25 May, 2012

Gilman Scholarship - What's wrong with me?


First, this post is how I'm going to deal with it. So expect so irrational behavior, some ranting and raving... there is no why, it just is! No sore losing... just working through the value of my life online (that's normal right?).

So I need to write something, I've got to get it off my chest. It's not that I feel anything is owed to me, it's that I'd like to know what the heck is wrong with me? Seriously? 

I suppose I should back-up. The Gilman Scholarship is a grant given to "non-traditional" students (check), who receive the Pell Grant (thus are poor [check]). While there is a preference for non-European student exchanges, many students do get awards for the heart of Europe. Oddly, Belgium, the heart of Europe Government- only had two students awarded. Considering the scope of European politics and crisis, and its effect on the U.S., you would feel someone intending to go to Brussels would be as valuable to U.S. human capital as those in China. It's also way more expensive to go to Brussels than China. Perhaps I'm just justifying myself? So what if I am? Shouldn't these scholarships have some logic to them?

The first time I applied for the Gilman Scholarship was last year at a community college (something they claim increases your chances of getting one). At the time, it was the only way I could have afforded to go to summer school abroad. I was denied, rejected, despite a 4.0 average, and being a non-traditional student (another plus in their book I'm told). Unknown to me at the time, there was a wait list to be an alternate if someone bailed from going, but I was never offered that opportunity either. This meant no study abroad. I sent the college a letter thanking them for their invitation, and graceful pretended like it didn't bother me as I withdrew due to lack of funding. As the awards were announced I followed on Twitter as GhettoGirl (that was her handle) and several other award receivers exclaimed their exuberance. Finding Ghetto Girl's blog and discovering the use of ebonics and racists remarks made me wonder how Ghetto Girl was deserving of the money, while I was left out cold. I felt useless, less than human- a complete failure as a human being. If I couldn't write well enough to convince someone to let me go abroad, but Ghetto Girl could- then I must be absolutely useless as a person (or so says my melodramatic inner voice). Of course after a bit of whine, and wine, and several weeks of convincing myself that I was worth something, (in addition to my spouse and children threatening to move out,) I eventually crawled out of bed and back into the world. I got back up, found my center and started again.

Fast forward to my first semester at UNCG: silly me figured, I'm going abroad- I'll try Gilman again. (Well that, and a little poking and prodding by our International Program Center.) Yes I was hesitant. I just assumed I was going to fail. However Tom, at the IPC instilled confidence in me, suggesting my situation (a non-traditional student [who the hell is less traditional than me?]) would prove to provide a better chance at getting the Scholarship. So I went home, looked at the website, and discovered 2 out of 3 people who apply do get the scholarship (it's actually closer to 1 in 2 this semester). Perhaps last semester was just a fluke? Right? I figured, what the heck, I'll pound out an application, an essay, and cross my fingers. Several days later I had a breathtaking essay. I even impressed myself; it was a moment of genius! I even developed a return-home-service project called "Homeless around the World" which would connect students to homelessness, both here in N.C., and in Brussels. The core of the project was filming a night of being homeless in Belgium and compelling college students to put themselves in the shoes of others, while cross-promoting cultural diversity and the Gilman Foundation. The professors I shared the project with were impressed, and felt such a compelling endeavor was worthy of special consideration, and may, perhaps give me an advantage. I put everything on the line, and I was willing to risk far more than most would for a scholarship. I thought I had a good chance.

Patiently I waited. Then word came the other day via email:
Dear Gilman Scholarship Applicant:
All applications have been reviewed. Unfortunately, you were not selected to receive a Gilman Scholarship.

The blood drained from my face. I turned to Shannon and told her of my defeat. Like a shamed warrior, I had been defeated twice now. Not even $50, nothing. No chance for being an alternate- nothing. "Thanks for playing, GAME OVER!"

Too worn out to cry, I just went to bed. Woke up sobbing for four hours this morning. 

