Welcome Back

As my last post before my flight bright and early tomorrow morning for the States, I figured I would take today to just reflect on these past months. Which it’s crazy to even say that I’ve been gone for months. I guess time is an illusion.

I’ve had a few people say to me how proud they are that I “stepped outside my comfort zone.” And to that, I don’t know how to respond. I feel like that is so fake and doesn’t apply to me, a person who of all the places in the world, chose to stay on the same continent to “study abroad.” And choose a place that when they consider the semester “Winter,” they don’t lie.

So I feel like I shouldn’t receive much credit for just living somewhere else for a few months. In my head, that doesn’t seem like a big deal. Study abroad is becoming more and more common, and I constantly see people I know off traveling and going on adventures. Compared to most people, when I say I went to Canada, they’re kind of confused. Why would I choose to subject myself to frigid weather to live one time zone away from home? Big whoop.

Please realize that I am generally very hard on myself. It’s weird for me to think otherwise. It doesn’t help that I come into the experience, as if this were my first year of college again, with tons of expectations for myself. Assuming I would immediately make lots of great friends. That I would always be off exploring somewhere new. That I would step foot somewhere new and just thrive in all aspects.

Okay, being hard on yourself AND optimistic and ambitious isn’t a great combination. It just sets you up for failure, or at least disappointment. Why do social situations make me anxious? Why does figuring out public transportation make me anxious? Why can’t I just transform into this outgoing, spontaneous person who is constantly energetic and socializing and doing everything that everybody else seems to be doing?

Because that’s not me. I think people, including me, paint studying abroad as a mind-blowing, life-changing experience. That’s sure what some people’s social media posts look like as they’re off in Europe or Australia or Hawaii. For me, this semester has been about me, having a chance to just do what I want to do. Which, most of the time, isn’t very glamorous. It’s often turned out to be lots of reading and getting into podcasts and learning about new things.

I’ve also faced some fears and have come to realizations. The pressure I put on myself in academics really went into haywire as Canadian grading became real. They don’t mention much about the actual classes when studying abroad, do they? For someone who has only really seen top marks for all of my hard work, not seeing that has been…hard. To say the least.

I’ve also learned how much I value the people in my life. Although I mentioned it before, most of my semester has been me constantly questioning, Am I doing this right? Am I missing out? Am I not doing enough? And I wish I had an answer. But global learning coordinators also don’t tell you much about being mentally ill and studying abroad. So many different factors are involved with studying abroad that I didn’t necessarily consider.

But with all of the hard days, not including the days when it just wouldn’t stop snowing, those hard days made me appreciate the good things even more. The coming of sunshine and spring temperatures was an amazing transformation. My means of exploring, walking until I feel like turning back, had me stumble upon some beautiful finds. I cannot imagine a landscape now without dense clusters of trees everywhere. I also greatly appreciate the people I do have in my life and how valuable they are to me.

Do I feel like a changed person coming back? I don’t know. Obviously we’re always changing and evolving, but I hope, if anything, I have become more grateful. More in awe of the beauty of nature and loved ones. I hope I can just go on walks wherever I am and stumble upon little discoveries. I hope my love of travel will push me toward whatever chapter may be next after I graduate next spring. Heck, maybe I’ll start throwing in “eh?” at the end of sentences just for fun. I have an excuse now, right?

It doesn’t feel like I’m flying back south, that I’ll no longer feel like a makeshift Canadian citizen. Because yes, I will truly miss this place. I will miss the immense kindness of every single person I meet, the scenery of this campus and town and country, the Prime Minister that I was mere feet from in passing, the new little place that I can call a little piece of home. Especially if I end up becoming a recluse in the Canadian woods. I have to keep my options open.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Speaking My Language

After taking two years of French, three semesters in the States and one in Canada, I would have expected myself to be at least familiar with understanding the language.

Simply put, when people say that it’s harder for adults than kids to learn a new language, they weren’t “kidding.” (Kid? Kidding? I tried.)

Over two years of foreign language, I have experienced a variety of teaching styles and techniques to understand conjugations, grammar, and vocabulary. Some has stuck, but very often, it doesn’t. To utilize the benefits of learning another language, higher education should continue improving upon students’ learning styles and maturing minds.

The importance of learning a foreign language is quite apparent. As I mentioned in my first column of my semester abroad, research shows bilingualism not only helps individual face an increasingly globalized society, but it also improves memory and academic performance.

When abroad, I expected to come back to the States spouting off French. Being exposed to those who naturally dance on the line between speaking English or French has certainly been an interesting experience. However, my French class was not helpful. Even for reviewed information, I had difficulty being a passive student in a lecture hall watching the professor write sentences on the board. I couldn’t engage or pick up the words of audio recordings played. My one area of support, writing, was rarely needed or forced upon students in a timed test, inevitably leading to minuscule errors.

