with her relationship with my Grandpa who was particular about nearly everything. Grandma convinced him that sausage was just “spicy hamburger” and brownies were just a cake mix that didn’t bake all the way. She made up words and phrases like “doohickey,” “new nothing with a whole in it” and insisted on calling the couch a “davenport” even though we constantly corrected her and tried to get her to “get with the times.”  

ImageMy Grandma and Grandpa West on their wedding day. I love this picture! 

Grandma West also had an incredible memory, which is what made the Alzheimer’s diagnosis that much harder to adjust to. Since she was so sassy, she spent many years covering for herself and telling other people that they were remembering wrong, not her. This made going home for me really hard. I dreaded going to see my Grandma because I never knew which Grandma I was going to get. Was it going to be the Grandma of my childhood who wanted to make hard tack candy or toast with a special cinnamon sugar mixture that I still haven’t mastered? Was it going to be the Grandma you wasn’t sure if I was a freshmen in high school or college? Or was it going to be the Grandma who tried desperately to recall my name when I hugged her? 

This is why Ann was so important to my college experience. She always remembered me, and all of my friends as well. She not only remembered my name, but was willing to strike up a conversation, ask about my classes, sorority, or post-graduate plans. Ann also had a sassy side that reminded me of my Grandma. I often saw her look the other way when a student had run out of meal points near the end of the semester. I once got pulled aside by Ann and given a stern talking-to when a predatory credit card company nearly had me hooked on applying for an account. I got a 30 second crash course on financial planning, the importance of building your credit while in college, and how a poor credit score could impact my ability to get a car or home loan. All of this from “just” a lunch lady. 

Ann was so much more than just a lunch lady. She was everyone’s grandmother and for many of us, we needed her more than she would ever know. Thank you, Ann. You truly taught me what it meant to be a Tiger. 

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What the Hell was I Thinking?

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

We are on the side of a gorgeous mountain. Lush greenery around us, a river rushing several hundred feet below us, and a warm tropical breeze blows through our hair. All is well with the world. Breathing in inspiration, breathing out gratitude. Then the sound kicks in “vooRRRR, vooRRR, vooRRR” and we lurch back and forth, simultaneously thrown forward while being incredibly thankful for the invention of the seat belt. For a moment, I totally understood how people get whiplash. I have visions of being stranded at the top of a Mexican mountain, the last known vestiges of civilization several miles below us and I begin to wonder, “What the HELL was I thinking?”

Let’s go back about three hours. Our second to last port was in our sights. Puerto Vallarta is the first port in Mexico, and the only port where Galina and I didn’t have excursions planned through Semester at Sea. After my experience in Guatemala, the port prior to Mexico, I was ready to be a true traveler and not a tourist, so I was excited at the thought of wondering through a new city and for going on our own excursion. About two months prior to this moment, Galina and I received a staggering booklet of colorful pictures and expressive descriptions of between 10-15 excursions per country. My goal when choosing excursions was to experience things that would never be possible in the U.S., which led me to learn about the process of chocolate making, emerald jewelery making, and hike an active volcano. However, when we looked over the excursions for Puerto Vallarta, they all seemed a little generic. Things like swimming with dolphins in an aquarium, horseback riding on the beach, or whale-watching were all fabulous options for many people, but since we live in California, none of them inspired much excitement for either of us. Therefore, we struck out on our own.

My goal for Puerto Vallarta was originally to go snorkeling, as they have some of the best snorkeling in the world. However, these conditions did not exist in the middle of winter. During my research, I found an eco-tourism company that specialized in “off the beaten path” tours and adventures. Some people may equate this to death, but I was up for it, and Galina signed on without even seeing the website or pouring over the Yelp and TripAdvisor recommendations like I had. When we stepped off the ship, we had the name of the company, the address in Spanish, and instructions to show the ticket “to any taxi driver, they’ll know where we are.”

