Scholar Spotlight: Katelyn Mann

Current Corvias scholar Katelyn Mann recently finished a semester spent studying abroad with the School for International Training in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Katelyn is heading into her senior year at Green Mountain College in Vermont and is a passionate advocate for sustainable agriculture and community development. Her incredible adventures and rich learning in Argentina are a testament to the power of study abroad experiences, and Katelyn agreed to discuss her experience with the Corvias Connects blog so that other members of our community can use her experiences as a way to better understand what it’s like to live and learn abroad.

  • What made you want to study abroad?

As an army brat with both parents in the service growing up, I moved 19 times and never lived in a place for more than two years until college arrived. I attend Green Mountain College, a small (less then 500 students) environmental studies and sustainability-focused university located in rural Vermont. Two weeks into my freshman year at Green Mountain, I moved onto a student cooperative where I lived in the same room and community for two and a half years before I spent junior spring studying in Argentina.  It is an incredible feeling having a comfortable place to settle into and call home, but with my childhood structure I have the wanderlust and ants-in-my-pants lifestyle sewn into my personality. I knew I needed to step out of Green Mountain for a bit to come back for my senior year rested and rejuvenated. I also wanted to expand my educational horizons—I am a huge believer in the power of experiential education and gaining wisdom through exploration. I worked at a dairy cooperative in Peru during a gap year before starting college for this reason. I wanted to step once again into a completely different environment to see how what I was learning about sustainable community development at Green Mountain applied in another context.

  • How did you decide to study in Argentina?

Argentina suffered one of the most recent dictatorships in South America, ending in 1983. In 2001, Argentina suffered an extreme economic crisis. These two disastrous historic periods set the seeds for strong grassroots social movements in Argentina focusing on human rights, social justice, and environmental justice that still thrive today. I wanted to study the growth and theory behind these social movements, especially with the current political environment in the U.S. and the growth of social movements state side. At Green Mountain, I study sustainable community development and agroecology. I love looking into participatory planning, community led facilitation, and other tools for locally led development. Grassroots participation in social movements is a huge tool for positive change.

  • Could you explain to us what the School for International Training is, and how its programs work?

First off- SIT is incredible. Here is their mission statement: “SIT prepares students to be interculturally effective leaders, professionals, and citizens. In so doing, SIT fosters a worldwide network of individuals and organizations committed to responsible global citizenship. SIT fulfills this mission with field-based academic study abroad programs for undergraduates and accredited master’s degrees and certificate programs for graduates and professionals.” SIT has college study abroad programs—semester and summer—all around the world, focused on critical issues such as environmental health and sustainability, just urban development, peace studies, immigration and discrimination. Incredibly important current topics. The programs are run by local staff and the professors are from local universities or organizations, where ever you are. Many of their programs in Latin America are taught in Spanish, which is why I was first drawn to the program. They have a reputation for being an academically challenging, and rewarding, program. I would say that to be absolutely true. During my program, we were based in Buenos Aires at a faculty office space in a building which we shared with a few other research organizations and NGOs. We had lectures and classes by professors that were the experts of their fields- we would be reading articles written by our professors. We took two large trips—around 10-14 days—in which we traveled in the South and North of Argentina to meet social movements and organizations and learn about their place-based issues, work, and campaigns. While in the city, we had opportunities to meet with urban movements and organizations and join or observe protests and manifestations (which in Buenos Aires, happen a few times a week). The topics of the issues ranged, as did the backgrounds of the students, so each of us had the opportunity to focus in on what we were most passionate about. The semester was packed full, and the best experiential education opportunity I have ever had.

  • What kinds of classes did you take in Argentina?

I took History of Human Rights in Argentina, Social Movements Theory, Research Methods and Ethics, Spanish, and in my last month I completed an Internship and mini-thesis with the agroecological cooperative Iriarte Verde.

  • What has it been like to live in Argentina?

