Maria Fischer

Global Engagement Fellow

Tag: international event (page 1 of 2)

The First Commandment

In my opinion, Oklahoma is a religious state. Most people belong to some kind of Christian church, are willing to discuss it with anyone, and will invite you to join them on Sunday after knowing you for a short five minutes. I am not trying to criticize, I merely find it quite different compared to my hometown. With their shared roots, it is interesting to compare Christianity, with its many varied sects, and Judaism. This semester, I attended a guest lecture hosted by the Schusterman Center about varied interpretations of the First Commandment.

This fall ,the Schusterman Center brought Dr. Jim Diamond , a distinguished Jewish studies professor from the University of Waterloo, to campus as a guest speaker. His lecture was entitled: “Do We All Serve the Same God? The First ‘Commandment’” Although different religious traditions divide the Ten Commandments differently, the gist of the First Commandment is, “I am the Lord, your God.” As Dr. Diamond discussed, there is some contention over whether this is a commandment or a statement. During his lecture, he discussed the different interpretations of the First Commandment through the years by different religious groups in different countries. As someone who is not particularly familiar with Jewish studies, it was very interesting to hear the perspective of an expert on the matter. As a math major, I prefer dealing with exact sciences, subtleties that can be extrapolated and proved beyond a doubt. I have never taken a philosophy class and I do not have a lot of experience with subjective analysis beyond a few literature courses. Dr. Diamond’s lecture made me think about the distinctions between religious sects resulting from the cultural differences that quietly divide countries, states, and even cities.

German Poetry Night

During my first semester at OU, and during my first-ever German class, I was invited to attend a German poetry night hosted by the OU German Club. I don’t remember exactly why I went, although I suspect that my teacher offered extra credit. It was a lovely experience and it really opened my eye to German in new setting. The only German I had ever heard outside of class was in familiar Christmas carols sung every winter. My teacher encouraged me and everyone else in the class to participate, by reciting a poem or singing a song, but I was much too hesitant about my beginner-level German. Like most people, I get nervous talking in front of groups. My hands start shaking and my heart starts racing and I worry about how I’m standing, where I’m looking, and how I’m pronouncing my words. Everything gets worse when I’m not using my native language. When I attended the German poetry night this year, I decided to face my fears. In pursuit of extra credit, of course.

This semester I have been taking German Literature and Film, a course that dives into the expression of German artists as they process and reflect upon the tumultuous events of the twentieth century. It was difficult at first to process the metaphors and subtle insinuations that were tucked into innocuous, even simplistic events. Sarcasm is a great example. In English, I can follow the train of conversation well enough to recognize when a speaker is utilizing irony to emphasize a point or make a joke. This skill, however, has not yet carried over to German. In order to challenge my limits, I selected a poem by Bertolt Brecht. An esteemed playwright, Brecht is a master of provoking his audience and defying their expectations. When searching for the poem I wanted to recite, I found one stuffed with irony about the pursuit of education. It intrigued me, as did the poem’s effect on the audience. I think that as I move forward towards fluency, poetry will become a useful tool in exploring the subtleties of the language.

Puterbaugh Keynote

During this semester I have had the pleasure of participating in the Puterbaugh seminar, centered around the works of this year’s Puterbaugh recipient, Jenny Erpenbeck. A German author, playwright, and opera director, Erpenbeck gives an intimate perspective on historical events and the meaning often carried in personal possessions. When she came to campus this semester to accept her award, she gave a keynote speech entitled “Blind Spots.” I believe that World Literature Today will be publishing the text of her speech in an upcoming issue.

Born and raised in East Berlin, Erpenbeck was a young college student when she saw the wall come down and her world change around her. Now seeing firsthand the refugees stranded on the streets of Germany, stuck in a limbo with no work and no home, Erpenbeck is concerned with their treatment and the way the world is reacting to their situation. The speech was eloquently composed and excellently delivered, reminiscent of her written work. I highly recommend taking the time to read her speech slowly and thoughtfully when it is released. Erpenbeck doesn’t pull any punches, but she isn’t overly dramatic either. She addresses head on the ignorance and hypocrisy that are present in so many discussions of recent international events. Her take is so different from the ones I’ve heard before that it makes me wonder what other sides of the story aren’t being told. What else lingers in our blind spots?

International Etiquette

Throughout the semester, the College of International studies hosts informational lunches as part of their LEAdership Fellows program (LEAF for short). These lunches cover a wide variety of skills that are helpful for students preparing to engage with international community. The session this past week discussed the etiquette of fine dining. Many families eat their meals in a relaxed environment and college students are so pressed for time that they almost always eat on the go. As a result, students often have little to no experience eating meals in a formal environment.

When a student goes abroad, either studying abroad before graduation or working abroad after, they are ambassadors of the United States and of the University of Oklahoma, whether or not they wish to be. The ability to conduct oneself with grace and ease when dining with superiors or peers that one wishes to impress is therefore a vital skill to learn.

