A Crisis At Home While Abroad

fullsizerender-8In my first blog post, I explained how I got to SPP and why I wanted to leave my city in Venezuela so badly; however, what I didn’t mention is why my parents wanted me to leave just as much as I did.

I would love to explain to you more in depth the roots of my nation’s issues, but as a person who deplores politics (probably because of my experience), I don’t feel like a have a voice in this matter; however, I can tell you what it was like living under such regime.

These past few years have been of profound crisis for my country; inflation increases daily -sometimes even 500% within a week. There’s scarcity of every product you can think of, and I dare to call it one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Luckily, my family has not been as heavily affected as other unfortunate families, but that doesn’t mean I can’t share the pain.

Years ago, I remember people being so happy you could always feel a kind and zealous vibe around, but these last two years specially, crisis reached its brink and people are simply miserable.

As inflation keeps rising, people don’t have any money of actual value to buy anything. You see them wandering in the streets looking for something to eat inside garbage bags, you see them desperately waiting for a mango to fall from its enormous tree, you see them starving to death. And when they can actually afford products, they form interminable lines under the 104 °F sun hitting right at you; all the wait so when they actually enter the supermarket everything is gone. Two years ago my mom picked me up at 3am from a party, and on my way home I still remember looking at hundreds, maybe thousands of people already lined up outside the market waiting for it to open the next day. “It is absurd,” I said to my mom, but then she replied, “Vale, in times of crisis and need people behave irrationally to find a way to survive.”

I guess she was right, but a lot of them also supported the government during the elections, so watching them lose their dignity caused me more anger than sadness.

But anyways, other than our economy, when we are not dying from starvation, we are getting killed in the streets. Human lives became so incredibly worthless for criminals; it is not good enough for them to just steal from you, they have the urge to also kill you.

My parents feared my stay in Venezuela; I was in too much danger so they sent me here, but that did not take any of my preoccupation away. Weeks ago my country became an official dictatorship, and our citizens have been protesting ever since, but it only makes me more and more psychotic about what will happen. What has been the beginning of May for me? I have nightmares that wake me up in the dawn at least once a week. I know that the impression I give at school is of a very happy and positive person, but that doesn’t mean I’m not being internally consumed.

I might be theoretically out of danger here in the U.S. but knowing that my family is still there, taking every risk I am avoiding, keeps me from evading the fear, anxiety, and pain anyway. Honestly, do you want to know why I came here? I was pushed away by the government from the most beautiful land and people I’ve ever seen who have now turned miserable and mediocre by the evil in power. The thing I hope the most right now is for the government to finally be overthrown by the protesters today and go back to my home tomorrow and happily read headlines in every newspaper “Millions of Venezuelans all around the world go back to their home land.”

Guest Blogger Aleksander: Tabula Rasa Part 2

IMG_1513I hope you’re all familiar with the term “butterfly effect.” If not, it is a concept that theorizes how small causes can have large effects, such as the flap of the wings of a butterfly in Rio de Janeiro changing the weather in Chicago. Let that sink in for a moment.

This post will be a rather positive example of this theory. I want to tell you all how the trip to the USA saved my life. Literally, not just figuratively.

Test day

The air in the room was very dense. We sat at tables and looked at each other in terror. “What happens next?” – everyone thought.

It’s not an excerpt from a horror book. It’s simply an accurate description of how the test day went down. It was the day when we were given the tests to asses our knowledge of math, English, etc. I remember that very first day I met the person who altered my life: Margaux. Long story short, thanks to her I have identified depression, anxiety, and OCD in myself. Now, three years down the road, I am in the middle of therapy, that I’ve started last year.

What would have happened if I wouldn’t have met her in America? Or rather – what would have happened if I would not have talked to the representative of the American Embassy in Poland? I could have been dead by now. While of course, that’s just my interpretation, many other bad things could have happened, too.

What else saved me? The Mobile Jazz Project. This project changed my life. Let me explain:

It is a project where young people interested in making and/or playing music (not necessarily talented; of course there were some brilliant musicians, but talent was not necessary) could do what they wanted to do – transform their thoughts into language understood by everyone on earth (music). Every week we listened to a short musical performance. Then there was a time for questions for the performing artist/band. After that, people could split into dedicated groups. I remember that I was in a “tech” group which created music from scratch in Pro Tools. At the end, I recorded my take on “Superstition” by Stevie Wonder. I was very inspired by Stevie Wonder’s pop/funky sounds and Jimmy Ray Vaughn’s cover of the song, so I decided to combine these two styles.

