My Alternative Spring Break: On the Border

Every year, Rice University’s Community Involvement Center organizes week-long service trips for students who want to have an “alternative” spring break (ASB) experience. This year there were 15 different trips, each one planned and led by students, that went to all different parts of the country to do service learning work. My trip went to San Diego, California, and focused on immigration issues. The emphasis of each trip is not only the volunteerism aspect, but to educate students on different social issues and enable them to take action.

My ASB group spent the week working with two organizations. The first one, Border Angels, is a San Diego-based non-profit that works to prevent the unnecessary deaths of immigrants traveling through the desert and mountains to San Diego, caused by extreme heat and cold as well as dehydration. Border Angels also seeks to educate the community and spread awareness about these deaths, and its members maintain “rescue stations” out in the desert with warm clothing, food, and water. The founder of the organization showed up in person to lead my ASB group to visit the desert, where we helped set up water stations and got a firsthand look at how terrifying and dangerous it is to cross the border illegally. Just the mere fact that people are still coming across every day, despite the risks, was a sobering revelation.

Tijuana on the other side

My ASB group also got a close and personal tour of the US-Mexico border, led by border patrol agents. They explained the need to secure the border for national security purposes, and discussed many of the difficulties and setbacks that Border Security experiences on a daily basis due to illegal crossings. It was interesting to balance this bureaucratic perspective with the humanitarian work that Border Angels does, and being able to juxtapose these views really gave me a better understanding of my own views on the issue.

One of my favorite activities that we did was working with another nonprofit called Casa Familiar, based in San Ysidro (a border town in California), where 82% of students in the district are determined as low socio-economic status, and 100% qualify for free or reduced-cost meals. Casa is dedicated to enhancing the quality of life by providing education, advocacy, affordable housing programs, and community development. Given that most border towns—yes, even on the US side of the border—face many challenges to their economic and community development, it was greatly inspiring to see the wonderful impact Casa Familiar had on San Ysidro. For the last three days of the trip, my group helped Casa prepare for an exhibit opening at their art gallery, celebrating Dia de la Mujer (International Women’s Day); played kickball with some kids who proved to be way better than us despite their age; and did a lot of painting, including touching-up some fence art—just another vibrant detail to brighten up the community.

The whole ASB group

Of course, my spring break trip wasn’t all work and no play. I really loved getting to know my fellow ASB members, who represented a variety of majors, backgrounds, and personalities. We all grew incredibly close during that week, by sharing the meaningful experience of the work we were doing, as well as group bonding activities such as nightly games of Taboo (it got pretty competitive) and going to the beautiful Coronado Beach one night. I had no regrets about giving up my spring break to do service with such a great, fun group of people. I learned a lot from the experience and from the other trip members, and by the end of the trip, I felt like I gained a lot of perspective on the immigration issue. I hope to do ASB again in the future, and maybe even lead a trip next time, and I’m so glad that Rice has kept up with this tradition, helping students fundraise and organize service trips for important social issues.

 

Thanks for reading! Next time I’ll be talking about research opportunities at Rice, and my summer job.

Studying Leadership at Rice

Being a Rice Owl brings a lot of both expected and unexpected perks. Some of the more frequently mentioned opportunities that Rice provides are research with professors, internship advice, and career/professional services. These are certainly great resources, but I’m about to tell you about a rather unusual opportunity that came to me through one of my classes. Having an online article published on the Washington Post website may not be the most prestigious honor in the world of academics, but it is probably one of the coolest things that I can claim I’ve been a part of. And yes, it was actually an assignment for a sociology class I am taking, which has quickly become one of the more interesting classes I’ve had at Rice.

The title of the class is “Social Dynamics of Leadership,” and it is taught by Dr. Michael Lindsay, one of the most popular and respected professors at Rice. The class is a study of elite groups in societies, comparing different theories and approaches to the analysis of elites, and addressing topics such as leadership dilemmas and accountability as well as the social dynamics that influence leaders. And who better to instruct the course than Dr. Lindsay, who is conducting an extremely thorough study of American leaders in all kinds of fields—the research that my fellow blogger Graham is contributing to, so check his posts to learn more about it.

Though it’s a sociology class, the students come from all different majors, from engineers to political scientists (yours truly). The class’s wide-ranging appeal to students is based not only on the interesting subject material, but the excellent reputation of Professor Lindsay, who combines a compelling presence in the classroom and thorough expertise in his material with interesting, challenging homework assignments. One of these assignments was to write a group essay with 4 or 5 classmates responding to the weekly thought question posted on the Washington Post’s column “On Leadership.” My group was assigned the first question, which had to do with leadership in times of great change, using the example of the situation in Egypt and the necessity for new leaders to replace the old. Our essay was published along with articles from other contributors on the Washington Post website, which (I won’t lie) was a pretty cool feeling.