Living in Buenos Aries was hectic, fun, and smelly. I play Ultimate Frisbee, which has a small but loyal following in Buenos Aires. I joined a women’s and a mixed team and made amazing friends on my teams. Argentineans are night owls, so I got very little sleep throughout the semester, even though I am not much of a partier. I bought a teammate’s old bike and we would bike around the city late at night when the traffic had subsided, exploring new neighborhoods and stopping at various plazas to toss a frisbee and drink mate (a traditional South American caffeinated beverage). One of my favorite hangout spots was a bright light lively bar with a vast amount of ping pong tables, free on Tuesday nights. Coming from rural Vermont, living in Buenos Aires seemed like the exact opposite of the setting of my last years of college. Plenty of great restaurants and cafes to explore, various public university faculties that offered open lectures, cultural centers all across the city that hosted free dance classes—you can fill up all your time in a city like Buenos Aires. I loved it, although I did get to the point in which I yearned deeply for a large expansive forest. But the overall best part of living in Buenos Aires was the people—my ultimate teammates and a few students at the University of Buenos Aires that I befriended and I will always keep in touch. I plan to return, and I still send frequent WhatsApp voice memos to my buds to keep my Spanish in tune.

  • Have you been able to travel much previously? What have been some of your favorite experiences?

I have been fortunate enough to travel extensively, mostly for educational opportunities and conference participations. The most impactful experience was traveling to Peru after graduating high school and living in a small rural village in the mountains, learning and interning at an organic dairy cooperative. I was able to help herders milk their cows, see the centuries old method of community water management, and facilitate a discussion about community sustainability issues at one of the monthly meetings. I am so grateful to have been given the opportunity to learn from the cooperative and community members. Another highlight was my first time couchsurfing (an online platform that connects travelers with locals who are willing to host travelers for free for a night or two). I was traveling before a conference I had received a scholarship to attend in Australia. I spent a week with an artist in Sydney, who was also hosting a German women and a Polish family. We all went dumpster diving in the evenings at the organic grocery stores and cooked dinners together, sharing recipes and travel stories. It was incredible to see the generosity and curiosity of everyone, and realize how similar we all are, sharing human emotions and sentiments. My travels have taught me to relish diversity and be open to new experiences at every turn.

  • What has surprised you about the study abroad experience?

What surprised me the most was the lack of curiosity some students had for the unknown and new experiences. I would suggest to anyone studying abroad to put a lot of effort into making local friends and practicing the local language. The study abroad experience can be exponentially improved by breaking out of your comfort bubble.

  • What have you missed most about the United States?

The ability to buy hummus and good, inexpensive vegetarian food. In Vermont, I am fortunate to have a proliferation of local farms around, making access to organic fresh produce easier than in Buenos Aires, or in many areas of the United States. I had a difficult time finding good lunch or snack foods for an affordable price.

  • What advice would you give Corvias Scholars who are thinking of studying abroad?

Get out of your comfort zone to make friends from wherever you are. Join a sport, or art class, or try to go on a date—whatever. Just get out there. Don’t ever be embarrassed by your language abilities—just practice and try to speak the language as much as possible. When my Argentinean friends speak to me in English, I always respond in Spanish, showing them my stubbornness and want to improve. And if you like a bike, try finding one. It made my daily commute much easier and opened up access to the city for me.

An Unexpected Love Story

The following is a written version of the story I told at our Corvias alumni retreat last summer.

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Can I tell you a love story?

Some of you may know that a few years ago I was a Mormon missionary in Italy. You’ve probably seen missionaries around—they’re often young guys in white shirts with black name tags riding around on bicycles like nutheads; yeah, that was me, except I wore a skirt (even on the bike, which is a totally different story that I’ll have to tell another time).

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Me near the beginning of my mission after having biked home in the pouring rain.

