There’s Hope in West Virginia

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“I think a lot of us on the coasts—and I would include myself in this—view West Virginia as America’s dumping ground.”

That’s what I told Julie* yesterday as we sat on her balcony, looking over the lush mountains of the Ohio Valley in West Virginia. We were both exhausted. I could feel the jet lag setting in. It was shocking to me to realize that I had only just returned from Italy to New York City two days before, and yet somehow I was already having a quiet morning in the Northern Panhandle of West Virginia. I told myself that I didn’t have the time to deal with jet lag—I was on a tight schedule, trying to get from Queens to Manhattan for dinner then a train to Newark for the night, before returning to Manhattan the next morning so that I could take a train to Pittsburgh and drive to West Virginia. Turns out, I’m really good at delaying exhaustion, but at some point sooner or later, it’ll catch up to me.

Julie was also probably dealing with a similar sense of chronic exhaustion. She had just returned from India a few weeks ago, where she was doing education-related research for an NGO called Kakatiya Sandbox and picked up the morning habit of having lemon water and yogurt. In the spring, she was studying abroad in Florence, Italy. And now, she’s been working on an independent research project on barriers to access to higher education among West Virginia high schoolers.

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Education is something that runs in her family. Her paternal grandfather used to be a superintendent, and her mother, who used to be a teacher and worked her way up through the school system, is now the superintendent of the Ohio County school district. Education is what Julie credits to transforming her into who she is today—Stanford, despite all its faults, gave her the opportunities to do things like live in Italy and India, connected her to a research team where she could do the serious, in-depth, and impactful work on education that she’s doing today, and helped expand her worldview. But what she might not realize is that, just as her social environment has created such an impact on her, she’s impacted the world around her just as much, if not more.

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Oglebay Park

Her time in California, Italy, and India have been a source of excitement and intrigue among people in Wheeling, a small city of under 30,000 people that was once a manufacturing center but has since had its population substantially decline as factories disappeared. Pretty soon after getting into West Virginia, Julie had alerted to me to the fact that we’d be going to the radio station for a cooking segment. That afternoon, before we left to the grocery store to pick up ingredients, I saw Julie frantically writing down her pesto recipe on a pink sticky note, double checking other pesto recipes on her phone. “I just need to make sure I know what I’m doing before I get there,” she said, throwing her mini-blender in a tote bag as we ran out the door.

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The radio station experience itself was unique. I’ve had experiences with local media; my brother, a former two-time cancer patient, has had a good amount of media exposure, and I’ve been on local news channels and our local NPR-affiliate station as well. But there was something different about this one. I’m used to the “liberal elitism” of Dallas, a phrase I genuinely don’t like to use, but I think it’s more prominent in Dallas than anywhere else in Texas… maybe even the rest of the South. At this radio station, the host of the show, an incredibly sweet and funny man, was missing some of his teeth and had a certain politically incorrect humor that occasionally broke out into the airwaves. He made brief mentions of his son who was in Iraq, and he closed off the show with “God bless you,” something that you simply don’t hear in Dallas.

The day we were there was for the weekly food segment that he does to close out the day, probably a more fun and exciting segment to sit in on than their politics or sports segments—in case you’re wondering, Wheeling is strong Steelers territory. Julie had filled in for her mom on a previous radio segment, and when she was asked about her time in Italy, she mentioned the fresh pesto she learned to make with her host family. Hence how I ended up standing behind the desk of a West Virginia radio station, watching Julie pull out her blender and fill it with basil that we had bought just a half hour before. Southern cordiality and friendliness shone through here, too, and I even got a few shoutouts from the radio host on the air. There were some brief mentions of how I was from Dallas—a great place to be from, since its combination of liberal metropolitan environment and conservative Texan surroundings makes me never seem like too much of an outsider, no matter where I am in the country—and also how I love pineapples.

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I don’t know if I’d really call my experience in Wheeling as a culture shock. It was certainly different—it is still West Virginia, after all—but it was much more scenic and urban than I had expected. Whereas Canadian, Texas, which sits in the Texas Panhandle instead of one of the two West Virginian ones, was genuinely small and rural, Wheeling is like a suburb without a city. And that’s a remnant of its once large stature within the area, before globalization led to the fall of American manufacturing. Unlike Canadian, which had a sizable Mexican-American population even if it’s much smaller than urban areas like Dallas, Wheeling was nearly entirely white and aging. Those demographics help explain why long stretches of Wheeling were just Christian churches, law firms that mostly deal with workers compensation and medical malpractice cases, and retirement homes. It’s a site of significant brain drain, in which the best and brightest minds end up abandoning Wheeling—and the state of West Virginia as a whole—due to the significantly fewer opportunities.

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Foggy mornings in Wheeling

“Wheeling has so much potential,” Julie told me as we sat out on her porch, minutes after I had admitted to her that I assumed West Virginia would just be a boring and unsightly place. The morning fog had finally cleared, and with that came a renewed optimism on her end. The tiredness in her voice that had characterized so many of our conversations the day before was replaced with a new sense of vigor as she told me more about the areas that West Virginia needs work. But even more exciting was her plans of how she’d fix it, drawing on her recent experiences in India, her background in economics, and the cultural knowledge and connections she’d built up throughout her time growing up in the state.

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I wasn’t the first person to suggest she should go into politics. So many others had seen her passion for the state, her love of the people, and how she’s a junkie for mountaineers, country roads, moonshine, and coal mining. And there was already precedent for it in her own life—her mother and father keep her grounded in local politics, and she’s close enough with Senator Joe Manchin that she got coffee with him a few weeks ago and worked for him in the Senate last summer. But the issue continues to rest in West Virginia’s lack of jobs for her—her interest is in policy, especially education policy, but there are few opportunities in policy or academia. “I hope to stay connected to [West Virginia] forever,” Julie told me, whether that was through her research, through business, or just in returning home to visit. “Maybe if I’m a fancy rich person someday,” she said, her smile widening as she chuckled, “I’ll get a little cabin somewhere that I can come and have my vacations in and escape from reality to. I don’t know. But I do love it here.”

