“No estoy perdida, estoy conociendo.” – My first day in Tunja, Boyacá

The entrance to my new home.

The entrance to my new home.

It’s embarrassing to say it, but the first night of my stay here in Tunja, I got lost and couldn´t find my way home. I had only been to my future home once to drop off my bags in my room before going to visit the Universidad de Boyacá, my university placement. I knew I was close, because the signs and buildings looked relatively familiar. I knew for a fact that I had lunch at a restaurant one block down from my house, and that the entrance to my house shared space with a few other businesses. The problem was that almost every building was composed of different businesses or residences: one building had a sign-making business with a bakery next door, another had a shop that cleaned cars and sold car seats, and another sold meat next to a bar. Addresses are not really posted on the buildings, nor are there street signs – everyone just knew where things were by memory or in relation to how many blocks the said building was from their current location. Not only that, but at 7:30pm, it was already pretty dark and it was raining.

So eventually I get the courage to enter inside a bakery on the main road, buy a cookie there to console myself after walking the same block for almost a half an hour and rest. I ask the owner of the bakery if he knew the house of the Professor Guiomar (pronounced Yo-mar), who had a house full of international students. I figured if I was close to the house, my host family probably bought a lot of bread from this bakery daily and would know who they were. He first laughs at me when he realizes I’m lost, but tells me it’s right next to the key-making store, two blocks down the street. I finish my cookie, thank him, and then leave. I follow his instructions and decide to stick each of the two keys I was given in any door that wasn’t a business. In a couple of doors one of the keys fit, but it wouldn’t turn. At this point I have called one of the few numbers in my phone – the number of my “host sister” – multiple times, hoping she would answer. Nothing, I get her voicemail. I try and I try calling her, but my phone has almost no battery left. Shivering slightly in the rain, I get a deep pit in my stomach and it occurs to me that I might be spending my first night in Tunja sleeping on the street if I can’t find my home.

I stand outside this door for several minutes, trying to figure out what to try next (and almost at the point of crying in frustration), when a woman pops out of a door on the street. She was what you might imagine a typical Colombian woman to look like: short, plump, with long dark hair in a ponytail, tanned skin, a big smile on her face. She looks relatively familiar, but I wasn’t entirely sure. I had met a lot of people today, and I didn’t want to confuse a random stranger with someone I had actually met. I had had enough of making a fool of myself for one day. But then, she says, “Don’t tell me you’re lost!” She giggles, gives me a big hug, and tells me to go inside. It was Magdalena, the “help” of the house, a woman who my family paid to clean, cook, and do laundry sometimes. I guess she had seen me pacing the block several times from her room on the second floor of the building, but wasn’t sure if it was me. They were waiting for me to have dinner.

Dinner in this case was a cup of coffee (un tinto) and a toasted ham and cheese sandwich. I explained what happened, and I guess the lock for the door outside sometimes gets jammed. I feel really embarrassed for having spent so much time on the same darn block. Surely my host family and my “host siblings” must now have their stereotype of Americans confirmed, that Americans are stupid. Everyone certainly thought what happened was hilarious. But my host father Miller comforts me by saying, “You weren’t lost, you were just getting to know the city.” One thing is for sure: after this experience, I will never forget where my house is anymore. In order to truly know where everything is in this town of 160,000ish people, I guess I will have to get lost several more times.

Finally Arrived!

FINALLY!

FINALLY!

Ever since I’ve gotten off the plane in Bogotá, I have not stopped! My fellow Minnesotan Katie and I flew into Bogotá after a long and arduous journey at around 9:30pm. We had to catch a 5am flight in Minneapolis, so neither of us really slept the previous night. We ended up sleeping very uncomfortably on the carpeted concrete floor in Houston. Katie´s expression in the photo below basically describes how the trip was.

We've been going non-stop since 3am this morning.

We’ve been going non-stop since 3am this morning.

This first week all 30+ Fulbrighters will be in Bogotá for an orientation done by Fulbright Colombia. Every day we will have informational sessions about things that will help us during our grant period: what the Fulbright program is, US-Colombian relations, current issues in Colombia now, the educational system, how to do our social project, etc. Not only that, but we get to meet the rest of our fellow ETAs!