With nothing more than this address and trust in Jose, our incredibly helpful taxi driver, we set out to get past the cruise ship terminal and main area of town which was teeming with tourists to get to the “true” Mexico, to be able to christen ourselves travelers. A $40 cab ride later, we find ourselves in old town Puerto Vallarta and suddenly I felt much less like a traveler and much more like someone who wished she had paid more attention in high school Spanish. Due to my insane over-preparedness, we were almost an hour early, so Galina and I enjoyed using WiFi for the first time in weeks. She texted with her family about Christmas and I sent my mom a vague text that said, “I’m about to go ATVing in Mexico. If I die, make sure to spoil my dog.” I subsequently lost cell service, leaving a panicked Midwestern mother on the other side of the text message. We sat around a little longer while teenagers worked on dune buggies, ATVs, and other vehicles in varying states of usability. We finally met our guide who tried to make up for spotty English with a huge smile, put on helmets that smelled a little funky and had me thinking about the bottle of Purel that was sitting neatly on the desk in my cabin. This was our view:

ImageThere were worse ways we could spend our time in Mexico.

We got a quick (and I mean quick) overview of how to operate our vehicle which was known as a “Rhino.” I chose it because it looked like the safest option when two women decide to go gallivanting through the Mexican countryside. There were seat belts and a roll-cage, plus we both had to wear helmets, so all-in-all, I felt fairly safe. To be honest, I was a little disappointed that it wasn’t a stick-shift because I was all geared up to show off my automatic car skills picked up on a variety of farm equipment and a menagerie of second-hand cars during my years growing up in Ohio.

ImageRhonda, the Rhino after the first leg of the trip

I decided to drive first, so with Galina riding shotgun next to me, we set out. Our guide was up front, then a teenage couple on an ATV, then another employee who wove in and out of traffic in order to get “in action” photos which I was convinced he would try to sell back to us at the end of the day (foreshadowing: he totally did). We drove through the cobblestone street of old Puerto Vallarta and gradually transitioned to smaller stone roads, then dirt roads, then straight up dirt paths. We crossed rivers and streams, swollen from recent rain waters and enjoyed lush vegetation that had me humming the Jurassic Park theme song in my head the entire day. After about an hour, we stopped at a roadside stand that offered us a much-needed bathroom break and moment of gratitude for views like these.

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I insisted that Galina drive the rest of the way. In my head, we were simply going to backtrack the path we had already driven, but our guide had another idea. He thought we should really get the full experience, which included hugging the sides of mountains as our Rhino started to have what I can only describe as seizures. I’m convinced that it wasn’t really in gear as the engine continued to rev up and down, jerking us around in our seats while we were several hundred feet above the ground and miles from anything. At first it was funny, all part of the adventure. Then, it became a little concerning, then very concerning. I was already going into Res Life duty mode, thinking of contingency plans. Would it make sense for both of us to stay with the Rhino while our guide went for help? No, then we were alone in the Mexican countryside. Would it make more sense for one of us to stay with the Rhino while the other one went back with Jose, to make sure that he actually came back? No, because that meant one person would be all alone. Would it make sense for both of us to go back to the shop on the guide’s ATV and then send them back? Well, that was a laughable plan since there were absolutely no road signs and I had no clear idea where we turned and where we kept going. The plan then became to just drive slow, coast on the declines, brace our necks, and pray we made it back without any incident.

ImageScene of our ridiculous adventure

By some small miracle, we made it back okay. Right before we were about to leave, our guide insisted on taking us to a local restaurant. Apparently, the tour also included a tequila tasting! Who knew!? Galina and I (wisely) decided that we needed lunch first and subsequently had perhaps the best Mexican food of our lives. Seriously, I will have dreams about this guacamole. After lunch, we had a quick tequila tasting, which was surprisingly delicious! Like many people, I have only had tequila after making poor choices throughout an evening and then really want to push myself over the edge, so I was participating more to be kind to our hosts then to actually enjoy myself. However, having good tequila is actually a delightful experience! We tried chocolate-flavored, hazelnut-flavored, and my favorite kind, an amazing version that was mixed with cold milk and crushed walnuts which resulted in a Kahlua-like flavor. We then had the tequila version of moonshine (ugh, never again) and the “Grey Goose” version of Mexican tequila which is next-to-impossible to get in America. Overall, it was a really great day! We got a cab to the tourist part of town, walked around a little bit, and then headed back to the ship for perhaps the most amazing sunset of my life. Mexico taught me to dare a little more, trust my instincts a little more, and that an adventuring heart can take you far!