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And the truth was, I loved it, too. At many points, Julie took so much personal pride when I agreed with her that Wheeling would be a perfect center for leisure tourism. Hell, it was a great place for me to rest in between nine-hour plane rides across the Atlantic and equally long train rides across New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

If you had told me a year ago that I would’ve spent two days in West Virginia with a girl who I had met in a statistics class—and that I’d love it!—I would’ve thought you were crazy. But there’s a certain charm to Wheeling. Especially after enjoying rural Texas so much, I can’t tell if it’s just that, like many Americans, I fetishize Americana to a certain extent and that West Virginia, with its coal mines and its Trump voters, is just a great symbol of the American “heartland” nowadays. To some, that fetishization isn’t the worst thing—at least people are interested in places like West Virginia, right? But there is a certain irony and danger in so many of us from urban, metropolitan areas yearning for “the real America” while still viewing places like West Virginia as—in my own words—a “dumping ground.”

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I said earlier in this post that Julie has already had an impact on the world around her. I’m definitely one of those people who’ve felt her impact and learned so much from her just in the past two days and three nights that I was with her. Especially after I abandoned economics and dove headfirst into anthropology, exhausted by microagressions by my mostly straight, white, and male peers, Julie’s sense of social responsibility to her community and her unrelenting ability to push through setbacks in funding have given me so much hope. Her interest too in policy writing itself, a requirement of Stanford economics majors that few look forward to with as much excitement as she does, leaves me even more confident that I’m watching the development and growth of a future leader and change-maker.

And I’m just genuinely glad to have gotten to see the beginnings of it firsthand.

***

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Entering Pittsburgh this morning

I’m currently on a long train ride to Philadelphia after Julie dropped me off at the Pittsburgh Amtrak Station bright and early this morning—all with enough time to make it back to Wheeling to watch her younger sister go to school. I’ll be home in Dallas for a few days after today before I head off to New England and then to the Holy Land.

This is a topic for a future time—maybe for while I’m at home—but it’s been impossible to disconnect the current political moment that we’re in from the research I’m doing, which should technically be what most people consider apolitical… or at least unconnected to partisan politics. But my very nature and existence is political, as a colleague and classmate of mine who’s a returning student reminded me in Italy. I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition building, what the future of our country can look like for people in places as different as California and West Virginia, and what that means in both the short-term (i.e. 2018 and 2020) and the long-term (i.e. how I proceed from here). And at the recommendation of my friend Whitney, I’ve been listening to a documentary–podcast (The Wilderness) on the train that’s included some emotional speeches by both Barack Obama and Bobby Kennedy.

As I close out this piece of my journey, and come very close to closing out “part three” of my overall travels, I just wanted to very publicly thank Julie, her parents, and her grandparents for taking me in these past few days and showing me a piece of the country that I probably would never have gone to on my own. My time in West Virginia was too short, and there were so many things I’d loved to have gone more in-depth about—from the strength of unions and organized labor to Trump’s support in the state to even just Julie’s mother’s dissertation and wonderful research around education—but I guess I’ll just have to come back. Who knows, maybe I’ll return to West Virginia next year?

* names changed

Finding the Magic in Simplicity

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* Names changed.

Last week, I got to witness something truly magical. It was an early day for me, not by choice—I had just flown from New York City to Venice, Italy, the day before, and the jet lag had really affected me. I had trouble falling back asleep, so around 5:30am, I pulled myself out of my bed, threw on some clothes, and wandered out the front of the remodeled, twelfth-century monastery where I was staying. Venice was still asleep, so it was just me on the streets and a few workboats on the water.

And that’s when I saw it: the sun rising over the lagoon. I sat on the dock, my feet hanging over the dirty lagoon water as I watched the sun’s hues change from red to orange to yellow before its light diffused into the clouds.

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I can’t remember the last time I saw the sunrise. I’m an early riser for a college student, but I’m never up by dawn. And that made this sunrise even more magical—it was probably the first one I’d seen in years, and I probably won’t see another one for a really long time.

I’ve been in Venice for over a week now, and I have a little less than two weeks here. It’s been such a wonderful trip so far, although it’s been far less glamorous than I would’ve expected. I didn’t think I’d miss the United States as much as I do. Italy is wonderful, but especially as someone whose Italian only goes as far as “posso avere una pallina di gelato” (“can I have one scoop of gelato,” probably the most important phrase), I miss being in a country where I speak the same language as everyone and where people share the same cultural values as me. My feet have been swollen from so much walking, the heat and humidity of this time of year is killer, and I don’t have the academic background in art history and European history to truly appreciate all of the lectures and cultural sites I’ve been visiting. Travel is hard. I miss home, and I miss my country.

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At the same time, I’m so genuinely glad that I’m here. The Veneto region is beautiful. I commute throughout the island by vaporetto (water bus). I’m seeing beautiful basilicas, churches, synagogues, and museums every day. I eat my fill of pasta, pizza, and gelato every day. And because I’m here through Stanford, I have the help and support of the university in terms of affording meals (which includes a meal stipend for lunches and dinners), knowing where to go (the program has a busy but eventful itinerary), and just generally having peace of mind. I’ve met such wonderful Stanford students here from a variety of disciplines, I’ve gotten to learn a lot about the history of Venice, and I’m getting a pretty cool crash course in archeology—this weekend, we’ll be at our excavation site in Torcello Island, which will be hot and grueling but also such a unique experience.

I’m surrounded by such extreme beauty here, but in reflecting on this past week, the most meaningful pieces of my time in Venice—and even in New York City the week before I arrived—have been the moments where I’ve found the most peace and simplicity.