There are a lot of rules you’re asked to follow as a missionary, including being with a companion missionary 24/7. You don’t get to choose who your companion is, but once you’re assigned together, you’re supposed to stay within sight and sound of each other for a six-week period called a “transfer”. At the end of the transfer, the mission president, typically an older, married man who leads the missionary efforts in your area, will send you and/or your companion to a new area, or leave you there for another six weeks.

Being a missionary was the most wonderful, awful, terrifying, challenging, amazing, difficult, and life-changing thing I’ve done in my life thus far. I literally would spend all day stopping people on the street to talk to them about Jesus, which, for my somewhat introverted self, was terrifying every single time, and almost assuredly annoying for everyone with whom I attempted to converse. One of the general LDS church leaders once described this terror by saying something along the lines of: “Missionaries are just as terrified to be there standing on your porch as you are finding them there.” So don’t worry the next time they knock on your door–you definitely have the upper hand.

There are a lot of reasons why I decided to serve a mission and none of them was motivated by a desire to get anything from anyone; I simply wanted to help others and do what I thought I needed to do. I quickly realized, however, that being a missionary was an amazing opportunity for me to learn, and I wanted to make goals in order to maximize my experience. I decided to make a list in my journal of things I wanted to learn from my mission, but for the entire length of my 18 months as a missionary, I could only ever come up with one thing I wanted my mission to teach me: love. I’d heard from people who’d already served missions about how much they loved the people in the areas where they served; I wanted to learn how to recognize and accept love and how to give love.

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My mission goals, from my actual journal

Missionary convention dictates that you forsake your first name in favor of your last name, so I became Sister Soh, or in Italian, Sorella Soh (male missionaries use the title “Elder”, or “Anziano” in Italian). I spent the first nine weeks of my mission at the Missionary Training Center (MTC) in Provo, Utah, where they teach you how to be a missionary and if you’re serving in a non-English speaking country, they teach you the language of the place in which you’ll be serving. Missionaries don’t get to pick where they get to serve, so being sent to Italy was like winning the lottery. The country is beautiful, the people are beautiful, and the food is beautiful (I gained 30 pounds). And despite some unpleasant experiences (people can be very mean), I had many, many unforgettable moments of joy and happiness and love. I felt like I was on track to meet my only goal.

Over the course of my mission, I had eight different companions. I got along great with my first few companions, considering the fact that we were together every moment of every day; they were all Americans, and we’d often talk about home and our lives before the mission and what we wanted to do when we got home. Our mission president encouraged us to serve each other, cook and eat lunch together, and look out for each other so we would get along and be more effective missionaries.

About seven months into my mission, the mission president called me and told me I was getting transferred from the coastal city of Savona to the big city—Milano. Summer was just starting, so the thought of leaving the breezes of the Mediterranean for the sticky, stifling heat of the city was disappointing, but he told me he had a special assignment for me: My new companion, Sorella Sanchez*, needed some love. Right up my alley.

Sorella Sanchez was from Peru, but had lived in Rome for 10 years before serving a mission. She was 11 years older than me and didn’t speak any English. When we were together, the church members would often ask me about her personality, which was hard for them to read. The only explanation I could give them was that she was particolare, which is a word Italians use to describe people who they don’t understand. In English, some might have described her as “awkward”, but there’s no word for that in Italian, and even if there was, she wouldn’t have known what it meant because she wasn’t awkward—she was just particolare.

Once, in the middle of July when it was 9 a.m. and 90°F inside our study room, she got mad at me because I’d turned on the oscillating fan and the fan-generated wind touched her. “Artificial air is bad for you, Sorella Soh” she’d told me, before asking me to move the fan two inches to the left so it wouldn’t blow on her. Whenever we went anywhere, she always walked five feet behind me, and if I tried to slow down so she could catch up and walk beside me, she’d just slow down to match my pace. When we’d get on a train or the metro, I’d look for two open seats, sit in one, and then watch her ignore the open seat next to me and sit in a totally different spot. Particolare.

