Saturday, January 21, 2012

A McNair Scholar on The Road

Being a McNair Scholar is something that has been a huge part of my life the past couple years. describes the program as:

Ronald E. McNair Postbaccalaureate Achievement Program:
The McNair Scholars Program is a federal TRIO program funded at 194 institutions across the United States and Puerto Rico by the U.S. Department of Education. It is designed to prepare undergraduate students for doctoral studies through involvement in research and other scholarly activities. McNair participants are either first-generation college students with financial need, or members of a group that is traditionally underrepresented in graduate education and have demonstrated strong academic potential. The goal of the McNair Scholars Program is to increase graduate degree awards for students from underrepresented segments of society.

But for me, it has been so much more than that. It has been a program that has given me support to push myself academically with like-minded students and faculty who have become family. Before I came to study at TU Dortmund I completed a McNair Summer Research Internship and used my grant money to travel to Munich, Spain, and France. I also used it for grocery money and cellphone bill money until my scholarship with the Global Scholars Foundation came through in November! And so when I was asked to write an article for the TRIO newsletter on being a McNair scholar and studying in Germany, it was the least I could do for a program that has given so much to me. I encourage anyone who is an undegrraduate to look into applying (I can't promise you it will be as fun as the McNair Scholar program at the University of Montevallo though).:)

Here's a photo of me with the McNair Scholars who started the same time I did at the SAEOPP McNair  Research conference in Atlanta last summer:

And here is what I wrote on being a McNair scholar on the road:

My name is Mercedes Jones and I am a McNair Scholar and art major at the University of Montevallo in Montevallo, Alabama and am now studying art in Dortmund, Germany at TU Dortmund. Being accepted into the McNair program was an honor that has since affected my life both academically, professionally, and personally in more ways that I could have imagined since turning in that application and sitting down for my interview with Dr. Tracy Payne and Ms. Tonya Giddens. 
I completed my McNair Summer Research Internship art installation and research project titled “Being Multiracial in America” in the summer of 2011. This project pushed me further than I have ever pushed myself. We learned together that you get out of something what you put into it, and were putting into practice valuable lessons we had learned from seminars all year long and through practicing at conferences. I learned strength and self confidence in my capability to be a scholar and research what I love through unending support and guidance from the other McNair Scholars, McNair staff, and my faculty mentor Dr. Kelly Wacker. And when I say unending it is not a figure of speech! At one point when I was installing my project in the gallery I needed a staple gun. It was 1 am and my faculty mentor came to campus to give me a staple gun so I could keep working. And at any given point, I think every McNair scholar has showed up in the McNair office distressed or on the verge of tears and we knew that was a place we could go to calm down, get advice, regroup, and pick up a snack before we got back to work. Pushing myself to these lengths and completing a successful project gave me confidence that I have applied in so many ways since moving to Germany. 
After completing my project, I used a majority of the grant money to fund traveling to Munich, Paris, and Barcelona before I got to Dortmund to study. As an art major, seeing the contents of my art history textbook up on a wall two feet away from me was definitely a surreal experience. Having that extra funding gave me the ability to not only read about the importance of The Louvre Museum, but to walk it’s halls and experience the history myself. I marveled at the gothic architecture of the Notre Dame and was overwhelmed by how beautiful it was. I climbed the steps of many of Gaudi’s most famous architectural works in Barcelona, and walked the Japanese bridge in Monet’s gardens while watching the reflections in the water lily pond change from morning to noon. After seeing one of Monet’s water lily paintings at 5 years old I remember pointing to the book saying “Mommy, I want to go there” so being able to go was a dream come true. I could have done none of this without the funding from my McNair Research Summer Internship.
And the scope of my long lasting benefit from being a McNair scholar is by no means just monetary. When faced with difficult situations, I now more than ever have the self confidence in my intellectual ability and strength to say “Yes, I can do that.”I took that lesson as well as how to behave in a professional and academic environment to go on a job interview and get employed as an English tutor at a local college here in Germany. I also am in a constantly changing and new environment since I am living and studying in an unknown country where I do not know the language. As a McNair scholar we are constantly told to work as hard as we can, but to be ready for change and to adapt accordingly. That is probably the best advice to anyone participating in a study abroad program, or for life in general. The lesson we learn as McNair Scholars isn’t that we wouldn’t be afraid of our summer research project, or the GRE, or graduate school. And it was never promised that it wouldn’t be difficult. The lesson was that we are scholars, and capable. We are taught repeatedly in many ways as a McNair Scholar that plans may change or situations may be unfamiliar but prepare and educate yourself using all your previous experiences, resources and mentors. 
Studying abroad, being a McNair scholar is still a large part of my life. Living in Germany and traveling has given a new dimension to my on-going studio project that was the result of my McNair Summer Research Internship. This project included me internalizing and questioning the role of race and multiracial identity in myself in the context of American cultural history and my community and translating that into an audiovisual art installation. I have added a new element to this project by experiencing race relations in Germany and the other countries I visit. And an added benefit of taking this time to be an exchange student in Dortmund is that I have time to take the tools I have learned through McNair and re-examine graduate school programs in art history, museum studies and studio art and see where I will apply when I return to America. 
These experiences and travels have been vital to my academic career and personal development. Much like when I started the McNair program, I cannot imagine how many ways this year in Germany will affect the rest of life. I feel the hard earned title “McNair Scholar” is one that I am proud to have, and proud to share with so many hardworking intelligent people past and present. 