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On Friday, I took a wooden boat to San Francesco del Deserto, a small island within the Venetian Lagoon where a small monastery sits. Saint Francis of Assisi came here after returning from the Holy Land during the Fifth Crusade—during that crusade, Saint Francis spent time with the Sultan of Egypt, either to attempt to convert the sultan to Christianity or to bridge religious divides, depending on who’s telling the story. (It’s theorized that Pope Francis even took Saint Francis’ name as a way to outreach to Muslims.) According to legend, Saint Francis of Assisi told the birds around him to be quiet while he prayed, and for the entirety of the time he was praying, the birds remained silent. Saint Francis then stuck his wooden staff into the ground, and miraculously, it grew into a large oak tree. The Franciscan monks who now live in the monastery have kept the stump of the oak tree near one of their altars as a reminder of God’s miracles.

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I’ve written on this blog about my own difficult relationship with organized religion and the Catholic Church in particular, but there was something especially soothing about being in this quiet monastery, surrounded by natural beauty and a handful of praying Franciscans. The Franciscans in particular have always given me much hope, and their focus on protecting the environment and the most vulnerable in our society have always been in line with what I believe that religious groups should care most about. Apparently, this monastery used to be open to tourists so that they could stay there for very low prices, but as tourism to Venice rose, the monks decided to end that practice in order to retain their sense of isolation. Even as someone who cares deeply about globalism and wants to see the world become more interconnected, even though the world’s political headwinds seem to be drifting toward isolationism in this period of time, I can see why these Franciscan monks would want to separate themselves from the rest of the Venetian Lagoon and hold onto the peace and quiet of San Francesco del Deserto.

Unfortunately, these kinds of monasteries are in danger of disappearing completely. The number of people who run the monastery is in the single digits, and because they and other monastic groups often don’t have any real source of income or financial support, the costs of keeping the monastery open can sometimes be too much. The other trip participants and I were encouraged by our professor leading the trip to buy something if we were able so that it could help support them. Even though I don’t really pray, I bought a small wooden rosary as a keepsake, a reminder of this short but impactful stop.

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These moments of peace and simplicity are usually pretty hard to come by in my daily life. I’m someone who tends to move toward hustle and bustle: I’m a Stanford student, and competitiveness weighs so heavily in the air sometimes that it can be hard to move without it suffocating me. My fieldwork this summer is a dizzying schedule in which I will have crossed the country and the Atlantic Ocean far too many times for just ten weeks. And my time in the Veneto region of Italy and the Slovenian coastal cities of Piran and Koper is busy and fairly exhausting, and even though the academic work load is dramatically lighter than what I’m used to, a five-page paper isn’t exactly what I would define as a vacation.

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Tea time at Ladurée in SoHo

Before I left for Italy, I found a rare moment of peace and simplicity… in Manhattan of all places. New York City is probably the best example of hustle and bustle, where one of the fastest ways to tell whether someone is a tourist is by looking to see whether they’re looking at their phones/straight ahead or whether they’re taking in the sights of the city. I had been staying with my friend Whitney* for the past couple days, and in our first of two excursions into New York City from Newark, New Jersey, we were definitely the latter; having been thrown off track by a late train from Newark, we ended up taking the ferry across the Hudson River and then walking through SoHo, taking in all the energy of New York City as if it were either of our first times there.

From a lovely lunch and tea time in Ladurée—when I unsuccessfully attempted to get Whitney into tea—to rapid-fire visits with some of Whitney’s friends from when she was studying abroad in South America in the spring, the day felt very characteristic of the hustle and bustle of New York City. All of that was amazing—when else do you get to explore SoHo with a friend, meet a bunch of other students filled to the brim with stories of their adventures across Latin America, and even get to visit Squarespace? But the most meaningful moment for me was when it was all over.

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Whitney and I met up with another friend from Stanford who was living in Brooklyn for the summer; she, a sociology major, had just started working on an independent research project—funded by the same grant that’s been funding my travels, so we’re part of the same grant cohort—on Bosnian Muslim identity. She was still adjusting to life in New York City, so she didn’t want to be in Manhattan too long after dark. Whitney and I met her in Battery Park, about as close to Brooklyn as you could get within Manhattan without actually crossing over into another borough. After catching up for a few minutes and taking pictures at golden hour, we sat down on a bench and watched the sun set over the Hudson River, the Statue of Liberty looming large in the distance.

For those couple hours that the three of us were together, we talked about the state of the world, our differing approaches and praxes, and gave each other insight into how our specific social sciences—political science, sociology, and anthropology—approach societal issues. We spoke at length about the struggles that intelligent leftist discourse has on campus, often squeezed out by a vocal right-wing minority and reactionary left-wing responses to that majority, and we talked about our hopes and plans for the future—academically and personally. And every now and then, we’d all just stop and take in the beautiful sights in front of us.

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New York City from the Hudson River

***

Today, I’m in Koper, Slovenia. It’s on the very small strip of coastline that Slovenia has, and it’s incredibly beautiful. Tomorrow morning, I return to Venice. It’s been a dizzying past week or so, but I’ve been really enjoying it! I spent some time studying medieval anti-Semitism, so getting to see the Jewish Ghetto here—which is actually where the term “ghetto” was coined—was especially exciting. And by the end of the week, I’ll be excavating. But until then, the goal of today is to rest—much needed after all the traveling!

Finding God in Texas

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This is a continuation of my previous post on Canadian, Texas. The first part can be found here. *Names in this blog post were changed.

I struggled to sleep last night thinking about how I would write about my time in Canadian, Texas, and then Austin, Texas. The original title of this blog post was supposed to be “Making the Lone Star State a Little Less Lonely,” or some similar play on the state’s nickname. I was going to write about how much fun I had watching my friends Thomas* and Paul* film, how after hours and hours of watching them set up lights the first day, the second day where we drove around Canadian and got shots of everything from the town to Paul’s family’s orchard was really fucking cool. And while all of that is true, the more and more I’ve thought about my time in Texas, the more and more I’ve realized that it’s left me haunted—not even by existential questions, per se, but rather existential feelings and discomfort that’s difficult for me to put my finger on.