Even now, I still don’t have all 30+ names memorized yet (I’m working on it), but there were some things that surprised me.

Many of the Fulbright ETA grantees are actually not from Ivy League Schools (some are). Most of them came from the Midwest or Midwest universities. There are three of us originally from Minnesota (Monticello, Sauk Rapids, Bloomington), and one who studied at the MN university Macalester.

Much to my surprise and initial assumptions, a lot of the grantees are from either Minnesota or Wisconsin. Still, all of us are very accomplished, successful, and proactive people. This is why we all became Fulbrighters.

It’s been an exhausting couple of days, so this post is a little short. More to come soon and hello from Bogotá!

About Me

I'm so "fun-sized" I didn't need to duck to fit under this "low" beam.

I’m so “fun-sized” I didn’t need to duck to fit under this “low” beam.

Hola! Here’s some background information about me and my journey leading up to my Fulbright position: who I am, international experiences leading to this one, why I chose the Fulbright, and what I plan to do here.

Since I was about 11 years old, I have been fortunate enough to have traveled abroad to some pretty cool places. When I was 11, my family received this letter from an organization called People to People saying that I was nominated to become a student ambassador on their program, which my parents thought would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me. I ended up being the youngest of 40-some kids from all across the country going to Europe, more specifically France (Paris, Nice, Versailles), Switzerland (Zurich, Bern), Austria (Vienna, Salzburg), and Italy (Rome, Pisa, Venice, Florence). While I don’t remember most of it (I was much too young to appreciate what I got to experience, to be honest), I do remember seeing the Louvre and Eiffel Tower, traveling on a train, my time with my Austrian host family, seeing the natural beauty of the Swiss Alps (and their delicious chocolate!), and seeing the country where my ancestors came from. That experience sparked my love for travel and seeing the amazing world we live in. I had this insatiable desire to go everywhere!

Fast-forward some years later, after another month-long trip (to Germany this time!), I became a student of St. Cloud State University. Coming from a town where my graduating class had the diversity of a piece of white bread, it was an experience to come to a campus so diverse. I now laugh at my reaction to my first experience of seeing a Somali girl, which was dumbstruck (“Why is she dressed like that? Where does she come from?”). Little did I know how diverse my campus truly was, despite being a small state school in the middle of Minnesota. The statistic is something like: 17,000 students in total, 1,200+ international students (these numbers have grown I’m sure, and this statistic doesn’t even take into consideration the many multi-cultural/racial students on campus who are African-American, Asian-American, etc.). It is this diversity and the celebration of it that makes me really appreciate having gone to St. Cloud State University. During my time there, most of my friends were international students from around the globe, and I participated in many cultural events that happened on campus.

But before all of that, I had the chance to be an international student myself! In the fall of 2009, my sophomore year, I studied abroad in Concepción, Chile with my university’s partnership at La Universidad de Concepción. For four months, I lived with a host family who barely spoke any English…so my Spanish skills improved fairly quickly! Beyond that, I traveled through a lot of Chile, which has something to offer for everyone. Someone once told me the story of Chile’s “creation”: God was creating the countries of the world and had a lot of little things left over, so he put them all together to create Chile. I traveled to many of these places: I sandboarded on the dunes of the Atacama desert, I saw a glacier in the south of the country, I saw the famous poet Pablo Neruda’s three houses in the metropolitan area, and I even camped overnight at a beach really close to my house. It sounds cliché, but up until now, it was the best experience of my life. It made me really passionate about the world and the people in it (especially South America), which drove me to becoming active in the international student community.

Upon coming back to St. Cloud State, I became friends with the newest group of international students because many of them were Chileans I had met back in Chile. However, one friend in particular stands out in my mind and was the one who told me all about the Fulbright program, my friend Rami.

He was a Fulbright Scholar from Syria, a country whose geographical location I had not known until I met him. He was studying for his MBA here at St. Cloud State for the next two years. My knowledge of the Middle East up until meeting him was based on 9/11, and so it was interesting talking with him about his country, his experiences here in the land of ice and snow, his views on Islam and religion in general (he was secular), concepts about family and friendship, classic rock and roll, and just life in general. As someone with Italian heritage, he affectionately called me his Mediterranean neighbor. I had not known about the Fulbright exchange program until I had met him, and he had encouraged me to apply. Not only was it a very enriching experience academically and professionally, but it gave you an opportunity to represent your country that was beyond what people got to see in the media.