Finally, I called forth the gumption to shoot them an email casually asking to be placed on the waiting list. I doubt I'll get any positive response, but I had to try. I debated on writing anything online, but ultimately, since I have nothing to lose at this point, I felt there was a lack of voices about losers out there. Hopefully I'll convey my emotions and thoughts as rationally as possible. The bottom line is, I just want to know what the hell is wrong with me? 

Am I too old? Too fat? Too stupid? Too much of a lesbian? Too black? Is being a 30-something impoverished lesbian mother not "non-traditional" enough for you?

Of course it's doubtful I'll ever know.

I'm still planning on going abroad of course. Money will be insanely tight, (not to mention indentured slavery for the student loans, once I get back), and I likely won't be able to travel much once there- but at this point I'm still pushing forward. A student visa stands in the way, as does that ever growing feeling I'm going to be thwarted at the last minute.

Hopefully those whom receive the Gilman Scholarship will use it wisely. In the immortal words of the 2012 Gilman Recipient: thehigherbeing, I leave you with these words of wisdom on the matter:
I got the Gilman Scholarship. That's 8 G's right there. WOOH! RICK FLAIR NIGGA!
Wooh! Rick Flair indeed. I bow to your awesomeness.

I realize anything I say will seem biased, but since I'm viewing all this from hein-sight, I think I can safely say that the problem with the Gilman Scholarship is that the recipients are judged subjectively on their perceived need, and their perceived minority status, something which is often, as in my case, not always "broadcasted". America's confusion with diversity, is that "our" concept of it is a black man selling Tex-Mex while driving a Honda, but not an atheist, lesbian, older female with two Hispanic children who would bleed the colors of the Belgian flag if she could, (in fact it's still taboo) and this deeply disturbs me. 

It's this disturbing trend in American thought that you must purposely disclose all your failures (or minority status(es)) to receive pity, or fairness, (disclosing is a form of astonishment) rather than being judged equally and on merit that will make my this cultural lesson bitter sweet. 

If Gilman was objective, even based on financial data and social-diversity status, or skill, I have a feeling you'd find very alternative recipients.


On the other hand, I could be completely wrong, in which case, none of this matters.

13 May, 2012

Best & Largest Carry-On Luggage

So... I wanted to return to this post. Since it was originally written in May of 2012, I've traveled extensively in Europe, lived in Brussels for four month, and because of this it has changed my views on things. The truth is, originally, when I suggested the High Sierra product below, it was from a very American perspective. Honestly, the thing just sits and rots in my closet now, and almost everywhere I go I simply use a hiking back pack. This is what I recommend now and I will tell you why:


#1 Decathlon 40 Liter Hiking Style Pack - So as I mentioned before, I was leaving for Spain to hike the Camino-de-Santiago-de-Compostella, when I purchased this pack (60). You could buy one anywhere, at any sporting good store. We recently acquired a second one for Shannon at Wal-Mart for under $30. If this is going to be a life-long-luggage arrangement, consider brand-names like the MEI VoyageurNorth Face or REI.

Why this works. Well for one thing, I've discovered you really don't need wheels on your luggage, it's silly. Putting your world on your back expedites almost every aspect of travel including curbs, security, and public perception of you as a traveler. People treat you different when they see you as a college backpacker. You strike up conversations, and my pack, with its patches each tell a story of where I've been. I can place 5-7 days of clothes, even attach a tent or sleeping bag, it fits in both U.S. and European overhead bins, and I've never had to pay a luggage fee.

When I travel for a couple days, the pack shrinks to what I need. It's versatile, and transitions easy from car, to foot, to train, or to air. The best part is you don't look like a tourist, you look like an adventurer, and that suits me well.

#2 High Sierra A.T. GO 556 - (portions below were written on 5/13/12)

Of course if you absolutely refuse to break norms, and want the more traditional option, this was the previous winner. A High Sierra ATGO 556 (be careful with the model numbers [Google:AT556] as they're are super important as H.S. makes tons of different bags.) My concerns was that it would fit in the over-head bin. (The FAA says 45 linear inches or 22x14x9) This measures exactly that, but somehow magically is much larger than all of its competitors. I wanted the ability to both throw it on my back, as a backpack (which it can) and use it as a traditional wheeled luggage. (It does that too.) Most every competitor did one thing but not the other. I'm going to be traveling by train and plane, all over Europe, and my previous experience suggested neither of these qualities was negotiable. I love this bag. It also works as a duffel bag, or traditional luggage, with tons of compartments, and compression straps. The downside was for me to get it at the bargain basement price of $78 (almost a third off retail) I had to capitulate to this overbearing blue color instead of the purple Burberry I wanted. Expect to pay between $120-$180, not on sale- but in my opinion it's worth every penny. 