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Beekeeping

Canadian is a small town filled with dust and trees and kind people and Christians and an overwhelming sense of community. But that’s to be expected of a Panhandle town with a population of 2649, although the trees are maybe a bit of an anomaly from the rest of the Texas Panhandle. Time seemed to pass slower here. On Sunday, their heavy filming day, lots of local restaurants were closed through the morning and early afternoon. As we searched for breakfast around 8am, already finished with that morning’s shoot, I realized that place after place was closed, regardless of their posted hours. One bakery had a sign that read “Abrimos a las 3:30,” but shockingly, the one next door was open despite their posted hours indicating they’d be closed for at least another few hours. I was surprised to use my very broken Spanish there for the first time in many months—worse Spanish than either of my friends can speak—and the pan dulce and coffee was deeply comforting despite that not being a typical breakfast for me.

I had assumed that Canadian would be an ultra-white town, a fairly reasonable assumption on my part that made me incredibly nervous. I’m a pretty fearless person, but at the same time, I’m acutely aware of my own identity as a brown, gay researcher, and I wasn’t sure how that’d play out in rural Texas. Especially coming from the incredibly diverse Dallas suburbs and then the even more diverse and queer-friendly San Francisco Bay Area, a place like Canadian wasn’t somewhere I had any cultural context for. Those concerns about looking and feeling out of place ultimately ended up being more psychological than anything grounded in my physical experience, and as it turned out, there was a pretty large Latino population within Canadian. But eating pan dulce and coffee and seeing other brown people was still deeply comforting.

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After breakfast, I watched Thomas and Paul film interviews with Paul’s dad, a hilarious man who indulged me in all sorts of stories about his family history and the history of capital within Canadian (incredibly interesting for me as a student of sociocultural anthropology). We spent time in Paul’s family’s orchard, where I became a feeding ground for mosquitos—but on the bright side, I can now say that I’ve collected bug bites from Wisconsin, Illinois, California, Oregon, and Texas. And then we drove around Canadian collecting B-roll of the town while Paul lost his hat into the wind far too many times. His love of always wearing a hat confused me since he had such beautiful hair, which is something I told him probably so many times that it became weird; I repeat it again here knowing that the odds of him reading this are pretty good, and if it wasn’t weird before, it’s probably at least a little weird now that I’ve pointed it out. (Did I mention he has really nice hair?)

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But it was in these many hours of filming B-roll—watching the sun set over Canadian and seeing the stars light up the dim night sky—where I began to realize this trip was a far more spiritual experience than I had expected.

It was such a weirdly formative experience that when we made it to Austin the next evening and we all had tacos with a different friend, he asked me what the most exciting place I had visited so far was. “It definitely can’t just be Canadian,” he joked as we all ordered our food. But I didn’t know what to say, still processing the many moments, experiences, and conversations I had that made the trip so special. Thomas quickly stepped in and asserted “Portland” on my behalf, which so many times in this past month I’ve said is my favorite West Coast city.

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I’m not a particularly religious person. I was baptized in the Catholic Church as a baby and I was confirmed at the end of the eighth grade, a standard process in my Catholic middle school, even though I find it pretty funny that anyone expects a thirteen-year-old to express any sort of true spiritual maturity or profession of personal commitment to anything at that age. Since about the age of fourteen, I had always been pretty comfortable with dissenting from Catholic moral teachings, and my Jesuit education encouraged doubt and struggle as a means toward a deeper, more meaningful spirituality. By the end of high school, I essentially abandoned Catholicism without regret—or more accurately, the Catholic Church abandoned me—for a mix of reasons, but mostly due to justified frustration with the Church’s lack of true acceptance of gay people. Pope Francis is doing a lot better, but I don’t think I can ever go back to a church that believes the love I feel is sinful and disordered.

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

 1 John 4:7-8, NRSV

Religion was a surprising topic that came up within this journey of three 20-year-old guys. Entertaining conversations about dating, love, and sex were to be expected, and those definitely filled up long stretches of our workdays in Canadian, the way-too-long car ride through Dallas and Austin, and our time lounging around in Austin the day after we came back. But it was interesting to hear about how religion affected our sexual morality and our dating and sex lives since Paul and I grew up within Christianity and Thomas grew up in a culturally Protestant environment, especially since such a big anthropological interest of mine is sex, sexuality, and sexual behavior. Thomas made it clear to me a couple times that he finds this academic obsession with theorizing about sex pretty weird—he doesn’t understand the appeal, which is honestly pretty fair—but as someone who felt fairly repressed and ashamed by being gay in a Catholic school, sex is super interesting to me. As Michel Foucault once wrote, “sex is boring”—it’s everything surrounding sex that’s interesting, such as how sex and religion play together. (As an aside, Mom and Dad, if you’re reading this, the healthiest thing you can do for Jude that didn’t happen for me is radically open and honest conversations around love and sex so that he doesn’t end up with the same feelings of repression and pain that I did.)

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Sunsets over Canadian

In the long car ride back to Austin, while Paul slept in the backseat, Thomas and I spoke pretty frankly and honestly about our personal beliefs, stemming from a conversation we were having around Calvinism and predestination. He and I approach the world pretty differently: he’s a deeply logical thinker, I’m an incredibly emotional feeler, but I think our core values are fairly similar. As he explained his own religious philosophy around God, which stems out of quantum physics and ontological debates around time, I had to articulate my own religious beliefs for the first time in a long time.