Right now, in my bedroom, I have a MIDI keyboard, an electric guitar ,and Ableton Live installed on my PC. Music was an escape during my dark days. If you want to hear some of my jams, go to my soundcloud profile. It also led me to publish my pictures on the internet. If you want to see some of them, go to my society6 profile. The Mobile Jazz Project showed me that if I want, I can be an artist, too. It’s up to me. I actually liked the idea of becoming a music producer so much that I went on a tour of a college where I could get MA in music production. I loved everything except for the price. So I am studying in Warsaw instead. That’s another one of these things I still regret.

I wish you actually realized how different the teachers I met in SPP were from my teachers in Poland. Teachers in Poland would MOSTLY (not all) destroy your grades. They would bomb you with everything until you just couldn’t take it anymore. The teachers at SPP were so much different. They encourage you to learn. They praise you when you have done a good job. Ms. Larson showed me that math can be bearable. Ms. Stormont showed me that I also can be a good writer. Ms. Redding showed me that democracy in a classroom works.

If you are going to get out one thing out of this article, then let it be this: if you feel that you need a change, go and make it happen.

A Step Forward

fullsizerender-8By current SPP student Valeria from Venezuela

Since 8th grade, I’ve been looking forward to graduation day; to finally step out of school and enter college; to study things I care about, and to surpass the limitations I was given in my previous schools. However, in senior year I felt different.

“You’re too immature, Valeria. Too immature, too young, and too dependent on your parents for you to leave to college,” a little voice whispered inside my head.

During the first two months of my stay in St. Paul, I was struck with the realization I was not prepared to enter this new phase of my life. It all started at the beginning of the first semester last fall. The story goes a little something like this:

I was clueless as to what university I wanted to go to, nostalgic of my family and culture, out of my elements in class, dispirited in my only A.P course, and consumed by preoccupation over standardized testing for colleges. The weight of my responsibilities kept sinking me to the bottom as I drowned on my own. I had never struggled in my life without having someone to make it better, as I grew up in a collectivist culture. For quite a while, I thought that I had lost that here, until one day as I sat alone studying for the SAT, one of my teachers took the initiative to help me out a little. Every day that I sat down with him, I sighed of relief; his sincere willingness to help me without receiving anything in return was heart-warming. His advice not only brought tranquility to my soul, but gave me strength to stay persistent. I was no longer alone.

In addition, later on Vicky came into my life. I had gone to our school counselor Ms. Hill several times, however what I wanted her to do for me would have required the use of too much of her time, considering that she had to guide 63 other seniors (some that might be even more lost than me in such a labyrinth).

Ms. Hill, being the consummate professional that she is, sensed I was lost at sea, and so she reined me in back to shore. She gave me a small, fairly mundane, contact card with the name “Vicky” sprawled in simple black lettering (little did I know the impact that small, mundane card would have on my college search). Vicky is a former SPP counselor and Advanced English Composition teacher who left her teaching job for a job as a lawyer; still, she spends her free time helping students in my situation.

I still had a sea of colleges to pick and choose from, and yet the question remained, where would I really fit in? Which one would have the best broadcast journalism program? Which one would have the biggest diversity of cultures? Which one this? Which one that? Which one? Vicky helped me figure all this out by making me form my own conclusions.

I had to re-start my college search, only this time with her there, over my shoulder guiding me. To be frank, I was irritated that I’d have to start the search process all over again from scratch, but looking back it was probably the best thing that I could have done. When I was on my own, I let my own bias for big name schools get in the way of what I was really looking for, and began to apply to colleges that offered a curriculum I did not even want or would not even be helpful for my desired career.

Can you imagine? Going to a college I don’t like, far away from my family and home (which was a sacrifice I guess I was willing to make) and coping with the stress of college life who knows how. I was well on my way to imploding because of how unprepared I was for college, the concept of adult independence was still new to me and I wouldn’t have an altruistic teacher to guide me anymore. Thanks to Vicky, all the self-destruction was spared.

Vicky also made me understand the one thing that kept on adding weight on my shoulders. This whole time, I had been looking for some sort of emotional shelter within my Host Family and I failed in my attempts. I told Vicky the story of how I couldn’t find emotional comfort with them, and she said, “Valeria, you cannot go to a hardware store and expect to buy raisins, you have to go to a grocery store for that. What you are looking for is something they might not be able to provide you with, because they are simply not used to it. There will be other people, like your teacher, that will make your experience unique and fascinating, leaving a mark in your heart.”

And she was right, I was looking in the wrong places. My Host Family had been great, but they were not the ones that would give me the affection and support I craved. Emotionally, the burden was off my back as I stopped making my Host Family into something they were not: my actual family or any Venezuelan. I finally understood I couldn’t force them to act like my culture does.