I was beginning to understand why Sorella Sanchez’s past companions had struggled to get along with her, and I almost couldn’t blame them. I tried to serve her and love her, but I always felt that she was resistant. Even when I asked her if she wanted to cook lunch together, she looked at me blankly and simply said “I don’t think so.” I felt like the language and cultural barriers were unconquerable obstacles; she just did things differently than all my American companions, and she NEVER talked about home or her life before or after the mission. I loved her, at least I tried to love her, but I couldn’t understand her. Everything she did was unexpected, and I wondered if there was something wrong with me.

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In Florence, about a year into my mission. And yes, I was absolutely as tired as I look in this picture.

One morning we had an appointment with someone on the far side of our assigned proselyting area, and on the bus ride home, the heat and the bumpy road started wearing down on me and I began to feel motion sick. When we got back to our apartment for lunch, I knew I needed to recover from my nausea before I could even think about eating. I didn’t want Sorella Sanchez to think I was being lazy, which is probably what she would’ve thought, so I told her, “I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to lie down for a half hour, and then I’ll make my lunch” and went to bed.

After my half hour repose, I was feeling better and walked back into the kitchen where Sorella Sanchez was washing the dishes from her lunch. She saw me walk in and with no emotion or expression said, “I have some extra lunch, you know, if you want it” and turned back to the dishes. As soon as she said it, my first thought was a sarcastic one: “Gee, thanks, Sorella”, but no sooner had that thought crossed my mind when another thought popped into my head: “She just offered you food. She almost never makes extra food, and she certainly never offers it to you when she does.” In that moment, it felt like a lightning bolt struck my heart and opened my mind to understanding: “She did that on purpose. She knew you were feeling ill and she made you lunch.” She was making an offering of love.

I accepted her leftovers and couldn’t stop thinking about it the rest of the day. It’s like the floodgates had opened and suddenly I started to understand everything. She loved me. She’d loved me the whole time, she just didn’t know how to show it. And when she did show it, I was too blind to recognize it because I was expecting love to come in a different way. I’d expected love to be like it’d been with my other companions, talking about home and laughing about silly little things. But that wasn’t Sorella Sanchez. Her love was different. It was particolare.

Upon recognition of this love, I immediately felt terrible about how I’d been treating her and how frustrated I seemed to always be with her; after that moment in the kitchen, everything changed. The light switch turned on in my head and I started to trust her love. Without even trying, we started to fall into sync. We began having inside jokes. I’d make eye contact with her across a train car, cross my eyes, and she’d laugh. We laughed all the time. We laughed with each other. We laughed with the people we met. One day another missionary even approached me and said, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I haven’t seen Sorella Sanchez this happy in months.”

It wasn’t just Sorella Sanchez who was happier—I was happier, too. She loved me and I loved her. She still drove me nuts sometimes, but the more I saw her through eyes of love, the more I noticed the effect she’d had on me. She still walked 5 feet behind me, but I noticed she was often texting people on our phone (we only had one for the two of us), checking on them and making appointments. She still never sat next to me on the train, but she was always talking to other people about our message, and because she wasn’t sitting next to me, it made me talk to more people, too. And because we never talked about home, I never felt homesick. Everything she had done had been slowly transforming me into a better missionary, and was helping me to become more like the person I wanted to be.

After 12 weeks together, Sorella Sanchez was transferred to a different city to finish out her mission. I saw her two or three times after that, but it’s been more than five years since the last time I saw her as she boarded her train home to Rome at the end of her mission. But a part of her is always with me, and will remain with me forever, written on my heart. Without her even knowing it, she’d changed my life. She gave me far more than I could have ever given her: she taught me how to give love and how to accept love, especially when it comes in ways you don’t expect.

 

*Name has been changed

Scholar Spotlight: Sarah Nakasone

As we often learn during our Corvias Alumni Summit, members of our family are constantly doing inspiring and world-changing things that somehow we don’t know about. A few months ago, I saw a post from current scholar Sarah Nakasone that mentioned she was going to be spending the summer in Africa working first-hand in implementing HIV transmission prevention through a truly life-changing medical treatment. I’ll let her explain the rest, but I think that after reading – you’ll be impressed & inspired to invoke change in your own community.

