Student Profile: Yonina J. Fleischman '08
Major: International and Global Studies
Study Abroad Programs:
CIEE/University of Ghana, Legon, Ghana (Fall 2006)
SIT Culture and Development, Kathmandu, Nepal (Spring 2007)
Yonina Fleischman ’08 spent her junior year studying abroad in back-to-back semester programs in Ghana and Nepal. In Ghana, she studied arts and culture, and volunteered with the Streetwise Project, a HIV/AIDS outreach program. In Nepal, she conducted United Nations- and Red Cross-sponsored research on public health that led to her senior thesis. Here, she reflects on the dialogues that shaped her experiences.
In Legon, you volunteered at a grassroots organization called the Streetwise Project. How did you get involved there, and what did you do?
It wasn’t part of the study abroad program, but we were encouraged to do community service. The wife of the director of the study abroad program was involved in Streetwise, and she set me up there. It was entirely run at the grassroots level by Ghanaians.
There are two main aspects of Streetwise. The first is HIV/AIDS/STD awareness/outreach. Twice a week volunteers go out for three hours into the local area to local businesses – mostly to visit women. We would talk to about ten women at a time. We had this flip picture book that we would bring with us. The flip book had all these pictures of how the different parts of your body will look if you contract HIV or a STD. It was such a scare tactic, which was an interesting way to approach outreach, but the women had clear and strong reactions to it. I’m now doing my senior thesis on HIV prevention methods as rooted in behavioral change theory – using the experiences in Ghana (and in Nepal) as case studies.
The second aspect of Streetwise is a women’s vocational training center. They taught cooking, batik [an African fabric] making, and hairdressing. They were trying to teach women who don't have a lot of skills some basic training. I worked with the woman teaching batik-making, and helped her prepare for classes.
You’ve written previously about an experience you had at the end of the first semester, when you traveled to a remote village of the Lobi people in the Upper West region of Ghana. You describe searching and finding a kind of ideal intercultural experience. What made this particular experience unique?
Almost every weekend on the program, we had free time, and a lot of students on the program traveled pretty far away. For me this was a bit harder because I don’t travel on Saturdays [for religious purposes]. I actually really liked it because I could spend a whole day Saturday just being “present” and not feeling like I had to see every piece of the world in one semester. I really ended up seeing almost every region of the country.
At the end of the semester, I had a week and a half off during finals, so a friend and I traveled about 25 hours away to the Upper West region of Ghana. We went to a hippo sanctuary, which was on the border of Burkina Faso. It was so far out there, there was no transportation, so we biked. We had an arrangement where we paid for a guide and that fee went towards keeping up the hippo sanctuary.
We stayed overnight, and that night we heard the faint sounds of a xylophone coming from the nearby village. Now, while in Legon I had taken a number of courses in the music and dance departments, one of which was a beginner’s xylophone class. Hearing the xylophone, we walked through the brush to the mud compound where the music drifted up, where we found a family lounging around the fire and a young boy playing an in-ground xylophone.
The family asked me to play the xylophone, and I began to play a song that I had learned in class - which was written by the Lobi people who I was now playing for. They all began to shout and run over to us. As I continued to play, I moved onto a variation that my teacher had taught me, which the people didn’t seem to know. So in a sense I was playing variations of their own music. Families began to pour in from the surrounding compounds to see what the commotion was about. I must have played those two songs over fifty times that night! They taught me some new ones as well. It was so refreshing; they seemed to feel so honored that a foreigner had come in wanting to share something other than the fleeting images on the screens of a digital camera. We couldn’t talk together, but we could use this universal idea of what a note is and what pitch is.
What made this experience different from others you had?
People really like to take pictures of other people. It’s just something that happens. Especially when you’re there, and lots of little kids are coming up to you, you want to take a picture because that’s what people do. Thank God in Nepal my camera was broken. I didn’t have the opportunity and I didn’t have the burden of that camera. It was the best thing that ever happened. Whenever anyone would come up to us as a group and had a camera – which was pretty rare – and wanted to take a picture of us – that would blow students away. Why would they want to take a picture of us? Well, it’s because we’re white. And why would we want to take a picture of them? Because they’re African. There’s no reason to sugarcoat that, I feel. And, it’s very much an idea of commodifying the experience. We want to commidify our experiences as much as we can by buying so many things and taking pictures and saying “I was there.” But in a sense, me being there as a foreign American, I was a commodity as well. It took me a while to understand that dynamic. But I don’t understand why I have any more right to commodify that experience as they have to use me as a commodity. That was something that I still grapple with. It makes me happy that I at least got to experience what’s it like to be present in that kind of dynamic, and what it feels like to be a commodity, for really the first time in my life. It helped me to understand how I want to interact with other people, how I want to be interacted with, how I can understand cultural relations a little bit more.
