Elizabeth O’Casey is a graduate student in Public Policy and an International Ambassadors for International Degree and Education Abroad office. She recently returned from Thailand working for the Peace Corps as a Teacher Collaborator and Community Outreach Organizer. Below, she shares an entertaining experience that gives insight into a completely different culture.

My Peace Corps friend, Todd, recently moved into his own house. He’d been living with a host family for the previous months and he was excited to have a space of his own. Eying the growing basket of laundry, he resolved to do laundry the next day.

A new day dawned and he got to scrubbing his sweaty, dusty clothes. In Thailand, many rural folks do laundry by hand, in a big black bucket out behind their house. It’s a process that stretches on for hours.  So Todd was feeling pretty good about himself, hand washing the whole lot. He had rung the jeans, shirts, and underwear out with a Mr. Clean-like fervor.

He walked out onto his front porch and looked around. Where to hang the laundry? He spotted a white cloth rope that was tied to the perimeter of the house. Perfect. He began hanging his clothes on the rope. He knew socks are generally despised in Thailand. So, he hung them far away from his shirts and pants. The Thais see the feet as dirty and go so far as to wash socks separately to make sure the filth of the socks doesn’t mix with the other clothing. There is a strong concept that the head is (sacred) and foot (dirty) in Thailand. So, my friend considerately hung his socks in a separate area of the cord.

Seconds later, a neighbor came running up to him frantically, and began tearing off his underwear (from the line he hung it on, not the ones he was wearing, don’t worry!), jeans, and shirts. She pointed horrified to the socks, and motioned for him to take them down. He followed her request, incredibly confused. He stared as his pile of freshly-washed laundry lie in a heap at his feet. She returned minutes later, offering him a pole from which he could hang his clothes, explaining his mistake.

What happened? Well, Buddhists believe the white cord is a sacred Buddhist instrument. It’s used in every religious ceremony. Sometimes, the white cord will be tied around the wrists of people attending the ceremony to ward off the bad luck and spirits, and to protect the wearer. Sometimes, the white cord is held when the monks are chanting. Other times, the white cord is tied around the entire house, blessing the occupants, warding off evil spirits, protecting the house from ghosts. The cord is blessed by the monks. And my friend was hanging his socks and undies on this sacred cord.

It would be rather like a Thai exchange student coming to the states and using the church cross as a place to hang his underwear. Funny, but also sacrilegious; no doubt any number of little old ladies from within the church building would take up their crochet needles and go after that ‘crazy Thai kid’. So, the white cord is kind of like that. Sacred. Blessed. And an important Buddhist symbol.

Here’s the thing about living abroad: you get the best stories. Go to a place you know nothing about, and you’ll come home full of tales about this once far away land. Before I went to Thailand, I knew three things: It was hot, the beaches were beautiful, and the food was spicy. I came with suitcases full of hilarious, and at times, unbelievable stories. I encountered stories of embarrassment, like hanging undies on Buddha’s spirit. I had stories of unexplainable oddity, like the school closing early because elephants were loose in the village, and I had stories of heart, like when I walked into a classroom of 10 first graders who ran up to me holding hand-picked bouquets of flowers.

You may leave the states with a suitcase full of clothes, but I can promise you this: You’ll return home full of incredible stories that are a direct result of you living out your wildest dreams.


Elizabeth Ragan is a senior at Oregon State University. She is pursuing a degree in Public Health and Anthropology with a minor in French. Elizabeth recently returned from Kampala, Uganda, where she interned for Prometra Uganda through IE3: Global Internships. Below is a reflection summary from her blog.

My final day in the village. Waving goodbye as the last truck of traditional healers rounds the corner of the dirt road and disappears out of sight. I know that they’re going home, and I’m going home too. But I’m struggling, because I can’t help but feel like I’m going home and leaving home all at the same time.

As the sun dips below the surrounding hills, I set off down the road, needing to walk, needing to think and clear my head. All of my senses are magnified, like I’m trying to absorb every final memory with bound determination. The sounds of the night seem to keep time with the rhythm of my breath and the pounding of my heart, my heart which is in a silent struggle between happiness and sadness.

Making my way through the airport. Some internal instinct or motor memory instructs me through the motions, but I feel like a stranger in my own body, like I’m observing myself from a distance. Security checks, customs, gate transfers, coffee shops, loudspeaker announcements, the whirring sound of suitcase wheels on hard floors, small talk and strangers. I’m in a transition between worlds and I can’t help but feeling sickened at just how easily I’m slipping right back into it, all of the excess, the naivety, the ignorance. People living in their comfortable bubbles, happily ignoring the world around them. The population around me has changed so dramatically in the past 24 hours, from the morning I left Kampala on my way to Entebbe to where I sit now in Heathrow.

