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Revee Needham ’18: WWOOF-ing It in Costa Rica

By Peter Tschirhart on March 5, 2017

Revee Needham learned about organic farming in Costa Rica.

During winter of 2017, Alumni Memorial Scholar Revee Needham ’18 used her grant funds to learn about organic farming in Costa Rica. She writes:

I worked on the farm most mornings, helping to plant, harvest crops, and befriend the baby goat. I learned about the challenges of organic farming in Costa Rica, where pesticide use is higher than the U.S. Overall, the work was a lot more time and labor-intensive than I would’ve thought. Also, I learned about the devastation of November’s hurricane on the farm’s crops.

You can read more about Revee’s experience on Colgate’s Sustainability News blog. And you can learn more about the AMS program by clicking here.


Kelsey Soderberg ’17: “Traversing Japan: Searching for Answers to the Country’s Population Decline”

By Peter Tschirhart on March 3, 2017

Enjoying the perks of being a tourist alongside my research. Too many temples, too little time.

The following post was contributed by Alumni Memorial Scholar Kelsey Soderberg ’17, who recently completed an independent research project, using her AMS grant funds, studying population decline in Japan.


As I made my way through Tokyo’s brightly lit streets in the midst of evening rush hour, I second-guessed my previously held ideals of the country’s population decline. Never had I seen such large crowds of people, flocking together like schools of fish to enter the subway; so where was the evidence for Japan’s rapidly shrinking population?

But just like the danger of listening to a single story there lies the danger of viewing a single place to tell the whole story. While Tokyo’s streets are constantly bustling with young professionals, packs of teenagers, businessmen and foreign tourists, many areas throughout Japan are facing severe population decline as the majority of young people leave for the capital in search of a better financial and social life. This migration is accompanied by Japan’s incredibly long life expectancy (>83 years old) and shrinking birth rate (~1.4 births per woman), all contributing to a severe population decline that threatens to ravage the country’s economy and way of life if left unchecked.

With unanswered questions about Japan’s demographic challenges, a curiosity for the unknown, and a nearly overwhelming desire to see the world, I packed up my suitcase over January break and headed to the world’s largest city in the hopes of using my AMS funding to place my knowledge into real world context.

Soon enough, I had exited the plane with no knowledge of the language, simply traveling around Tokyo with a notebook and a backpack on my shoulders. While I was primarily conducting research by fire and observing the cultural and social tendencies of everyday Japanese life, I also met with geography and sociology professors at the University of Tokyo and Sophia University to discuss the impact of Japan’s shrinking population on its economic, political and cultural realms. For me, this project was the culmination of my Colgate liberal arts education: an internationally focused research project primarily fueled by a (relatively random) interest in Japanese sociological problems stemming from Professor Yamamoto’s Core Japan class during my sophomore fall. In the end, my project utilized every skill I’ve learned throughout my four years at Colgate: listening to others to find meaning, asking questions without a clear answer, opening oneself to the unknown, and finding similarities among differences. It also highlighted the interdisciplinary nature of my geography major as I searched for answers to a national problem within each realm of society.

While the rest of the country struggles with a declining population, Tokyo’s skyline goes as far as the eye can see– evidence of the vastness associated with the world’s largest city.

In academic terms, the discourse I held with the professors I met proved my previously held notions of the immediate and long-term effects of such rapid depopulation and furthered my understanding of the issue on a macroscale. But it was the more casual back and forth with each professor accompanied by my quick conversations with Japanese strangers in broken English that proved to be the most valuable parts of my research. While recent statistics clearly demonstrate the dastardly consequences that population decline will have on Japanese economic and cultural life, it was not until I spoke with Japanese people about the concerns they have about their personal finances, their children’s future, and the government’s response that I seemed to gain a more three-dimensional grasp on the interconnectedness of the issues at hand. The economic downturn has sparked a lack of confidence in the future of Japanese jobs, ultimately leading to an uncertainty in the personal decision to have children. The incredibly large number of elderly people has created a population bubble on the brink of bursting, causing many people to question the reality of obtaining their pension after a lifetime of work. Women are working more than in the past, partially out of opportunity and partially out of necessity, and childcare is almost impossible to obtain in Japan’s largest cities, leading to higher median ages of marriage and fewer children. Throughout my trip, the majority of people I spoke with worried about these problems specifically, often blaming the population decline on them and vice versa.