So when I went to that [Lobi] village, I don’t know where I was on that page in terms of understanding that. I just knew that I was sick of feeling like I was a camera. So in that way, when we went to the village, I wanted to be a part of the celebration, but I didn’t want to “mess it up,” to become that commodity, in that sense. So I was very hesitant to go and play music with them. But my guide said just go, it’s going to be fine.
He convinced me to go. We stood at the side, sat by the fire, and they continued to play, and they didn’t pay us too much attention which was a kind of nice. And then he mentioned something that I knew how to play and I was so nervous. I do theater here, so I’m used to performing, but this was a different story all together. Plus I was a woman and women don’t play the xylophone much there. So I sat down and started to play. And they were so excited. And I was just playing a simple song.
I know I didn’t become “part of that group,” because of all of our differences, but I was able to shadow their lives in a different way than in a camera, I was able to see them and their culture reflected through me in a different way than just the camera, because that was something that I was frustrated with. So in that sense I was so excited to have been a part of that, to see how you can have a relationship that’s based on something deeper, something like music, which is so much about who I am and who they are in such different ways, and we could still have this dialogue through music.
There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “American Students Abroad Can’t Be Global Citizens”. The author, a returned study abroad student, argues that study abroad programs are doing a disservice by claiming that students will instantly become “global citizens” on their programs without being thoughtfully prepared to discuss issues of inequality, power, poverty, etc. I know you’ve read the article. Do you think U.S. students can be global citizens?
I think it was a very good article, and it was important that it was written. When students are looking at potential study abroad programs, I don’t know if that idea of global citizenship and its complexities are really thought about and discussed. It’s really hard to “become a part of” another culture as we like to say. I got to speak at the orientation for the new students about to go abroad, and I remember I said, “Don’t be frustrated if you don’t have a lot of local friends or that you don’t really know what’s going on [in the local culture].” Because frankly, if you feel that you have a ton of local friends, if you feel that you understand everything that’s going on, I think you’re maybe missing things a little bit. Because the point is not that we become a part of this culture, in my opinion. The point is to become as much a part as culture will allow, and from there to understand how to try to break down a little bit why and how it is that there is that barrier between cultures.
I don’t think you should go in and say, “I’m never going to be a part of this culture, there’s no point in me trying, I’m just going to watch.” However, I do think it’s important to take it as far as it will go and then try to understand that there’s no way to truly change who you are, your religion, the color of your skin, or how you were brought up. It’s impossible. But you can try to understand those identity dynamics and other dynamics.
I realize now that I’ve written the term “global citizen” in a lot of essays. Now, I’m not sure how comfortable I am with it, so I’ll have to reconsider. It’s important to think about before you study abroad, because it might not be in the forefront of your mind, especially if you go to a country or a continent where you can kind of blend in a little bit more.
How does globalization impact the problem of "global citizenship?"
This dynamic is made much more complex by globalization. Honestly, I think the idea of globalization is so mind-boggling that, maybe you shouldn’t tell them in IGS (International and Global Studies), but I’m graduating and I don’t know that I have that strong a grasp on exactly what is going on. But, I think having come to a liberal arts institution, I feel totally comfortable with that. Because again, if I thought I understood it all…I’m probably doing something wrong.
In Nepal, you focused on public health. What kind of research did you do?
I’ve been thinking a lot more about that these days because the research has basically formed the second half of my thesis. In the program I did, we had a month to do almost any kind of research we wanted to. Of course, Nepal is in the middle of a civil war, so there were definite restrictions on where we could do, but the topic and ideas were very open. Going in, I knew I wanted to do something either to do with water resources, or HIV/AIDS and health issues. One day I just called up UN-AIDS, and UNICEF, and said, “I’m doing a research project, do you need any help?” And they said, “Sure! Why don’t you come down,” so I went to the U.N. house. They told me they were funding this program with the Nepal Red Cross Society called the Comprehensive Package for Migrant Workers and their Families, and it’s basically a HIV/AIDS outreach and awareness, and testing and counseling center. They were funding the program but hadn’t had anyone look at it so far.