 I Love you guys!

More About the program:
The McNair Program at the University of Montevallo:

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

My Life Since September: Part 2 (I decided to stay a 2nd semester, get a job, go to Berlin, see a soccer game and Dortmund had a huge Christmas market)

November: During my trip to Florence I talked a lot with Malvina about how my time in Dortmund was going by so fast and that I wanted to stay for a year. I was scared; I had a non refundable plane ticket, dwindling savings account and no job. But after that trip and having so much fun traveling I knew I wanted to try to make it work. I had this feeling deep down that I just needed to make it happen. And so I talked with my mother about the possibility of me staying. It would be a free tuition semester. But it would mean not seeing them for a year and added financial instability. She left it up to me, and I decided yes and made arrangements with the international office. It was such a hard decision to make! I had e-mailed many professors in the American Studies department explaining my situation and asking to forward any job leads to me all semester but no leads. However, in the middle of November a professor had an ex student who needed an English assistant tutor, and so they e-mailed me because I was recommended to them. After 3 interviews, I got the job! We are still working out scheduling conflicts since I got hired right before Christmas break and everything was hectic, but I think this will work out. I hope it does. If not, I’ll figure out something.
At the end of November, I went to Berlin. I found an amazingly cheap last minute fast speed train ticket for only 24 euros at euros was the official train website price for the same ticket…so it was a good deal), and also couch surfed. I didn’t buy the train ticket until after the 2nd interview when I thought I had the job. I couchsurfed with a really fun art student named Amber Sunshine. I would tour around Berlin during the day, and then we would go out together with her friends to bars or to cool restaurants. I thing one of the overwhelming things about Berlin is the amount of history, specifically World War II and the cold war history. To see the Berlin wall, to walk under the Brandenburg gate and to see the Jewish memorial were very emotional events for me. It made the history feel more real, closer in time, not black and white photos in a book but a real nightmare that affected millions. One of the camp survivors in an interview was shot last year…there are concentration camp survivors that are still alive. This was such a poignant reminder for me to not tolerate hate, because of what it can become.
I also saw an amazing exhibition at the Hamburger Banhof Museum in Berlin. It was Tomás Saraceno’s “Cloud Cities”. It was a plastic and plants bubble-shaped interactive utopia that you could literally go inside. Some of the larger structures had stairs going into them. These structures had been exhibited before, but never so many together all at once! He has truly created his own world that really makes the viewer contemplate the function of art as well as the function of our everyday structures like houses. One really nice thing about these installations was that they were enjoyed by people of every age. If you are in Berlin before February 19, I suggest you check it out! More information about the installation can be found here: I loved Berlin. Not only because of the history, but It had a grittiness to it and a creative vibe. Malvina’s brother is moving there in April and he keeps saying I can visit and Amber said I can couchsurf there anytime. I would love to go back!
Also in November, some of my friends got together for Thanksgiving. I think people from five different countries ended up being there, and it was one of the most… free form yet traditional Thanksgivings I have ever had. It was so fun! The host, my friend Aaron, put fall leaves all over the wall and ground that his mother had shipped from back home in Missouri. I was so happy to be able to celebrate even though I wasn’t at home. And by the way, you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to find pecans in Germany to make pecan pie. I had to end up bringing rosemary mashed potatoes. December: In December, Dortmund became centered on the huge Christmas market. I drank Glühwein (mulled heated wine) so many times at the outdoor Christmas market stalls with everyone that I am honestly surprised my lips aren’t still stained red. Also, Dortmund has the tallest Christmas tree. To be fair it’s actually a bunch of small trees put together but it is still really impressive.
Also in December I went to my first professional soccer game here in Dortmund! The state team was the National Champion of Germany last year. People in Dortmund are really proud of that, it was even on the city's Christmas tree. In the picture above you can see the award you get for winning (the plate shaped Meisterschale). Fans get really serious. I understand why now, it was fun getting caught up in the game.
Well. That’s a pretty good summary of the highlights of the past few months. I have enjoyed Dortmund and all the places I have traveled to so much, and am so happy to be staying here until August. Since I kind of just summarized everything, just comment if you want to hear more about a specific thing I mentioned or place I went to.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

