HAVE IDEA, WILL TRAVEL
by Amanda Swennes
Many Rice students study abroad through established university exchange programs or pursue international internships or service-learning courses. A few coveted fellowships also offer students the opportunity to write their own ticket for a potentially life-changing experience abroad. This fall, we contacted two students and one alumna who did just that with funding provided by the Dr. John E. Parish Fellowship for Summer Travel, the Goliard Scholarship and the Amici di Via Gabina Traveling Fellowship. The recipients were selected based on their answers to a deceptively simple question:
If you had the money and time, where would you go and what would you do?
Mitch Mackowiak ’16, a Lovett College junior studying architecture, has been fascinated by the night sky since he was a kid following a comic on stargazing in Odyssey Magazine and reading Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
When he heard about the Goliard Scholarship, he knew he wanted to apply to spend time with the stars. The problem was figuring out where to do it.
“Houston has a lot of light pollution, so I wanted to go somewhere dark where I could really see the stars,” he said. Finding it tough to pinpoint a location, he remembered a childhood game he played with his brother called “Opposite Animal.”
“Of course, there’s no such thing as an opposite animal,” he said, explaining that they’d try to think of something with a long nose versus a short nose and build from there. “So I played ‘Opposite Houston.’” Houston is a sprawling, flat city, so he thought of rural places with hills and mountains where he could hike and get away from light pollution. To avoid humidity, he thought of dry places with little atmospheric moisture to blur the stars. The result? Chile’s Atacama Desert.
From July 5 through Aug. 1, Mackowiak found himself living Whitman’s poem, backpacking across Chile and Peru alone, “In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time, Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
The detailed itinerary he’d developed as part of his scholarship proposal, however, fell by the wayside almost as soon as he landed in Santiago. And what he thought would be the highlight of his trip — a week in San Pedro de Atacama — turned out to be a mega-bus tourist mecca blotted out by a three-day windstorm. Once the storm passed, he managed to rent a bicycle and spend one night semilegally camped on a riverbank nine miles outside of town in below-freezing temps. He didn’t see another soul for about 24 hours, but he had a magnificent night surrounded by billions of stars and a few chirping birds.
“I definitely had that ‘last man on Earth’ feeling,” he said. “It was solo travel on an extreme.”
The highlight of his stargazing journey came after he ditched his plans entirely and found himself on Taquile, a tiny island in the middle of Lake Titicaca, where he stayed with one of the island’s 200 families.
“There were only sheep, cows and cats. It was so peaceful, and so different from anywhere else I’ve ever gone,” he said. “It’s what I’d hoped San Pedro would be.” He spent a night atop a hill, sleeping beneath an incomprehensibly starry sky, recalling Whitman’s “Song of Myself” and letting his soul “stand cool and composed before a million universes.”
“Part of why this trip was incredible is that it was improvised. It wasn’t about what I did, but what I got out of it,” he said. “I now have these really special experiences that I want to share, and hopefully someday I’ll go back.”
Spencer Seballos ’16 has had medical school in his sights for a long time. As a Brown College senior double majoring in biochemistry and cell biology and Hispanic studies, his view of what medicine means has begun to shift from a purely scientific approach to one that also encompasses culture and politics. In his Parish Fellowship application, he proposed a six-week immersive study of the health care system in Laos, Southeast Asia, through a partnership with Resource Exchange International, a nonprofit humanitarian development organization already working in-country through an agreement with the Laos Ministry of Health. His reason for choosing Laos was that as a communist country with a predominantly Buddhist population and relatively undeveloped health care infrastructure, it would provide the perfect environment to study how science, culture and politics influence health care.
The intensive, six-week program helped him realize that the often-romanticized stereotype of doctors working in rural clinics to cure poor, remote villagers of their ailments isn’t quite as dramatic as it seems. The job comes with a variety of cultural and administrative responsibilities as well.
Between the twice-a-week Lao language lessons, shadowing physicians, attending morning meetings to discuss complex cases and participating in physicians’ World Health Organization continuing education sessions, Seballos also taught conversational English to Lao health sciences students.
Because medical school in Laos is relatively inexpensive, many of the students Seballos met came from poorer, agrarian backgrounds and would go home to their villages during school breaks to help tend the family farm.
“That felt like the opposite of here in the U.S., where medical school can be cost-prohibitive,” he said. “In Laos, doing well on one exam can open up possibilities for students who are bright but may not come from a prosperous background.”
Ultimately, the time he spent on tasks not directly related to patient care taught him the most about the crossroads of culture, politics and health care.
“I came away [from this fellowship] appreciating the diversity we have in the U.S. as well as an appreciation for global health and the challenges and unique experiences medical workers face while they’re practicing in still-developing areas of the world,” he said. “And I left with more questions than answers.”
Emma Hurt ’15, a former Duncan College history major, may have graduated in May, but she’s still taking advantage of every opportunity Rice has to offer. As the first recipient of the Amici di Via Gabina Traveling Fellowship, which was established by a group of alumni in honor of emeritus art history professors Walter Widrig and Phillip Oliver-Smith, Hurt spent two weeks in June traveling to a little-known corner of Italy.
“I’d already been to Venice, Florence and Rome,” she said. “I wanted to go somewhere different and chose the Austro/Slovenian border regions specifically because they’ve got such interesting histories and they’re a part of Italy that people forget about.”
Fully annexed after World War I, South Tyrol and Friuli-Venezia Giulia are semiautonomous regions in northern Italy that still hold tight to their German and Slovenian heritage.
“Italy has such a strong international image,” Hurt said, “but in these regions there’s such a fluidity of language and culture. It’s not the stereotypical Italy at all.”
For the first week, Hurt lived and worked on a small farm in Sfruz, a town in the German-speaking region of South Tyrol with about 200 inhabitants. In exchange for room and board, Hurt helped the family with their hay and potato crops, six horses and household chores.
“I learned how tangible their work is,” she said. “They know exactly what they grow and what they use — hoeing the potatoes their family is going to eat and baling hay for the horses they feed everyday. That efficiency and connectedness to the land is part of the reason people in South Tyrol are so proud of being ‘not’ Italian,” she said. “They consider themselves people of the mountains and very efficient. If you don’t do manual labor in your life, you don’t realize how lazy most of us really are. After six days, I was exhausted.”
It wasn’t until Hurt reached Trieste, the capital of the Slovene-speaking region, that she also realized just how much she didn’t understand about this little corner of Italy and began to experience those “transformational” moments the fellowship’s creators had envisioned for its recipients.
“I went in with no contacts and just immersed myself,” she said. “This trip allowed me to take something very abstract — reading about the region and seeing it on a map — and bring it to life in a way I’d never expected.”
Learning something new — about both a place and yourself — and being transformed by that experience is at the crux of the Amici di Via Gabina Traveling Fellowship, which was named for the 14-year Via Gabina archaeological excavation project that inspired the Rice alumni who spent time there as students to establish the scholarship.
As the fellowship’s first recipient, Hurt said her Italian travels definitely hit the inspiration mark. She’s already planning another open-ended independent study trip to Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos this fall through the history department’s Garside Scholarship.