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International Essay and Poetry Contest

Penn State’s University Office of Global Programs (UOGP) awarded Landscape Architecture student Kellie Waksmunski with the First Place Study Abroad Essay as part of International Education Week, a joint initiative of the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Department of Education celebrating the benefits of international education and exchange worldwide. Waksmunski's essay is below:

It finally hit me on day twenty-five. Sitting in the back seat of the old Land Cruiser I finally felt what everyone had been talking about for the past few weeks. On June 10th, I finally experienced the “it’s not weird anymore” sensation. All of a sudden, as I looked out the open window, nothing seemed quite as strange as it had previously. Something clicked, and everything began to make sense. No longer was I looking at things as an outsider. At the end of week four, my understanding of Tanzania finally came together.

Up until that point, my understanding of Tanzania was full of new people, strange experiences, and different settings- pieces and ideas that didn’t fit together completely right. But something before that drive must have been the glue that stuck everything together. And strangely enough, for me, I think that glue came from being homesick.

I always have been prone to homesickness. I’ve never traveled before, but the first month of a new school year is always really hard for me. Normally I combat it through a combination of avoidance and busywork. But here I tried a new approach- I tried to look for things that reminded me of home. I started looking at people, their actions and their interactions for something familiar or relatable. And wasn’t sure if my new approach was working until that Friday. Those connections were apparently all the glue I needed.

I was surprised because I wasn’t making difficult or profound connections: I saw a field that looked like the one I’ve driven by outside of my town; I saw a little boy crying after his brother took his toy; I witnessed the child’s respect for her elders. The observations I was making arose from a set of fundamental similarities that all people share. We share a set of common needs, desires, and concerns. The specifics of our approaches to these needs, desires, and concerns may be different, but the approaches themselves are surprisingly similar. We do similar things in similar situations; we all are aiming to survive on this planet; and we all have to use the earth’s resources to continue surviving.

So now that I have been home for four months, my core understanding of Tanzania is rooted in people and their relationship with nature. Whether it is an animosity between the two, one triumphing over the other, or finding that delicate balance where both work together in harmony, nearly everything I have seen, every experience I have had, and everything I have witnessed is clearly connected to this relationship.  It is apparent in food production, development, and land use. It affects health, livelihood, and quality of life. People truly depend on nature. However, few successful examples exist when one triumphs over another; there is always a negative effect or an unfortunate outcome for one side. The only way for humans to sustainably grow and continue development and progression into the future is to find a balance with nature. This balance will have to be a give and take for both sides, but it is possible. And finding this balance is the primary challenge facing humanity.