ImageThere is no one else I would rather adventure with than this woman!

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Travel vs. Tourism and Social Justice vs. Souvenirs

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

This post has been a long time coming. On the second day of the voyage, I watched an amazing workshop about the death of travel and the birth of tourism. The Dr. Tracy Ehlers asserted that travel as we once knew it is dead. It has been replaced with tourism. Tourism in the sense that you do indeed SEE the country in question, but it is through a protected pane of glass from your air-conditioned bus, or filtered through a savvy and well-trained bilingual tour guide. Since travel became more economical for middle- to upperclass families, the need for safety, security, and the sense of “getting the most for your money” has relegated us to sightseeing tours. To being shuffled from one monument or museum to the next so when you get home, you can boast to friends and family about the quantity of what you saw, but never the quality of the experience. As a result, members of the community in question need to cater to the tourist experience, sometimes out of convenience, but often more often about survival.

I really felt this come home for me while being a tourist in Guatemala. I am specifically using the term “tourist” versus being a “traveler” in Guatemala, because my experience started on an air-conditioned bus through the Guatemalan countryside. The views were spectacular. We saw coffee fields, sugar cane fields that were in the process of being burned (this is to get the poisonous snakes out so the workers can safely cut down the cane for harvest), plus a view of the Pacaya Volcano. This volcano is very active, and there was a plume of smoke and debris being shot out of the top when we passed by!

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Just an active volcano spitting out ash as we drove by. Pretty typical day.

Our trip really began when we arrived at Lake Atitlan. If you EVER have the opportunity to visit Guatemala in general, or specifically Lake Atitlan, DO IT. It was one of the most amazing, gorgeous, pristine, inspiring views I have ever seen. The Lake was created after a series of volcanic eruptions blew the top off of one volcano, and the Lake was created after centuries of being filled with rain water. The indigenous Mayans have lived around the lake and surrounding mountains for centuries and much of their culture is tied to access to fishing, fresh water, and other opportunities that living next to a bio diverse lake creates.

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ImageImageOne of the best days of the entire trip

We took an hour boat ride to the other side of the lake to a small town called San Tomas. The moment we stepped off the boat, we were inundated with local men and women pushing their wares on us. Most had enough English to ask you to buy, ask your name, tell you their name, and some went so far as to place wraps, shawls, jewelry, or other items on members of our group, as a sales tactic. It felt very aggressive, and continued throughout our half-mile walk throughout town to get to the restaurant where we were stopping for lunch. The entire path was crammed with vendors, children selling bracelets, men selling hand-carved masks or flutes, the list goes on. It became clear that marching tourists from the boat dock through these stalls was a common occurrence, and most likely resulted in much of the income the people of the town came to depend upon.

We had a lovely lunch, were marched back the way we came, and continued to be barraged by men, women, and children and their variety of products. We got back to the boat and then waited almost 45 minutes for one couple who thought the 1pm deadline didn’t apply to them. This was the moment that the tourism vs. travel and social justice vs. souvenirs became painfully clear to me. Since we were tied up to the dock and on the boat, the women of the town essentially had a captive audience. Several of them were even bold enough to climb on board and try to sell their items.

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Note: I asked this woman’s permission to take her picture and also paid her.

Going back a day to our pre-port briefing, a professor who has worked with the indigenous culture of Guatemala for over 30 years, talked about the culture of bargaining. There is something about rich people that makes them prone to barter with people who are not rich as a form of entertainment. A sense of pride happens when you get the handmade scarf down from $15 to $10, when the average Guatemalan makes less than $5,000 a year. The professor said it was okay to bargain, but then leveled with us. She said, “All of you can afford this trip. Therefore, if someone asks you to pay $15 for a scarf, if you have $15, GIVE IT TO THEM. Those five dollars mean much more to them then it does to you!”