I’m fairly certain that my parents and brother think I’m an atheist, but—as Thomas correctly posited—it’s probably more accurate to say that I’m spiritual but not religious. At my core, I believe so deeply that God is love. It’s something that, in many ways, I believe both literally and intuitively. I’m motivated by a desire for social justice, which is what I think is at the core of Christianity and many other religions. I don’t have any proof or evidence for this belief that I have—that God is love—but it’s a deeply intuitive feeling, something that I feel within my bones.

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Leaving Canadian

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A Buc-ee’s on the way from Dallas to Austin

I believe in God, and believe that God is love, because that’s what I experience. And while most—maybe all—experiences are socially constructed and meaning is given to them by us, it’s something that feels authentically true to me. I’ve felt God every day that I’ve been traveling. I felt God the second my friend and I saw each other in Chicago, right before we began driving up to Milwaukee and catching each other up on the past couple weeks of our lives. I felt God as I biked behind my friend through downtown Portland, stopping every now and then to take pictures of each other in front of the water. I felt God the night that Thomas and I stayed up talking about what’s been weighing on our minds for the past couple months, verbally working through the hurt and confusion that comes from moments where we didn’t feel valued by people who were important to us. I felt God as I watched Paul lean out the passenger-seat window and take video after video of the Canadian sunset, the wind blowing his hat right off his head and into the street. I felt God as I took that first bite of pan dulce. I felt God in every thank you letter I left for my friends before I went to my next destination, in every handshake hello and hug goodbye, and in every warm, fuzzy feeling that overwhelmed me as I would get on the plane and think of all the great memories I’d made and all the new memories to come.

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A Vietnamese food truck in Austin

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The philosophy section of Book People in Austin

***

Right now, I’m currently spending the day in New York City, New York, hanging out with my friend from New Jersey. (I’m actually posting this from Ladurée in SoHo.) This Sunday, I leave for Venice, Italy. If you’d like to keep up with my journeys, I post all my day-to-day adventures on Instagram and I try to write up more of my thoughts here on this blog once or twice a week.

Where the F**k Am I?

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I jolted awake this morning, opened my eyes, and saw a deer head mounted above my head. I turned to my left and realized one of my friends from school was still asleep in the bed next to me. Only one thought went through my head: where the fuck am I?

You’d be surprised how many times this has been happening over the last two weeks. I’ve been sleeping in many different places for the last two weeks straight—Milwaukee, Chicago, Menlo Park, Stanford, Portland, Dallas, now Canadian, TX—with a brief respite from the constant moving by getting to spend four nights in the same bed in Menlo Park. But since then, I’ve essentially been a nomad, traveling across the country with my one travel bag. (Bold, right?) Many days, I wake up in a different city or state, and today, I woke up in rural Texas.

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A sign in downtown Dallas near my last meal in the city for a while

One of my friends from Stanford, Thomas*, and his friend who’s also a Stanford student, Paul*, picked me up yesterday from downtown Dallas after they drove up from Austin, where they’re based this summer. The two of them are filming a short documentary on the Texas judicial system, and since Thomas was one of the students who I was following for my research project, I was planning on coming down to Austin to visit him for a few days, and then I’d get to meet Paul there.

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But Thomas threw me for a complete loop at the beginning of July, telling me that they would be going up to Canadian, Texas, in the Panhandle to get some filming done this weekend. And I was invited. I’m not gonna lie—I thought Thomas meant Canada, as in, the country north of the United States, which didn’t make sense at first because I knew the documentary was about Texas. But after a few quick Google searches, I found out that there is indeed a Canadian, Texas.

Today and tomorrow, I’m here in Canadian, a small town of under 3000 people in the Texas Panhandle, about six hours northwest of Dallas. It’s a cute town. Very flat. It has a saloon, which is pretty cool. There was live music there last night, but the second that I saw a man walk in with cowboy boots, a giant belt, and a big cowboy hat, I knew I was a little—okay, a lot—out of my element. We’re not in Dallas anymore! But that was okay, because it was all part of the experience. There is no Starbucks in Canadian (please send me a grande blonde vanilla latte ASAP), but there is a local coffee place where I can feed my caffeine addiction. Last night we had dinner at the Stumblin’ Goat Saloon and this morning we had breakfast tacos elsewhere. Tomorrow, many (most?) places will be closed because it’s Sunday.

I was pretty excited to watch Thomas and Paul set up a location today for filming, but it turns out that setting up to film is actually way less glamorous than I expected. It usually consists of me being their test dummy person as they figure out where to position the camera and the lights. I love attention so that was pretty cool at first, but then I realized I had nothing to contribute in terms of how to actually storyboard or film anything. Oops. Hence me writing this blog post while they brainstorm directions for the documentary.

On another note, this is pretty cool. I’ll be getting to see more of Canadian later as they shoot B-roll in the town, which is pretty genuinely a once-in-a-lifetime experience. And this is an especially exciting start to my third year at Stanford, where my friends have now finally figured out their interests and are getting to do super cool things here at this institution. For example, filming a documentary in my home state!

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As I’ve been traveling, I’ve been thinking a lot about the end product of my research. Classical ethnographies from the early twentieth century stemming from the structural-functionalist tradition, such as The Nuer by E. E. Evans Pritchard, tended to be monographs that tried to explain how a society is structured and how it functions, hence the name structural-functionalism. But sociocultural anthropology has moved away from that, for the better, and by the 1970s, the discipline moved towards postmodernism. It began studying concepts, such as gender or the state, instead of trying to create essentializing maps of different groups of people. Ethnography became more reflexive, acknowledging the disruptive role of the anthropologist himself. One of my professors who I adore, Angela Garcia, is a medical anthropologist who taught a class I took on the anthropology of drugs. She pays special attention to ethnography writing and writes beautifully, and her book The Pastoral Clinic: Addiction and Dispossession along the Rio Grande is written in a way that reads more like a story than anything else, mixing in the stories of her fieldwork with her own academic theorizing.