In reality, though, most city folk don’t talk about the country’s demographic issues, as the sheer size of Tokyo and its suburbs makes it easy to forget about them.

It was not until I traveled to the rural, isolated town of Matsukawa in Nagano Prefecture that I realized the tangible effects of the problem lie outside of the capital. Within the Japanese Alps and other more rural areas, life is much slower and the lights less bright. After staying with a wonderful host family and exploring the mountainous region for several days, it was clear that Japan’s famously aging population and low birth rate were much more noticeable in the rural areas than in urban. Small towns like Matsukawa lack young people as many flee to Tokyo or Kyoto for college or to start their professional careers. But for most town residents, depopulation is not thought about—a common theme I found throughout my time there. I was initially struck by this lack of concern about such a pressing issue but soon realized that the Japanese, like any other culture, get caught up in the day to day struggles of life. National issues are often an afterthought, as children, jobs and happiness rank higher on the rung of importance than relatively slow-moving demographic change.

Although my academic standpoint on the critical nature of the issue had initially caused me to look at this type of large-scale apathy with contempt, traveling throughout Japan allowed me to see the humanity in a largely statistical study. Just a five-minute conversation with a Japanese stranger gave me a better grasp on the effects of this population change than many of the books I had belabored over, once again proving the indisputable benefits of the AMS program.

Villages are meticulously placed between farmland and mountains, as the Japanese use every last bit of available land to their advantage. Compared to the ultra-modern lifestyle found in Japan’s cities, rural towns like this are much different.

And in another sense, all hope is not lost. After staying in Kyoto for several days, I drove up to the small city of Ayabe in northern Kyoto Prefecture with a geography professor from Doshisha University in order to see first-hand the effects of depopulation. From the looks of the town’s main street, it was clear that young people had fled for the opportunity-filled cities, leaving behind an agriculturally dominated area struggling to get by in the 21st century. However, the area was also filled with older retirees and young couples with children who had left Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka to live life at a slower pace. This type of emigration is common in Japan’s more rural areas, as many refuse to adopt the hyper-modern, Westernized world often found in the urban core. While in Ayabe, I visited the local government offices where I learned about yearly welcoming parties held in an attempt to bring city-goers to the area. It was clear that local activism was more robust than many of the attempts to change policy at the federal level– a reflection of the imbalanced narrative and consequences of the demographic change. This will not entirely solve the problem, but it does provide hope in a relatively hopeless situation.

While my on-the-ground research reinforced many of the theories I had previously learned, much of my experience in Japan was welcomingly unexpected and had little to do with my actual research. Here are some of the moments I’ll never forget:

  • The way strangers respected each other and welcomed me. After walking into a café in a one-street town, I was given a homemade gift by the owner even though we couldn’t communicate in the same language.
  • Making my own traditional Japanese style bed each night on tatami mats.
  • Eating dried, roasted, baked, and broiled fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner- and liking them all.
  • Waking up to an earthquake in my Tokyo hotel room.
  • Experiencing Tokyo rush hour. Though I’ve worked two summers in New York, this was an indescribable experience.
  • Feeling completely “at home” with my host family in Matsukawa while playing in the snow with their two young girls and eating homemade udon noodles cross-legged on the floor.
  • Skiing the Japanese Alps at Happo-One, the site of the 1998 Winter Olympics.
  • Learning about the intricacies of Zen Buddhism, a much needed lesson to prepare for the anxieties that come with senior spring.
  • Hand carving a wasabi plant onto my vanilla ice cream. Don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it.
  • Thanking the geography major in me after conquering each city’s public transportation system by myself.
  • Walking through Fushimi-Inari, the land of a Thousand Gates in Kyoto, and feeling completely in awe of human capability.
  • Feeding peanuts to dozens of macaque monkeys on a mountain overlooking Kyoto. It sounds as weird and cool as it was.
  • Allowing myself to feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in a culture completely different from my own; allowing myself to feel welcomed and comforted by the kindness of strangers and a culture completely different from my own.