According to website FluentU, older students tend to view new languages through a filter of expectations and experiences. After speaking English for years, students inevitably search for those patterns they are used to seeing. For younger students, they learn from an unbiased perspective that allows them to pick up new languages easier.

Another setback, ironically, is older students more advanced cognitive function. An experiment conducted for LiveScience found that adult learners actually try too hard when learning language. Children use their procedural memory, the one humans use to pick up habits and skills, without the distraction of declarative memory system, the one for facts and vocabulary. Adult students have more complex systems that might distract them from picking up a second language as easily as their first. Much more research is needed to understand how adults learn language, but that shouldn’t stop anyone from pursuing knowledge.

No matter the age, memorization of grammar, vocabulary and conjugation has proven to be ineffective in long-term comprehension. The Washington Post reports a wide variety of research showing students not mastering languages by hard study and memorization. Rather, people acquire language when they understand what instructors tell them and what they read. This “comprehensible input” allows students to absorb and acquire the grammar and vocabulary of the second language.

My home campus’s modern foreign languages department, over my time fulfilling my graduation requirements, has been very forward-thinking when teaching students. Rather than a passive lecture with occasional individual work (requiring the professor to spend a solid half of the class time walking around the room to every student to make a single comment), USD professors have found progress in one-on-one discussions and work with other students. Also, classes are small enough that they often work together to write on the board and even relate back relevant topics using vocabulary words.

Some experts even go on to distinguish between language learning and true fluency. The British Council says the biggest mistake education makes with language is trying to teach languages in the same way we teach science, history and mathematics. Instead, students should acquire second languages in the same way children learn their first. To create an environment nurturing fluency, classroom should be comfortable places not forcing students to use a second language perfectly. Instructors should also respect the natural order of acquiring more subtle parts of language like nit-picky grammar rules. The content and intent of a student should be the priority.

As with any subject, everyone learns different. A cookie-cutter system isn’t effective for true understanding. According to The Guardian, linguists find greater success in teaching foreign languages through task-based learning. This technique focuses on providing realistic context to language beyond memorization that emphasizes language as a means of communication. While the grammar establishes the groundwork for fluency, interaction, between others and with communicative platforms, truly develops it.

With the evolution of English alone, teaching and learning any language should be an ever-evolving process reflecting the current setting. The complexities of a maturing mind might feel like an obstacle blocking the path, but it’s important to continue trying to take language away from strict textbooks and take it back to its roots: human communication. That communication looks more like blog posts and tweets, but nonetheless, it’s still language. And language is not passive. Language doesn’t come from sitting in a classroom staring at a list of conjugations and rules to follow. Instead, language comes from activity and living, breathing speakers.

I don’t necessarily plan on going to France and having in-depth conversations with locals, but no matter the language, I hope to pick up what I can and immerse myself in others’ cultures. Language is what sets humanity apart from other mammals. It’s truly a beautiful thing. And that fact wasn’t something illustrated on a whiteboard; it was made evident in how words move people forward, make them feel deep emotions, allow them to share their unique messages and make a lasting impact. Try conjugating that.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Serving up Intuition

Once I learned about the concept of intuitive eating, especially in the thick of disordered eating, I was simply appalled. In pure disbelief that there are people who are so in-tuned with themselves, they don’t overthink the food they eat. That sounds like a fantasy world where we all frolic through fields of wildflowers and chase rainbows.

Admittedly, intuitive eating is recent phenomenon that, on the surface, looks like a passing trend. But I could also say that about the rise of veganism, as many people see it, but I would beg to differ.

In a world obsessed with new diets popping up every day, intuitive eating could almost be described as an “anti-diet.” Essentially, those who follow the lifestyle listen to their natural hunger cues. They don’t count as calories or macro-nutrients. They don’t consider foods good or bad. They don’t stick to a strict time schedule of eating at the exact same time every day. They don’t obsess over the size of their plate or going in for seconds.

Maybe it’s just me, but living this lifestyle sounds like being some sort of zen master. The fact people can feel zero guilt for listening to their cravings and knowing when they’re hungry and satiated is mind-boggling to me. And yes, I do see that as blowing every other diet out of the water.

Although the terminology is recent, intuitive eating is really a basic concept. It’s not like other species are thinking about the amount they’re eating or what energy they’re burning. They innately know what they need to survive, and they don’t hold themselves back from that. Humans started out like that, too, contrary to the weird Paleo trends of “eating like a caveman.” Food is a source of energy and shouldn’t have a strict hold over your life.

In an ideal world, we would all be intuitive eating. We’d naturally be at our optimal sizes and shapes, we’d accept each other and ourselves as is, and we’d just strive to be our healthiest selves. But that would be way too easy on us. We’re already so ingrained with counting and measuring, it’s not easy to let that go and just be.

