What do the biggest movie of all time, witch-doctors, blizzards and vuvuzelas have in common? Why Westminster College, of course. Three pairs of Westminster students that enrolled in Westminster's 2010 Take a Friend Home Program experienced each of these things, among other experiences, while taking part in the program over the last year.
The Take a Friend Home program, hosted by Westminster, allows students to be taken home by an international friend and then return the favor to their friend. In the case of the six students who participated this year, they were all friends before they began the application process. While the selection process was undoubtedly nerve-racking, three pairs were selected to participate. Upon selection, Westminster agreed to pay for the travel expenses of the students, allowing them to partake in a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Rachel Holloway of McPherson, KS paired with her friend Ilundi Adiano from Maputo in Mozambique Africa. Joeseppi Wallace of St. Louis, Missouri paired with Mongi Simelane of Swaziland. Jimmy Alley of Little Rock, AR paired with Zheng Tao Ji (Peter for short) from a "small town" of several million people near Shanghai in China. Westminster provided these students with a stunning journey into their friend's home and culture.
Jimmy and Peter, both in their Junior year at Westminster, spent a summer together exploring China and the United States. While in China, Jimmy and Peter visited Shanghai, where Jimmy was overwhelmed by the population density. Shanghai is so full of people that its population density is more than 7,000 people per square mile. Shanghai's total population is 19.2 million people. Jimmy was struck by Shanghai. Even after visiting New York City with Peter, he was still amazed at the number of people crammed into the most populous city proper in the entire world.
Jimmy was also awed by the open air markets in China. "There are parts of animals for sale I've never heard of" he said with a laugh. The open air food markets of China are drastically different than anything seen in America. Our farmers' markets fail to compare to the hustle and bustle of a large Shanghai fish market.
While in China, Jimmy and Peter also visited the Wulingyuan, the UNESCO World Heritage Site in the city of Zhangjiajie in China's Hunan province. This site is famous for its nearly 3,100 sandstone quartzite pillars. These pillars were the inspiration for the floating Hallelujah Mountains in James Cameron's blockbuster film Avatar. The city of Zhangjiajie even named one of the towering peaks "Avatar's Hallelujah Mountain."
Jimmy's experience in Wulingyuan was something he won't ever forget, as hiking it was dazzling and even dangerous at times.
"You'd be climbing and climbing and suddenly come through fog to the edge of a cliff." Despite the danger, Jimmy still counts this part of his trip as one of the supreme highlights, as the beauty of the pillars is breathtaking. Some pillars stand nearly 3,000 feet high and are often masked in fog, making hiking moderately dangerous but supremely rewarding.
Jimmy also counts the Terracotta Army as one the highlights of his trip through China with Peter. This attraction is a mausoleum featuring terracotta replicas of the armies of China's first emperor, Qui Shi Huang. The armies were supposed to help the Emperor rule another empire in the afterlife. Many of the replicas were carved around 210 B.C., nearly sixteen centuries before Hernando de Soto discovered a Native American presence in the central region of Arkansas that would later become Jimmy's home of Little Rock, which was undoubtedly very humbling to Jimmy.
In turn for taking Jimmy to the attractions of China, Peter was rewarded by touring the United States with Jimmy. Together they traveled to New York City, where Peter was amazed by the bright lights of Times Square, an area that reminded him a little more of his home than Little Rock did.
They also participated in a Segway Scooter tour of Washington D.C. where they toured all of the must-see sights. They saw the White House, Congress and the Supreme Court, and of course, the museums.
"There were lots of museums," Peter said with a laugh, impressed and a little bewildered by the large number of Smithsonian Institutes and other museums sprinkled throughout our nation's capital.
Peter's highlight, though, happened to be in New York City's Central Park. He was almost stupefied by the scale and beauty of the park, especially considering that it was right in the middle of a metropolis only slightly smaller than Shanghai.
While Peter and Jimmy were off touring China, D.C. and Little Rock, Ilundi and Rachel were stuck in a blizzard in McPherson, KS. McPherson, a town with a population of about 10, according to Ilundi (actually population is around 25,000), served as a reminder to Ilundi why she hated snow.
Ilundi had seen snow before, but being from Mozambique, got used to not dealing with the cold. But being stuck in a blizzard had its upside for Ilundi. She was fortunate enough to meet Rachel's family. Despite being very different culturally, Ilundi was surprised by Rachel's family.