I could easily fit two-three weeks worth of clothes in this bag if I didn't have so many shoes to take. If you have a travel companion, I could easily see two of these easily replacing your current luggage set as a carry-on only, over-head bin safe alternative which might avoid baggage fees for the entirety of your future travels.

As a note, you can buy checked versions of the ATGO series, up to some very large sizes.

I do want to post some of the alternatives I considered, but ultimately decided against. 

#3 MEC 100 - It's a Canadian company, and the bag is just slightly over-sized for carry-on which would have been a problem for me. Personally I liked the more-backpacky look (and likely better quality) of the MEC, but the company recently redesigned the product removing the backpack capabilities of the luggage meaning it was only a roller. That's a no-go for me, as I will be traveling through London on foot.

Doppelduffel
#4 Doppelduffel  Adventure Bag ($239) - Despite being a fashion disaster, this military grade bag works as both a shoulder duffel bag, and guarantees against armageddon with its super tough zippers. It's masculine, ugly, and has no wheels. The only reason I even considered it was because it would have fit in an overhead bin and likely outlast a nuclear war. It's likely luggage-porn for your your boyfriend who wants to embody Rambo.

#5 Red Oxx Air Boss - I actually like the Boss. I do. It's got color, the iron-clad zippers of the military bags, and its made of quality materials. Worse yet, I as a woman, wouldn't be embarrassed to carry it. The downside is the price at $225. It also lacks the functionality that I require which I've mentioned previously. It would make a great second-carry-on bag, which could possibly confuse flight attendants into believing it's just a really big laptop bag. (You're allowed a second carry-on such as a purse or laptop bag- this is pushing the limits though.)

#6 Thule - If you're going for that European look (which I am), and want to attempt to look less like an American, and more like a Swede, then Thule makes a fabulous carry-on. It's chic, it's cool, and yes it does do roller, and back pack. However at $289, if you can afford this luggage, you likely don't need to worry about any of that anyways. It also only is about as big as a single set of clothes.

Sherpani
#7 Sherpani - Women want more than just luggage, we want it to look good. The problem with all these carry-ons, including the one I bought, is they lack the fashion most of us would prefer. It's a balance between function and form. If you're willing to sacrifice the backpack straps,(oh say you have a cute Frenchman to carry your baggage,) and you can afford the premium prices ($249), then this is definitely your bag ladies. 

And that's it. I probably looked at a hundreds different pieces including luggage which doubled as a scooter, Live Luggage's motorized suit-cases, or Tumi's stupidly expensive Mission Impossible hard cases. I've seen luggage with polka-dots, money marks, and American flags, none of which are good for anyone arriving in Europe. In the end, if I wanted the largest carry-on, with the most versatility, I ended up back, every time, looking at a simple hiking backpack. 

 For me, it's now time to get packing, and head off to get lost in flight. If only my carry-on came filled with money, and a new size 2 body, then I would truly be ready for my next trip.

11 May, 2012

Studying Abroad in Belgium.

Me, an exchange student? Who would have ever thought?
It's been an insane year, and I've been attending a local university pursuing my goals. One of those goals, my readers would be most likely familiar with, is my obsession to live abroad. It's about to come true too. Maybe not permanently, but I will be studying at Vesalius College this fall as a part of an exchange program with UNCG. The moment I arrived on campus in January, I began the long and tedious process of applying and later being accepted into the program. I've met a lot of people a long the way, inspiring people, who have given me the opportunity of a life-time: four months in Brussels, Belgium.

With a bit of writer's block lately, I really haven't been able to collate the process into a post for others. There's a lot going on, still, and I'm hoping within the next few month to be able to clarify my life in words very soon.

