An Update: D.C. Lovin’

Some parts of living on my own, navigating a whole new city, and figuring out what exactly I am doing (and how to do it well, no less) are just plain tough. I’m not going to lie, there have been many moments here where I have looked up and thought: Inesha, what the heck are you doing here? I made a choice to come to DC and take the semester off from all that is familiar and ‘normal’ for a college-age student like myself. And in so doing, I have chosen to…

  • live in a city that I love but that is, let’s be real here, not my own
  • deal with public transportation and all that that entails (and I can tell you part of that has been some very embarrassing meltdowns)
  • surround myself by people that are much older (oh and experienced and smarter too!) than my undergrad self
  • finally really have to take care of myself– I mean are dining halls not the greatest thing ever? Edible food, available all the time… why do we complain?
  • travel so far outside my comfort zone it’s not even funny
  • grow.

The list goes on, trust me. Sometimes I look back at my high school years and wonder when exactly that was even though I know that was less than two years ago. This past year and especially these past few months have seen me hopping from Cambridge, MA to Richmond, VA to Buenos Aires, Argentina to Beijing, China to Washington, DC. Phew. I am known for liking to mix things up but even I will admit all this moving is A LOT.

But I’m learning in perhaps ways I didn’t expect to learn– as in, not just from textbooks but from myself. And I AM growing as cliché as that sounds. I’m getting a crash course in early 20’s living in a hot & hip city and I’m finding my way, literally and figuratively. If anything this time off from school is giving my mind the chance to do what it wants to do, to reel in those new stories, to soak in those words from far distant lands that I hear all around me, and to just spend a couple hours pouring over that book I’ve always wanted to read. I’ve been ‘doing school’ for 13 years. That’s a long time. I know how to (arguably :)) write a paper, take notes during lecture, and sit for long exams. But during these four months, I’m getting schooled by the world… and believe me, it isn’t always pretty but it sure is worth it ;)

Here are some of my favorite pics from D.C. and here’s to a good week for all of you sweet readers!

xo Inesha

P.S. Sorry for my lack of posting– I promise, I’m back now. Semi-adjusted and ready to post ;)

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A Dash of Cinnamon

At school things tend to move fast–the people, the cars, the little colored blocks on my Gcal. But as I was walking back to my room this afternoon, across the bridge and past the beautiful Charles, I heard music before I saw the man behind it. Sitting on the bridge with a guitar in his hand, this stranger shared his melody with the world around him–

without a care in the world whether anyone was listening.

Well, he had at least one listener :)

Needless to say, I felt fortunate that I had decided to walk that way, and at that moment. Seeing that sight on a beautiful Friday afternoon also inspired me to do some thinking–especially about the two crazy weeks that have gone by without my having realized it, and the fact that I am here, a sophomore in College, learning in far more ways than one.

As the weekend commences, I thought I’d share just a few of the things that I’ve learned about myself this past week. Inspired in part by Michi’s (my lovely blockmate) “wall of thanks” and phone conversations with my mom, here goes:

The Spice of the Week

  • Classes have started, and that means the corresponding homework has been assigned. And while I have honestly convinced myself that I can get all that reading done while sitting with friends in a crowded dhall…the evidence speaks for itself (the mountains of evidence).
  • Sleep schedules will never be perfect, but gosh darn it, I can try.
  • I’ve probably known this for a while, but I’m definitely a multi-tasking kind of girl. That’s probably why I always have a million tabs open on my browser or send myself reminders probably a bit too frequently (either that or I’m rather forgetful). Regardless, when a thought comes to mind, I’ve realized it’s just better to put it to paper (or iPhone) right then and there.
  • Phone = lifesaver. Now, I’ll admit that this might be more of a testament to overuse rather than useful use. I now have to take my phone charger out of the dorm with me because, undoubtedly, between texting, gcal, and hyperactive email checking, my phone will be screaming for juice by late afternoon.
  • Have a meeting halfway across campus in an hour? Or in a building you’ve never heard of before? Go early! I’ve learned that–especially for a time-challenged person like myself–going early can be a life savior. That way, even if you’ve underestimated walking time/distance, gotten lost, or forgotten something that you were supposed to take with you, there is no need to worry. The worst that could happen is that you get there so early that you have time to enjoy a new reading spot :)
  • And my final “spice of the week” for this week–and the inspiration for that title–is cinnamon! In the past week, I’ve gained a new appreciation for how incredibly delicious and versatile it is. It can spice up your life, you oatmeal, you coffee…and yes, I said coffee. See, as a certified non-coffee drinker, I wouldn’t know whether adding cinnamon to a café latté is strange or not. But what I do know is that on those days when you absolutely need that caffeine jolt, there’s nothing wrong with putting a dash of cinnamon into your café latté for a little autumn spice.

