Reflecting on #HuskyTHON

Last night I participated in HuskyTHON, an 18-hour dance marathon to raise money for the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. Originally my motivation to sign up for HuskyTHON was that I viewed it as a UConn rite-of-passage. Much like basketball games at Gampel Pavillion and the Dairy Bar, HuskyTHON is just one of those things that you do if you go to UConn. However, the experience was profound and there are definitely some takeaways from the evening.

First off, it can never be said enough that we do not know how good we have it. Each hour of the event began with “miracle stories” of the children whose lives have been saved by the good work of CCMC. You wouldn’t know from looking at these four and six year olds that are running around the Field House, doing the worm on stage, that last year one was wheelchair-bound, another has logged over 100 hours in the operating room, and a third was born weighing only a pound. It is only by encountering these children and hearing their stories that we are put back in touch with our good fortune, if only for an evening.

Second, there is something to be said for an event that challenges your strength in the way that an eighteen hour dance marathon does. We didn’t take shifts; each participant, although they were not physically dancing the whole time, remained on their feet for the whole eighteen hour period. There is no reward for completion and no way that a person can somehow do better than the next participant, but still there is an intrinsic motivator that motivates you to keep standing even at 6:13 AM when you’ve been on your feet for twelve hours and there is still no end in sight. It’s the voice within that reminds you that you can and will meet this challenge because you greatly want to know that you did it. It’s not about bragging rights or social pressure. You could cheat it if you really wanted to, but most people do not, and it’s no surprise why.

Third, HuskyTHON taught me a little bit about perspective and my own capabilities given the right set of motivators. It’s amazing how an average 18-hour day can fly by, but HuskyTHON feels like an eternity. In terms of motivators, it’s amazing what you can accomplish if your heart is really in it. I was very grateful to sit down when it finally reached noon, but if the cause was worthy, I honestly think my body could have carried me on for another twelve hours. We hear amazing stories all the time about what humans are capable of doing given the right set of circumstances: lift a car off a person, commit an act of genocide, or saw your own arm off. We don’t do these profound things on a regular basis because the circumstances don’t call for them, but the human mind and body are amazingly capable of almost anything- your heart just has to be in it.

In summary, HuskyTHON was definitely a rewarding experience. I don’t understand how students participate as dancers for the full eighteen hours every school year, but I commend them for their drive. I will definitely be back next year as a volunteer. I encourage every student at UConn to participate as a dancer at least once during your tenure in Storrs. We all take away something different from the experience. What will HuskyTHON teach you?

What studying abroad at UConn taught me

 

me and anja at wooster street pizza

This semester I had the pleasure of getting to know one of the many students who choose to spend their semester abroad here at UConn. Her name is Anja and she is from Germany. At first, my interest in befriending Anja was pretty simple-minded. I  figured that as a college guy, having a beautiful woman from Germany in my circle of friends was a good idea. However, through our conversations Anja and I connected through the parallels of our international experiences and she added far more value to my perspective than to my social net-worth. Here are the things Anja made me realize.

Each weekend is what you make it

How intrigued I was that somebody would choose to spend their one semester overseas here in Storrs, Connecticut, or as I refer to it sometimes, the middle of nowhere. I thought to myself, “what a terrible idea that would be,” until I saw how difficult it was to find a time Anja was free. Every weekend it seemed she had planned to the max; she was either gorging herself of the countless activities hosted here at UConn or she was dashing off to somewhere in the Northeast, to Boston, Toronto, or beyond. She was making the most of her days here at UConn and it reminded me of my attitude during my Semester at Sea, wanting to do and see everything I could in the little time I had to work with. I then realized that even though Anja had more motivation because she was only here for a semester, there is no inherent reason why I cannot or should not spend my time at UConn the same way. Huskies (including myself) might say that there’s nothing to do on the weekends but sit around and drink, but really that is only a convenient lie we tell ourselves. Anja showed me that there is no reason not to carpe diem just because that diem is carped in “the middle of nowhere.”