I’m postmodern to my core, and I genuinely don’t believe that the goal is to create a defining, universal work explaining why Stanford students do what they do or how (some) Stanford students get ahead. At the end of the day, I want to highlight the narratives of others. I want to go beyond the ivory tower of academia and write something that anyone can read. Throughout these past two weeks, I’ve been gripped by people’s stories and experiences, I’ve felt engaged with people’s lives, and I think I’ve gotten more insight into the inner workings of the university that I attend and have been existing within for the past two years. I want people to be similarly gripped by the stories of others, to feel engaged, to follow this journey through my eyes as both ethnographer and subject, and to come away feeling like I gave them deep insight into the blackbox of the Stanford University undergraduate experience, especially as that relates to perceptions of social mobility. It’s a tough task, I know; I’m only a twenty-year-old undergraduate embarking on his first fieldwork experience.

When I spoke to two recent Stanford students who just earned their PhDs in anthropology, they told me that the creative nonfiction that I’m inclined towards is inherently political and inherently academic and theoretical. It’s something that I’ll have to continue wrestling with through the end of this summer and throughout the next year as I focus on writing, both while I’m at Stanford in the fall and spring and while I’m at Oxford in the winter. In many ways, the “where the fuck am I” question that I ask myself each day isn’t so much about where geographically I am throughout the country, but about where I am in my thought process as a young writer within anthropology.

And the answer isn’t coming any time soon.

* names changed

4 Things I’ve Learned from Traveling (so far)

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Right now, I’m waking up in my bed in Dallas for the first time in a while after making a brief stop in the Pacific Northwest to visit a friend from my freshman year at Stanford. This is now day 13 of my travels across the country—and world, kind of… if you include Italy, Slovenia, Israel, and Palestine as “traveling the world.” But after spending some time in Chicago, Illinois; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Menlo Park, California; San Francisco, California; and Portland, Oregon, for my anthropology fieldwork, there are a few things that I’ve learned about people, travel, and myself already.

1. You have to be open to adventure, even when it’s awkward.

It’s a pretty obvious statement, I know. I’m a very extroverted person to begin with; anyone who knows me is well aware of how much I love getting to know people and just being with others. But one of the hardest things about traveling is the constant feeling of displacement and the lack of grounding that comes with that. When I don’t feel grounded, I have a tendency to feel anxious, and that can make it hard to put myself out there in the same ways that I might be able to without even thinking during the school year.

The way that I managed to quell the shifting earth under my feet was by being very intentional about how I planned my travels. Even parts of my travels that aren’t for the purposes of my fieldwork were built with comfort in mind: I made sure that there was always one person in every city who I knew (keeping an extremely wide social network at Stanford was a key prerequisite for this), and I asked to stay in people’s homes instead of in hotels or Airbnbs (also great for saving money!). Beyond that, face masks, an occasional glass of red wine, a good book (currently reading On the Road by Jack Kerouac), and, if worst comes to worst, some anti-anxiety medications, all help.

Keeping the inherent nervousness that comes with traveling down to a minimum has helped me say yes to all sorts of new experiences. It’s how I ended up at a country concert in Milwaukee even though I don’t really like or know country music. It’s how I ended up watching fireworks at a country club on the Fourth of July. It’s how I ended up making new friends in San Francisco and getting to see a piece of the Mission District that I would’ve never known to explore before. It’s how I got to see downtown Portland by bike. And it’s how I’m going to venture into the Texas Panhandle this weekend for the first time.

2. Books are a love language. Read a lot of them.

This is probably partially a product of the fact that I’ve been hanging out with Stanford students and their families, but books have been such a huge part of my travels so far. I decided that I wanted to be able to read more, and after getting into a brief but ongoing Beat Generation phase, I finally picked up Jack Kerouac’s On the Road—both a great book overall due to its historical importance and a great book to read while traveling the country. It’s the first fiction book—although it barely counts as fiction since it’s a roman à clef—that I’ve read in a while, and oh boy, has it been a journey. I’m about halfway through the book as of right now, and it’s a really genuinely fascinating portrayal of what it’s like to be a straight white man in 1940s/1950s America.

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Dog Eared Books in the Mission District in San Francisco, California

Even more exciting than reading the books themselves is how I’ve realized books connect you to others. Reading may be a solitary activity, but books are a way to share knowledge and the human experience with others. In San Francisco this past weekend, I was surrounded by a group of Stanford students who all love to read. They broke all the stereotypes in my head of what STEM majors do in their free time by waxing poetic about different philosophers they like to read and sharing what’s on their reading lists. We even all went to a bookstore in the Mission together. I can only imagine how awkward that whole experience would’ve been if I didn’t like to read; what would I have done while everyone spent so long roaming through the bookstore, taking books off the shelves, and calling over to each other to recommend things to read? And it definitely helped, too, that one of those people had just finished Kerouac’s On the Road as well!

There’s rich anthropological literature about the importance of giving, receiving, and exchanging gifts in the formation of social bonds. Books, in my opinion, are one of the many ways that people—especially students and their families—facilitate this kind of gift-giving. Right now, I’m borrowing a nonfiction book from a friend called Cannibals and Kings: Origins of Culture after he let me look through all his books while he was packing the night before I left the Bay Area. And just yesterday in Portland, my friend’s family let me borrow a fiction book called Euphoria which they thought I’d really like.

3. Planes can be your friends.

My schedule for this summer is pretty intense. It goes without saying that I’m racking up a ton of miles on Southwest, which I’m super excited to use to fund a free trip later! As a college student, I spend a lot of time on planes because I’m usually flying somewhere over Thanksgiving, winter, spring, and summer breaks, and I usually take about one or two trips each year—this past year I went to both Boston and D.C. in the fall and spring, respectively. With so much air travel, I’ve learned that flying doesn’t have to be the completely miserable experience that so many people think it’ll be. I usually try to book direct flights whenever possible, both because it’s less stressful and because it puts less strain on the environment. But for those times when I do end up flying for a while, either because a direct flight isn’t available or even just because the direct flight is really long, I realized that planes are actually great for either reading, getting rest, or working.