Another component of the class is a group research project, which we’ll present at Rice’s Undergraduate Research Symposium in April. For our topic, my group chose “Executive Influence after Executive Power,” a study of the influence exerted by Presidents, Vice Presidents, and other Cabinet members after they leave office. We’ll each be doing research on individuals within a particular administration, and then combine our research to search for common trends and draw conclusions.

Rice offers a variety of leadership classes, some of which are cross-listed with other disciplines (like sociology, like the class I’m taking, or communications), allowing for students to explore different facets and theories of leadership. I also love to be able to take classes in various other fields I’m interested in, apart from my major. Before coming to Rice, I had never had the opportunity to view leadership through an academic lens, and learning from such an experienced expert as Dr. Lindsay has made the experience incredibly enlightening.

That’s all for this update—I’ve got a plethora of tests this week, and then on Saturday I’m off on a service trip for spring break, which I’ll be sure to tell you all about as soon as I get back!

Bringing Live Music to Rice

One of the first things you’ll learn about me is that I am a frequent and devout concertgoer. All throughout high school I went to several shows a month, and I even learned a little about booking them. After coming to Rice, I determined right away that there had to be some way of pursuing this love for live music, and thankfully, there was already an outlet for it – through Rice Program Council (RPC). RPC is a board of students who plan and organize fun events that all of campus participates in – a few examples are the Homecoming dance, Mario Kart themed study break, and the fun festivities of Willy Week. Faculty advisors help the students plan out budgets and schedules for their events, and it’s a great way to be a part of the campus-wide fun that Rice sponsors – getting to plan these events, not just participate in them, has really been a unique experience. Being a part of RPC has really helped me to appreciate the dedication of the Rice administration to creating fun college experiences, not just academic excellence.

The concerts committee, which I co-chair along with another student, is in charge of bringing the live music experience to Rice campus. Right up my alley – I get to talk directly with musicians and their agents, negotiate the terms of their performance contracts, and plan out every detail of the concert in order to make it a great experience for the artist and the students. Planning concerts, I’ve learned, takes a lot more than simply contacting a band or artist. RPC sent me and my co-chair to a conference in Milwaukee over the summer, so we could learn more about what it takes to plan a successful concert. The conference was a great experience and featured seminars on everything we needed to know – security, publicity, hospitality riders, technical riders, and a lot about the music business. I knew that I was going to be facing some challenges in booking concerts at Rice because of our small size and the busy schedules of our students, but thanks to networking at the conference, I came away with a lot of useful contacts and ideas for how to approach programming at a small campus.

The first concert my committee planned was a blues-rock band called The Kicks, based in Nashville. They were on their way to play Austin City Limits music festival in October, and so they were glad to stop in Houston first and play at our on-campus pub. Willy’s Pub was packed that night with Rice students who’d been studying hard all week and could now relax and start to enjoy the weekend. The Kicks put on a great live show with lots of energy and really catchy, up-beat songs, and when they had finished their set, they were swarmed with students who wanted to buy CDs and shirts from them, as well as just say hello and thank them for coming. The band members were all extremely friendly, and it was great to watch them interact with the students so well. At the end of the night, the guys from the band thanked us for bringing them to Rice and told us they’d love to come back. It was a great success for our very first show, and I was happy to give Rice students a fun alternative to studying.

My next post will be about the biggest concert that we put on last semester – so keep reading to find out which artist we brought to Rice campus!

Classes at Rice: From Social Inequality to Bombs & Rockets

I was partly relieved and partly sad to see the fall 2010 semester at Rice come to a close. It had been a very busy, academically challenging semester for me as I tackled some difficult upper-level classes and constantly juggled my coursework with my extracurriculars. Thankfully, the classes I took last semester were all extremely engaging and thought-provoking, and when I tried to pick a favorite, I could only narrow it down to a top three.

The first one is “Introductory Russian,” which turned out to be the most fun class I’ve ever taken at Rice. Given my interest in Russian culture and politics, I was excited to finally start learning the language, but nervous about how difficult I’d heard it was. I won’t lie – the first few weeks of memorizing the Cyrillic alphabet and trying to master the different stress patterns were extremely hard, but the more I learned, the more confident I became in my speaking ability. It was a pretty small class of 14 students, and the professor always made the class interesting by cracking a Putin joke every other day or so. We started out with the basics – the aphabet, pronunciation, greetings, etc. – and by the end of the semester, I found that to my surprise, I could carry on a fairly extensive conversation entirely in Russian and could write a whole page describing myself and my activities. It was a difficult class, but definitely a fun and effective one.