This lunch focused primarily on formal sit-down occasions, ones that usually include multiple forks and cloth napkins. Besides the usual rules, we also discussed the differences between the American style of formal dining and the European style, as well as how to prepare for the often radically different traditions found in Africa and Asia. Since a silent dinner is usually an awkward one, we considered the art of small talk and how to converse with dinner guest from different backgrounds with opinions that might not necessarily agree with our own. Having attending that luncheon and learned how to acclimate to certain formalities, I feel much more comfortable with the idea of dining with others in a foreign country.

Adjusting to the States

Back in August, I attended You’re Oklahome, a workshop for students returning from study abroad. I didn’t think that I was having any problems adjusting to the U.S. but I figured it would be nice to chat with other students about their experiences. The students who were returning from a semester or a year had many thoughts to share but I didn’t feel like I had anything meaningful to contribute. Now that the semester is ending and it’s been several months since my return from Germany, I find myself wishing that I could talk to students who have studied abroad and see if they feel the same way I do. See how much of an impact their travels actually made on them in the long run. I didn’t think that adjusting would be any trouble, I mean, why would it? I was returning home, to the country where I grew up and where I knew how everything worked. Piece of cake.

I spent a mere six weeks in Germany but it feels like it was so much longer. To my surprise, I spent a few months thinking that half of Europe was just a bus ride away. I would have an empty weekend and think: “Why don’t I go somewhere?” The first places to come to mind were in Stuttgart or the surrounding areas. I keep being reminded of all these little memories, things that made no real impact on me at the time. There was a little Chinese restaurant a few stops north where I would get takeout and then eat it in the plaza down the street. There was an Irish pub with an Australian bartender who was always a great person to talk to. There was this little area in the middle of downtown with narrow cobblestone streets that looked like they belonged in some Italian city. There was this little suburb down south that was pretty bland and uninteresting, except for this tall smokestack that said “DICK” in large, professionally-painted letters. There was an organic food store that reminded me of Whole Foods but smaller and much more authentic. There was a shop sporting the Union Jack that sold tea and red telephone boxes and everything you can imagine emblazoned with the London skyline. There was a French store that sold the most colorful, quirky versions of household items that I’ve ever seen and it took all my willpower not to buy one of everything. There was a fountain that looked like one of those blow-up bubble balls you use when playing human soccer and there was a plaza where breakdancers would practice in the evening and there was a tiny coffee shop that was also selling swimsuits and there was a bar built on top of a parking garage that looked like a sandy beach and there was a piano store with my last name and there was a makeup store where no one would talk to you unless you talked to them first and there was Mexican restaurant that played English pop songs and there was a staircase built for horses and there was just so, so much in such a short time. It’s weird that I can’t stop thinking about it all, right?

OU’s Diplomat-in-Residence Program

This semester, the U.S. Department of State brought a new Foreign Service officer, Kristin Stewart, to our campus as our Diplomat-in-Residence. In my opinion, the DIR program is a fantastic addition to the College of International Studies. Ms. Stewart hosted an information session early in the semester to introduce herself to the student body which I had the pleasure of attending. My knowledge of the Foreign Service was rather limited, and I had never considered a career in their ranks. As a result, the session was very interesting and informative.

Ms. Stewart led us through the many countries where she has been station, important officials she has met, and responsibilities she has held. I was particularly intrigued by how she balanced her work with her family life. Sometimes, her husband and children will travel with her and settle down while she fulfills her assignment but other times she has to leave them behind. I found her life experiences to be rather inspirational. In general, society is not particularly supportive or encouraging when it comes to long-distance relationships or wives maintaining a thriving career outside the household. Regardless, Ms. Stewart has managed to succeed at both. She has a husband and children and is a senior Foreign Service officer who is frequently required to travel around the world.

The session was brief but it showed that she was an expert at her job and had extensive experience to back up her world views. For those students interested in an international career, particularly through the government, she is certainly a fantastic person to speak with.

4.1 Miles

I watched 4.1 Miles a few weeks ago, courtesy of the College of International Studies. Although it has faded somewhat recently in favor of the French election and the decisions of President Trump, the Syrian refugee crisis still populates the headlines as the international community argues over responsibility and delegation. 4.1 Miles focuses on a Greek Coast Guard captain responsible for fishing refugees from the water when their boat collapses. Far too often, smugglers will pack boats to the bursting and travel in terrible conditions. Almost every day the Coast Guard gets called out to rescue soaked refugees from overcrowded lifeboats. The documentary was very well done, but difficult to watch. As the panel discussed after the showing, the documentary did an excellent job humanizing the refugees. When discussing where these thousands and thousands of people are going, it is important to remember that they are indeed people.