Ask anybody, and you’re going to struggle to find someone who hasn’t at one point gone on a diet or struggled with a form of disordered eating. Especially if you’re in the thick of recovery, don’t try to convince yourself that you can successfully eat intuitively. Trust me, I’ve tried. It didn’t work.

When we binge or restrict, we completely throw off our natural hunger cues. Even if you’re simply trying to follow some fad diet with a specific meal plan, we teach ourselves how to ignore the signals. We distract and discipline ourselves with controlling rules. Your mind and body become out of sync. Worst case scenario, you lose any sense of hunger or satiation all together as your body loses trust in your actions. Again, trust me, I’ve been there. In the disorder you seek control, and yet that’s the complete opposite of reality.

When I say I see intuitive eating as a monk-like practice, I mean that it indeed takes trust and patience because it’s very against the grain of modern diet culture. For so many, saying that food is truly just food, a part of being a living organism, it’s not easy to let that reality sink in. You must gauge your emotions and how your body feels before and after eating. You must avoid distractions to actually notice the signs of hunger or fullness. You actually slow down and become mindful of the activity that is eating and nourishing your body.

Obviously this isn’t an overnight change, and you cannot truly eat intuitively until you have some sense of normalcy if you come from a disordered background. But I think that once you can develop that natural, healthy relationship with food, you don’t overeat or restrict. Your weight doesn’t yo-yo regularly. Your mind isn’t chained to the empirical data or potential effects of every bite you eat.

I’m saying all of this out of admiration for those who successfully let themselves live and eat. Intuitive eating has definitely become an ultimate goal when it comes to my relationship with food. Since going vegan, it’s definitely gotten better, but I accept that it may never be perfect. The principles of the lifestyle, however, are very encouraging for anybody struggling: food is nourishment, and constantly monitoring your intake is not sustainable in the long-term.

I wish dieting didn’t exist. I wish so many people didn’t look in the mirror with disgust at their bodies. I wish we didn’t lust after certain “goals” based on how others live. I wish we didn’t stick on a label on every single food and attach “goodness” to them. I’d certain frolic if that were the world we live in.

Now more than ever, we need to relearn the habits we’ve picked up from magazines and click bait articles and commercials promoting the newest weight loss system. We’ve learned that the way we may naturally want to eat is wrong and must be regimented to fit specific standards. Instead, let’s learn that there is nothing wrong with our body’s cravings. There’s nothing wrong with how we look or the place our unique bodies individually thrive. If there’s anything wrong, it’s the belief that we aren’t good enough and need to change how we look and eat.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

For the Ones I Love

Note: I’m writing this in finals week. Simply put, it’s been tough. I can hardly sleep. I feel so overwhelmed and the worth I place in grades is really driving me to a dark place. I’ll be done with the semester once this post is published which will surely be a relief, but as always, I’m not here to sugarcoat my ups and downs. I want to show the reality of mental illness, how ugly it can make me feel. My intentions and gratitude, however, are especially raw and always relevant.

Mental illness, in all of its dark control over the minds of those affected, ends up controlling a lot of what’s going on outside of our heads.

On my better days, I don’t realize fully I was having bad ones until I clearly see the aftermath. In the thick of that aftermath is the people I love and care about.

Although I am very goal-oriented and a tad perfectionist when it comes to my work and education, but as I get older, I put increasing priority in my family and friends, the people I choose to keep in my life that enrich it and make it worth living. I place self-worth in the goals I accomplish and the impact I make, but at the end of the day, it’s the people who are there supporting you that matter.

Except when I’m too anxious to fall asleep at night, or I feel beyond empty and lonely, I cannot tell you the resulting guilt of being such a negative energy to my family, or I face an intense fear of leaving my house or answering messages or letting others down.

In the darkest moments, we feel like a burden to our loved ones. We feel like we have to be strong and put on a face to support those people and help them with whatever we need. But then we end up neglecting our own health as we try to pour from an empty cup.

For me and many others, it’s easy to resort to isolation. Nobody to hurt or disappoint, nobody to see us when we’re our weakest, when we have barely any energy to just be a functioning human being.

So when I feel fine enough again, it’s a sea of apologies, for feeling like I was a shell of my true self who innately pushes everyone away. Sometimes it feels like an endless cycle.

Admittedly, when I was younger and didn’t even know I was struggling, it was much harder for me to see the cycle and know what I was doing. And although I was ignorant, it was simpler on myself not knowing. I didn’t address how I was feeling. I figured it was normal constantly yo-yo between craving solitude so I wouldn’t have to deal with others while being stuck in a figurative void, and manically pacing with worry thinking I was all alone and nobody cares about me and I’m failing at life. Which then leads back to sadness. Fun, right?

It has helped tremendously to know what I face on a daily basis and acknowledge it openly with others. But it still doesn’t necessarily help how it affects others. Actually, it makes me feel more guilty knowing what I’m doing and struggling to manage it.

