Author Archives: Saskia Kercy Jamaica

What to Expect: Critical Friends

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A friend is someone who will be by your side no matter what; who will stick by you and share pivotal moments of your life with you. A critical friend, however, is one who will offer you their honest opinion and critique, with the goal of helping you grow as an individual. Our professors introduced this term to us during orientation, and encouraged us to remain critical friends to one another throughout this experience. This served as a running theme throughout the program. We were in tight quarters, in an unfamiliar country with a culture we weren’t used to. We’d make mistakes – we just had to trust someone would be there to challenge us to do better. To be better.

During our class, for example, we had to be critical friends. We were there to help each other grow, not to bring each other down. Sometimes people made problematic comments or said things that conflicted with the majority opinion. These unpopular opinions were definitely addressed during class, and conversations often became tense. Having these kinds of conversations about social issues and opposing ideologies can be tough, as there may not actually be a “right answer.” However, what I appreciated most about this program was that it forced us to talk about and think through our differences in ways some people may have otherwise never had the opportunity to.

I was often challenged to be a critical friend, myself. This summer was characterized by evolving dynamics, underlying themes, and layered issues. I found myself being a critical friend to my classmates who made decisions that totally disregarded the people of color in the group; my Jamaican comrades whose ideologies were rooted in gender and racial biases; and even my professors, who allowed their assumptions to dictate how they handled situations.

Sometimes being a critical friend came in group settings, but you’d be surprised how many people actually seek it. Watching some of my classmates truly humble themselves enough to admit they were wrong and seek guidance on how to move forward was one of my biggest takeaways from studying abroad. You see, in class, we talked about the “bystander effect” and how not acting in a situation can be just as bad as being the oppressor. And as difficult as it is to be strong, your actions, or lack thereof, could determine the course of a situation. I began to reflect on my own ability to admit when I was wrong, and realized that in order to be an effective critical friend to others, I had to  be critical of myself.

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What to Expect: Lots of Reflecting

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Do you know what’s worse than writing a 15-page research paper while studying abroad in Jamaica? Writing a 15-page research paper while studying abroad in Jamaica with no wifi. The lack of internet stability added further frustrations to the academic aspect of this program. From the beginning, the routers were not always consistent, and coupled with the further complications the weather had provided, we had a very difficult time completing our assignments. Luckily, the other assignments we had were not research based, but rather, based on our personal observations at our service sites or during our time in Jamaica altogether.

The program itself consisted of two aspects: the class and our service sites. Class met Monday through Friday for 2 hours, with discussions based on our assigned readings. Conversations in class got pretty heated, especially considering we were all coming from so many different upbringings and academic disciplines. I noticed that Liberal Arts students had an easier time adapting to the discussions. Topics ranged from economics to politics to social issues. I didn’t expect conversations to get so intense, but opposing views were extremely common, as were passionate convictions about certain things.

I had never had an opportunity to really delve into certain issues with white people in my classes until this program. We were forced, or encouraged, to be open with one another, despite whatever opinions someone had. Whenever race is discussed in traditional classroom settings, white people tend to retreat. I’m not sure if it’s the fear of saying something wrong or being labeled as racist that typically steers them away, but many of the white people in this program were open about their thoughts.

It’s difficult to avoid talking about race or culture when you’re in a black country. Jamaica has so much history with slavery and colonialism that it’s almost impossible to avoid it. This was not Europe. This wasn’t Asia. And because of that, conversations got real.

Additionally, a lot of reflection was made in regards to our service sites. I was assigned to RADA, the Rural Agricultural Development Authority, an organization in Jamaica with the goal of driving economic growth through agricultural development. I was so excited to finally have a field project within my discipline. However, because the organization had so many duties and not enough staff, my project and role there got overlooked. There were long periods of waiting and frustration that I had not been expecting and overall uncertainty about what I would be writing about for my final paper. Even the midterm, which we took upon two weeks of arrival, had to discuss what we were working on with our projects… It was hard. But in the end, I ended up having a project after all and was able to complete my papers.

Saskia takes Jamaica!