"They reminded me so much of my own family," Ilundi said with a smile. She went on to rave about Rachel's grandfather's amazing banana bread and Rachel's mom's German Bierocks and she laughed about the family tradition of having breakfast for dinner, an interesting social more she will never forget.
"Her family is like my family," Ilunid said, emulating both the similarities between her own family and Rachel's family, as well as the closeness that she ended up feeling while she was a part of Rachel's family during Christmas.
And, in exchange for showing Ilundi the flatness and snow of Kansas in the winter, Ilundi took Rachel to meet her family in Mozambique. Rachel instantly fell in love with the culture in Mozambique. She commented on the dancing, pointing out how everyone dances in the clubs and that it is almost socially unacceptable to not dance. She also said that she fell in love with the African house music and the dance style in Mozambique.
Rachel's most interesting and frightening experience occurred when she and Ilundi traveled with Ilundi's grandfather and met a witch-doctor.
"It was one of those moment's where we didn't think we'd make it," Rachel said while Ilundi laughed. "She was doing all of the typical witch doctor things, including the weird chanting and convulsing."
And because Mozambique borders Swaziland, Rachel and Ilundi met up with Joesppi and Mongi while they were there. Together, the four students experienced many of the joys of southern African culture. Joeseppi admitted that he, to, learned to love African house music and listens to it frequently now that he is back in the United States.
Joeseppi and Mongi went all over southern Africa, touring parts of Mozambique, Swaziland and South Africa. The biggest highlight of their trip was the manic buzzing of the vuvuzela at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. While they didn't get to go to any of the games, Joeseppi joked about trying to get as close as possible to the USA vs. Guyana match.
"I tried to get into the USA/Guyana game, but it just didn't quite work," he said, noticeably disappointed that he was unable to attend and even more noticeably disappointed that security would not let him get as close as he would have liked.. Joeseppi, did however, take a vuvuzela home as a souvenir of the World Cup.
They also went to the Bloukran's Bridge in South Africa, the world's highest bungee bridge in the world and Joeseppi literally jumped at the chance to try it out. The two guys traveled there together, both eager to take the plunge. Upon arrival, the height proved to be too much for Mongi, who had never been bungee jumping before. Joeseppi, however, took the leap.
While still in South Africa, Mongi and Joeseppi also visited Robben Island, the island where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated during Apartheid in South Africa. It was a deeply affecting tour for both Mongi and Joeseppi, but especially for Mongi, as being from Swaziland, a place that Apartheid left a big, lingering scar across, he was reminded of the fight for human rights that took place so close to his home.
Joeseppi took Mongi to St. Louis to meet his family. Mongi was especially fond of Joeseppi's grandmother. Joeseppi had planned on giving Mongi a more comprehensive tour of the United States, but as disaster struck Haiti in the form of a violent and devastating earthquake, Joeseppi traveled there to Port-Au-Prince to volunteer his time to help the Haitian people recover from devastation. Unfortunately but understandably for Mongi, his tour of the U.S. was postponed slightly.
Even though Mongi has yet to have his true experience, Joeseppi still made sure that Mongi got to experience St. Louis during Mardi Gras. In fact, the two had so much fun at the Mardi Gras celebration in St. Louis that they plan to attend the mother of all Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans in 2011. While in St. Louis, the two also toured the Anheuser Busch brewery in St. Louis.
While each pair enjoyed a realm of unique experiences, one thing remains universal for all six students. They would all recommend participating in the program very highly to anyone interested. In fact, Rachel and Ilundi might apply again and Mongi and Joeseppi plan on finishing Mongi's experience.
As advice for prospective applicants, each student agreed how important it is to go with someone close.
It's important to "go with someone you trust," Rachel said about her experience. Learning a friend's culture and meeting their family can be intimidating for both the family and the student and going with a trusted individual helps to ensure that the student will never be too far out of his or her comfort zone. All three pairs of students in the 2010 program were friends at the time of application. They knew going in how important it was to go with someone they were close to. They didn't realize how much more they would trust that person after such a rich and rewarding experience.
When asked if they had any other advice for prospective participants, the students offered plenty of input. Keep an open mind, be willing to learn about other cultures, stay safe, have fun and most importantly, don't ever forget. However, seeing the students' faces, it is clear that through Westminster's Take a Friend Home program, these students have experiences and memories that they will take with them throughout the rest of their lives.