So why am I rambling today? Why the stream of consciousness? Because I want to say thank you. Thank you for still sticking around when I shut down and can no longer find words to explain myself. Thank you for your kind words and gestures when I admit a difficult day. Thank you for understanding when I struggle to simply reply to a text message, or when I cancel plans unexpectedly because I’m too anxious to leave my house. Thank you for your affirmations even when it’s hard even for me to understand why I do what I do.

I still worry often about my place in the world. That I’m forgettable, a small, mediocre being who doesn’t have much to offer. But the people who see my worth when I’m blind to it, who still think of me with thoughtful little gestures, who see strength in me when I’m falling apart.

No matter what the depression or anxiety may try to convince me, I am enough. I have enough. The high quality of friends and family in my life are far beyond I could ever hope to have. And if I can make a difference for just one person, it’s worth it.

Because yes, those with mental illness are so strong, the people who choose to support those who are mentally ill have just as much strength. It’s not easy. It’s easy to walk away and be sick and tired of the emotional absence. The people who look beyond the ugly and still see beauty in others who may be suffering, you are a blessing. The world needs more of you. You don’t have to completely understand the ins and outs of mental health. You just have to be there.

So again, thank you does not begin to cover it all. Thank you a million times over.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Is America More Mentally Ill?

In short, yes. I don’t have much longer that I can relish in an outside perspective from within American borders, but I cannot deny that I am American. And, as an American, it only seems appropriate that I speak for the many people affected by mental illness.

So why does there seem to be a so-called epidemic in America regarding mental health? Why do other countries not seem to have as many problems, despite so many similarities in an industrialized society?

It’s not easy to record and compare data, admittedly, so it’s a stretch to say that America is the home of mental illness. However, recent articles have surfaced with data to at least document the number of those in the States facing mental health problems.

The number? Over eight million. More than 8 million American adults suffer from depression, anxiety and stress – and most of them are blocked from healthcare services. New research reveals people with mental illness are 10 times more likely to struggle with paying for treatment. Examining national health care data in the US from 2006 to 2014, researchers warned the rate of people diagnosed with psychological distress is far greater than previously thought, affecting all aspects of life.

So why is mental illness on the rise in America? CBS News says  the aftermath of the 2007 Great Recession has led to greater everyday stress and long-term psychological damage. Earning a living and maintaining the classic “American dream” is becoming much harder. The loss of jobs could mean there’s a loss of community and a loss of role as wage earners and providers.

There’s even the explanation that correlates more mental illness with the rise of opioid abuse, more people resorting to narcotics and drugs to ease the pain, which leads to addiction and more distress. Not exactly a great combination.

I do understand these arguments and explanations. But I also see a very big contributor in the American healthcare system. While the rise of psychological distress is not stopping anytime soon, less people are able to turn to professionals for help and treatment. For some, the lack of care has been due to affordability issues. Researchers estimate that approximately one in 10 affected adults in 2014 did not have health insurance that provided access to a mental health professional. This should have been helped by the Affordable Care Act plans that were available starting that year, but there is still a shortage of mental health personnel in the U.S., particularly in more rural areas.

RT reports nearly one in 10 distressed Americans did not have health insurance that would give them access to a psychiatrist or counselor in 2014. A rise was also noted when it came to delays associated with professional help due to insufficient mental health coverage, with 10.5 percent experiencing such delays in 2014. Also, those who actually received access to a professional and were prescribed medication found themselves increasingly unable to pay for their prescriptions. Almost 10 percent could not pay in 2014.

It feels like America is in a dangerous limbo, a growing imbalance of those suffering and those who are qualified and available to help. Although the Affordable Care Act has made significant strides to help everyone access the healthcare they need, the mental health side of things is still lagging. Big time.

Really, not having the ability to seek counsel or medication to truly treat your mental health is a breach on civil rights. Getting help for so many isn’t even an option. And this lack of resources affects everyone. According to Psychiatric Times, for depression alone, the estimated annual costs in 2010 totaled $210.5 billion, including both direct costs and indirect costs such as mortality arising from depression-related suicides as well as the effects of depression in the workplace. That is unacceptable.

How should we move forward from here? We need a comprehensive strategy to improve mental healthcare, a similar action to initiatives involving heart disease or infectious diseases. After all, those who are mentally ill are more prone to contracting infectious disease, and the combination of stress and depression commonly leads to heart disease. Need I mention that suicide rates are also on the rise? Mental illness is the silent cause of much of our ailments if we dig deep enough.

An all-encompassing reform should target populations in need, including those affected with and at risk for mental disorders. Such a mental health care plan would be comprehensive, multifaceted, and diverse and include universal access and broad geographic distribution, dissemination and implementation of treatments, multidisciplinary team-based care, and workforce development and deployment.