Have a great weekend!

Intern Spotlight: Meredith Arra, CHAD (Public Service)

Photo Cred: http://www.pbha.org/sup

Prologue:

During the welcome speech at our first day of training for SUP, our association’s President spoke to us about the job experience we were in store for this summer.  Reflecting upon her own experience as a senior counselor for SUP, she described the job as one for the record books, one that could be listed as unforgettable and life changing.  She warned us, though, that the journey would not be an easy one and that, only at the end, would we understand that “this summer [would] be the hardest summer [we’d] ever love.”

I truly did not understand then and there what she meant with all of her sentimental statements.  I had wanted to study abroad this summer but when that had not worked out, this had been my backup plan. So there I was, sitting sheepishly in the group of eager faces listening to her speech, entirely unsure of what I was supposed to get out of this summer.  I had kept an open mind up until this point.  I knew earlier that year when going through the application processes that I would need to keep up an optimistic spirit and hope for the best because things don’t usually work out perfectly and according to plan: I could get into my first choice program abroad and still not receive enough funding to go.  Sure enough, that is exactly what happened!

How lucky I was that it did though!  I had hoped for the best, and God granted me my wish.  This truly has been the hardest summer I’ve ever loved.  I learned more this summer about who I am and what I want for my future than I think I could have had I studied abroad.  This is really all any rising sophomore could ask for in a summer experience, right?… So wrong! More importantly than this, I learned about and had the chance to participate in an incredible community that sits just a few miles down the Charles from Harvard, a community filled with wonderful people who I, and many others, often overlook, a community rich with culture and pride, but in serious need of some attention.  I got to live in and get to know the community of Chinatown, most specifically the children who live there.  The ones that have such high hopes for their futures but still seek extra resources to help them achieve their goals.

Part 1

Okay, so here is how SUP works.  First of all, SUP stands for Summer Urban Program and is run out of PBHA (the Phillips Brooks House Association) which is the public service networking association run at Harvard.  SUP is comprised of 12 summer camps that, in total, serve about 800 inner city youth from the Boston/ Cambridge area.  My camp, Chinatown Adventure (or CHAD for short), is stationed in none other than Chinatown and states that its primary mission is to “enrich and improve the quality of life for underprivileged youth in Boston’s Chinatown community” through “developing fundamental social skills, healthy self-identities, high self esteem, cross-cultural awareness, and social consciousness” (taken from CHAD’s webpage on PBHA’s website).

Essentially, CHAD, like most SUP camps, accepts low-income children from different neighborhoods of Boston and provides them with a seven week long academically stimulating yet fun enrichment program at a significantly reduced cost to their parents. This summer, I served as a CHAD senior counselor. I had G1, the youngest and newest age group in the camp.  G1 consists of rising second graders (6 and 7 year olds) from across the Chinatown community.

Part 2

Each day consists of morning academics and an afternoon field trip or extra-curricular enrichment activity.  In my classroom, we focused on building math and writing techniques as well as studying a special theme of my choosing: developing healthy minds and healthy bodies within a healthy world.  Essentially, we did projects to help build up our self-esteem, then my fellow junior counselors and I taught our students about nutrition & exercise and, finally, a few lessons on the environment.  In the afternoon, we took them on a number of different field trips: from the Museum of Science to the ICA to the Children’s Museum to the beach.  On Fridays, we divided the classes into club groups, each themed differently and led by a different counselor.  I was in charge of the Gardening Club.  I know nothing about gardening, but Harvard’s community garden graciously opened their gates to us each Friday to let us learn about and practice gardening.