My Life Since September: Part 1 (where I start class, get a scholarship, go to Oktoberfest and visit Venice and Florence)

So except for the post about what I did for Christmas and New Year's Eve, the last thing I wrote about was when I had just got to Dortmund after a 3 week tour of Munich, Barcelona, Valencia, La Tomatina Festival, and Paris. So much has happened since then. That feels like a lifetime ago. September: For the month of September, I had an intensive German language course. It covered about a semester and a half of German in 3.5 weeks. Wow. That class was really hard. Some people embraced it, worked hard and did great. I became overwhelmed (no previous German knowledge except maybe 3 informal tutoring sessions in Montevallo) and while I had fun in the class, I actually failed it. The first time I have failed a class ever. I should have studied more. People in my German class were from all over the world. Italy, Turkey, Taiwan, Greece, Spain and many other countries.
The first month here, I spent a lot of time getting used to cultural differences (4 months later, I still am). Having to bring my own bag when I grocery shop, using buses and trains, and food. Something else that was really exciting in September was Oktoberfest in Munich.
I had wanted to go, but didn’t really make any hostel reservations or buy any train/plane tickets. Then my friend Carola said I should meet up with her & her friends, and I made it happen! However hostels were so overbooked and any rooms left that would normally 20 euros were now 70 euros… per night! That’s about $95. Last minute train & plane tickets were also very expensive. So I bought a regional day pass to get to Munich, and then did a ride share ( where you sign up online and contribute gas money to random people going to the same city you are and ride back with them. I met a great person named Eva from Dortmund (she was not an ax murderer). And due to the hostels being so expensive, I actually tried couch surfing for the first time ( It is a website where you sign up, make a profile like on facebook except unlike facebook it is used to search for places to stay in countries, or if you would like to host for people to find your place and ask you to stay there. All 100% free. The only price really as cheesy as it sounds, is trust. You have to really look at the profile and talk to them and maybe even talk to people who have stayed at their house, see if they are verified, and know if that is someone you’d like to hangout with for however many days you’ll be there. And then trust them. After all, they are trusting you as well. Letting in a stranger off the internet into their house and assuming you won’t steal from them or wreck their house. I sent a bunch of requests out but it was 2 days before I was leaving, and everyone had said people were already busy since it was Oktoberfest. I put a message on an emergency last minute message board, and people answered back! I had almost given up, I was about to go to sleep and I kept checking and I just said to myself I hope I wakeup to an Oktoberfest miracle. And literally right after I had that though a message popped into my mailbox from a guy named Keith. I thought that was a funny coincidence, but waited because I would have preferred to stay with a female for safety reasons. But then all the other people who offered a place were male as well. So I accepted his offer and after he also said that another girl would be staying there from Australia who needed a last minute place too. That was probably the best first couchsurfing experience ever. He picked me up from the train station because it was late and he was