The World Health Organization, in conjunction with the European Union, has a lengthy report for those interested in reading it about all of the progress and challenges seen in European countries as they improve their mental healthcare. But just the fact there is detailed work and efforts toward improvement is noteworthy. There is cohesion and discussion happening. America, take some notes.

I’ve supported the ACA from the beginning, but there are major flawed areas, mental health being one of them. Regardless of your geographical location or financial status, every American should be able to receive mental healthcare. It’s the government’s responsibility to provide it, and the American people to promote it and spread awareness supporting it. Maybe then my answer to today’s question won’t have to be “yes.”

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

More Travel, Less Hurdles

As statistics and alumni prove, studying abroad is a valuable experience for college students. With all of the personal and professional benefits, one might expect the number of students studying abroad to skyrocket. According to the Huffington Post, however, only about five percent of undergraduate students actually follow through.

Even for students very interested in pursuing the great opportunities study abroad provides, often after seeing student presentations or going to fairs and events hosted by campus global engagement, the actual process before, during and after studying abroad is daunting. Much more daunting than it should be.

Yes, choosing to study abroad is a big, expensive decision a student shouldn’t make overnight, but if studying abroad is so valuable to a student’s life and education, the process to get to that end goal needs to become simplified and transparent.

My experience is nothing out of the ordinary than others studying abroad. I scheduled multiple meetings to even choose a location and program. Those who choose a direct program, National Student Exchange or separate agency altogether all have different hoops to jump through. More meetings followed to receive all the paperwork involved, requiring me to schedule more meetings with financial aid and every department chair to finish each piece of the puzzle, which then must be communicated back to the global engagement office. At times this meant I didn’t have every little detail completed simply because others hadn’t communicated. Then for those who receive financial aid of any kind, funding has to go through another office with more people a student has to work with. Overall, the student becomes the middle man or woman running around campus to meet every requirement on top of the stress of preparing to live in a different state or country.

One article from Mark Shay, CEO of website StudyAbroad101, discusses that US institutions need to overhaul the stubborn obstacles of endless steps and complicated credit transfer. According to Go Overseas, international programs flourished after the end of the Cold War. Study abroad has gone from a free market where students are able to choose any program as long as it generates a transcript from a recognized university, to a complicated maze of pre-approved programs, endorsed providers, consortium exchanges and third-party operated overseas campus centers and group tours. In the US, approximately half of the university students will transfer to another university, and yet we see these same universities fight to restrict semester-long departures from campus.

So how can colleges simplify the study abroad process? Before starting an application, global engagement should clearly describe everything studying abroad entails. While describing the wonderful locations and programs available to entice students, alumni and officials need to be realistic because chances are, if a student hasn’t studied abroad or doesn’t know much about it beyond their own intentions, they won’t ask those questions. I took a global learning class as a freshman, and even then, I was unaware of Course Approval Forms and potential financial aid complications. As with anything, especially if the study abroad process doesn’t change, education is crucial.

To further ease the stress of studying abroad prerequistes, the global learning office should be the key location for the entire application process. A student shouldn’t have to juggle a regular course load along with meeting at least three different people in three different locations before they say, “Bon voyage.” If the only mediator a student consults with is the global learning office to do everything they need, from the program, to communication for coordinating credit transfer and financial aid, that’s a huge weight off a student’s shoulders.

Some students themselves have ventured to conjure up some solutions to the hoop-jumping. One Nebraska student from China designed an Easy Transfer system that provides a single channel international students can use to pay their tuition, partnering with near and faraway banks to avoid using a complex system of financial transfer. A decade’s old decision from Harvard faculty created a “two-track system” for petitioning to study abroad. Students either continue to develop their own plans of study or simply choose from a list of approved programs, cutting out most of the document signing and original language requirements that held many students back. In an increasingly globalized society, a faculty- and campus-wide effort to improving every aspect of the study abroad experience is as valuable as studying abroad itself.

The last thing a study abroad student should have to worry about, especially while they’re already off campus, is figuring out how to make every single end meet. Don’t get me wrong, I’m beyond grateful for all of the help I’ve received to make this journey a reality. However, for me to fully endorse other students to study abroad, the process needs improvement. Global learning and all administrators involved should have open communication that supports students ambitious enough to travel and study in a foreign location rather than hindering them. Any and all travel is influential in building tolerant, open-minded, worldly students. Let’s not let studying abroad feel like a world and many steps and documents away.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Mental Spring Cleaning

Finally, as the sun finally emerges from the clouds and radiates some warmth on the chilly northern region, I feel a sense of rejuvenation. By far, my favorite seasons are spring and fall, not only for the mild temperatures, but also the change they bring. They are times for waking up from a dragging time of extreme heat or cold and finding a new beginning. Of course, any moment can be an opportunity to change, but something about spring, its gradual blossoming of life, is particularly motivating.