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Chicago from above

It’s pretty obvious, but planes make for a great time to take a nap. I use a charcoal eye mask to help block extra light, and I end up asleep real fast. Supposedly, this charcoal eye mask is supposed to help reduce the swelling and puffiness that are associated with tiredness, sleep debt, and flying; I’m not really sure I believe that, but I’m gonna go ahead and pretend it does. For flights that are about three or more hours or flights that are timed so that I really do need to sleep on the plane to make sure I’m rested enough to take on the city as soon as I land, I sometimes take generic Benadryl. Fun fact: ZzzQuil (a well-known over-the-counter sleep aid) is actually just diphenhydramine, which is the exact same active ingredient in Benadryl, so you can save a good amount of cash if you buy generic Benadryl instead of shelling out the big bucks for brand-name ZzzQuil.

I also like to read and/or blog on flights since planes give me uninterrupted quiet time. I read most of On the Road on a plane, and I actually wrote this blog post on my flight back from Portland to Dallas! I’m really bad about actually finding time to write—have you noticed the lack of posts throughout the school year?—but luckily, plane rides give me the time to actually collect my thoughts and write. My refusal to pay money for Wi-Fi to check Facebook and Twitter definitely help the writing process. I also try to make sure my field notes are all accounted for when I’m on the plane leaving a location; I’m often pretty busy doing interviews and just observing and participating in others’ lives while I’m in various locations, so the long plane rides give me a lot of time to actually make sure I have the notes that I need and some time to reflect on the key themes of each trip.

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Hawthorne Bridge in Portland, Oregon

4. Things always work out.

My trip to Portland wasn’t actually supposed to happen. My original plans to visit in August fell through after my contact in Portland was no longer able to accommodate my visit, but because I really wanted to visit, I very last minute made alternative arrangements to stay with a different friend. I took a leap of faith, booking my flights before I even had a place to stay—thank God that Southwest lets you really easily change your flights! (Dear Southwest Airlines, you should sponsor me and my burgeoning anthropology career!)

My mantra in life lately has been “everything will work out.” It’s something I’ve had to repeat to myself so many times in elementary school, high school, and now college, and I’ve reminded myself that so many times this summer as my travels would get more and more complicated and random things would come up that I would need to plan around and account for. But at the end of the day, I’m confident in myself. I’m confident that I’ve set myself up for success this summer: my parents instilled in me a strong sense of independence and quick thinking that has saved my ass so many times; my coursework has been geared toward both theoretical and practical skills for how to handle this kind of project (thanks, Stanford, for having multiple classes on research methodology and fieldwork preparation!); and I have the monetary resources to get by should anything happen since I built in emergency funds into my grant budget and have emergency stashes of credit both through various credit cards and a personal line of credit from my credit union just in case I’m in desperate need of a bailout.

I was pretty worried that I’d struggle to get the kinds of data that I’d need for this project, too. My biggest fear was that I’d go through this whole summer and then return to campus having nothing at all because I was blindsided by what I ended up experiencing. What if everything ended up completely irrelevant? But my lovely advisor, Sylvia, reminded me that the best part of anthropology research is when you get thrown for a loop. If everything went just as planned and exactly as expected, what’s the point? That’s why I’m rolling with the punches (see #1 on this list) and trying to not stress about the research aspect too much. After all, this summer is as much about my academic and personal growth as it is about writing a kick-ass thesis.

I’ve learned that preparation is key, and while you can’t prepare yourself for everything, you can set yourself up to handle nearly any situation. And at the end of the day, that’s really all you can do.

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Inside City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco, California

So what am I up to now?

Right now, I’m ending Part One of my life on the road (yes, that’s a small Jack Kerouac reference)! In true Kerouacian fashion, here’s what my itinerary looks like as of the time of writing, split up into five parts:

Part One (complete!): Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Chicago, Illinois; the Bay Area, California (specifically Menlo Park, Palo Alto, and San Francisco); Portland, Oregon
Part Two (about to begin): Canadian, Texas (a small town in the Texas Panhandle); Austin, Texas; Newark, New Jersey; Venice, Italy; Koper, Slovenia; and probably Florence, Italy, if I can swing a quick daytrip
Part Three: New York City, New York; Wheeling, West Virginia; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Part Four: Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; probably a few other towns in New England where I can do daytrips from Boston; Tel Aviv, Israel; Jerusalem, Israel & Palestine; Bethlehem, Palestine; and possibly a few other parts of both Israel and the West Bank
Part Five: TBD! Strong contenders are Los Angeles, California, and Seattle, Washington, since I’ll be back in the Bay Area to focus on writing.

I’ll be blogging throughout the summer about specific locations and experiences I have, as well as my general thoughts on travel and the world through posts similar to this one. I expect the commentary to get a little bit more cutting since I actually have a pretty sarcastic personality that usually doesn’t come across in my writing… that, and I think I was a little afraid to be brutally honest on this blog while in my teen years, but now that I hit twenty all bets are off. It should still be entertaining, though… the anthropology department’s student services officer told me she thought I should start a blog about my life at Stanford since my reactions to things are usually pretty funny.

If you’d like to keep up with me, you can be notified via email every time I post if you subscribe in the sidebar. My day-to-day adventures are captured via Instagram stories, so if you have Instagram (or Facebook, since my Facebook friends can automatically see my Instagram stories), feel free to check that out. Yes, you too, Mom and Dad. The frequent posts that probably annoy my friends and classmates should at least indicate to you all that I’m alive. And then of course I’ll be sharing each post on Twitter and my personal Facebook profile, but I’m thinking of restarting the Facebook Page for this blog so that anyone can follow along even if we aren’t actually Facebook friends (yes, you, random stranger, friends of my parents who might feel weird about adding their son on Facebook, and/or current/previous classmates who just want to read my travel posts without being subjected to my political Facebook statuses!).