A month later, I was in Ashburn, Virginia spending Christmas with my family and finally finishing my college applications. All the stress was gone, but something was still aching. Was I really satisfied with my decisions?…I think I wasn’t.

I left my father’s family living in Ashburn for a few days to visit my mother’s sister in Washington D.C. Her name is Carmen Beatriz, but I always called her Aunty Triz. I hadn’t seen her in years because Venezuela’s situation forced her (along with many other relatives and friends) to leave me. We had a great time together, but the clock was ticking and it was time for me to go back to Ashburn.

As we were getting closer and closer to Ashburn, anxiety kept taking over me and when I had to say goodbye I shattered. That’s what had been bugging me this whole time. Ever since September all the way to that cold night in December, I realized I was unsatisfied because I will never be able to live in peace If I am away from the warm people I love and the culture that shaped every aspect of my personality. Although the Universities I applied to were the best options when it came to the education they would provide; wasn’t my personal happiness a huge factor to consider as well? I never thought about it because I did not think it was a thing that would bother me. I had always been a happy person, but I wasn’t in the culture that I’m from; the one that truly brings me internal peace and enamors me more each day of my existence.

That night was a massive paradox to me, I was broken and cured. It cleared my blurred vision and I realized what I’d wanted this whole time: great education near my family. What a better place for that than Colombia? The most similar country to Venezuela that offers me infinite opportunities and a near location to my precious home. Today, I see clearly what I want, and feel immensely grateful for my teacher, who will always have a place in my heart, Vicky, and my school SPP. Without them I would have made the wrong decisions and postponed my happiness and inner serenity. Moreover, SPP, its passionate staff, and my experience with them taught me how to manage my time, control stress, work hard independently, but most importantly prepare me for the next phase of my life.

Guest Blogger Aleksander: Tabula Rasa (Part 1)

IMG_1513When I came to America, I was like a clean slate. I both knew a lot, and I did not. I knew how to function as a person, but I didn’t know what it was like to live across the ocean from your parents. That was one of those things I had to learn the hard way. I was both afraid and excited. Luckily for me, excitement was stronger than fear. Quoting Franklin Delano Roosevelt, “the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” It’s the same thing with the first days at a new school. As soon as you stop fearing the unreasonable, you advance. Your development goes forward.

In the beginning, I started off my guest blogging keeping it light and easy. In the end, however, I have decided to keep it real. There are enough light and easy “my year in USA” type of posts already. These type of posts are supposed to make friends and everybody you know jealous. If that’s what you have expected, then you might wanna close this page.

You have decided to stay? Good, let me continue then.

There are very few nights when I don’t regret the things that I did/didn’t do during my exchange. First and foremost, I realized too late that I’d only have this opportunity once. Much too late. My first Host Family lived in West St. Paul, Minnesota; a place perfect as a base for trips. My second Host Family lived in Bloomington, Minnesota; a place far worse to start trips from. Most of the Host Families took their students to various places, even to different states. Mine didn’t bother with that, but it’s fine. It’s not something I could have demanded. Nevertheless, I had to think about visiting the most popular spots in the Twin Cities alone, which I did not. Mostly, I preferred to stay in my safe zone: my Host Family’s house. By the end of the year I had seen some cool places, like the Sculpture Garden in Minneapolis, so it’s not all that bad. I do regret staying at home then. I know I should have pushed myself.

Along with not visiting places, I did not hang out with friends and colleagues often. Now I know I should have been doing that. Although that doesn’t mean that I didn’t make friends at all. I just regret I didn’t meet them face to face when I had the opportunity to do so. If you’re having some questions about what happens after you come back home – let me clear some things up. You’re most probably not going to see your friends from abroad again soon. Of course, I am not saying that you won’t be able to right away. From my experience, though, it’s not very likely to happen. I visited my a girlfriend (now an ex-girlfriend) from Germany a few times. That’s about it. On the other hand, having friends all around the world might be a huge asset. Once you start to make money, you can visit them! Before you start making money, you might start a business with your friends around the world. Nowadays, the sky’s the limit, and keep that in mind.

Whenever I argue that English classes are too focused on doing the exercises versus teaching everybody how to actually communicate with people, I give the same example every time: me going to a mobile carrier on my first week in the U.S. Long story short, my English was good when I had to understand written English. However, when I approached a regular person at the shop, I was left astonished by how much I needed to learn. I did not understand much from what an average American was saying, and I was always among the best in my English classes in Poland. I’m not showing off. It’s just a fact. Did I refrain from communicating in English after that? No. If anything, it motivated me to improve myself.