In where I completely understand why spring cleaning is a thing. I’m not even at home right now, and I’m already planning what I want to declutter and revamp in my life. However, I think the most important cleanse we can partake in is one that doesn’t require a broom or mop. I’m proposing a sort of mental spring cleaning. Especially for those who may suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder during the winter, we’re all a little antsy about shedding some layers of coats and sweaters and frolick in the euphoria of spring fever. With this shedding can also come a personal shedding, of hesitation or anxiety or whatever negativity might be dragging you down.

Today I have a few suggestions to help spark some inspiration for you. Any of your own ideas are very much welcomed and appreciated. These are just some thoughts I had when considering good options for a fresh perspective.

  1. Let the past go. This is taking “spring cleaning” quite literally. In this, I mean consciously going through your current thoughts and asking yourself, “What am I stressing about right now? What is making me feel negative or anxious?” As with the dreariness of winter, seasons of nature and life are temporary. It’s especially wasteful of your time and energy to dwell on past events that may feel like regrets. Whether you’re thinking about how your grades ended up on a transcript or your past or current relationships with others, allow yourself to let negative feelings go. Vent and express whatever might be harboring in your mind and move forward. This allows more room for fresh starts.
  2. Little changes can go a long way. When days feel like they drag on or fade into one another, they lose their value to us. We’ve all seen the cliche “makeover transformations” where people get a new wardrobe or haircut and have a new vigor for life, but let’s not undermine the power of subtle change. Yes, I’m really looking forward to letting go of lots of unnecessary material belongings, living in a new city, and thrifting to my heart’s content, but even just changing a little part of your morning or evening routine, starting a new show or book, or whatever else tickles your fancy can make a big impact. Take a small step outside of your comfort zone, and who knows what might happen.
  3. Meditate, reflect, and prioritize gratitude. I don’t expect myself or anyone else to drop whatever they’re doing, run off to a monastery, and become a monk who sits in silence for hours every day. Kudos to you if you do, but for the vast majority, that isn’t exactly practical. The concept of meditation is so much more than repeating “Om.” It’s about slowing down your racing mind to become mindful and appreciative for the present moment. Find your favorite means of meditation and make it a habit. Maybe it’s a few minutes of deep breathing, a daily nature walk, or a quiet activity. It’s incredible how healing a quiet moment can be and the clarity that can come from it. From the values of awareness and reflection, we can view life through a fresh lens, finding beauty and gratitude in the little things.
  4. Make new goals and/or reestablish current ones. Winter can lead to a funk. I know I was there in those dragging weeks of nothing but cold and snow. Not to mention, for those who started the year with some resolutions and have fallen off the bandwagon, if you have goals for yourself you truly want to accomplish, every day (and season) is a new start. This kind of relates to my second point, but it’s very motivating to have something, new or familiar, to work toward, whether that be a new project, hobby, or whatever else. Write it down, make little steps to get there, and just see what progress you can make. It’s amazing what a fresh, determined mindset can accomplish.

Positivity is powerful. A healthy mind can benefit all aspects of life. It only seems appropriate to take advantage of it. Especially for those in school who have a year winding down and a few months free from tests and assignments, it’s good to continue exercising your brain (think of it as a muscle that requires consistent conditioning), and wiping up any areas of wellness we may have deprioritized to keep up with a hectic school schedule.

Let me know if I should continue making more ideas for mental spring cleaning and really, any ideas from me that you’d like to see me write about. I’m really open to anything, and I’d love to incorporate some new ideas and perspectives on here.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Story to Tell

When I fall down the TED Talk rabbit hole, I sometimes get bored and don’t find much that really grabs my attention. I mean, learning something new is great, but some talks make me comment out loud and leave me deep in thought and awe.

Dave Isay is the founder of StoryCorps, a project I have never heard about before watching this talk. Of course, I highly recommend watching it, especially if you enjoy feel-good things. Isay, after always having a passion for recording the stories and voices of those around him, created a booth in New York’s Grand Central Terminal in 2003.

In this booth, you and somebody else simply have a conversation. A personal interview, where you can ask them anything. A facilitator is present at the booth to help. You can spend about an hour there and ask a loved one anything, which is then recorded and saved for yourself and also documented in the Library of Congress. A future generation, a great-great grandchild could go back and listen and learn about their descendants.

Obviously there are other means of documenting your life. Taking photographs, writing things, whatever floats your boat. But I do see something real and raw in having this eternal keepsake depicting people in the moment, their own voices continuing to speak long after passing. And this isn’t something you have to tote around and let it sit in an attic or basement collecting dust.

With the success of StoryCorps, the entity has expanded to those of all religions, economic statuses, genders, sexualities, ages, ethnicities, religions, and languages. There have been recording booths in hundreds of locations, and with all the facilitators who have been involved with the project, one common theme stands out: humanity is innately, truly good.

