For the last time on this platform, welcome back beloved readers!
How did you feel when you read the title of this blog post? Confused? Concerned? Five months ago, I would have felt perplexed by a person’s description of their study abroad as “empty.” Isn’t the exchange experience supposed to be exploding with excitement and constant plans? For some students, that concentrated activity is exactly what they need to fuel their soul.
As a person who had a solid Google Calendar for the last two years, existing in the space between very few colored appointment blocks has been a privilege. Thanks to guidance from my free-spirit exchange buddy, Cora, I discovered that when you leave days unplanned, accomplishments are still made and magic fills the emptiness.
The following photos represent some unplanned magic I have accomplished in the free spaces.
If you know me, this may be surprising. I am a highly social person who does well meeting new people and nourishing relationships. In junior high, I crushed a graduation speech about kindness in front of 2,000 people. Sophomore year at SDSU, I served as sustainability commissioner for Associated Students and led weekly meetings with membership so large we had to move to Montezuma Hall. I have every reason to be confident in myself and my abilities, but like most sensitive people, insecurities have the power of moving me to tears.
We often receive confidence from people we are close to. Many people grow a hard shell of independence after moving to college in a new town, but when I was a freshman I lived at home with my mom, who provided a lot of reassurance to me during uncomfortable times. Then, I moved to an island far away. At 20 years old, I finally had to learn to embrace my shortfalls and insecurities.
I have felt insecure about my body, my intelligence, my value, and what people think about me for a long time. It has been HARD, but I filled five months of emptiness with unconditional self-acceptance. So much so, that my own presence finally brings me the same peace I felt as a child.
When you are on your own, you learn how to be your own mom – especially if you are the one being the critic to yourself.
Part of this self-acceptance included not being upset that I did not become bilingual. Before arriving, I had no idea so many people would speak excellent English in Puerto Rico – but this shouldn’t have come as a surprise because they are American citizens. It was an ignorant assumption that in five months I would turn my cringey Spanish skills into flawless speech.
This is partially because every student I have met responds to me in English as soon as they hear my thick accent. I know they do not do this to be condescending; they only want to be helpful. My pride definitely hurt at first, but I am now grateful that I was able to have such deep conversations with local people that I wouldn’t have been able to achieve with my limited Spanish vocabulary and conversation speed.
In this photo, you can see me recording audio for a short documentary I directed this semester with three other girls, called “Heterogeneidad.” It is a cinéma vérité style film that focuses on human identity. Even though I didn’t get to speak a high volume of Spanish while here, there were still some special moments where I did reach deeper comprehension, and this film was one of them.
Check out the link at the end of the blog.
Community service is an essential component of life for me. Even though I could have done a lot more, I did make sure to fill some of my empty spaces with volunteering. I am lucky to be a part of Rotaract back at SDSU, which inspired me to find the Rotaract community at UPRM. Just like my peers back home, these are some of the most caring, selfless and delightful people to be around.
My favorite service event that I took part in was preparing, packing, and distributing meals to homeless folks in town. Sometimes we distributed lunch out of a Catholic religious center, and some days we served breakfast under a highway bridge.
No matter how much I LOVE nature, I am a huge scaredy-cat who gets totally freaked out by heights and potentially dangerous situations. I am proud to say that while I have been here, I have jumped off a slippery waterfall (not as cool as my front-flipping boyfriend), swum at night between mangrove trees in a bioluminescent bay (pictured here in daytime), and ziplined hundreds of feet in the air between forested mountains in the pouring rain. This semester has by far contained the most adrenaline of my life. Am I still scared of heights though? Yes.
My final accomplishment is probably the most exciting to me. As a sustainability major, I have studied how globalization has allowed for humans in the western world to be able to buy a lot of stuff for very cheap. We are able to buy T-shirts, mirrors, kitchen appliances, single-use items, etc. for incredibly low prices because they are produced in other countries with meager or nonexistent labor standards and environmental protections. Because of this, humans and animals in less-developed countries pay the externalized costs of our cheap goods with their health and the quality of their environment. The bitter icing on the cake is that after all this stuff is made, most of it ends up in a landfill or polluting the environment within a few years.
When I learned this sad reality, I started only buying what I really needed. I tried to find items from secondhand stores or companies with transparent supply chains. I came to Puerto Rico with just a backpack and suitcase full of possessions, and these things have been more than enough to fill the emptiness of the last five months.
This topic was brought up once between several exchange students, and we all agreed that we feel happier with fewer possessions here. We feel lighter. We feel free.
Here, I am drilling holes into the bottoms my used bean cans. I planted little organic lettuce seeds in them with fresh compost that I purchased from the farm on campus.
Thank you all for reading my posts this semester. I am lucky to have been able to share moments with you. To let you know what I will be up to this summer and beyond, I followed my passion for conscientious consumerism to the end of the supply chain – the landfill – and was selected for an internship with Sustainable SDSU as their zero waste coordinator. I will analyze data about trash and recycling disposal on campus and work with an amazing team to find methods for lessening SDSU’s environmental impact. If you want to learn more about the impact of stuff humans consume, I highly recommend the book “The Story of Stuff” by Annie Leonard.
Or, you can catch me at the dumpsters this summer and ask me all about it.
I hope you enjoy our video:
Charlotte Roberts, who is studying sustainability and business, studied in Puerto Rico for the spring semester.