3am, laying in my bed at my parents’ home, staring at the ceiling. It’s not just the 10-hour time change and jet lag that is keeping my mind awake. The middle of the night and I have become familiar companions over the course of the summer, my mind busily milling over all of the experiences that I had, trying to make sense of it all. The one thing I simply can’t get myself past is the disparity and the blatant ignorance. How great the divide is between being concerned about when you’re going to get the new iPhone 4, that new pair of leather boots, or new dining room furniture, and the fear of not being able to feed your family or losing yet another child from a preventable cause.

We’re brought up in a fast-paced world. Our society has taught us to be concerned with what’s in front of us, and I’ve found that you have to work hard to learn about the problems of low-income nations. I force myself to remember all of the problems that Americans do face, like recession, unemployment, unaffordable health care, declining social services, rising costs of higher education – all serious problems that leave people powerless. But then I take these things and line them up to the concerns of people in Uganda, like infectious disease, hunger, clothing, drought, shelter, clean water, primary education. I believe that it’s our responsibility to be a world citizen and to treat everybody as human and to fight for their basic rights. We must become critical of ourselves and the lifestyles that we lead, accepting that our actions and decisions have ramifications that will trickle down far beyond our perceived reality.

Coming to a country like Uganda does something powerful to you. It is indeed a rare opportunity, one that many people will either never get the chance to take, or may decide not to take out of fear or apprehension. But there is great potential in taking such a step. If you allow it, Uganda will lay bare to you all of your weakness, misconceptions, ethnocentricities, and the blinders that America and all of the comforts of home have been allowing you to wear your whole life. Then you will be given an option, approach a crossroads of sorts. Do you stay on the same path that you have been walking along up until this point, knowing that you are ignoring what your eyes have been opened to about the world, or do you change your direction and become a person that has a deeper understanding that in this world, we are all human, and we are all connected. Travel the world, learn about the struggles of the people, and as a consequence, learn about yourself.

“There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.” – Nelson Mandela

Alexandra Gulick currently works as a International Ambassador for the International Degree and Education Abroad office. Prior to this position, she studied abroad in Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean with CIEE: Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation program in Fall ’10. She not only obtained personal growth, but found a passion for marine ornithology. Her next step is to be accepted into the Fisheries and Wildlife graduate program at Oregon State University.

The decision to go abroad while in college was one I made when I was very young…I want to say when I was in kindergarten.  All I knew about the concept was I would get to live in another country.  While I doubt I fully understood my decision, the thought of being somewhere completely different fascinated me.


Growing up on a ranch in a very small town in Eastern Oregon, thinking about the world outside of my little bubble was beyond intriguing.  Whether it was the goal to go to college, study abroad, or be a marine biologist, I was more than determined to accomplish it all.  Little did I know, spending a term in a different country would not only determine my career aspirations and teach me independence, but it would be the experience of a lifetime.

I studied abroad in Bonaire, Dutch Caribbean during the fall of my junior year (2010).  For four months I lived at the CIEE Research Station as a student of the Tropical Marine Ecology and Conservation program with fifteen US students.  A typical day in Bonaire would usually consist of class in the morning (e.g. coral biology, tropical marine conservation) and spending the afternoon underwater learning the many wonders of the local coral reefs.

I chose this program because it gave me the opportunity to learn in a hands-on manner.  Intense field, research, conservation, and community service experience barely graze the surface of the skills I gained from this program.  Ultimately, the research project I did in Bonaire helped me define my career path.  After conducting research on a local seabird, I had an instant interest in marine ornithology.  Since my Bonaire experience, I have completed the marine biology program at the Hatfield

Marine Science Center, been a field technician for the Seabird Oceanography Lab at Hatfield, and been a research assistant for PRBO Conservation Science on the Farallone Islands.  My next goal is to be accepted into the Fisheries and Wildlife graduate program at Oregon State and study the impacts of climate change on seabird ecology.