In today’s media storm, of flashy headlines and constant devastating news, it’s so easy to focus on the negative impact people have on the world, over seven billion of us making decisions and often making mistakes. We dwell so much on those mistakes that keep the 24/7 news cycle running, we’re already onto the next news article or one of those one-minute viral videos before there’s even a chance to dive deeper. We get the surface-level material, and we think that’s enough.

But life is so much deeper than a summarized paragraph or one minute slideshow with subtitles. The things we can learn from each other if we take the time to listen are astounding. Breaking news updates aren’t meant to make sure nothing is left unsaid, to make sure nobody has been silenced or misunderstood. The stories and information covered becomes repetitive, a single story from multiple biased perspectives.

I believe every single person has a unique voice and purpose to share with the world, as cliche as that sounds. News producers and entities are supposed to be there to mediate that exchange of information, but when they try to stimulate an audience with flashy stories and scandals, they don’t do people justice. Instead, news entities are creating makeshift “scenes” to report from, rely on the same people and experts for “another perspective,” and cover so much of the crime, violence, and injustice in the world, we become numb to anything less than sensational.

Before I got more into podcasts, I didn’t really consider audio as an ideal medium for capturing information, stories and memories. I even thought that after working almost a year at a public radio station. That’s probably because 98% of the reporting I did was for random assignments I didn’t have much emotional attachment to. But since getting sucked into audio storytelling, I now appreciate how beautiful it can be to hear people, real or fiction, immersed in a story or conversation. It reignites a desire and curiosity to learn more, to go deeply into a single topic that spreading out information so thinly, it all jumbles together and sets people up to only want the bare minimum.

We should be hungry for more. We should be motivated to not accept the shortened version. Let us not lose that yearning to hear a story, to learn about our past and the lives of others. To trust people enough to even want to partake in a project like StoryCorps, knowing what you say will be documented forever. That takes guts. You know in those recordings, there is no filter to sway in one direction over another, no clickbait, not even necessarily a photo to put a face to that voice and immediately form a judgement about somebody before hearing what they truly have to say. Sometimes we need to go into things blindly. In those times, that is when we see.

Of all the stories to tell, only a fraction of which each of us might encounter, they will all revert back to genuine goodness. To love, hope, and acceptance. To not let others leave this world and become fading, forgotten memories. Each voice matters. It’s time to listen.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie

Photogratree: Spring Edition

When I first arrived in Quebec, I was immediately taken aback by the landscape surrounding me. As someone so familiar with driving along the highway and only seeing miles upon miles of flat land and the occasional farm or tree. Certainly fits the proper name, The Great Plains. How “Great” they are, however, is questionable.

So whenever I take in the nature surrounding me here in Canada, I cannot help but be in awe. After living a life only seeing endless fields, I am reminded of how strong my craving is for texture. Trees, mountains, wildlife, the whole shebang.

Living among the Canadian woods has probably been my favorite aspect of studying abroad. The problem is, when the university considers my stay “Winter Semester,” they weren’t kidding. Even in April, days that are both sunny and above fifty degrees are rare blessings.

To take advantage of these days, I go on walks. Without a car or free form of transportation, my legs will do. So with a nicer day, or at least one with sunshine and a breeze gentler than the intimidating gusts from previous days, I ventured around my campus until I stumbled a bike path that, when I first arrived, was hidden beneath a thick layer of snow.

The path is quite short, maybe a fifteen-minute walk, but with as many pictures I was capturing, constantly pulling out my phone, the original walk felt much longer. But no photo could truly commemorate the peace that comes with walking alone, no clear destination in mind, among sprawling trees and sounds of animals waking up from a long hibernation. I was honestly disappointed to eventually wander back and hear students talking loudly outside. If it was acceptable for me to become a recluse and build myself a cabin in the Canadian woods, I would without hesitation.

I don’t have much time left here, and I really do hope I am afforded enough warm days to continue exploring. So much of my semester abroad has been plagued with weeks upon weeks of hiding beneath blankets inside my dorm, looking out the window to see ceaseless snowfall. Having a day where I’m not chilled to my core when walking outside leaves me in bewilderment. I certainly now appreciate the simplicity of a day that doesn’t require a parka even more.

As with my other photography-oriented post, I have a similar disclaimer. I’m not a photographer. I thank the iPhone 7’s camera for such high quality photos. I’m often not inspired to take pictures because I’d much rather just be in the moment without a phone in my face, but nature inspires me.

While I’d rather not leave my new oasis in the woods, I’m glad I’ll have my words and images to look back on and hopefully motivate me to return to some form of this landscape, Canadian, American, or otherwise.

