New Beginnings and Adventures: The Impactful First Few Weeks at Cal State LA

It’s now the midpoint of the fall semester at Cal State LA. But as anyone who works at universities knows, this is the fullest time of the year: orientations, commencement, and welcome-back events. While the end of the spring term is a season of bittersweet goodbyes, the beginning of the fall is marked by the elation and anxiety of the new.

What beautiful chaos.

I highlight these new beginnings and adventures by featuring three people in my life whose study-abroad orbits are fundamental parts of my fall semester: Karyos Tyus, who is currently abroad; Alesia Miles, who has recently returned; and Dr. Leonor Vazquez, who is about to leave.

Flying With His Own Wings: Karyos

Kila ndege huruka na mbawa zake. Every bird flies with its own wings. – Swahili proverb

Karyos Tyus

Photo: Karyos Tyus

A few days ago, I opened my WhatsApp and found a few messages from Karyos Tyus: a video of a grey elephant standing in front of a safari truck; a photo of him wearing a t-shirt and standing shoulder to shoulder with a Maasai man wrapped in a red shawl. He had also sent me photos of a lizard, mopeds parked in streets, palm trees, and the largest ebony sculpture in the world (a Maasai warrior hunting a lion).

Karyos has been living in the East African country of Tanzania for two months; the beginning of his school year looks markedly different than most students at Cal State LA.

It wasn’t a surprise to me that he received the prestigious Boren African Flagship Languages Initiative (AFLI) scholarship; he has been a bridge builder for years, learning languages to reach into and across communities.

As a Black man living in Los Angeles, he began studying Spanish in order to communicate with his neighbors and build a personal connection between his own African American community and his Latino neighbors. Consequently, he studied at Tecnológico de Monterrey, on their Querétaro campus. There, he learned the Spanish language and even interned in the international affairs department.

He returned from Querétaro to Los Angeles, not only as a better Spanish speaker but also with a strengthened interest in learning yet <another language. I encouraged him to apply for the AFLI, and he chose Swahili.

He applied for the Boren to study in Tanzania, not only because he wants to be a Field Service Officer but because he is minoring in Pan African Studies, has studied African history, and wants to build and maintain a connection between countries. He wrote, “I use language as a channel to show respect.”

Let’s see if he climbs Kilimanjaro. Either way, he’s on an adventure, flying with his own wings.

Returning Home, Unsettled: Alesia

As expected, I am having an AMAZING time and I truly feel like I could not have picked a better country to live in for ten months! I’ve made friends – both Ghanaian and international – that I am going to miss dearly when it comes time for me to leave.      – Alesia’s email, November 2017


Photo: Alesia Miles

For others, new beginnings are ambivalent.

Alesia Miles has recently returned from her year at the University of Ghana studying Political Science, Pan-African Studies, and the Asante Twi language. She was the only Cal State LA student last year to study in Africa.

Alesia has often been a natural leader. As the former president of student-led organization Black Student Union (BSU), aligning herself with other campus allies such as the Dreamers Resource Center, the Muslim Student Association, and the Pan-African Studies Department, she had accomplished much prior to studying abroad. Among her many achievements was organizing Cal State LA’s largest protest in fourteen years, a two-day demonstration where over 5,000 students marched to show their solidarity with other universities around the country.

Yet she elevated her university experience when she spent the year in Ghana. There she visited historical landmarks such as the W.E.B DuBois Centre in Accra, the National Museum of Ghana, Kwame Nkrumah Memorial Park, and slave castles. In fact, she loved the West African nation so much that a few months later she told me she had been “looking into buying land” to live there permanently.

So when she returned stateside this summer, Alesia faced the same scenario many who return do: reverse culture shock. This affected her and other students of mine, students who tell me how much they miss living in Korea, England, Taiwan. Some, like Karyos, choose to go abroad again. Others apply for global internships, Fulbright programs, Peace Corps opportunities, or graduate degrees abroad. Others decide to work in international education and study abroad offices. Still others merely dream of going back.

These are new, uncertain beginnings, particularly for the more nomadic of us like Alesia and Karyos. We live abroad, fall in love, and return to the country on our passport. But where, and what is home?

Yet this unsettling return will lead to new leadership opportunities, as it has already done for Alesia, who recently took on a role as the student ambassador for CSU International Programs. Her horizon is bright.

Close to Home but a World Away: Venturing to Tierra Maya

Mexico is close to home but a world away. As a student in our IFSA-Merida program, you will study in the capital of the state of Yucatan … deepening your understanding of one of the main pre-Hispanic civilizations of the world and one of the most culturally diverse regions of Mexico.      – IFSA-Butler, “Discover Mexico

Other beginnings have been months in the making.


Photo: Leonor Vazquez

One year ago, I first met with Dr. Leonor Vazquez, a faculty member at Cal State LA’s Department of Child and Family Studies. At the time, she was interested in designing a faculty-led study abroad program on second language acquisition and child development. When Leonor wondered if we should look into Yucatán, the Mexican state her family originated from, I came across this IFSA-Butler program in Mérida.

IFSA-Butler was easy to work with immediately, answering many questions we had. We were inspired by their experiential learning opportunities in which students visited and learned from local schools and Mayan communities. We decided to offer this program in January when students would have three weeks off, and the weather in this tropical city was moderate and dry.

However, knowing that cost was a factor for our students we looked into embedded programs, in which students paid travel costs separately from tuition, benefiting financial aid recipients.

Other public institutions already offer this, like the University of Georgia with “embedded studies away” and Arizona State University with their “global intensive experiences,” which are “embedded as part of a semester course at ASU, or added on at the beginning or end of a session.”

We wanted to create Cal State LA’s first-ever embedded program.

Within a few months, Leonor created a program proposal which was approved by her own department and the College of Professional and Global Education (PaGE). Leonor began to promote “Study Child Development in Mexico.”

Her first info session filled an entire classroom, and Leonor regularly emailed interested students over the summer, sharing “Mayan Word of the Week” and more.

Yet when the first deadline, August 1, passed, only eight students had signed up. We renewed our efforts by emailing individual students. Proactively, my boss Amy Wang, the Director of International Programs, and I met with Leonor to prepare her for a financial outcome in which only those eight went abroad. Leonor also asked the students to promote the program, after which they began talking about it in their own classes.

When September 4, our extended deadline, arrived, I held my breath and checked to see how many students had made the first payment, committing to the program.

The most remarkable thing had happened: 20 students signed up. It was a go.

This week we are moving forward to discuss payment deadlines, itineraries, booking flights, and the class itself. The feeling of adventure is contagious thanks to its leader, Leonor, and her students, who worked to promote it among their peers.

¡Que les vaya bien!

New Beginnings and Adventures on the Horizon

As we pause this moment in time during the fundamental first few weeks of the fall semester, we are able to see beyond the chaos, to the poignant details. A student abroad, studying a third language. A student returned, re-entering a once-familiar campus and country. A faculty member, making grand plans to lead her first program abroad.

In each of these moments, there are decisions that have sent us all on our separate but interconnected journeys, to new horizons. Here’s to the Gilman applicants, the Fulbright hopefuls, the study abroad fair leads, the faculty designing courses, and the student assistants on their first day of work.

Let’s begin.

Photo: Karyos Tyus

Leonor Vazquez, Alesia Miles, and Karyos Tyus all agreed to be featured on this blog.

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