The process of studying abroad, started of course, last summer. I applied, got accepted and then got rejected on the scholarship. I drank, cried, got back up and tried again when I arrived at university. I got accepted again, and while I still don't know if I'll manage the scholarship I was denied for last time (Gilman), I'm prepared to make this happen through student loans if necessary. It's very expensive too. My tuition bill alone is near $7,000, and that doesn't include airfare, or expenses upon arrival. Needless to say, it takes a certain level of self-imposed blindness, crossed with near-hubris levels of conviction to proceed at this- but I don't have a choice. I don't. I might as well crawl up and die, if I don't do something amazing with my life- and right now, that road leads to Brussels.

When I first received an acceptance letter to VeCo (short for Vesalius), I actually called our International Center, because I was so sure I wasn't going, that I had to ask permission before I'd allow myself to get excited.  I wasn't sure if it was really-real. They always look at me a tad weird over there (at the IPC), as if, I, a mid-thirty-something woman, shouldn't get so-o excited over traditionally common things- but I've always been different. Slowly I think they've come to accept that.

Since I'm flying into Heathrow, then taking
the Eurostar across, I wanted something
flexible to travel with. This High Sierra ATGO
carry-on, is the largest carry-on you can take
on a plane, and should just barely fit my ten
pairs of shoes I plan on taking. That will
leave me with a lot of clothes shopping to
do on arrival I suspect.
My study abroad program is a part of the ISEP program. Specifically chosen because I wanted VeCo. (You can get an idea where I'm heading from this You Tube video.) I wanted to be at the center of change, and Brussels, by all indicators, is that place. There was an interview process, and 3-4 prep meetings, including an all day ISEP convention of cultural awareness that proved to be a fun first step towards going. Paperwork is overwhelming, and having a laser printer and a scanner is a must. Fees are around every corner. There's the application fee, the health-care fee, then the Schengen Visa fee, the passport photo fees, the notary fees. Probably near $1000 USD, just in the administration costs of applying to go. I'm grateful in that that my school has the Michael H. Weaver Foundation benefit of $700 that was gifted to me to go abroad. It's helped a lot, and I can't thank Mr. Weaver enough.

If you make it through the paperwork, and the visa process- which is a pain in the tuchus, then you're doing well. At this current moment I've yet to complete the visa process, which includes an eight week FBI background check, financial documents, a financial sponsor, and an application so complicated I'm questioning the quality of my education at this point- because I can't comprehend it. I've purchased one leg of my trip there with miles I've accrued from putting my tuition on a AAdvantage credit card. ($5 first class ticket) and I still have to find my return flight home before submitting the visa application- which must be turned in- in person, 600 miles away in Atlanta, GA (yet another cost).

Since Europe uses different frequencies, I picked up a
new LG GT540 off eBay for about $90, and loaded it
with the latest version of Android Gingerbread for moving
to Belgium. I ordered a Mobistar sim card from Ebay France,
and now I'm ready when I land.
I've started shopping for clothes. I purchased a brand new suitcase (High Sierra ATGO, which operates as a back pack, a carry-on, and a roller), a Belgium mobile phone and sim card, a Looxcie (to stay in contact with my family), and a couple pairs of new shoes (of course).

If everything goes as planned, I hope to have my visa soon, travel and lodging in transit cared for, and should only have to worry about some minor things before I go.

"Go", which sounds so finally. I still can't grasp the idea that I'll be living and studying in Brussels. Even better, I'm supposed to be living with a host-family. It's literally going to be like trading lives with someone for four months (duh Liv, that's why they call it "exchange"). I'm excited, a bit frightened, but I really can't wait. I realize it's going to be tough, and there is some sacrifice involved. There has to be- it wouldn't be such an amazing opportunity, if I wasn't forced into risk, into sacrifice. For me, I'll be leaving a family behind, a home, a bizarre country- to a world unfamiliar, a realm of possibilities not yet realized. While it might be scary for some, the cost of not seizing the opportunity to be something more, to me is a tragedy I refuse to partake in.