For those who have not yet met you in person, please tell us a little about yourself!

My name is Sarah Nakasone and I’m a current junior at the University of Chicago where I study epidemiology and international power relationships in medical activism (think WHO, United Nations policy but with a lot bit of Ebola and HIV thrown in). My father is an army officer, though my best friend has since joined the USNA, making the Army-Navy football game a fractious time in my circle of family and friends. My family was at Fort Meade, Maryland (about an hour from DC) when I received the Corvias Scholarship though they have since moved to Virginia, so I consider Chicago home for now. Future plans change with alarming regularity, though I assume it will have something to do with HIV considering my recent work. Ideally, I’d like to complete a master’s program in epidemiology and then go on to medical school, the goal being to work in infectious disease with low-income communities here in the US.

Fun fact wise- after growing up as a military brat, I have a huge passion for travel and will have visited five different continents in the span of about a year this December. My friends joke that if they want to find me, it’s probably easier to just spin a globe and pick a spot randomly than anything else. I also bake anytime I get stressed, a hobby that has served me well when trying to build goodwill with new flat mates.

How did you become aware of the project or get in contact with the Gates Foundation? Where did you find your passion for helping those affected with HIV, and were you specifically looking for a project in this area?

I started working in HIV prevention my senior year of high school. I was part of a dedicated engineering program where all of us were required to complete a capstone project and my project focused on developing apps to help educate youth about HIV (Baltimore, where I was going to school, still has a large problem with HIV). Considering I was going to a Catholic school, it was seen as a little bit of a ‘risqué’ project (I remember the principal scolding me because the phrase ‘HIV and other STIs’ apparently made our very conservative nuns uncomfortable). I think that stigma was what made me initially interested in continuing prevention work- I wasn’t used to being told that I shouldn’t do something, and that resistance made me want to do it even more.

(This is, of course, a TERRIBLE reason for doing anything so don’t follow my example here.)

I continued doing HIV prevention work once I got to college, still running on this ‘how-dare-someone-tell-me-what-I-should-and -shouldn’t-be-doing streak’ and ended up on a project researching PrEP. PrEP is this new drug that, if taken once a day, can prevent an HIV negative person from getting infected (think of it a little like birth control for HIV!) The Southside of Chicago, where I live, has a huge problem with HIV infections. As it stands, one in three black gay or bisexual men are HIV positive and we fully expect within the next few decades, about half of them will have been infected with the virus.

It is probably the hardest work I have ever done. I remember days when I would come home in tears because guys in the study would confess to me how their friends were dying of AIDS or because every single person we tested that day would be positive for the virus. But it’s also what finally gave me a good reason for doing the work. I would talk to men who had been activists for decades and committed their lives to stopping those around them from getting infected. People who confessed to me how much their lives had changed because of PrEP- because they didn’t have to worry about getting infected. We were making a difference with our research, even if it was just in the tiniest of ways.

As part of my degree program, we are required to do internationally-focused work and I wanted to continue working with PrEP. In circumstances that probably sound better suited for a networking conference (I have a friend who fought Ebola with someone who was engaged to a guy, who worked with a woman who needed someone with my background), I basically fell into the project on which I currently work. My current boss, Dr. Maryam Shahmanesh at the University College London, was working on a district-wide evaluation of DREAMS and, given my background with PrEP, she invited me to join the team and help design parts of the evaluation that would try to see how we could best give PrEP to young women. There wasn’t any formal application here, I just got very lucky that I had done similar work in the US and knew some well-connected people.