Back on the boat, a Guatemalan girl of about 14 was trying to get $12 for a scarf and a Australian woman from our group told her she only had $10. She even opened up her wallet so the girl could see she only had a $10 bill. The girl ended up conceding and when she left the boat, the Australian woman opened up a second zipper of her wallet and $20 and $50 bills were literally spilled out of it. She was absolutely delighted that she was able to get away with such a “deal.”

The frantic selling continued until the oblivious couple returned and we headed back across the lake, to the safety of our buses. While on the way, I noticed a HUGE, American-style home on the side of the lake. I asked our guide, and he said much of the land is being purchased by American, Canadians, and Europeans for vacation homes since building materials, labor costs, and property taxes are next to nothing in Guatemala. As a result, the indigenous people of the lake are being forced to turn to tourism as a way to supplement their income, since they didn’t have the same lake access or land for farming.

When we got back to the buses, a minor altercation between passengers broke out because people didn’t sit in the same seats they came in. Meanwhile, 20 feet from us, a family of six was bathing, fully clothed in the lake we just traversed. The pettiness of those on board, especially in contrast to what was happening, quite literally, outside our window make me sick to my stomach.

There is a term we like to us in alternative spring break service trips called “poverty tourism.” This is the idea of rich (often White) people who go to impoverished nations, take pictures of Brown and Black children, buy some local items to feel like they’ve contributed to the local economy and therefore “done their part,” and returned unchanged, unmoved, and unmotivated to dismantle the systems they enjoy in order to impact the communities they just visited. By participating in tourism of developing nations versus traveling through them, having conversations and interactions with local people, asking and reflecting on how places could have such disparity, only a few thousand miles away from their home, tourists at best miss the point, and at worse, perpetuate the established system of inequality, privilege, and oppression.

The main lesson from Guatemala? Be a traveler. Experience the world, don’t just see it. And run, kicking and screaming, from any experience that caterers to tourists.

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Pura Vida! The Pure Life in Costa Rica

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

I have been looking forward to Costa Rica more than any other country on the trip. I’ve heard it is beautiful, inspiring, and I can now say that those words don’t do this country justice. As the most politically and economically stable country in Central America, Costa Rica enjoys a democratic government, amazing tourism industry, and almost 25% of the country has been categorized as national parks. The country realized decades ago that there was power in maintaining the natural wonder of the country, so it has been on the forefront of becoming a green, eco-friendly environment. Additionally, the have completely done away with their military (yep, you read that right, NO military) and taken all of that money and invested in their educational system instead. They realized that if anyone tried to start something, the US would come to defend them, due to their coffee, banana, and chocolate exports, in addition to sharing a border with the important trade country of Panama. Pretty genius, right?
 
ImageCosta Rican countryside and coffee fields
 
In terms of exploration, I decided to sign up to see the Poas volcano. This volcano is part of the “cloud forest” section of the country. There are dry forests, which is what the majority of the US could be described as, then rain forests, and then, which I did not know, are cloud forests. These are ecosystems that thrive above the elevation where clouds appear. Therefore, we climbed from sea level to over 10,000 feet in about two hours! 
 
ImageOn the hike to the volcano. The Dementors were near!
 
We arrived at the volcano and the difference in climate was immediately clear. First, it was about 30 degrees colder! The weather report called for 95 degrees and sunny, but the middle of the cloud forest was about 60 degrees and a weird cloud haze hung about 10 feet off the ground. It was hard not to think that Dementors were around! We had to walk about half a mile to get to the volcano summit, but it was well worth the wait. Well, it was eventually worth the wait.
 