Fast forward another few years later, and I have graduated from St. Cloud State University with a Bachelor of Arts in both linguistics and Spanish, ready to teach English and travel the world.

2012 SCSU Graduate!

I am extremely fortunate to be spending the next ten months in Colombia as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant (ETA). Not only am I lucky to be  living in a country so diverse (both ethnically and geographically) and mostly undiscovered by American tourism but also because as the application and preparation process has gone on, the more certain I have become that this is exactly where I want to be/what I want to be doing at this point in my life.  In the abstract sense, it means I have the opportunity to be abroad in South America again, but experiencing a whole new culture. In everyday terms, this means I will be assisting at La Universidad de Boyacá, a private university in Tunja, Boyacá (cold, small, and largely rural/colonial - the Colombian equivalent of Minnesota), improving my Spanish, maybe learning how to dance salsa and anything and everything else that I happen upon.

Many have asked me – why Colombia? To them I have said, “Why not?”  Why not spend almost a year in Colombia? I knew I wanted to go back to South America and the more than I learned about Colombia– the more intrigued I became. It was a country that was eager to shed it’s horrible past of kidnappings, drug cartels, and violence. Colombia’s a country of conflict, but it’s also known to have the world’s happiest people.

And I believe it has so much potential.

For what, I do not quite know yet — but that’s a part of what this year will be for.

Blog Introduction – What is the Fulbright Program? Who am I?

Dear Ms. Giacomino,

Congratulations!  We are pleased to inform you that you have been selected for a Fulbright U.S. Student award for 2013-2014 to Colombia.

After months of waiting after the October 31st submission deadline at my university, I was accepted! Out of 180 applicants, I am one of 25 30 people accepted to represent the United States and further Fulbright’s mission in Colombia.

This blog is a journal of my daily experiences here and my goal is to separate fact and fiction about Colombia, especially as an American ambassador to the country. Every day I hope to bring more insight into what it means to live and work in Colombia as an English teacher.

Who This Blog is For: 

  1. Friends and family interested in what I’m doing, so I don’t have to write 100+ e-mails or messages telling them what I’m doing.
  2. Future Fulbright Fellows, especially ETAs going to teach in Colombia. In writing my Fulbright application, these blogs provided much inspiration!
  3. People interested in travel to Colombia or to know more about Colombia. There is definitely a lot of mis-information out there surrounding the country (and I can’t tell you how many concerned looks and jokes about drug cartels and kidnappings I’m getting from concerned relatives and friends!), and part of what interested me about Colombia was about the opportunity to gain a more even perspective about a country that has been getting a bad reputation.
  4. Myself, as a record for what I’ve accomplished in this year.

To give you an idea of what the Fulbright program is, here is a video that summarizes it that is short and sweet:

What I Will Be Doing:

There are a few main projects I will be doing during my stay in Colombia, namely:

  1. Teaching: My primary job while I’m here is to teach ESL at the university level. I will be living and working in the city of Tunja, at the Universidad de Boyacá as an assistant professor of ESL. I am also responsible for hosting events that showcase the American culture at my university (first project: Halloween party!).
  2. Service-Learning: Outside of the classroom, I will be working with the non-profit organization Fundación Juventas in Tunja, which works with the large Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) population in Colombia. They try to improve the living conditions of Colombian families whose lives have been affected by the violence and conflicts in Colombia.
  3. Traveling: A year is a long time and Colombia is a very diverse place! I plan to explore as many cities in the country as I can, and experience many of the festivals that Colombia is famous for.
  4. Researching: While it’s not the focus of my year, I want to learn more about the role of English and linguistics in Colombia and how it plays out in the socio-political structure of education in Colombia. As an English teacher, I will be a member of the TESL organization APOSCOPI and attend a few conferences in the country.
  5. Writing: Finally (and most importantly), I will be writing in this blog about my daily observations on Colombia: current news, food, travel, music, holidays, festivals, education, daily life…all of it!

That said, let’s get started. If there’s something you’d like to see, if you have any questions about Colombia or Fulbright you’d like me to answer, or just feel lonely, send me an email!

Here we go. Let’s have some fun!