Friday, January 18, 2013

Alternative Winter Break--Costa Rica!

So we all know winter break is pretty awesome: that feeling of liberation after your last final and knowing the holidays are right around the corner is indescribable. But, you haven't really had a complete winter break until you've participated in Alternative Winter Break! The organization is entirely student-led and it sends trips across the US and around the world to perform acts of community service in areas ranging from child services to environmental conservation. My specific trip was located 2 flights and an 8-hour bus ride away from Charlottesville in the untouched rainforest of Playa Blanca, Costa Rica.

In Playa Blanca, we stayed just steps from the beach on a site owned by a truly selfless family. Dona Christina, a 60-year old grandma-turned second mother to us, cooked authentic cuisine while her son, Pablo, and a Spanish research assistant led us in exploring our surroundings through service and adventure. The trip was environmentally oriented in 2 areas. For one, we put out nets in order to catch sea turtles so we can take their measurements, tag them, remove parasites, and begin to get a rough estimate of the regional population. We also helped with a coastal mangrove restoration project. In a nutshell, the trip was the best money I've ever spent. Interacting with the friendly locals, immersing myself in nature and issues of conservation, and really doing something so worthwhile while seeing the world made this such a formative experience for me. I can't really even describe how much we did in just 10 days at the site. *Note, the service was so hands-on that it was difficult to get many pictures besides of free time, but we did real work, I promise! Here are a few of the highlights:

The view! We stayed in cabins all along the beach, from which we launched boats every morning to do everything from catching turtles to going to a remote beach to break open coconuts and drink the milk.

Catching our first turtle! We took its measurements before tagging and releasing it. We put a towel over its face to keep it calm, but occasionally this wasn't enough and the turtles would have projectile bowel movements on whoever was working.

Being invited by the local townspeople to play in a friendly soccer match (and winning, naturally).

Saving a turtle's life by removing deadly parasites and treating injuries from our on-shore site.

Taking adventures on our free time on hikes and on kayaks and seeing exotic animals such as the sloth above.

Meeting such great new friends and learning so much from those less privileged who are yet still so generous and hospitable--like Dona Christina on the left!

All I can say is that if you can afford to participate in Alternative Winter or Spring Break, DO IT! Domestic trips are extremely affordable and they do so much good for people and communities in need.  I think about this trip and all the adventures we took, all the animals we helped, and all the incredible people we met almost every day. Contact me (at or anyone in the ASB organization if you want to make a difference and change your perspective! I know I did.

-Will Andrewes, CLAS Class of 2015

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

J is for Jam Packed

January Term 2013

The University of Virginia's January Term is a university-wide initiative sponsored by the Office of the Vice President and Provost. The purpose of January Term is to provide U.Va. students with unique opportunities: new courses that address topics of current interest, study abroad programs, undergraduate research seminars, and interdisciplinary courses. The intensive format of January Term classes encourages extensive student-faculty contact and allows students and faculty to immerse themselves in a subject. The College of Arts and Sciences, McIntire School of Commerce, Curry School of Education and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences will offer over thirty undergraduate courses in January Term 2013. Areas of study include Anthropology, Art, Bio-Medical Ethics, Commerce, Drama, Engineering (STS), English, Environmental Sciences, History, Mathematics, Media Studies, Politics, Religious Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Sociology, and Spanish. 

The site gives you the information shown above describing J-term, all of which is accurate and helpful. What they don't tell you, is what a day in the life of a J-term student is like at UVA, that's what I'm here for.

After being home for all of 10 days full of family, friends, and all my favorite restaurants, I headed back to grounds. During winter break, UVA is a bit of a ghost-town, but like a calm, beautiful, friendly ghost-town of sorts. Columns seem to be brighter and brick buildings more beautiful in the cold winter air despite the construction all around. Few people are on grounds, but those that are have a sense of purpose for the new year, and the possibilities seem limitless.

My sense of purpose that drove me to cut my couch-time short was driven by my job as a Resident Advisor for j-term residents in the same building that I am an RA during the rest of the year (pretty convenient, huh?), and an amazing J-term course: Gender, Class, and Race in Teen Film. I decided to take the Media Studies course, like many j-term students, to be able to really focus in on and master a subject, while lightening my credit load for the spring semester.

Unlike the usual go, go, go of a full course load during normal academic terms, J-term takes on a much more focused and efficient pace. Every morning, instead of scrambling to get all my things together and mentally check that I had everything mapped out for the day, I woke up, grabbed a quick bite to eat and my notebook, and headed to class. The first few hours of class consisted of discussion and lecture on a number of topics centered around different portrayals of gender, class, race, sexuality, and social issues in teen film and how those portrayals are both an effect of society and affect society. The last few hours of the class, accompanied by lunch brought in by whichever group of students presented that day, was a guided viewing of different teen films such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ferris Bueller's Day Off.

After class, I went home to knock out the intense, but manageable, amount of reading assigned. I found myself fighting through the ideas in the articles, and fully understanding the implications of what was being discussed, finally understanding what professors hoped we would gain from the hours and hours of reading that supplement their amazing lectures. It was what pure, focused, unadulterated learning felt like, and it was fun. We took movies like Clueless and Mean Girls that I had never thought much about other than how funny they were to me, and broke them down to reveal their influences, their different perspectives, their feminist elements, and even the effect they had had on people's experiences. Our class learned to challenge what we thought and why we thought it and why we had accepted it as normal all these years. We ate and watched movies, and yet I learned more than in many other classes I have taken that I spent hours and hours and hours studying for from a book. 

