From Albania to Zimbabwe: Productive Discomfort

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No matter where you are in the world, From Albania to Zimbabwe is the right place to find out about international happenings at Brown University! Hi, I’m Celina Stewart, a sophomore concentrating in International Relations here at Brown, and this is my space to give you updates and info about all things international at Brown, including international student life, international speakers, and different clubs and activities with an international focus. Read along and explore everything international at Brown! 

Since we’re in between interviews, I’d like to take this week to talk about something that I feel can make a huge difference as you begin exploring colleges and think about moving to a different country and culture for your university experience: Productive Discomfort.

One of the best things I’ve learned since coming to Brown is to participate in activities that make you uncomfortable, but with the intention that you’ll grow as a result, aka gaining productivity from your discomfort. At college, this could include taking a class in a department you are entirely unfamiliar with, or trying out for a cappella auditions. On Brown’s campus specifically, this could include participating in (even if just as an audience member for a theatrical performance) nudity week or the naked donut run. It could include joining a club that you are interested in, even if you don’t know anyone that attends regularly- and continue going if you enjoy it but don’t necessarily make friends.

So far at Brown, I have been in leadership positions for a couple different organizations, none of which I have close friends in (although I found out that my across-the-hall neighbor is also in leadership). Despite the fact that it’s somewhat awkward and I have felt somewhat of an outsider, I have found that pushing myself to be with people I’m socially uncomfortable with has allowed me to gain a lot of insight into life at Brown, especially since many of the students in leadership positions are older and have experience with different professors and classes- in fact, one of the people on a leadership board I was on last year is the guy that introduced me to the idea of productive discomfort over Thai food.

So how does this relate to moving to an new country, and being immersed in a new culture? I feel that all travel has an aspect of productive discomfort, no matter how seasoned you are at traveling. I lived in Europe for two months this summer, and that experience was a huge learning experience for me, even though I’m a pretty well-traveled individual (if I do say so!). However, a couple things stuck out to me as productive discomfort: learning languages I had no familiarity with, taking trips to countries I had only previously hoped to see- even my means of getting overseas had been productive discomfort. I was scheduled to go to Barcelona for two months, and a couple weeks before leaving, my program changed and I was headed to Granada, Spain, which I had never heard of before getting the email. Flying over Spain, I remember thinking, where is this place? I saw all of the olive plants beneath me under the shadow of the plane, and after touching down, hailed a taxi and headed into the heart of a city I’d never heard of, armed only with my proficient (on a good day) Spanish and an address. For my second program, I had originally applied to attend a human rights intensive course in Rome, Italy- and I got back an acceptance packet to a program in Prague, Czech Republic, which again, I’d never considered going to, although I’d always wanted to visit central Europe. My experience in Prague took me to Berlin and Krakow, both of which were incredibly enlightening and adventurous- traveling with people you’ve known for only a couple weeks is a little scary. Overnight trains (trains in general when you don’t speak the language) can be intimidating. However, it always works out, and here I am, so thankful I took the time to look at my budget and say, “Yes,” when presented with an idea for travel.

I took the picture for today’s column during my time in Tangier, Morocco, a day trip I took with a couple friends from my program in Spain. When I originally suggested heading to Morocco, my friends scoffed- it’ll be too expensive, it’s dangerous, how will we know where to stay as two women with no knowledge of Arabic? However, we looked at programs, and ended up spending a beautiful weekend in Malaga, Spain, and journeyed to Tangier that Saturday. As our ferry approached the dock in Tangier, everyone gathered in the lower deck, waiting for the doors to open so that families could be reunited on the other side, friends could embrace, and tourists such as ourselves could stumble through customs. There was a palatable tension, an adrenaline almost, as we approached shore. The minute that the doors opened, families cheered, yelling out in Arabic- even on a routine trip across the Strait of Gibraltar. That feeling of shared humanity and excitement may have been my favorite part of that day, and had we not taken that trip, I don’t think I would have experienced anything like that during my time abroad (although I had many good experiences).

Long story short, take chances, and find a way of making what you want happen. If you want to travel, find a means of getting to where you want to go. If you want to go to Brown, do everything you can to give yourself the opportunity. Even if you think you’re limited by smarts, language, money, anything- you aren’t. There is a way. Once you get here, take the same idea and apply it to your time on campus: get involved, even if you don’t know what you’re doing, what you’re interested in, or if you’ll be the best person for the job. Applying is the only way you’ll get accepted, and saying something is the only way you’ll be recognized. Productive discomfort is as simple as that.

Have  questions or comments? Feel free to email me at celina_stewart@brown.edu and I’ll get back to you as soon as possible! Or, if you’d rather, just comment on the blog! 

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