Appreciating the freedom to do and see whatever I wanted in a foreign land for two weeks.

Overlooking Kyoto with a friendly visitor.

The dichotomy of modern Japan lies in the balance between old and new, urban and rural, Japanese and Western. Grappling with these differences were at the heart of most of my cultural observations.

Each place I visited, from Tokyo’s glowing streets to Matsukawa’s mountainous backdrop, provided me with a completely different perspective on Japan from the last. My own identity changed minute to minute as well, giving me distinct vantage points from which to learn and absorb information. One moment I was a well-versed student discussing the implications of a declining population on the macroeconomics of a first-world nation with renowned scholars, and the next moment I was an unaccompanied tourist making my way through foreign alleyways and unknown train stations. These solo moments as a traveler made up the majority of my trip and allowed me the freedom and independence to move from one interest of mine to the next. With few specifics on my itinerary and an impartial unfamiliarity about the realities of Japanese life, I was able to view the culture from an outsider’s perspective with few biased presumptions. Very few times in my life have I felt such autonomy to create an entirely original story while making each and every decision by and for myself. Though I still cannot claim to know what Japan will face in the coming years, the opportunity to learn more was one of the best of my life.


Sydney Loria ’18: Juliet in Modernity

By sloria on January 23, 2017

Alumni Memorial Scholar Sydney Loria ’18 used her AMS Grant to travel to Italy during the summer of 2016. For two weeks, Sydney lived in Verona, where she volunteered for the Juliet Club. Her goal was to understand how Shakespeare’s character Juliet Capulet remains relevant in modern society–and why so many people from around the world write letters to a fictional person. The following post describes her experience and results.


The story of Romeo and Juliet has inspired people for years, teaching us that love at first sight is real and true love exists. It is a narrative that is understood across generations and cultures as the archetypal story of love in its purest and deepest form. It introduces us to a character that is both childish and mature, naïve and wise, careless and cautious. For years, people have been turning to Juliet Capulet for advice about love and life as if she knew all the answers as a thirteen-year-old girl. In our Western culture, we see such young love as puerile and yet still place so much faith in the young lover. It is this seemingly hypocritical attitude that inspired me to travel to Verona, Italy and volunteer for the Juliet Club.

The tradition of leaving letters for Juliet has been around for centuries, but the club was officially founded in the 1990’s with the purpose of giving answers to lost souls. I was first introduced to the organization after watching Letters to Juliet, the popular film that came out in 2010. I found hope and inspiration in the idea of the Juliet Club, and I arranged to spend two weeks in Verona working for the club and answering some of my own questions about Juliet and the pivotal role that she continues to play throughout history.

One of the most famous tourist attractions in Verona is Juliet’s Balcony. Home to the famous bronze statue with the lucky breast and the wall where thousands of notes are posted each year, it is where people travel when they seek the advice of Juliet. The plethora of languages spoken in this small area made me more aware of the fact that Juliet’s love is such a global phenomenon. People from all over the world, with incredible differences, come to Verona with the common goal of seeking the advice of the star-crossed lover. The letters are placed inside a red mailbox, and one of the duties of the Secretaries of Juliet is to empty the mailbox and bring the letters to our office. Juliet’s Balcony is a symbol of her love for Romeo, and when standing there, one can imagine the famous balcony scene that takes place in Shakespeare’s play. Being in a place filled with the promise of such love makes us forget rationality and allows us to believe in true love and the ultimate sacrifices that people make to maintain it.

The Secretaries of Juliet take on the role of Juliet, and answer each letter that is sent to Verona. After watching the movie that the Juliet Club inspired, I had expected to find a table of experienced woman answering the pleas of these heartsick women. However, I found a table of high school girls. I learned from them that as part of their schooling, they were required to volunteer over the summer at a place that matched with their schooling specialties. As these girls had all chosen to attend high schools with language-intensive programs, they chose the Juliet Club to practice the variety of languages that they were learning. I was left wondering how a group of such young girls, including myself, held the wisdom and ability to truly help the hundreds of people with problems that many of us had not yet even faced ourselves.