While Bonaire gave me the tools I needed to gain further experience in my field and discover my career aspirations, it also had a profound effect on how I see myself and the world around me.  I am now a much more independent, aware, and open-minded individual.  I have always loved meeting new people, but for me now, meeting people has become such a necessity in my life.  I am fascinated by different cultures and the rich backgrounds of people around the world.  I now know what it is like to truly be immersed and part of another culture; it’s thrilling, intriguing, and an incredible feeling!  Thanks to Bonaire, I understand the importance and benefits of spending time abroad. As an Education Abroad Ambassador for the International Degree and Education Abroad office, I absolutely love encouraging and supporting others to have an adventure of their own.

Marissa Uriarte interned for Center for Social Medicine in Loni, India, through IE3 Global Internships in Summer ’12. She is pursuing a Bachelor of Science degree in Public Health with an option in Health Promotion and Health Behavior, and a minor in German. She is now working as an International Ambassador for the office of International Degree and Education Abroad (IDEA).

Marissa at the Taj Mahal
Marissa at the Taj Mahal

During my internship, I had the chance to work in a wide range of projects that focused on medical care, public health and social development in the rural and tribal areas of Maharashtra. Before I go more into depth about my work at Center For Social Medicine I wanted to note that I cannot sum up India in a single story. India is filled with a life full of color from the saris women wear to the the paints on the animals during a holiday. It is filled with noises from the people bargaining at the market to the honking on the streets, and it is filled with smells from the food cooking on the sidewalks.

However, I can tell you that interning abroad challenged every aspect of who I am; it revealed not only my strengths and weaknesses, but questioned my knowledge and beliefs. I met heart-warming people that I will keep dear to my heart and learned that life is precious and we all need a helping hand.

Nashik, India

There are an infinite amount of memories I will hold, but I would place working with the staff at the Mobile Clinic in one of my favorite. Here, I visited a daycare center for children under the age of five years old. I assisted the pediatrician in charting their growth development to prevent malnutrition. Also, I performed regular health check-ups for pregnant women, which consists of finding the position of the fetus, measuring the fetus length, listening to the fetal heart beat and checking the women’s health status.

Center for Social Medicine's Mobile ClinicThe Mobile Clinic was very impressive, because the doctors and nurses went to the people. It addressed the transportation barrier and really emphasized that the patient’s health is their number one priority.

I had the chance to do and see things that people only see on TV. And I don’t believe this is an exaggeration. The culture and atmosphere is new and enriching; it’s completely different from anything I have ever experienced.

The Center for Social Medicine truly offers unmatched opportunities for international interns. I was able to use the knowledge and skills I acquired at Oregon State University, as well as build new skills that will contribute to my professional aspirations as an international public health nurse.

I want to stress that I would not have acquired this chance to intern abroad without the support from the staff at International Programs Department and the scholarships I received, such as the Benjamin Gilman Scholarship and the Nicodemus Scholarship.  I believe that anything is possible if you are proactive in your career aspirations.

Dylan McDowell is a junior at Oregon State University, pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Fisheries and Wildlife with a minor in Education. Dylan is studying abroad during the Fall term ’12 in Tanzania, Africa, with SIT Wildlife Conservation and Political Ecology program. Below is a entry from Dylan’s blog reflecting on his experience in an unfamiliar, but amazing environment.

Halfway across the world in the mountains of Tanzania, the Mazumbai Tropical Forest takes me back to foggy hikes growing up in the temperate forests of Oregon. The fog turns to rain turns to brief sunshine all in the span of minutes, just like back home. While the feel is the same, a closer look shows the differences. The ferns here are raised on stocks, there are leaves more than 4 feet long, vines dangle from trees just asking to be climbed, and a sweet smell accompanies a walk through the forest. And, unlike Oregon, colobus monkeys move through the canopy riling up hornbills.

Dylan and his friends in Tanzania

Our group sets up camp on the lawn of a Swiss chalet turned research station. Over the next few days we research plant variation both vertically and horizontally within the tropical forest as part of our studies. The real topic of discussion is the village below the forest and the issues surrounding their resource use.

An elephant’s visit to a campsite

The eastern face of the Western Usambara Mts. Have an astonishing growth rate of 4.2% per year without immigration, and the average number of children per women is 8! This rapidly increasing population is straining the forest resources of wood and water.

We drive into the village to chants of “Wazungu” (white person)from children chasing the car. In the village we break up into groups to discuss issues with the local people. I am astonished to discover many aren’t sure of their own age.

Spending time at Mazumbai showed me a unique view of Tanzania not normally seen by outsiders. In a country known for sprawling savannahs, this rare glimpse into a tropical forest and its people is what studying abroad is all about.