Part 3

So what made this the hardest summer I’ve ever loved?  Let me share with you a few examples.  Towards the end of the summer, academics became a thing of dread and frustration in my classroom.  Less for the kids and more for my fellow junior counselors and me.  Without fail, the kids would cry out each day: “MEREDITH!  This is booooriiing!” “MEREDITH!  I don’t waaaaant to!” “MEREDITH! We want freeeee time!  You never give us anything fuuuuuun! You are sooooo bossy!”  When this happens on a daily basis, it can become pretty exhausting.  Girls began to bully each other and throw random crying fits at any given moment throughout the day, including, but not limited to, at breakfast, classroom time, T-stops, public restrooms at the beach, museums…you get the picture.  My JCs bore with me through these trying moments and together we maintained patience.  We knew that the best part of our jobs came right after these fits of terrorizing the teachers.  Our little geniuses would finally quiet themselves down and get to work, proving to us that they could be passionate about school.  Secretly, they loved us and loved camp, and in moments of serenity, they would reveal this to us.  One of my best moments in the classroom came right after a rough trip to hear a guest speaker give a lecture about his research on the air pollution in Chinatown.  I thought this lesson would be a total bust because the material he was teaching was pretty advanced, and the kids had made it known to me that they were so bored.  When we returned to the classroom and began to re-describe and discuss what he was talking about, though, it all clicked for them!  One girl began to list all the ways we could, ourselves, reduce our carbon footprint and the amount of pollutants we release into the atmosphere.  I was so excited by her zeal for the subject, a zeal that proved itself again and again over the course of the next couple of weeks as we focused more on the environment.

Another proud moment occurred when one of my boys began inventing an imaginative story for us to perform at our final show.  Of course, he relayed this story in a beautiful but fake British accent which made it all the more fun for the rest of the group!  Yet again, my fears of failure were put to rest when one of my struggling campers raced through her problems of double-digit addition and even began to help teach it to the others!

These few moments don’t even begin to fully capture why this was the hardest summer I’ve ever loved.  I’ve never had so much responsibility in my life!  To be completely in charge of the lives of 10 young ones: to have to come up with daily lesson plans (we were responsible for between 4 and 5 hours of lesson planning a day), to be in charge of transport to and from field trips, to mother them in the moments of upset and injury.  It was a lot of work that I had never expected!  Nonetheless, tears were certainly streaming down my face on the last day of camp when I had to say goodbye to my kids.  I had waltzed in and out of their lives so quickly it seemed!  At six/ seven years old, they probably wouldn’t remember me, but I will forever remember each of them!

Photo Credit: https://blogs.law.harvard.edu/collegeadmissionsstudentblog/tag/pbha/

I learned a lot about myself this summer.  I learned what it means to be patient and understanding.  As in gardening club, but also in the classroom and other arenas of life: good things can happen if you water the seeds and simply wait.  I learned that building relationships takes time, but that time is fully worth it!  Oftentimes, we make the biggest impressions on those whom we can come to call friends.  Maybe my kids picked up on some of the things they learned in my classroom this summer or on the field trips that we went on, but what they will remember more clearly will be the moments of quiet conversations with their peers or with me.  It’s so incredible that in this camp, kids return year after year.  They really build lasting friendships this way!  The G7 campers had been together for 7 summers, and while they all attended different schools during the year, they were still able to brag about how tight their friendships are with one another.

I will now return to the fact that one of our directors had been a camper, a junior counselor, and a senior counselor.  And he is not the first CHAD graduate to do this.  One of the other counselors had even been a camper with him not too long ago .  Some of the junior counselors had also themselves once been campers.  Knowing this, I was able to see the true power behind the creation of a community!  This is what SUP is all about: building up communities!  I’m so grateful I was able to participate in this project.  My impact in Chinatown is zilch compared to the program’s overall impact!  But, for me, this was the most rewarding part of my summer, knowing that I had taken part (if only briefly) in something important that was worthwhile to another.  If I could have this summer to do over again, I would choose this first every time!  It has truly been the hardest summer I’ve ever loved.

Epilogue:

I wish I could post pictures of camp for you all to see but, alas, it is against SUP policy.  Instead, I will share links that provide you with access to a few photos and more information about what we do.  As long-winded as my blog may be, it is not at all complete.  I hope you did get a brief taste though of an incredible way to spend your summer in service.