The tricky part of about being that far above sea level is that you are literally walking through clouds. Therefore, the volcano crater was completely covered with clouds for the first thirty minutes we were there. Our tour guide (who was seriously incredible) kept telling us to be patient, be patient. Then, a swift gust of wind swooped down, and blew away the cloud like the top of a dandelion getting blown away. You could see a lake at the bottom, craggily sides, and mineral deposits from millions of years of volcanic eruptions. The last eruption was in the 1950s, which is nothing in terms of geologic time, so it is very much still an active volcano. We were able to get some pretty incredible pictures, then it was time to head out. 
 
ImageThere’s an active volcano underneath all of these clouds, promise!
 
ImageFinally getting a glimpse of the side of the volcano!
 
The next stop was a small, middle-class town of Sarchi. Sarchi’s claim to fame is an all metal church, designed by the same architects who designed the Eiffel Tower. We did a a loop around the church, then saw the world’s largest ox cart! Ox carts are a huge part of the Costa Rican culture, as they used to be used to transport coffee from one side of the country to the other. They started painting elaborate floral designs because the men were often gone for months at a time and their wives painted unique designs to remind them of home. 
 
ImageWorld’s Largest Oxcart!
 
ImageThe detail was incredible!
 
Once again, we were ushered into a Costa Rican souvenir shop that had pretty much everything under the sun. I did the rest of my Christmas shopping, then we headed back to the ship, seeing the most incredible sunset over the Pacific in the process. It was an incredible day, and I know that I’ll be coming back to Costa Rica to explore sooner rather than later.
 
ImageNot a bad way to end the day in Costa Rica
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All Was Calm, All Was Bright on the Panama Canal

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

Today, Christmas Eve, I got to check off three very cool things from my Bucket List:

  • Be in both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans in the same day
  • Traverse the Continental Divide by ship
  • Experience one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World

Today, we traversed the Panama Canal! It was, by far, one of the coolest things I have ever experienced. It took about nine hours, and through a series of dams, locks, man-made lakes, and more, our 900-passenger MV Explorer made it from the Atlantic to the Pacific, across the Continental Divide, and proved that the Canal deserves its spot on the list of modern wonders.

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The start of the Canal! This was the when we were still on the Atlantic, ready to be hoisted up through the locks.

Galina and I woke up early (for us; it’s all relative when you are sailing!) to get a good breakfast in before we started going through the Canal. Since we got a late start out of Cartagena we got bumped in line to go through the Canal. Originally, we were slated to start at 5am, but now we started at 9am and finished around 6pm, which was perfect for a little leisurely wake-up call, plus we ended up in the Pacific just in time for sunset.

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A carefully choreographed routine of train engines on either side of the ship pulling and tug boats pushing from behind helped our ship safely get through the Canal.  

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Sailing under the Bridge of the Americas! 

It seemed like every person on the ship was on deck to see the start of the locks, and with good reason. It’s not every day that you are lifted 20-50 feet by a series of locks and mechanisms that date back 100 years! A set of three locks got us to the lake, and then we had a very slow ride (it is a totally wake-free zone) through the nine-mile, man-made lake until we got to the three sets of locks on the Pacific side. I spent most of the day reading in the Glazier Lounge. This is the faculty lounge on the top deck of the ship and has a 180 degree, glassed-in view. I thought this was the perfect spot as it was shaded, air-conditioned, but still accessible in case I wanted to pop out to take a quick picture.

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Panama is the only country in the world where the sun rises in the West and sets in the East

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After nearly nine hours, we finally made it through and have the Pacific in our sights

The sunset was truly spectacular and the crew opened up Deck Eight, which is usually off-limits so we could get an even better vantage point. After we were on our way through the Pacific to Costa Rica, G and I grabbed dinner, then headed to the Christmas Eve service on the ship.

The service was interdenominational, and hosted by a Unitarian Universalist minister. There was a 40+ person choir and the service ended with a rousing version of The 12 Days of Christmas, which involved motions of each gift (including eight maids a-milking!) and I laughed to the point of tears. The best part of the entire service was when the minister talked about community. She said, in a way, we were all searching through foreign lands during this voyage and what made this possible was the community of travelers. We had, over the past few days, created our own community. We ended the official part of the service with “Silent Night.” The minister asked us to reflect on the lyrics “all was calm, all was bright.”