The Summer of a Lifetime

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The butterflies in my stomach were flapping faster and faster. I sprinted up the escalator at Dallas Love Field Airport, just barely making it through security in time for my flight’s boarding call. As I sat down in my seat, I pulled out my Kindle, and took a deep breath. And at 6:05 in the morning, the plane took off, and my journey officially began.

“I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.” — Jack Kerouac, On the Road

This summer, I’m traveling across the country—and a bit outside of it as well. Right now, as I write this, I’m sitting in a house in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, having just arrived in Chicago yesterday morning. By Monday, I’ll be on my way back to the Bay Area. In the West, I’ll be in Seattle, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and the Bay Area, California. In the Midwest, I’ll be in Chicago, Illinois, and Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In the South, I’ll be in Austin, Texas, and Wheeling, West Virginia. In the Mid-Atlantic, I’ll be in New York City, New York; Newark, New Jersey; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. And in New England, I’ll be in Boston, Massachusetts; Newport, Rhode Island; and possibly some parts of southern New Hampshire.

IMG_2893.jpgOutside of my Great American Adventure, I’ll also be in Venice, Italy, for three weeks starting at the end of July, with a two-day stop in Koper, Slovenia. And at the very end of August and beginning of September, I’ll be in various parts of Israel and Palestine for about ten days, crossing the Green Line that divides both the State of Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.
So what am I doing all this traveling for? Ethnographic research. Since the beginning of April, I’ve been working on an extended independent research project that’ll eventually become my thesis. Broadly, I’m exploring perceptions and experiences of social mobility among Stanford students. More specifically, how do Stanford students conceptualize of and experience social mobility within their undergraduate careers? How do practices involved in students’ personal, social, academic, and romantic lives signal their understandings of the possibility of social mobility beyond the university? And how do identity factors such as race, class, and gender affect the types of social connections that students form with each other?

IMG_2892.jpgIn the spring, I did a series of interviews with a variety of Stanford students who I got to know through my dorm, through my classes, and through a variety of other places. And now, this summer, I’m visiting as many of them as I can, seeing them in their home environments—or at least, somewhere outside of Stanford—to better understand the kinds of cultural background and baggage that students carry with them. Overall, I’m interested in questions of the social, understanding in greater detail the blackbox that often is the elite university and shining light on the types of interactions that happen in these spaces, especially as they continue to diversify and people of “high pedigrees” now mix with the rest of us.

Not every location I listed is for my research; some places are some fun stops on the way—Boston being the most notable example of that for my domestic journeys. In Venice and Koper, I’ll be doing a three-week seminar on the Republic of Venice, doing an archeo-historic tour of the Serenissima, replete with a few days of archeological excavation. (I am doing my best to plan a day-trip to Florence too, but I’ll have to work out the details of that in Venice!) And then in Israel and Palestine, I’ll be exploring narratives of both Israelis and Palestinians, understanding their firsthand view of the Israel–Palestine conflict and moving beyond simple reductive ideas of “the Israeli view” and “the Palestinian view.”

Most of all, this is my first opportunity to travel in so long. I’ve never done any sort of independent travel for the most part, and unfortunate life circumstances were responsible for my inability to travel with my family in my teen years. Honestly, I think there’s no better way for me to be kicking off my twenties, and I’m beyond excited.

See you soon.

The Battle for Texas: What I Learned From Campaigning

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This is the third and final part of my series on the 2014 Texas gubernatorial race. The first part, written in the spring of 2014, introduced the two Democratic candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. The second part detailed the candidate rally I attended in the summer of 2014.

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Alessia and I after Wendy Davis visited our office.

It’s been almost one full year since the 2014 midterm elections, one year since Democrat Wendy Davis lost her race for governor of Texas, and one year since I took my first swing at politics. If you would’ve asked me in the spring of 2014 whether or not I’d work for a campaign, I would’ve told you, “Of course not. Why would I do that?”

But I went ahead and did just that. After stumbling upon a rally celebrating the anniversary of Wendy Davis’ landmark filibuster in support of Texans’ reproductive rights, I found myself on a list of potential volunteers for her campaign and received calls while I was a summer debate camp at UT Austin from Battleground Texas, the field arm of the Wendy Davis campaign, trying to get me to volunteer. While it’s not shocking for a political campaign to attempt to tap into enthusiastic supporters, what is shocking is that I said yes… and brought Alessia, one of my best friends, along for the ride.

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Right before Fellows Training at the campaign headquarters.

As soon as I came home from debate camp, I called back the field organizer for my county and Alessia and I found ourselves in our county’s Democratic Party office for an introductory meeting. It was the first of many, and over the next month we learned about phone banking (calling people the campaign identified as possible Democratic voters), block walking (knocking on doors to convince people to vote), “cutting turf” (preparing packets of houses for volunteers to visit), and other essential data-driven campaign tactics. On top of those meetings, I went to two region-wide summits—one open to volunteers and another only open to fellows on the campaign—all by myself, learning so much more about how campaigning works. And then there were the events: the small rally outside the office when Wendy Davis dropped by, the book signing for her memoir at a local bookstore, and the debate watch parties.

As summer turned into fall, I quickly rose in the ranks, moving from a regular volunteer to a senior fellow, the youngest one in my area. Campaign work became something I did alongside my schoolwork, and it created (rather, cemented) a perception of me within my school as a liberal activist, since I was definitely the most vocal and visible Wendy Davis supporter in my entire school. Looking back, even though being a senior fellow on the campaign was oddly (and sometimes unnecessarily) stressful and not sleek and sexy like I imagined it, I’m so incredibly glad I took the opportunity because I learned so much in those few months on the campaign. And while these five things aren’t all I took from my experience, these are the five I’d like to share with you today! Continue reading