I also took my first sociology course last semester, entitled “Social Inequality.” The lecture topics and readings explored the causes and different kinds of class, wealth, and social inequality in the United States, but the course was largely focused on in-class discussion. The professor was excellent at encouraging and guiding these discussions along, but it was mainly the students who did the talking. I learned as much from the insight and experiences of my peers in that class as I did from the textbook, which was an interesting dynamic for the class. The course was also unique because it had a service component – every student was required to fulfill 20 hours of volunteering during the semester, and write a paper at the end reflecting on this service and what it taught us about social inequality. Thanks to this class, I was spending a couple hours a week doing volunteer work, which was actually a refreshing break from schoolwork and overall, a very positive experience. I got involved in volunteer work directly through Rice’s numerous opportunities and student volunteer groups, including tutoring high school students and serving food to the homeless, and it was a growth experience I might not have gotten if not for this class. It really was a class that made me think critically and re-evaluate my views and beliefs, as well as inspired me to go out and make a difference, even on a small scale.

But I wasn’t only learning how to make the world a better place – I was also learning how to destroy it. Well, not quite, but close. I took a political science class called “American National Defense Policy,” and it was definitely the most interesting class I’ve taken at Rice so far. The class covered everything from nation-building and peacekeeping efforts to nuclear policy and warfare, and I gained a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the U.S. military. It was one of the most challenging classes I’ve taken so far, but definitely worth the hard work when I realized how much I was learning and how valuable that information might be in my future career of international relations. Also, I must admit, it feels good to be able to impress people with my obscure knowledge about military tactics and nuclear weapons. The topics discussed in class were all presented in such a manner that they were both interesting and easy to understand, thanks to a great professor.

All in all, it’s been a challenging but very rewarding semester. Next time I’ll talk about a couple of my extracurriculars and how they occupy my time. That’s all for now, keep reading!

Homesick at Home

It’s quite common for a Rice student to respond to the question “where are you from?” with the name of their residential college rather than their hometown – in fact, it’s practically automatic. In general, we identify ourselves first as Rice students, and second, by our colleges, in which our eating, sleeping, and most of our socializing activities take place. Furthermore, belonging to a college is one of the most unifying and supportive experiences here at Rice. My love for my college, Sid Richardson, was instilled in me from day one of orientation week, when I walked through the giant archway into Rice’s beautiful academic quad with the rest of my classmates amidst fireworks and dozens of Sid Rich upperclassmen and advisors yelling our names and cheering. And like any other Rice student, I firmly believe that Sid is the best of all the colleges, and that it’s without a doubt the place where I belong – truly a home away from home, a community that is like a second family. The college system seeks to make new students especially feel like they are at home even at university, a goal that they successfully implement through the crazy bonding activities of O-week, the wonderfully involved college masters and RAs, and numerous other traditions and events that are unique to each college.

Of course, my family was thrilled when they learned I was adjusting so well to college life. It comforted them greatly to know that the colleges provide such a support network and comfort when students are having issues of any kind, from academic to personal. But neither they nor I expected how surreal it felt to be home again for Thanksgiving my freshman year. I had only been at Rice for three months, but it had already become my second home, and being at my “real” home in Dallas, TX, even surrounded by all the familiar faces and comforts, somehow did not feel the same as it used to. I was still very glad to be home with my family, but I found myself missing Rice and my life there more than I had expected to.

Now I am a (slightly more) jaded sophomore, and while I definitely feel like I have seen a lot of positive improvements from freshman year, I’ve also found myself a lot more homesick. I talk to my sisters on the phone a lot more than I did last year, and I looked forward to Thanksgiving for weeks so I could be home again, see my pets and friends, and most importantly, spend time with my family. This year, I kept a countdown to the day I got home for Thanksgiving break, and planned in advance all of the activities that would keep me busy: baking with my sisters, getting coffee with friends, eating massive amounts of food at family reunions. But what I forgot to account for, yet again, was that I began to miss Rice after only a few days. Of course it was still wonderful to be home, and especially to be in a more relaxing and low-key environment without all the stresses of classes and homework for a few days. But I still felt torn between my two homes

I was looking through some folders on my computer for a paper I was supposed to be writing, when I stumbled upon an old document I wrote a year ago, over Thanksgiving break of my freshman year at Rice. It was a comparison of two lists: one list was things that I missed about home, and the other was things I missed about Rice. It was both nostalgic and slightly amusing to read over the silly but strikingly true reflections of my freshman self. The list entitled “Things I Miss about Home” included: my piano, my cat, my grandmother’s cooking, my favorite record store, and my crazy but loveable sisters. The list of “Things I Miss about Rice” noted the following: life chats with my best friends out on the balcony of my college, impromptu dance parties in my suite, late-night food runs to Houston’s numerous 24-hour diners, and gathering with my friends in the RAs’ apartment to watch T.V. shows and avoid homework.

Reading this list made me realize that it is possible to have two homes. Neither one has to take preference over the other (though my mother, of course, would strongly disagree). But I think one of the top things I love about Rice is the residential college system, and the way your college becomes your home away from home. I’ll be writing a lot about activities and events my college puts on, so I wanted to explain why it’s so special and means so much to me first.

Thanks for reading, and check back next week – I’ll be talking about the classes I took this semester, which one was my favorite, and why!