Since I’m sitting on Deck Five, typing this at 10pm on Christmas Eve with the stars above me, sea beneath me, warm breeze around me, its hard not to be grateful, humbled, and inspired by this unique gift and indeed privilege of travel.  My family never really traveled as I was growing up. My dad was always working his second job at our family farm, and my grandparents had a small place on Lake Erie that was our default vacation. Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t trade summers of suntanning, boating, fishing, firefly catching, adventures to the sand bar, or summer flings for anything, but it wasn’t until I was an adult that I truly traveled.

There is something to be said for being uncomfortable, for struggling to communicate or for getting lost in an unfamiliar city. There’s something to be said for being plopped down next to total strangers every night at dinner and making conversation for two hours. There’s something to be said for making decisions from your heart and not your bank account. For leaving port and learning to sail as you go. Although the voyage is only half-over, I’ve already learned to trust that part of my head and heart that says, “This is probably not the most practical option which is EXACTLY why you need to do it.”

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Jewels and Affluenza in South America

Author’s Note: I recently returned from the voyage of a lifetime. Along with my good friend and colleague Galina, we sailed with the Winter Enrichment Voyage through Semester at Sea.This combines travel, adventure, workshop speakers, relaxation, and more. Enrichment Voyages are billed as “Trips for intelligent people who like to have fun.” We traveled to eight countries, two oceans, two continents, experienced Christmas and New Year’s Eve with the Pacific breeze in our hair, and basically had the time of our lives! I blogged along the way while on board, but due to limited Internet connection, I’m posting them now so follow along and enjoy!

First time in South America! Whoo-hoo! We pulled into port in Cartagena, Colombia and must say, I was pleasantly surprised. Cartagena is a bustling city on the Caribbean and has a population of around one million. It was occupied by the Spanish, and still has several remnants of that time, including a gorgeous downtown (which reminded me a lot of the French Quarter in New Orleans) and a “Walled City” fort, which is now available for, you guessed it, tours.

ImageView of Cartagena from the ship!

We only had about five hours in Cartagena, so I was excited to meet our tour guide, who was also named Paula and get going. I was signed up for the Emerald Jewelry Making excursion, since I really couldn’t go nearly three weeks without some kind of crafting! We hopped on the bus and only drove about a mile into the city until we were dropped off at the Fundacion Escuela de Joyeria del Caribe. This is a jewelry school in downtown Cartagena which funds scholarships for teenagers and young adults from the developing parts of Cartagena. They train them in various jewelry-making techniques, which is big business in Colombia. After coffee, bananas, and flowers, emeralds are Colombia’s largest export and they are still mining Colombia for emeralds, while veins in other countries have long since dried up.

We were ushered to the instruction room where we were given an introduction to the school and taught about the mission. Then, each of us were paired with a current student who was the “master” while we were the “apprentice.” I met Yazmina, who was 18 years old, and going to school part-time to become a teacher. She was learning how to make jewelry to fund her education. Between her limited English and my limited Spanish, we were able to get along just fine. It was lovely to be able to have a conversation with someone from the place I was visiting, instead of feeling so separated on the bus, through translators, etc. We made a variety of jewelry using raw emeralds and hung out for nearly two hours. I ended up making a ring, pendant, bracelet, and earrings. I ended up buying all of the them and plan to give away some as Christmas presents. It was also nice to know that at least some of my money was going to fund the education of Yazmina and the other students of the school.

ImageSelfie in Colombia with my incredible instructor

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 Started with raw silver and emeralds, and ended up with these beauties 

After we were done making the jewelry, we went to see the walled city, which was left over the colonial days and then headed to an emerald museum. To the surprise of no one, we ushered through a high-end emerald shop on the ground floor. I am not really a jewelry connoisseur, so I had no idea if the prices were good or bad, I just knew they were far too rich for my blood. I was a little perturbed that we were one again asked to purchase items, but then realized that the emerald store completely funds the jewelry store and usually employs the students upon graduation, so it wasn’t simply an easy way to prey on tourists.