worried about the large amount of drunk people and wanted me to be safe. We stayed up talking along with the other girl about each other’s travel stories, and also about how Keith with a military brat as well (his dad was in the Navy in England). He was so nice! We still keep in touch via facebook. Yes sometimes couchsurfing doesn’t end up as nice, but when it works out, it really does kind of give you hope for humanity. That a random person gives up a bed or a couch in their home to a traveler for free, asking nothing in return but maybe good conversation. Oktoberfest was fun too! I left out early the next day to meetup with Carola and her friend, and we all had on dirndls and drank beer from mugs as big as our heads. We stood on benches dancing and singing German drinking songs, and had so much fun. We made new friends at the table we sat at (we barely got a table inside the tent. It was so crowded!). I will definitely have to make a return trip to Oktoberfest one day.
October: In October, classes started. Since this exchange program is with an actual German University and not an international school, I would be having classes that the regular German students took. There were some classes offered in English, but no art classes in English. I ended up deciding to take: a zoo drawing class (Professor speaks a little English but all lectures and critiques are in German unless one on one), a figure drawing class (professor speaks zero English), German language class, Transatlantic cultures class (in English), film noir class (half English half German depending on the film). I was also taking a music and installation art class, but felt communication was a problem. I think the installation class I took at Montevallo kind of made me feel like the class would be different that it was. I took this picture on one of the days in my zoo drawing class. This class only meets once every other Friday. That is one difference about classes here, they generally meet once a week, or some art classes once every 2 weeks. They just assume you are working on your own time and will present a portfolio at the end instead of the majority of the work being made in class. Also, in my figure drawing class professor likes it when the models pose with taxidermy animals or bring in their pets. It has been… interesting.
In October I also made a dream come true: I saw the 54th International Venice Biennale!!! The Biennale happens once every two years in Venice, Italy and the whole city is flooded with gallery exhibitions as well as country pavilions at Arsenale and Giardini which are permanent Biennale grounds. And in perfect timing, my professor from the University of Montevallo was having a show in Florence so I made an 8 day long trip planning to visit Venice and Florence. I didn’t know if I would be able to go initially because it is expensive to fly to Italy, but then I got a random job editing a graduate Thesis and that covered my flight and my hostel in Venice. So many things were just perfect timing during this trip.
In Venice, I tried to couchsurf after Oktoberfest worked out so well. However I couldn’t find anyone. I stayed at a very cheap campgrounds right outside of Venice where you can rent out a dorm style trailer. It was very cold, and wet. It rained a lot that weekend. But seeing all that art really made it worth it. It felt almost like a pilgrimage. As a senior BFA student I have to decide very soon what I do after I graduate. After seeing so much art and having some of it really affect me, it made me seriously consider getting an MFA. Here are some works that still stick with me: "Destnuej(Purification)" by Azad Nanakeli