J-term is multiple hours every single day of class when you could be sitting on your couch, but it is more than worth the credits you earn. It left me loving my school and the innovation of its students and faculty more than ever. It is just one of many amazing learning experiences offered to UVA students that challenges the norm of academics and presents information in an interactive and immersed format that really results in a deep and useful knowledge of a subject. J-term is jam-packed.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

What's in a "break"?

I’m not sure I really know the meaning of the word “break.”

I left Charlottesville an hour after my last final (after a frantic 20 minute packing session that I should probably win a medal for), and less than 12 hours after I got home in NoVa I was back at the same desk I sat at all summer during my internship.

I got a great opportunity to work at MITRE, a company headquartered in McLean, Virginia, and Bedford, Massachusetts. The department I was working with was subcontracted by the FAA, so I got to work on a project that helped prevent planes from running into each other. I can’t go into many specifics, because the group is in the process of applying for a patent, but working at a company over winter break was a great experience. There’s a huge difference between working at a desk job during the summer and around Christmas: this time, I had so much more time to experiment with the product and see what features I could come up with, since everyone else I was working with was at home sleeping and eating all of that delicious holiday food (not that I’m jealous…but really, sleeping in one day this break would have been nice). And as an engineer, I learn more by doing, so that real life experience was invaluable.

Plus, since no one was at work, they let me fly a plane on the simulator they have there...I didn't even crash it! (So basically I just played with all their high-tech toys for two weeks)

So I was super busy with work, but I still found time to see my high school friends when I was home. And now that none of us live in D.C. anymore, we finally started taking advantage of everything the city has to offer.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s great knowing that you’ll have a little extra cash for next semester, but I definitely would not recommend working as much as I did this break. It was exhausting, and I loved every minute of my job, but I’ve never been so relieved to be back at good ole UVA.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Our Adventure to Georgetown!

Happy Holidays [a little late] and Happy New Year! I hope all of you enjoyed the holiday season and your vacation time. I know I definitely have enjoyed vacation and spending time with friends and family! Over break I have been volunteering at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughters, planning for my medical mission trip to Honduras, visiting friends, and even taking a break to watch some shows on Netflix. All the activities have kept me pretty busy and made break fly by, but I had a great first break to complete a wonderful first semester of college.

Over break my friends, Ciceli and Lauren, and I took a “Road Trip” to visit our friend, Mylan, in NoVA, which stands for Northern Virginia as some of you may know or will learn if you attend UVA. Lauren, Ciceli, and I started our trip in Richmond and worked our way towards NoVA. Of course, along the way the gas tank light came on, so we stopped to get gas and grab lunch. Now, you might think with three college students/licensed drivers that we might be able to efficiently and properly fill up a gas tank, unfortunately my friend’s SUV decided to stop filling up at about 6.5 gallons and the gas needle was now stuck on ZERO. However, we didn’t let this little mishap slow us down, rather we continued on our Adventure to find lunch and maybe a Mercedes dealership. We stopped at a place called the JukeBox Diner before continuing to Mylan’s house. 
Ciceli and I at the JukeBox Diner! 

After lunch we continued on our trip and finally made it to Mylan’s! We were so excited to see Mylan, even though it had only been about two and half weeks since we’d departed from Gooch [my residence hall] at UVA. We went to Washington, D.C. that night to see the Christmas Tree, the monuments and memorials, and the White House [my hope was to meet Mr. President]. Ciceli, Lauren, and I had never been to D.C. at night or during the holidays, so it was pretty exciting to see all the buildings lit with holiday lights. 

Mylan and Lauren on the Metro to D.C. 

Washington, D.C. Christmas Tree!

We even went to see the Thomas Jefferson Memorial, which we rather enjoyed considering we go to 
"Mr. Jefferson's University."
From Left to Right: Myself, Mylan, Ciceli, and Mr. Jefferson

Touring D.C. was nice, but I have to admit I was pretty excited to have a weekend filled with shopping. [Yes, I might have forgotten to mention that the point of the trip was to go shopping at Tyson’s Corner and in Georgetown.] On Saturday we went to Tyson’s Mall and literally almost shopped until we dropped – it was great! However, shopping on Saturday was not enough so we continued to shop on Sunday in Georgetown. We went into almost every store we passed, tried on tons of clothes, and all-in-all had a great time talking about school and all the things we can’t wait to get back to after break. Of course, after another long day of shopping, chatting, and giggling, we decided to reward ourselves with cupcakes at none other than [no, not Georgetown Cupcakes!] Baked and Wired. Baked and Wired was a cupcake place recommended to us by a Georgetown student, and they were delicious! We selected a variety of cupcakes, but we agreed one of the best had to be the Pretty Bitchin’ Cupcake [yes, that is actually the name].
Saks Fifth Avenue at Tyson's Galleria 

 Baked and Wired Cupcakes

I had a great time visiting my friends and our trip just reinforced how glad I am that I chose to attend UVA. UVA is where I met Mylan, Ciceli, and Lauren, and many other friends that I can’t imagine surviving college without.

P.S. I wish all of you the best of luck on your college application decisions that will be arriving over the next few months [I know it can sometimes be stressful]!