So I went to Pokhara, which is really the only other city there after Kathmandu, where this counseling center was located. Most of my work was observing what was going on in the testing/counseling center, who was coming in, why they were coming in, how they felt the services were. I interviewed all the different staff members about what their jobs were, what kind of services were available. I was there from about 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. each day, and got to learn so much about these people and their backgrounds. And then I got to go out and do field work with the staff, where they went out to the villages. This one office was responsible for ten village communities, and they had to go to each one at least once a year and put on different kinds of advocacy programs. So the first one I went to was a play put on by professional actors, to do a play about domestic issues and health, touching on issues in a very gentle way. Interestingly, the crowd was mostly small children and older women. The second place was a really remote village where I actually got to speak a bit in Nepali after learning the language on the program. Another highlight was I was often introduced as the “foreign researcher” and got to make a speech (in Nepali) in front of about 100 people.
How does this research now relate to your thesis and academic work here at Brandeis?
I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive. I’m at work on my thesis now, and the first half is really about the academic side of the research, the theory, and the second half is the field work and the experiences. And the research I’m doing now, the theory part, is really helping to shape the experiences and putting it into more of a context. Both aspects are really important. And with my thesis hopefully it will come together in a cohesive argument about what I thought was “happening” in an academic sense and how it was actually being executed practically on the ground, and whether these academic ideas are working.
What other experiences did you have in Nepal?
One of the interesting things we did on the program was live for two weeks in the Himalayas with Sherpa families. Sherpas are an ethnic group. The idea of Sherpas in the Western sense is the person who can carry your bags up Mt. Everest - they can walk in the snow without shoes, they don’t need oxygen, they’re kind of all-powerful. So we got to live with this community, and my host family was so warm and welcoming and wonderful. The project we did there was a short cultural research project, on the culture, economy - everything about this area. And we all had different topics to discuss, and do interviews, and do research. What happened was we started doing these interviews, and we talked to our families, and their occupations. Sherpas basically have one of two occupations there. They either grow potatoes, which they can only do for a few months a year, or they are trekking bags. When you thinking of the trekking guides, you say okay, these are the trekking guides I’ve seen in the movies. But then you’re actually there, and you hear about how my friend’s host father and host brother both died on the job. Or, how someone’s cousin had been a guide on a trip, and he had fallen, and everyone else on his hike walked around him, and left him in the snow because they think, “He’ll figure it out, he’s a Sherpa.” And that was something really hard for all of us to deal with because these were our families when we were there. To hear about how these people are mistreated and misunderstood; as kind of corny as it sounds, they really are misunderstood. They get very little money, they don’t get any respect, and it’s basically the only thing they can do for work.
It was very hard, then, to meet [mostly Western] trekkers. Their mission was they were going to climb the mountain. In some cases we would walk around and see that the Sherpas were carrying upwards of 250 pounds – of someone else’s beer, chocolate, and cigarettes. It was another situation where it made me understand how I want to treat people and the way I want to be treated. It was very emotional for all of us to deal with. The whole situation is really heart-wrenching, especially because there’s really nothing to do about it. This is their livelihood – they can’t all relocate. There have been some organizations and development projects trying to help out. This one NGO had come in and said, “We want to help,” and then said, “We’re going to paint your roofs green.” And you can’t say no to someone who’s coming to “help” with money, so this NGO actually painted all the roofs green, so when you’re coming from the top down into the village, you see a beautiful green painted village. I guess the purpose was to raise morale in the village. But the people in the village are so angry about it, but nobody cares, nobody wants to hear that they’re angry about it. So that was a really difficult experience that I still grapple with.
Imagine it’s the year 2025. Where do you see yourself and how do you think these experiences will shape you in your career and as a person?
I feel that I can answer that, but I feel like the answer might be a lie. Because I think even a year from now I might read this and maybe say, “I don’t know how I feel about all that,” maybe I’ll change my mind. I’m sure I’ll be reflecting on these experiences, but I can’t say how.
My big hope when I was leaving both places was that I can keep what I know and how I feel and not forget them. And, to remember, if for nothing else, that things don’t have to be as crazy and fast-paced as they seem here. There are alternatives to our culture, where everything is about speed and money, and for nothing else, that life can sometimes be lived for life. And I think that’s invaluable. I hope that never leaves me. In both places, things are just so much more relaxed, and certainly life is hard, but on a day-to-day basis, people let things go and have a positive attitude about life. And that’s a little bit why I’m not freaking out about next year like some people I know, because I know I have the rest of my life to live for life, and I’ll figure out what it’s going to be and it’s going to be great. So I hope that in 25 years I still have that attitude.
I hope that I’ll still be pursuing something like public health, but I want to have some room to tweak that, and do some international work. I have pretty much an open future. I hope that in 25 years I’ll be doing things that make me this excited, emotional, and passionate.