People will judge whether you care or not

Anja also made me realize that travelers really are indeed ambassadors for their home countries, whether they want to be or not. This was a common refrain on Semester at Sea that occasionally felt trite. Surely America has a worldly presence enough that some college kid traveling abroad won’t affect anyone’s real perceptions. This is definitely not the case. Impressions come from experiences, and the more personal the experience, the deeper the impression. There are a large number of Australian students studying abroad at UConn, and which ones Anja met and what Anja herself values determined what Anja thinks about Australians. For example, you could meet Michael, a journalism major who in his one semester at UConn has been a regular fixture in our daily newspaper, even on the front page. If you’re very studious you might think, “Wow those Australians are hard workers.” But if you think studying abroad is about having a good time you might Australians are too serious, or even boring. Conversely, if you met Geoff, a regular at nickel night at the bar who now has a UConn tattoo on his ass, you might think Australians are a fun and wild bunch, or you could believe that they’re coarse and gluttonous. I have my own perceptions about Australians but it was very interesting to hear what Anja thought about them, not from visiting the country but by interacting with its young ambassadors at UConn. Each person is an ambassador for their own country whether they want to be or not.

When my friends and I decided to break out into song on the train to Osaka, we were not thinking about how the impression it would leave with the Japanese commuters who witnessed it, which is not to say that we shouldn’t sing, or that people should restrict themselves; it’s just important to be aware and take into consideration the impressions our actions create when we’re abroad.

The world isn’t as big as it sometimes feels

One of the benefits of being at UConn is the accessibility to New York City. Anja told me about how over time the way she sees New York City has changed, from feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by this giant city far, far away in America, to experiencing the city enough to almost feel at home. For me, I felt the same way when I stood in front of the Taj Mahal, and the strange, faraway world of India shifted from an abstraction and a photo to actual reality. The world is not as big as it sometimes feels. Sometimes things seem so strange and removed that they’re less like different countries but almost different worlds. Turning on the news, despite the most realistic videos and pictures that technology has ever been able to provide, we still feel detached from the rest of the world. A globe seems untraversable. In reality though, nothing is as distant, remote, or foreign as it seems. The world is out there and open to anyone who ventures to take it.

You won’t know what you have until it’s over

Talking to Anja about the semester, it seems like time goes by fast and slow all at once. For both of us it feels like the semester flew by, and yet the summer days of August seem like ages ago. It seems this way every semester, the difference is that when you have eight semesters, the sentiment loses its profundity. When you’re abroad for a semester, it’s infinitely clear that you only get one shot at this. But really, you only get one shot at everything: study abroad, college, life. Just because you spend eight semesters in college typically doesn’t mean that they are not to be treasured. It’s easy for pressures to make a person lose sight of what’s important, or for the repeating seasons to lull a person into a false sense of security. Regardless though, whether it’s after one semester abroad, four years in college, or decades of living, at some point we’re all going to run out of time, so no matter how long you have, make it count.

Learn from others

Anja and I are two very different people but our paths overlapped for a few quick months during which I was able to realize a lot, about my own country and the world at large. The human experience is so rich and diverse and we all have so much to bring into eachother’s lives if only we take the opportunity to reach out to those beyond the ones we feel we have the most in common with and allow ourselves to be touched by new ideas, new perspectives, and new ways of thinking.

one night in Rondebosch.