African Issues (That Aren’t Hunger)

When people think about Africa, they tend to squish the entire continent into the single stereotype of a backward, hunger-torn place full of suffering and poverty. It is important for people, especially college students, to be more in touch with reality and there I appreciate the fact that OU hosts panels and events informing people on events in Africa as well as other parts of the world. The REMAND showing I wrote about was a great example, showing the efforts of a hard-working, developing nation. Another event I attended, much earlier this semester, was a panel discussing African immigration to the United States and sanitary systems in Africa.

Many Africans try to move to the United States but the process is very difficult. The process is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming. Furthermore, there are fake U.S. Embassies that issue fake green cards, some of which operate for years undetected. The second half of the discussion was incredibly informative. In certain countries in Africa, toilets are difficult to come by. As a result, private citizens have started building these large bathrooms and charging a small fee to use them. It is an interesting contrast to the free bathrooms all over the U.S. However, the fact that there is money to be made does motive individual to construct these facilities, and it is better to have them and charge than not to have them at all.

REMAND: A Legal Crisis

For one of my classes this semester I went down to the OU law building south of the dorms to attend a showing of REMAND, a documentary about the ongoing reform of the Ugandan legal system. Since the adoption of their new constitution, Ugandans have been trying to develop their government to be as efficient and productive as possible. In order to properly organize their legal system, the Ugandan government turned to U.S. lawyers and professors who offered to host Ugandan lawyers in the U.S. and show them first-hand how the U.S. legal system worked. After observing this system, the Ugandan lawyers were able to go back and implement parts of our system that worked for them. One idea that was suggested by U.S. students attending a legal conference in Uganda was the introduction of plea-bargaining into the Ugandan system. According to Ugandan law, after a criminal was arrested but before he was tried in court, he needed to be kept in prison. However, the court system was overwhelmed by its caseload and prisoners could wait six or seven years in prison for their trial. Even children who were accused of a charge could be imprisoned for years in terrible conditions. The backlog in the courts resulted in an overcrowded prison system. The documentary showed over three thousand men being kept in a facility designed for six hundred. I found it very interesting that in this specific case, U.S. lawyers were able to help implement certain aspects of the U.S. legal system, such as plea-bargaining, without coercing Uganda to imitate us entirely. I find too often that humanitarian efforts attempt to make others just like us, even if that’s not what’s best for them.

Music: A Capsule of Culture

At the beginning of October, I went as a guest of the Honors College to a Syrian music concert hosted in Sharp Concert Hall here on campus. There were two musicians, Kenan Adnawi, who played the oud, and Tareq Rantisi, who played percussion. While I have seen an oud in person, as well as depicted in media and entertainment, this was my first time hearing one played in person.

It was nothing short of amazing.

At first, it reminded me of the stereotypical Middle-Eastern music you hear in movies and TV shows, that short song played to transition our adventurers from their western local to a place more “foreign”. As I kept listening, however, I realized two things. First, Hollywood soundtracks fall far short in comparison. Second, I understand why such music is used to set the scene. Sitting there, in an auditorium chair in the middle of Oklahoma, USA, I was both entranced and transported. It was like nothing I had ever heard before. The skill with which the musicians handled their instruments was apparent, even though their manner of playing was unique in my eyes. Mr. Adnawi tuned his oud anew for every song, and sometimes in the middle of a song. Mr. Rantisi, the percussionist, wore an ankle of bells, which he did not shake, but which would shiver and ring ever so quietly from the vibrations of his playing. The passion of both musicians was undeniable. Mr. Adnawi grew up in Syria and would give the title of every song, along with a short explanation of the meaning behind the title and behind the piece itself.

I am sad to say that I probably would have walked away from the concert, having enjoyed it but giving it no more thought, were it not for a song played near the end. As usual, Mr. Adnawi announced the title, and this time, he welcomed the audience to sing along. The reaction was near palpable. I was sitting in the balcony section, off to the side but still close to the stage. Below me, most of the audience was clustered in the first five or six rows, with the rest scattered around the auditorium. When this particular song was announced, a wave of excitement rippled through those first few rows. This was not a song he had written, but a classic, one well know. It irks me that I am unable to recall the title, I would have loved to learn more about the piece. As the song flowed forth, those rows clapped with the rhythm and sang along where they could. I could not recognize the language, although I would guess Arabic. Some knew more words than others, but most would join in for the chorus at least. It was strange to see a group of strangers, united in their appreciation for one song, a song that rang with tradition and history. Furthermore, it was strange to realize that I could not relate it to a potential example in American culture. A group of US students might unite in Europe after turning on “Cha Cha Slide” or some similar piece of pop culture, but that is hardly comparable. Aside from “The Star Spangled Banner” and the like, what music carries the culture of the United States? A few hundred years from now, will parents play today’s pop and rap and country for their children to connect them with the past? What will be the US’ musical legacy?

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