ImageWalled City with Colombian flag

I didn’t want to buy anything, so I headed back to the bus where I met a young guy named Hunter. Hunter said he was 22-years-old and from Santa Barbara. He had shagged brown hair, wore purple John Lennon sunglasses, and had an air of privilege to him. Do you ever just meet someone and think to yourself, “I bet you’ve never been told no in your entire life.”? Maybe it’s just my seven years of working at private, very expensive schools, but my privilege radar was beeping like crazy. I didn’t think much of it, until we got back on the ship and they started paging Hunter over the loudspeaker.

A little context before I continue with this ridiculous story. For every port, the passengers had an on-board time and a departure time. It is absolutely essential that you are on-board by the on-board time because we WILL leave you by the departure time. Obviously, some tours may go over by a few minutes, so there is an hour buffer between on-board and departure time. They need to be really strict about this because there are title issues, immigration issues, and a host of other issues that start to occur if we are in port longer than agreed upon with the country in question. Therefore, when you hear someone’s name being paged in between the on-board time and departure time, you know either they aren’t on board, or failed to swipe their ship ID properly at the entrance.

Hunter’s name kept being called. Since he was on my excursion, I knew that we had made it back about 30 minutes before on-board time. Also, the ship was docked in a residential neighborhood, not a bustling marketplace or shopping district, so it’s not like he just lost track of time looking for souvenirs. Here’s what ended up happening, all of which we were told at the beginning of our next pre-port meeting. These meetings are kind of like floor meetings in residence halls in that it is a way for the community to come together before heading out in a new country, learn about customs, traditions, political climate, ideal spots to visit, etc.

Our pre-port after Colombia started with a staff member throwing up a picture of a speed boat. I was a little confused, until the staff started talking about the adventure of Hunter. Apparently, when you fail to make it back by departure time, the Semester at Sea staff leaves your passport with the country’s authorities and convey the message that you either need to find a flight home, or need to meet up with us in our next port of call. In Hunter’s case, he got back just as our ship was leaving the harbor, so the Semester at Sea Captain said he could hire a tug boat to ferry him to the ship, and then he could have to climb aboard using the exterior ladder, usually reserved for pilots who take us through the Panama Canal. Since we were heading to the Canal next, we couldn’t afford to lose our spot in the queue. It would have cost thousands of dollars in fuel costs and penalties to slow down, turn around, and wait for Hunter. According to the staff, the tug boat wasn’t fast enough, so the tug turned around, Hunter rented a speed boat, and then tried to catch up in what, to those on the outside decks, looked very much like a high speed chase! The speed boat was able to catch up and Hunter was brought aboard.

The story would have been over at this point, but Hunter was, in the staff’s description, “overly alert.” His behavior alerted them and they did a thorough search, which resulted in about three grams of COCAINE! In less than two hours, Hunter had ventured into Colombia, purchased cocaine, then chased down the MV Explorer, after nearly 1,000 people had been waiting on him and him alone, for over an hour. The staff then had the choice of turning him over to Colombian authorities, or waiting to turn him over to American authorities when we traversed the Panama Canal. Being kind-hearted people, who didn’t think a 22-year-old white guy would fair too well in a Colombia prison for attempted drug smuggling, so they decided to allow him to stay on board for the night, and then turned him over to U.S. authorities the next day in Colombia. Between the tug boat rent, the speed boat rental, the amount of fuel the Explorer wasted slowing down, then speeding up so he could board, plus flights home, they said he would be charged between $15,000-20,000, much less all of the legal fees when he returned home. Needless to say, most people on the ship thought Hunter was suffering from a near fatal dose of affulenza.

photo(18)View of Cartagena from the ship after I was able to get my butt back before departure!

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