Throughout my time volunteering, I found that the letters generally fell into a couple of categories. The most prominent of which were letters from those who faced a crossroads in their love lives. There were also letters that were written for the sole purpose of expressing personal content in a relationship. Many letters addressed problems that were not at all love related, and the type that I least expected came from school children. Many teachers instructed their students to write to Juliet as an exercise after reading the play; these letters proved to be the most amusing. Many of the students reflected on specific details from the play and asked Juliet about how she could be so foolish to think that she had found true love at such a young age. Other students wrote to Juliet as a means of practicing their English skills. The students showed a genuine curiosity about the story of Romeo and Juliet, and they were faced with the same questions that I had wondered about before leaving for Italy. The exposure to Romeo and Juliet at such a young age, and across many countries, demonstrates how literature plays an important role in spreading the notion of Juliet’s wisdom and ability to help others who are facing difficulties.

The history of the Juliet Club became quite apparent when one day I was able to visit the archives. This room housed letters that had been received each year since the foundation of the club. The man that took us to the archives also explained that they were currently working on a project where the entire manuscript of Romeo and Juliet was being copied, each line by a different person. These traditions and history succeed in bringing people together and surmounting the vast differences that are seen between cultures and beliefs. I learned that the Juliet Club is a very welcoming and open organization, allowing anyone that walks into the office to ask questions and even offer their own advice by means of answering a letter. We can’t offer each person that writes to us the perfect advice or provide them with all the answers, but we can give them love and hope. The ability of the Secretaries, even though we were all young, to successfully respond to the variety of letters we received was dependent upon our ability to provide a sense of hope. Hope is what has brought millions of people over the years to Verona and to Juliet’s Balcony. The ability of Juliet to find a love that she was willing to die for is inspiring, and although the outcome of her story can be described as nothing short of tragic, she was strong and she was determined and she was hopeful that one day she would be reunited with her Romeo. We all strive to attain the ultimate goal of love and success, and the key to finding these things is finding hope and strength. Juliet’s story embodies such feelings and the ability of the Secretaries to translate these messages into our letters is what makes the Juliet Club successful and encourages the people of the world to continue to put their faith in Juliet.

All the Secretaries that I worked with had the same feelings regarding love and the meaning behind the character of Juliet. We still keep in touch, and in general, this was a very powerful and eye-opening experience for me. I loved being able to feel a connection with people from all around the world, and I really appreaciated the welcoming environment of the Juliet Club. The people who write to Juliet don’t expect to receive all the answers to their problems in our responses. They want the courage and strength to be able to decide what is best for them, and if we can offer a little personal advice along the way, then they can feel like someone is listening. I loved the time that I spent in Verona, and I am positive that Juliet will continue to remain a symbol of love and hope for generations to come.

 

 

 


AMS: PhilliArts 2016

By Quanzhi Guo on October 26, 2016
Downtown Philly

Looking south from N. Broad in downtown Philadelphia.

During fall break, the AMS embarked on a trip with Dean Peter Tschirhart and Professor Robert Nemes to Philadelphia, the first world heritage city in the USA, for a feast of art and culture.

Day 1: Saturday, 8 October

The 4-hour van ride from Hamilton was an enjoyable one, as fall break is the prime time for colorful foliage. And we had plenty of Dunkin’ Donuts on board, paired with stimulating discussions—including whether we should colonize Mars, and why public transport in the US doesn’t work. Our destination: center city Philadelphia.

Founded by William Penn in 1682, Philadelphia was imagined to be a city where everyone is welcomed. Nowhere  is that idea better exemplified than in the Reading Terminal Market. I first learned about the market it in a sociology class at Colgate. Described as a “cosmopolitan canopy,” the Reading Terminal offers respite and an opportunity for diverse population to come together and gain social exposure in an urban jungle. And from what we experienced, theory was reality.