Links:

SUP’s official site (pics from 2011)

News story on Harvard gazette highlighting SUP (first picture is of CHAD campers!)

Blog by Gene Corbin about different ways Harvard students have spent their summers doing service.  Mine is the least impressive by far, but it just goes to show you what all is out there for you to take part in!  There are so many leadership opportunities in the realm of service! (I’m featured at the bottom with four of my campers.  Their description of my work kind of embellishes the truth but look at how cute my kids are attempting to learn about paragraph writing!)

Written by yours truly,

Meredith

Summer Spotlight: Sabrina Ghouse, Sri Lankans Applying to the U.S.

The school year may be kicking into high gear, but our valuable summer experiences will undoubtedly continue to inform our decisions both in and out of the classroom.

Here are a few words from Sabrina Ghouse, a Sri Lankan international student at Harvard who started Sri Lankans Applying to the United States (SAUS), an initiative to help and inspire Sri Lankan high school students who dream of attending university half a world away.

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1.  What inspired you to take on/start this initiative?

During the school year, I work at the Harvard Admissions and Financial Aid Office. Every day, I speak to nervous, lost and confused high-school students about the application process, and this only reminds me of the days my friends and I struggled through the college application process as international students. One of my best friends at Harvard, Lucas Freitas, told me about his efforts to help students from his country (Brazil) apply to the US through a website and facebook group that offers students a forum to ask questions, a mentor program for the application process, and a reservoir of documents and information to help students understand what they need to do to apply to college. I felt the need to do this to help students from my country—Sri Lanka–with the application process, especially because more than half of the applicants from Sri Lanka are unaware of the education system and financial aid that colleges in the US have to offer.

2.  To your knowledge, has anything similar to this been done in Sri Lanka before?

Yes, in 2005. It is called SL2College and was founded by a few graduate students from Stanford. It offers help with the application process to colleges in many countries, including the US. One of the directors of this NGO found out about my initiative and asked me if I wanted to be part of their team. This gave me the infrastructure and support I needed to continue running what I had started. After joining SL2College as their Country Director for USA (Undergraduate), I’ve met many inspiring Country Directors and volunteers.

3. What have your main responsibilities been to get this off the ground? Tasks and workload?

It’s a full time job, really. I manage the facebook group, which means I monitor and, with the help of my other mentors, reply to all the questions posted by students on the forum. Every 2 days, I post an article or link on the site that contains helpful information or inspiring success stories about the application process, so the students on this forum are motivated to perfect their college application. I also receive applications for the mentorship program on a daily basis, which requires me to match students who have applied with mentors who will guide them through the application process. Apart from monitoring the mentee-mentor matches that I have made, I also have my own mentees to advise. The facebook group also contains a “files” section where all the documents I have made are stored, like an application checklist, information about SATs and TOEFL, Financial Aid advice, etc, that I update and add to whenever I can. In August, I also organized an information session for students applying to the US, with 10 of my fellow mentors. We invited over 70 private and public schools, and will be broadcasting this conference on TV in September for the students who were not able to attend this conference.

4.What has been the response to your efforts so far?

The facebook group has over 650 members, with many people posting questions about the application process every day and mentors replying to them constantly. I also receive applications from mentees for the mentorship program all the time and emails from Sri Lankan college students in the US who want to join our team of mentors. Hundreds of people attended the conference SL2College held in August and I’ve received only positive feedback and requests for another conference similar to this one, soon. Our conference was also sponsored for over $700.

5.  Who are your strategic partners? (basically, who’s helping you out)

Every member of SL2College has been very supportive, especially Nayana Samaranayake, the SL2College Director, Yoshani DeSilva, the  Country Director for USA (post graduate), Amila Wijesekara, the Country Director for Sri Lanka who organized the logistics of this conference, and all the US college students from Sri Lanka who have signed up to be mentors.

6.  What do you envision the future of this initiative to be?

The conference SL2College hosted was one of its largest and most successful. I’d love to continue to plan events like this one, and continue to bring what I learn at the Harvard Admissions Office back to Sri Lanka.

So we split up… From Cambridge, MA to Washington, D.C.

So Ishani and I split up… and I guess I have some explaining to do.