While getting caught up in the dance fever at Mizoli’s I realized it had been a while since I’d seen anyone from my entourage. I broke off from the dance and scoured Mizoli’s to no avail. I called Katie, my new UCT friend, and the call didn’t go through. I went outside into the street and couldn’t find anyone. It looked like I had been ditched and that I was going to have to take a cab back to the ship by myself. Just as I gave up hope, like a scene from a movie, a white van with obnoxiously loud music and bone-rattling bass rolled in front of me. The sliding door swung open and inside were my friends yelling, “get in!” I hopped into the “mini bus” as they’re called in South Africa. Everyone was there except for Grant, who had gone back into Mizoli’s to find me. A few seconds later Grant resurfaced from the masses in Mizoli’s, saw that I was in the van, jumped in, and we were on our way. The van cleared the crowded street in front of the restaurant and then sped off. There we were, cruising down the highway, windows down in the South African summer sun, 19 Americans bumping to a house remix of Rihanna’s “Only Girl.” Eventually we arrived at the leafy UCT campus. The ride cost only 20 ZAR. We went first to one house and then another, when I received a text message from Rebecca saying that they were back in town but tired and not going to Kirstenbosch. I immediately called her back and told her where I was. We agreed to meet at the local supermarket right up the street.

I couldn’t believe it. Here I was in South Africa and I was actually going to meet up with friends from the University of Connecticut. What a globalized world we’re living in. I plopped down in a chair at a cafe in front of the supermarket and waited for the girls to arrive. My eyes were heavy and these packed days in Cape Town were taking their toll on me. I could’ve fallen asleep but I don’t think that would’ve been safe so instead I forced myself to watch the comings and goings of this South African street corner. I think doing just that is probably a fairly good way of assessing whether one should live in a certain place. Just sit for an hour and watch the world unfold from that vantage point and see if it is to your liking. I could live in Cape Town. Eventually Becca and Kimmi arrived. I enthusiastically pounced on them. Kimmi enjoyed it, Becca thought I was making a scene. Even in the Southern hemisphere things between us were unchanged. We decided to go out to dinner and I told them I was happy to go anywhere. They took me to a Thai restaurant. For a while I told them tales from semester at sea but then I asked them about their study abroad experience. The UConn program is Cape Town is hard work! They’re not there at exchange students. They have their own UConn-prescribed program. They have internships in addition to their coursework and they have activities planned on the weekend. It’s a far-cry from your average study abroad program. After dinner we walked back to house where almost all of the UConn study abroad students live. We were sure to time our movement to occur before sundown. Apparently they feel the area isn’t safe at night, even in a group.

The house that UConn leases for the Cape Town program is pretty awesome. It’s a big house with two students per bedroom. There are plenty of common areas, it is stately decorated and there is even a swimming pool. Too bad they have neighbors and they don’t integrate with the UCT students because I definitely saw great party potential in the estate. When we walked in, Becca was heralded my arrival, as is house custom for all guests to be announced. We went upstairs and I was surrounded with more UConn students. It was the most “normal” I felt in months. For once we were not either in transit or having some glorious moment that we must be sure to remember forever and recount to our children. Instead it was just a handful of UConn kids hanging out in one of their bedrooms. They barraged me with questions about Semester at Sea, which I was more than happy to answer; a moment that made me further realize how fortunate I am and what an amazing opportunity I’ve been given. After the Q&A we headed downstairs and life in the house carried on as normal, plus one. Some were cooking dinner, others working on homework, two girls argued about their housing selection for next year. It was a refreshingly normal evening. I only had the slightest pang of guilt that a night spent hanging around was a night in Cape Town squandered. But I easily put that thought out of my mind. It had been another unexpectedly wonderful day. I thought i would be gone for a few hours to church and I’d been out all day with the most wonderful people. It was awesome talking with Becca and Kimmi, being able to talk about shared friends back home and about UConn. Some of the other housemates also seemed pretty cool and I’m going to make an effort to see them again when we’re all back in Storrs next semester, especially Samantha and Brandie. I even was able to see my fraternity brother Maria when she finally came home from a concert. It had been another busy day though, and I still hadn’t recovered sleep-wise, so they called me a cab and I headed back to the ship. Originally I had been skeptical that I’d be able to meet the Cape Town Crew while I was there and I was so glad that in the end it happened almost effortlessly.

Hanging out with my UConn friends was nothing like being at home, but it was a reminder of what I had left back there in Connecticut. It was an awesome reality check, it came at the perfect time, and it will make the rest of my journey all the more meaningful.