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Bathing suit? Check. Sunblock? Check. Research about the dynamic culture and history of the fourth largest island in the Caribbean? Check. We don’t typically consider research to be an integral part of our preparation when traveling to another country, but I have seen time and time again how problematic cultural incompetence is when visiting a foreign space. Despite the fact that I’m Haitian, I lacked a lot of knowledge on Jamaica’s history and culture. While the islands do share similarities in their cultures, they each have characteristics unique to their societies. Jamaica, for instance, relies heavily on its tourism and agriculture industries, accounting for over 50% of the workforce in the country. I knew that my field site this summer would be at the Rural Agricultural Development Agency and that in order to succeed in my field placement, I had a lot of research ahead of me. Thankfully, I have been an active member of the Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness since my freshman year and already had a solid foundation of knowledge on Caribbean affairs. I was persistent, perhaps a little annoying, asking Jamaican members about their experiences in the country. I made everything about this semester somehow pertain to Jamaican culture. In fact, one of my research papers in my Economics classes is about the inequality in the agriculture and tourism industries in Jamaica. Knowing the volume of my coursework and my lack of time, I knew I had to be strategic. Like they say, if you can’t beat them, join them, and just like that, I combined my class research with study abroad research. 
 
I wouldn’t have been so adamant about research had it not been for my experiences in Ghana last summer. I went on a two-month service trip to Ghana with 13 other students from all over the country that I didn’t know. I knew that it would be all of our first time’s in an African country, but I did not expect our upbringings and environments to have such an impact on the context of our trip. I was alarmed to find out that members of my group had such limited understanding of colonialism and slavery and found it problematic that they would come to Ghana, the main port of the slave trade, and not understand its historical significance to the United States. 
 
In a way, I’m glad I grew up representing a country that is often misrepresented. I knew that Jamaica, too, faced that issue. We all know the country for its beautiful beaches and resorts but don’t typically consider the social and political issues that inhibit the country from making true progress. I am eager to splash into Jamaica’s culture and let the sands of its history sink into my toes. I am ready for oxtail and curry goat in a country where everything’s irie (alright), with the hot sun against my skin (because this weather is really quite the drag). But most of all, I can’t wait to make my mark on another Caribbean country and, if I play my cards right, have it make its mark on me. Jamaica, wah gwaan! What’s going on!

What to Expect: Stormy Weather

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What to Expect: Stormy Weather

My first three days in Jamaica were greeted with torrential rain and flooding. The roads were unwalkable, causing many to miss work or school altogether. As much as they try to drill into your head that you’re going into a tropical island surrounded by water, a part of you still doesn’t want to believe that it rains a lot. When we think “island,” we think bright skies and clear blue seas, not inclement weather. Despite being from a Caribbean island myself, I was not expecting the amount of rain we saw while I was studying abroad. Even the Jamaicans there were surprised, noting that they haven’t seen this much rain in over 30 years.

We were greeted with rice and beans, curry chicken, fresh-squeezed juice that hinted of ginger, and the ripping tides just meters away. It felt like home, and despite not knowing the other 14 people on the program, we were an uncanny family, but a family nonetheless. Inclement weather also meant unreliable electricity which meant unreliable wifi which meant we had a problem. However, we turned this unfortunate circumstance into a group bonding experience, walking over to the local gas station for goodies and treats. We spent nights playing card games and never-have-I-ever, realizing we weren’t as different as we thought.

I would wake up to the alarm clock of the sea, but I don’t think I’d ever get used to waking up to the sound of the waves, realizing that I am just a stretch and flip flop away from a beach. Living at a beach side villa was absolutely surreal. It was like we were on a vacation, only with homework (which always reminded us that we were certainly not on a vacation). The villa was very homey, allowing us get comfortable very quickly. There were four rooms in the house, meaning rooms had up to five students inside. Personal space was definitely overlooked, as we were in extremely tight quarters and in a one-story home. Not to mention, most of us took our showers in the outdoors because we did not want to ask the groundskeeper to turn the water pressure on. It was like being on a survival reality show. We had to make do with the resources we had and realize that the conveniences we have in America are not guaranteed in other places.

It did not take long for us to realize that we had to go to our service sites despite the weather. Once it stopped raining enough for us to travel, we found a path to the main road through the beach. We walked on the sands of the beach to reach the main road since the real path was too flooded to walk on. I must say, that was the only downside of living near a beach. When the rain got bad, the roads turned to rivers, and it took weeks for it to completely dry out. Most Jamaican students did not even come to school because they physically could not get through the impasse of water.

Impasse or not, though, the island was still so beautiful. Bright skies, clear blue waters, and rainbows signifying newness. We were bombarded with having to deal with stormy weather, but we managed to surpass this obstacle and make it work. If only all the obstacles we faced had such a simple anecdote.