On Saturday, my family and I dropped Ishani off at college.

Well, those were words I never thought I’d write. Ishani and I do go to the same college after all. But the fact is, I’m not writing this post from Cambridge, MA. I’m writing it from Washington, DC. That’s right. I’m not exactly going to be experiencing sophomore fall after all.

After a lot of thought and consideration, I decided that I would take this semester off to pursue an internship opportunity in this city that I LOVE so much. And with campaign season in full bloom and fall right around the corner, I must say, I’ve got the DC-bug already!

This journey is sure to be an interesting one. Being apart from Ishani, working in a new place, and just finding my groove here is sure to be challenging, but I think I’m up for it. And if you’ll indulge me, I’d be so honored to share bits and pieces of my DC-life with you right here on this blog :)

But in the meantime, I thought I’d just send out a THANK YOU to you blog readers. This blog has been pretty magical for the two of us. Going through these posts, I savor the words and reflections, pictures and memories we’ve recorded here. This blog has taken on a life of it’s own from Richmond, VA to Tanzania, Argentina to China. And now look at us– separated by just a couple hundred miles (which, to our credit, isn’t much given our history :) to Cambridge, MA and Washington, DC. I guess life just keeps on moving and the two of us are running hard to keep up with it!  But this blog… it makes us pause every once and a while. I can’t explain it but just knowing that you readers are out there keeps us writing and sharing our lives, not just with you but with each other as well. In a crazy little way (and in a way that I’m sure you probably didn’t even suspect ;) you’ve helped keep the two of us accountable to each other. And that… that is something I know we both will be grateful for these next few months as we bridge off in very different directions, holding on to each other for support and advice, comfort and guidance.

P.s. To all my favorite Crimson kids reading this, GOOD LUCK this coming semester. Can’t wait to see y’all come sweet springtime :) And this, I give to you…

The lightest most valuable thing

Through a series of most unfortunate events, I lost all of the contacts in my phone during the course of the summer. And after mulling over this fact glumly while sitting on airplanes or staring with a flickering glimmer of hope into the blank face of the Apple Care guy, I finally mustered up the energy to sit down and manually re-enter them. A task to fill the long car ride between Richmond and Cambridge, I figure.

But funny enough, as I drive back to campus—surrounded by my family and an inordinate number of boxes—I find that manually inputting contacts into my iPhone is a surprisingly poignant thing to be doing in this particular place and time.

First of all, I freely admit that there is (in all likelihood) someone who is far more tech savvy than myself who could save me the time and monotony of doing such a thing. On the other hand, I am reluctant to find that person as I sit comfortably in a family van and realize that, well, I have nothing better to do.

But here’s the thing—putting these contacts in my phone has actually been enjoyable. I’ve always been one for scrapbooks and preserving memories, but with each (804) and (617) that I input, I am given a pleasantly colorful reminder of the face that lies at the other end of the unassuming 7-digit number that follows the two area codes of my life.

So, number after number, I dutifully plug away, happily enjoying the most unlikely scrapbook I’ve ever come across. I laugh to myself as I see the number of an old Driver’s Ed instructor and the labels that were attached to contacts as earnest attempts to remind myself of faces and names during the crazy frenzy of Freshmen Orientation weekend. Many of those labels are completely unnecessary in the present place and time, now that a grand collection of numbers and names that were input during that fateful weekend have come to represent dear friends.

This is Year 2.

Though I can’t believe how quickly freshman year and the summer after have flown by, I utter silent thanks as I look at the phone numbers which speak volumes about newly sown relationships, those that have already blossomed, and those which have so much potential for the future.

And alhough it is perfectly irrational, I also re-input the numbers of the friends who have long moved out of the country, the people whom I knew in brief instances and flashes of my life, and those whom I’ve quietly fallen out of touch with. As I look through the long list of numbers, collected over years and experiences a plenty, I revel in a monotonous task because it gives me a chance to give a moment to all those people who have filled my life from near and far.

Isn’t it funny that you can carry an entire community in your pocket—from Dar es Salaam to Shanghai to Cambridge? And believe me, I’m unapologetically taking this entire community back to college with me as my second year begins.

After all, that phone directory—

it is the lightest, most valuable thing that I have the pleasure of carrying with me every single day.