To back up a little bit, because I know that’s a lot of acronyms and introductions at once, DREAMS is a program that’s running in 10 sub-Saharan countries in Africa and is funded by the Gates Foundation and PEPFAR (a US program that tries to help fight AIDS abroad). DREAMS wants to make sure that young women grow up determined, resilient, empowered, AIDS-free, mentored, and safe so that we can cut rates of HIV by 40% in girls. I’ve been specifically working with the DREAMS program in uMkhanyakude District here in South Africa. The district is incredibly affected by HIV- 35% of the population has it- and young girls are at the most risk given that they generally don’t have the power to ask their partners to use condoms and get involved with much older men (‘sugar daddies’) just so they can make a little money for school or food or shopping. We think that PrEP can be a real help here because they would be able to take it without their partners knowing, but the South African government is still trying to plan how to get it to young women. My job has been to research how best we could get PrEP to young women (e.g. who should give it out, what sort of community education should we do, how should we market it, etc.)

It’s a different sort of life, being here. I live in a guest house with other researchers so often we will stay at the office for 10ish hours a day, only to go home and debate our research over shared meals and wine (good wine is about 40 rand a bottle, or $3.50) Most of us were born somewhere else and have no family here, so we become each other’s family. In my three months here, I’ve lived with a French nanotechnologist, a Malawian Ph. D student, a bunch of Brits, an Australian doctor, and a whole mess of South Africans. It made 4th of July an incredibly interesting affair because we had a multi-cultural bunch of us sharing my home-made apple pie with no one but me being quite sure as to why we had to celebrate anything.

What was the biggest thing you learned about the population you were working with that surprised you?

I think what surprised me most about living and working here is how often HIV does not rank as the primary concern for so many people. Many of the people in my generation lost parents to the disease and many of them are likely to be infected by it one day but it isn’t necessarily the thing about which they worry the most. 80% of the people here are on government assistance because they can’t find work, for example. It’s really hard to think about a disease that may affect you someday in the future if you’re starving today. It’s one of the many factors that will make ending AIDS here extremely difficult.

What did you learn about yourself during this experience both professionally and personally?

I loved my work this summer and I count myself as so, incredibly lucky to have had this opportunity. I have been surrounded by amazing people and have had the chance to grow both as a person and researcher here. I do not take that for granted. But I also realize that this is probably not the area of the world in which I want to work. AIDS in Africa gets a lot of attention (as it should) but we have a huge problem with AIDS in America as well- we just don’t have the problem in groups that attract a lot of interest and funding. It’s easy to spin stories about young women who don’t have the ability to negotiate for condoms and are thus at risk for HIV. It’s less easy to talk about injection drug users or gay black men or transgender women.

Something that was mentioned a lot during our Corvias Alumni Summit this year was the idea of hope. Knowing that our world is in desperate need of hope right now – what kind of hope do you now have after finishing this project for this population? Can that hope be transferred on a global scale?

Hope has been something I’ve thought a lot about here as well. There are so many days when you get caught up in these statistics about how many people who are infected and the numbers don’t seem to be getting better or they’re not getting better fast enough, no matter how hard we try. Somedays it feels a lot like lobbing water balloons at a forest fire. But then you talk to nurses here who remember what things were like before there were drugs to treat HIV and how their patients would die alone. How all day they would listen to the cries of people they could not save.

And we are so far past that. HIV isn’t a death sentence anymore and people here largely have access to the drugs they need to treat it. What seems like baby steps in the moment become immense progress in the end when you have the opportunity to look back.

I think that’s what gives me hope, both here and in HIV work in general. You have so many people who are committed to making this incremental progress, even when it doesn’t look like progress at all. I keep this quote anyplace I work so that I remember it:

“When we study the biographies of our heroes, we find that most of their time was spent in quiet preparation doing tiny, decent things, until one historic moment catapults them to center stage and causes them to tilt empires.”

            I am surrounded by people every day trying to do tiny, decent things. And that gives me a lot of hope- both for here and for our world.

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Interview & Pictures: Sarah Nakasone
Questions provided by: Samantha Seifert