Let’s talk about classes in the U.S.

Let me clear up the biggest misconception: American school is not easier. If you think so, and you’re gonna go to America – please sign up for an AP class. Any. Unless you’re a genius in a given field, you’re gonna have a bad time. Or maybe you’re I-pek and you have to be perfect and be the best. Your call.

If anything, school in the US is more personalized. It’s sort of like comparing iOS and Android (yes, I’m a nerd). iOS tells you what your home screen should look like, it tells you that sending files via Bluetooth is passe, and it thinks like Henry Ford. With Android, however, you’re free to change your home screen. You have wayyyy more customization options. iOS is Poland, and Android is the US. You didn’t get my nerdy analogy? Let me try again: cars. Poland is like a manufacturer that produces only one model of a car equipped with only one type of engine. USA is like a normal manufacturer. “So do you want your car in blue? No? Okay, how about red? Still no? Worry not! We have got like 12 different colors for you to choose from.”

The American school, or at least SPP, focuses more on understanding different concepts, knowing how to apply them in real life, and not on remembering stuff by heart. I feel like this approach is a lot more modern. Twenty years ago nobody would have thought, that we would have computers in our pockets. American school goes – hey, it’s time to change. Polish school goes – computers?

SPP has got some great teachers as well. Ms. Larson, Mr. Wiggin (if you’re reading this, then I hope that somebody continues my “Friday” thing), Ms. Stormont, Mr. Shai. I also have to say that I very much respect the work of Ms. Redding.

With that being said – this is the end of part one. In part two, I will answer the question “Can a falcon play jazz?”, and much more. Stay tuned and follow SPP’s blog. If you have any questions, hmu on Twitter!

Aleksander Jess (@AJWRSW)

Five Benefits of Studying Abroad in High School

NOTE: This post comes from the Nacel Open Door Blog.

While the actual list of benefits is much longer, we think these are some of the most important aspects of being a high school-aged international student.

Improve language skills outside the classroom.

While learning proper grammar, tenses, and vocabulary from a teacher are an essential piece of learning any language, nothing compares to engaging in conversation with native speakers. From meals with Host Families to friendly strangers, every interaction has the potential to be a learning experience. And oh yeah: learning a second language makes your brain bigger.

Boost for your college application.

With so many students vying for limited space at the world’s best universities, it can be hard to stand out. Studying abroad is one way to get a head start. Many world leaders today studied abroad at some point in their education. Plus, stories of your experiences in a new place, culture, etc., can turn any application essay into your ticket to university.

Taste of independence.

While we do our best to offer students a wide variety of support at NOD, you’re going to have to be independent as well. From the first plane ride alone to your country of study to managing a budget (with the added fun of foreign currency exchange rates), you’ll have plenty of chances to see how you handle navigating life “on your own”, which is also great prep for college.

Networking for your career

It’s never too early to think about your future, and you never know when that random conversation with a stranger could turn into a potential internship or job offer down the road.  A semester or two abroad can also help you land career-related jobs and higher salaries sooner after you graduate.

Cultural understanding

We use the phrase often here at NOD, and for good reason: we believe that in order to be proper global citizens and the leaders of tomorrow, a knowledge of cultures other than your own is supremely beneficial. As our planet grows ever connected, the importance of respecting and appreciating differences in cultures – and finding common ground– becomes even more important. A year (or more) spent learning a different language, talking to different people, eating different foods, and seeing how life operates in a different place can not only give students an insight into another culture, it’ll give you a new perspective on your own culture.

Think we missed something major? Let us know if you’d like to make your own list to share with the NOD family (aka the world)!

Guest Blogger Aleksander: Off I Go, From Warsaw To St. Paul

 

Editor’s note: Aleksander is a former SPP student and currently attends university in his native land of Poland. He’ll be a temporary guest on the SPP Blog, offering his story and advice along the way. Read Aleksander’s Introduction here.

IMG_1513Deciding to pause your life in your homeland isn’t easy. Trust me – I have been through this. For some, having a fresh start is much desired; for some it’s not. For those who don’t want to start a new chapter in their life, I have only one cliche for you: get out of your comfort zone. Growth happens outside your comfort zone. If you’re worried that you won’t adapt to a new environment, think again. Humans have colonized nearly all of Earth (besides Antarctica, where there are no permanent human settlements).  

How did I come up with the idea to study in the United States?

Long story short: a representative of the American Embassy in Warsaw, Poland, came to my school once. He was talking about studying abroad in the U.S. I loved the idea right away, so I pulled my phone out of my pocket and texted my parents. The decision changed my life forever.