After checking in at our hotel, we all ventured two blocks to the market, which presented as a multi-ethnic food market full of hustle and bustle (and jostle). With pretzels coming fresh out of the ovens at Miller’s Twist, famous cheese steak grilling and sizzling, and coffee pots clanking, the market welcomed us with open arms. And as I queued for the oldest American ice cream (that had always been at the top of my Philadelphia wish list), I indulged in people-watching—locals as well as tourists stood in long lines, engaged in casual conversations, shouting and gibbering as they hovered around scouting for seats. I inhaled and the air was dense with Thai spice, Amish baked goods, and barbecued meat (maybe from the acclaimed best sandwich in America from DiNic’s?).

Feeling satisfied, we then braved the rain and walked around downtown Philly with our guide Allen to learn about the mural arts in Philly. October is the “Mural Arts month” for Philadelphia. To bring more arts to public space, the city has been running a Mural Arts Program—the nation’s largest public art program—with the belief that art ignites change.

Walking around and admiring artworks on a random wall, in a carpark, and outside a bar, I found it interesting how the personal became the public, and how the canvas became part of the city. These murals exist not to differentiate and discriminate those who do not have access to “high culture,” but to bring the community together for to provide inspiration and a common urban experience.

The mural tour also explored inclusivity. In the piece Finding Home, participants from Project H.O.M.E., an organization that provides a variety of essential resources to people in recovery and in transition, learned simple weaving techniques and created scarves and other woven products as the canvas for the mural. As viewer, I was provoked to reflect on what it means to be an inviting community, or simply have a home. I thought about the homeless shelter in Boston, where I worked after my first year, as a Manzi fellow. And while walking around in the city center, I encountered lots of homeless people dragging all their belongings idling in the light rain. Maybe for them, home was a physical place where they can sleep; or maybe it’s an in-between space, where they can hang out, feel invited, respected, and rooted.

Day 2: Sunday, 9 October

After a late morning breakfast, we took the trolley from center city to the University of Pennsylvania campus to visit the Institute of Contemporary Arts. The exhibit we saw was called The Freedom Principle: Experiments in Art and Music 1965 to Now, and it explored the cross-pollination between jazz music and art. Organized to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM)—a Chicago-based group that is devoted to nurturing, performing, and recording serious, original music, the exhibition was a collection of engagements with avant-garde expression.

But before the exhibition, we stopped by Federal Donuts for some hot fresh treats (just a “coincidence” that we had donuts for two days in a row).

To me, the AACM was unique in the way they incorporated socio-political struggle into their arts. These artists were not only breaking new grounds through improvised jazz to explore their identities and express their frustrations, but also collaborating with dancers, theatre artists, poets and visual artists. For example, the AACM have collaborated with AfriCOBRA (the African Common of Bad Relevant Artists) to support African American struggle for freedom, equality and justice.

Other than political urgency, the art pieces were also rich in cultural context, mostly African American and native American. I really liked one piece called Rio Negro II, which was a robotic-acoustic installation that consists of rain sticks, chimes, bamboo, earth, wood, rocks, and sculptures. When one element of the installation kicked, a mechanism of sound and kinetics started. I was really transfixed by the mixing of the ancient handicrafts with the contemporary technology and the multi-sensory experience delivered through the installation.

Later on Sunday afternoon, we took a public bus to the Eastern State Penitentiary. (Surprisingly, it was no one’s first time taking a public bus!) Abandoned in 1971, the haunting castle-like Gothic architecture was founded upon the Quaker-inspired belief that solitary confinement could reform criminals. As a result, prisoners had to endure long periods of isolation and silence.

Once the most expensive building in the USA, the Eastern State Penitentiary was also the model for about 300 prisons across Asia and Europe. The original structure was a single 11-acre cell block that was minimalist at best, inhumane at worst. And its most notorious criminals included bank robber “Slick Willie” Sutton and Al Capone.

The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, with 2.2 million citizens in prison or jail by far. This phenomenon has generally been driven by changes in laws, policing, and sentencing, not by changes in behavior. The results have disproportionately impacted poor and disenfranchised communities but the historic changes have remained almost invisible to many Americans. To me, the greatest misery is really alive but not living, so it was quite ironic that prisoners had to lived in such conditions in the city of brotherly love.

