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Opinion | Former Editor in Chief applies Miami experiences to new life in Southeast Europe

Published: Monday, December 2, 2013

Updated: Tuesday, December 3, 2013 00:12


Contributed by Austin Fast

Austin making traditional rakija, a traditional alcoholic beverage in the Balkans made from fermented fruits, in Negotino, Macedonia.

“To think that in such a place, I led such a life.”

You all know this quote. I groaned each time I saw it festooned across bed sheet banners draping tree-to-tree on Oxford’s front lawns every May. Don’t get me wrong – I love Oxford, and my four years there were as packed with magical memories as anyone else’s. Challenging coursework, weekends Uptown with friends and real-life work experience at The Miami Student and WMUB have all cemented themselves firmly into my memory, but the events I look back upon and marvel at with the breathless fervor of this quote are actually the opportunities Miami provided beyond the confines of the Mile Square. Leading such a life in those places is what pushed me to where I am today: in Macedonia, wrapping up my third and final year as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

There are scores of opportunities at Miami that allow students of all economic backgrounds to learn about and engage in the world around them.

To spare you from long autobiographical rambling, I’ll just hit my highlights: service-learning in Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood; performing in Canada and China with the Men’s Glee Club; learning Italian and studying the culture in Urbino, Italy; filming a documentary and reporting on the economic crisis in Kosovo; and working in a shelter for abused women and orphans in Tijuana, Mexico.

These five extraordinary experiences outside Oxford define my college experience far better than Green Beer Day shenanigans or the countless hours cramming at King Library. Even better, Miami scholarships put them all within reach. To think that such a place enabled me to lead such a life!

The lessons of patience and appreciating cultural exchange that I learned from these college experiences have echoed through my 39 months as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Macedonia (located on the Balkan Peninsula between Serbia and Greece).

The first three months, I lived in a tiny village called Lozovo, where rush hour consists of a small herd of cows and goats straggling in from the pastures about an hour before sunset with bells clanging.

The majority of my free time outside the 4-hour-long Macedonian language lessons was spent helping my host family with unending chores, hiking through sunflower fields and grapevines near town with my host brother or just spending quality time with my host family as they watched Turkish soap operas and shared meals. To think that in such a place, I led such a life.

The next two years I taught English at the high school in a small town called Negotino.

As the only American in town, living in a house with a widowed grandmother, my friends diverged into two groups: the grannies who stopped by my landlady’s house for their daily dose of coffee and neighborhood gossip, and the rock and roll aficionados who hung out with my Gene Simmons doppelganger colleague from school. Almost every family in Negotino owns a patch of the grapevines encircling the community, meaning collecting ripe grapes in the fall and distilling them into homemade moonshine became almost second nature. To think that in such a place, I led such a life.

Last September, I moved to Macedonia’s capital city – Skopje – and began volunteering at a non-profit organization that connects youth to free education through scholarships and trainings.

My NGO has sent me to youth conferences in Dublin, Brussels, Athens and Zagreb, where I met young people from dozens of countries and brushed up on my journalism skills by writing for professional media. As I ride the double-decker buses past Skopje’s many new gilded statues, or weave among young people thronging the ancient cobblestone streets of the Old Turkish Quarter on Friday and Saturday nights, I occasionally stop and marvel that in such a place, I am leading such a life.

I know I am not alone. Miami alumni go on to do extraordinary work around the world.

I can think of friends from Miami who now fight malaria in Africa, research Arab issues in Jordan, teach high school drop-outs in Baton Rouge, La., manage accounts at Facebook’s headquarters and work in the New York City mayor’s office.

The common thread that binds all these people together is that they seized the off-campus opportunities to learn and grow that Miami offers each student who passes under the arch of Upham Hall or strolls down Slant Walk.

One of my favorite professors from Miami visited Skopje this summer and dropped off a simple bit of advice: Apply. Apply for every scholarship, job, internship, fellowship or service trip that remotely interests you.

It cannot hurt to apply and you lose nothing but the time needed to write a resume or cover letter. You might even surprise yourself by the time you graduate – instead of mourning the end of something good, you’ll be heading toward something even better as you wave farewell to Oxford that final time.

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