How did I prepare for my trip?

The preparations lasted for about five years. I wanted to leave the year after I learned about the possibility to study in the U.S., however, after some thought, it was not a smart idea. If I studied in the U.S. right away, I would most likely have to take the same classes all over again later on in Poland. The fire to study abroad slowly burned out as the years passed. Luckily, my parents didn’t give up that easily.

When I reached 11th grade (or as we say it in Poland, the second class of high school), my parents and I decided studying abroad my senior year would be the best idea. I chose the U.S. over other countries like Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. I looked for many different programs and schools, but one that caught my attention was a school in downtown Miami, Florida. Sounds perfect, right?

Well, not really.

At first, sure: all the hype about Miami is perhaps not false, but it would have been extremely hard to get a high school diploma for that school. That meant there was a possibility this would be a wasted academic year. Second of all, it is way too hot there for me. For all the people not familiar with Warsaw’s climate, temperatures range from -6 C to 24 C (sorry Americans, time to get on the same page as the rest of the world). Lastly, it was way out of my parents’ financial range.

Then I began checking out different schools in the Midwestern USA. I didn’t quite like what I saw: all of the schools were in the middle of nowhere. I am a big city guy.

At last, I found out about St. Paul Prep, which seemed like a perfect match for me. It does get reaaaally cold there (Minnesota), but I suppose it would be easier to adapt to the excessive cold than the excessive warmth. What’s also worth mentioning is that Minnesota is one of the “healthiest” states in the U.S. I also knew I would be able to get a high school diploma, and the price was okay, too.

Next step was getting a visa, but that was a rather straightforward process. The worst part about it was standing in line in front of the embassy. That’s it.

How was the flight to the U.S.?

The transatlantic flight could have been something pleasant, if not for my height (I’m 189cm. I did not have much leg room).

When I arrived in Mini-soda (speaking of soda: Minnesotans use the word “pop” in reference to sugary, carbonated beverages), it turned out that my baggage was missing. I had to give my address to a representative of the airline I was flying with, and my baggage was brought to me later that afternoon. Whew!

How were the first days in St. Paul?

I won’t lie to you: the first night might be really tough. You will realize that whether you like it or not, you’ll be studying in St. Paul, Minnesota, for 10 months (Of course, I still had a few opportunities to visit my family and my hometown throughout the year). Regardless, I was still feeling homesick. I even cried myself to sleep that night. But this sadness passes, I assure you! Try to stay occupied the first few weeks. Try to get used to another language being spoken everywhere. Try to leave all the stereotypes (fat Americans everywhere, shootings everywhere, etc) back home.

Since I was placed in a family close to downtown St. Paul, I went on a walk on the first day after my arrival. I was impressed with what the city looked like. I even went to visit SPP. My first impression? “Wow. I’m going to study here.”

The next day, pictures for IDs were taken. My first encounter with SPP stuff. Even before the start of my new adventure, I knew somebody from Poland. One of the best pieces of advice I can give: get to know somebody from your home country before you leave. I can’t stress enough how much easier things were, thanks to the fact I had known somebody before arriving at SPP.

How will I get to know other people at SPP?

Worry not. SPP organizes a camp, where you’ll get to make new friends and hang out with your new buddies. How was it? Sadly, “keine Ahnung”, as the Germans say. That’s because I missed the camp due to an illness.

In my next post, I will describe how awesome it is to study at SPP. Make sure to follow SPP’s social media pages to follow along!

Pozdrawiam,

Aleksander Jess (@AJWRSW)

Introducing: Guest Blogger Aleksander

IMG_1513.JPG
Aleksander at the 2015 SPP Spring Talent Show.

Dzień dobry, cześć i czołem! My name is Aleksander and I graduated from SPP two years ago!

I will be a temporary guest writer on the SPP blog. I have some good stuff for you that will be released over the next few weeks. Please follow this blog not to miss a post from me!

What will my posts be about?

My take on life in US of A. Why did I choose a school in Minnesota over one in Florida? How it feels to be a part of SPP? (Go Falcons!). What can you do after your senior year in Minnesota? Friendship with a teacher that used to teach you?

I gotta say – I am incredibly happy that this opportunity was given to me and that I can write something for the SPP Blog.

In the meantime, if you want to get to know me better before I post more here, follow me on Twitter @AJWRSW.

Have a nice day,

Aleksander Jess

P.S. A shout-out for Sheila Stormont for being the most awesome teacher that I have ever met. As I said during my talent show performance, “Let’s turn it up to 11”.