For dinner on Sunday, we had an authentic Moroccan food experience at Marrakesh, a home-owned restaurant with vibrant and mystical decor. I have never had a meal in the US by sitting around a round table with about 10 people and using hands to share food. The physical closeness made the ambience so collegial and everyone felt much more bonded by passing the food and nudging each other. The seven-course meal included pita bread with the most savory eggplant dip, phenomenal honey almond lamb (Peter’s favorite), and succulent cumin-infused baked chicken, and without doubt, won everyone’s palette and heart.

Day 3: Monday, 10 October

Finally, on the last day, we visited the Independence Hall and Liberty Bell, where the founding fathers of America signed the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. A place where many Americans started their quest for freedom and independence, the landmark attracts so many worshippers that most of us only managed to take a peek at the Liberty Bell. I thought the cracked bell was a good metaphor, in light of the presidential debate the day before our visit. As an icon of freedom, the crack is a reminder that the liberty we have now is imperfect. But with our ideals enacted in the Constitution, we always have something to strive for.

With our senses delighted, muses enlightened, we bid goodbye to the “Athens of America”.


XYZ with Q 7: Handing-out Hot Chocolate with Michael Rodriguez ’19

By Quanzhi Guo on September 19, 2016

In the original blog series XYZ with Q, Quanzhi “Q” Guo ’18 visited current and former Benton Scholars to learn about their interests, passions, and accomplishments. Now, Alumni Memorial Scholars have joined the party!  In this post, Q visits Michael Rodriguez ’19 to give out free hot chocolate on Friday morning.


It’s getting chilly at Colgate—the time of year when the air lets you know it will soon be fall. And nothing, seriously, can beat a complimentary cup of hot chocolate (with marshmallow melted on top) handed out near the chapel steps on a brisk Friday morning. 

Little did I knew that Alumni Memorial Scholar Michael Rodriguez ’19, from Grandview in Washington State, was that guy who made the race to 8:20am classes so much more comforting, especially in the middle of the snow.

On a bright Friday morning, I joined Michael for hot-chocolate. To every person who passed by, he flashed a big smile. To Michael, small acts of kindness are one way he gives back. “When people need help, I usually go all-out to help them,” he said.

If you are scrutinizing a Colgate map and Michael walks by, chances are he will not only tell you the way, but also take you wherever you are going, for real.

Back in his hometown church, Michael volunteered as a waiter for Christian camps, worked as a dishwasher and server for local high schools, and helped the elderly as a handyman by washing cars, changing light bulbs, and installing new appliances.

When I asked Michael why he does all these kind things, he was actually a bit puzzled. “If people need help, why let them suffer. Why not try to help?”

To Michael, to help is to give someone a little bit of happiness. “We are all human beings, we all have emotions, we all go through the same sort of things. I think lots of issues today are caused by people not being nice to each other,” he said.

Michael is really humble about his deeds, and it took a while to coax him into telling me what he has done. “You can say all you want without doing anything. And I remember my father always telling me ‘do your best, forget the rest,’” he said.

Outside of class, Michael is also an admission tour guide and hosts prospective students overnight, because his positive visit convinced him commit to Colgate. “I want to give back to the Colgate community by helping others discover the wonders of Colgate,” he said.

Now a prospective molecular biology major and a German minor, Michael wants to be a healthcare professional in the future, probably in family medicine. “Though it’s not the most glamorous (in the medicine field), I like the doctor-patient interaction,” he added.

As an AMS scholar, Michael hopes to attend the Freiburg Study Group and use his AMS funding to study the German healthcare system. “I want to see the differences between the US healthcare system and the German one. From what I learnt, they prioritize preventative measures so you’re not sick in the first place and don’t need to go to see doctors. If you feel overstressed, you can go see doctors and they will prescribe you a vacation!” he said.

Michael’s interest in healthcare comes from seeing his grandmother working at a family clinic when he was a child. To him, this is another way of giving back to more people. And as the hot chocolate barrel is emptied and the last cup of hot chocolate is given out, I am convinced that giving is better than receiving.

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