 A little repetitive maybe, but hey, nature is beautiful, and I cannot wait for the days I can soak in more of the sun’s warmth and admire all the little but intricate details found only in God’s creation. We as humans are on equal ground, made with the same substance as these trees and all other plants and animals. We are part of the ecosystem. I wish we would treat it as such. But on a lovely day, my part is take pictures and look on with wonder.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie


“13 Reasons Why” Not

I haven’t watched much television in awhile, let alone even typed Netflix into the search bar. But when lots of people are talking about a new Netflix series, with varied opinions to say the least, I am curious.

This series is 13 Reasons Why. I actually remember the original young adult novel the show is based on, a random copy found in my high school freshmen health class, conveniently mentioned when vaguely discussing suicide. To keep summaries brief, a girl named Hannah Baker committed suicide, and a classmate later found 13 tapes, each with her talking about a person, or “reason”, she ended up taking her own life.

If you ask me if I’ve read the book or watched the show, my answer is no. And that answer isn’t changing. Yes, this is inspired by a real suicide attempt but is still a work of fiction, but we all know how creative liberties might skew, romanticize, and dramatize any bit of information out there. I see this as no exception.

The ironic thing about how people are talking about this show, I rarely hear people actually talking about preventing suicide. If Netflix thinks that 13 Reasons might start up a healthy conversation about mental health, this is not the way to do it. In a drama like this, suicide is less of a tragedy and more of a mysterious plot line.

Both related and unrelated to 13 Reasons, on social media and even in general conversation, I don’t like how people talk and joke about death and suicide. Suicidal thoughts have become jokes, normal reactions. It’s not absurd for a teenager to wish they would die or get hit by a car to avoid taking a test or doing a task. So if everybody is normalizing suicide and killing yourself is an appropriate reaction to make, what happens when somebody is serious? When they aren’t just “kidding” about wanting to harm themselves? When they actually attempt something dangerous, or worse, succeed in doing so?

Even experts are deeply concerned that the book and the show may have the opposite of that intended awareness-raising effect and may impart viewers with the wrong takeaway lessons. Ultimately, the entire premise of the story goes against all accepted best practices for how to address suicide responsibly in the mass media. According to journalism ethics and suggested guidelines, here are some recommendations regarding suicide:

  • Don’t sensationalize the suicide.
  • Don’t talk about the contents of the suicide note, if there is one.
  • Don’t describe the suicide method.
  • Report on suicide as a public health issue.
  • Don’t speculate why the person might have done it.
  • Don’t quote or interview police or first responders about the causes of suicide.
  • Describe suicide as “died by suicide” or “completed” or “killed him/herself,” rather than “committed suicide.”
  • Don’t glamorize suicide.

I can personally relate in this situation, as an executive staff member of my college’s newspaper trying to decide how to report a suicide committed on campus. It was tricky. We ultimately followed the family’s wishes to keep everything very private, but I was proponent in the discussion for being open about the situation. I do think we need to talk about suicide more to make it less taboo and more acceptable to ask for help, but there’s a right and wrong way to do it. And 13 Reasons breaks every single one of the ethical recommendations.

By exploiting Hannah’s suicide, or any suicide, it portrays suicide as something else entirely. It becomes a means of revenge and gaining control over others, even those of may have been treating someone with the best intentions. It becomes a reasonable coping mechanism for despair and hopelessness. It’s a new, glamorous way to get attention. It’s proof that the world has done you wrong, that even parents and guidance counselors are out-of-touch and inept helping young people with their struggles. If this is what the suicide conversation is turning into, especially when it involves young people still learning and thinking Hannah Baker’s story of avoiding life is realistic and reasonable.

Another big problem I have with 13 Reasons is the premise of blaming others for suicide. Each of the 13 tapes depicted in the story are focused on one person who hurt or abused Hannah. If that doesn’t make others feel beyond guilty, I don’t know what would. But the underlying cause of suicide is not others’ actions, but mental illness. Experiences like bullying and sexual abuse are traumatic and can trigger the downward spiral, but pinpointing those as “reasons” is no justification for a fatal decision. When someone does wrong to you, your first reaction should not be to kill yourself. Playing a blame game helps nobody.

I cannot tell you how many posts I’ve seen warning people about the triggering images in 13 Reasons. Apparently the final episode includes a graphic depiction of the actual suicide. Just the thought makes me cringe. Does such a scene show how suicide is painful, or how to complete it for those who aren’t mentally well enough to see something like that?

13 Reasons has become the most popular, viral show Netflix has ever released. And with all the discussion surrounding it, I want us to be honest and direct with the show’s message and themes. From what I’ve seen, the book version of 13 Reasons sounds like a much better platform for portraying understanding teenage insecurity and hostile school environments. However, whether you read or watch 13 Reasons, remember this: suicide is a choice that cannot be encompassed in 13 audio recordings. It’s not an effective means to solve your problems. It shouldn’t fall entirely on others’ shoulders to bear. It stems from mental illness. It hurts the loved ones around you. And people are out there to help you.

Take care, and keep the faith. -Allie