Azad Nanakeli - DESTNUEJ / Purification - 2011 from Zerdaxena on Vimeo.

"Heartbeat" by Sasaki Purification was part of the Iraq Pavilion, and Heartbeat was part of the exhibition "Personal Structures" which was such a well curated exhibition but way over priced. The person selling tickets took pity on a traveling broke art student he and let me pay by donation. the works by I was so broke on that trip I literally had bread for dinner one time in Venice. I also had a bad habit of spending my food budget on gelato (have you ever had blood orange gelato? I rest my case). I was there for art, I wasn't there to stay in the fanciest hotel and eat 4 star dinners. Like I said, that scholarship money came at the most perfect time! It was a beautiful trip and i feel so lucky to have this freedom to travel and experience art in these different countries and meet so many great people. After a life changing experience in Venice (Dramatic, but true! Good art can do that to you.), I took a train to Florence, Italy aka Firenze to help set up Karen’s show at SACI and see this city that she has been raving about in every art class I ever took with her for years. The people, the architecture… she was right! I love Florence!
I couchsurfed with a family out in the countryside outside of Florence. Malvina asked on if I had a problem with pets because she has a cat and a dog… it was a huge plus. I miss my pets. That family welcomed me in from the first minute. When she picked me up from the bus stop she invited me to a big pizza party some family friends were having with their WOOFers (people who help out on farms in exchange for a place to stay and food etc) on an organic farm. There had to be like 20 people at that dinner, Italian, American, Dutch… just laughing together and enjoying the brick oven homemade pizza while her mother sang opera. Staying with her and her wonderful family really added so much happiness to my trip. This is their cat, Marilyn
That next day I showed up at SACI which is an American art school in Florence. I helped a little with some show prep work, and then Karen showed me around. Florence has so much history it really is a beautiful place. I went to the duomo, Dante’s old house, and the Medici palace. On the day of the show Karen said she had a surprise for me. She told me we would be picking up her artist friend Azad and I got so excited. When she had asked me how I like the Biennale and which works were my favorite and I said his as one of my answers without even knowing he would be at her show. It’s nice to meet the artists behind the art. In Florence I met so many of Karen’s friends and now I understand her ties to that place. One of these people was Sister Julia, a nun who is the caretaker of the English cemetery in Florence. The cemetery itself is worth a visit so many notable abolitionists and historical figures are buried there like Elizabeth Barett Browning. But also when you are there you can understand the humanitarian work she does for Romani people who face a lot of discrimination all over Europe which often results in unimaginable poverty and hardship. Together, they are helping to restore the English Cemetery.
I left Florence with hugs from Karen at the train station and also a SACI student I met there Aisha, and left for Pisa. It was 100 euros cheaper to fly back from Pisa and it was only a few euros to go there, and 12 euros for the hostel. I got there with some daylight left so I could take the stereotypical Pisa tower picture with the help of my hostel roommate from Scotland. We hungout the rest of the night, and she told me some crazy stories about getting kidnapped in Cuba. It was so funny, when I told her I used to live in Brazil she said she always wanted to travel there but was afraid to and I said I wanted to go to Cuba but was always afraid to.
When I got back, I had received the check for my $1000 scholarship I found out I had won from the Global Scholars Foundation. I was so worried about money, that really meant a lot for me to be given that. I had written essays on various topics as part of the application and also submitted a video essay answering the question “How will your diverse background contribute to your study abroad?” As a multiracial ex-military brat artist I talked about how these things have affected my world view. It’s a pretty awful video, I have this weird look on my face the whole time but hey I guess it worked! The person who notified me of the award was so happy for me and you could tell they felt so happy to be able to give scholarships to traveling students. I feel so grateful for everything that has come my way.

Friday, January 6, 2012

What I did during my christmas vacation

Like many of my friends back in Montevallo, my classes starts back Monday at TU Dortmund. Honestly, one of the main reasons I almost backed out of going to Germany for this semester was that I knew because of the semester schedule here (it isn't over until the end of January), I would be spending Christmas away from my family. I can deal with homesickness and missing friends, but being without family on Christmas was something that made me sad to think about.

However while I still missed my family, this Christmas was a dream come true that I have had for years: reuniting with the neighbors who adopted my family when we lived in Sicily. And because of some top-notch Facebook sleuthing from my mom (do you know how many Giuseppe's there are in Sicily?), we got back in touch! And when I asked when a good time would visit would be, they said they would love to have me over for Christmas. Living in Sicily and being friends with their family is a very cherished memory in my family because of how often we moved around due to being a military family before my dad retired from the Navy. We lived in Sicily 4 years, which makes it the place I've lived longest outside of Alabama out of my total of a dozen or so moves (military brat for life!). They had our first address after we moved but after that they couldn't send anything. And we never really knew how much our families had meant to each other after all this time until I saw our family portrait on their wall in the middle of portraits of her kids & grandkids, and I told them that we did the same. Enzo, Enza, Carmelo, Giana and their son and his fiance all met me at the airport. Hugs all around, and Enza & Giana deathgripped my arm and kept joking that I was their prisoner. I was home!

I spent a wonderful 8 days there. We shared memories through my shaky understanding of Italian (I learned how to read & write in Italian before English, so I remember some) and interpreting through Nicko's fiance Esther. But mostly we communicated through huge bear hugs, tears of joy, and Giana's amazing cooking! The picture is of Christmas day lunch at Carmello's mother's house. 87 and happy (bottom left). I not only got to see everyone I missed so much, but Esther and Nicko also took me all around Sicily showing me different interesting places like Mt. Etna and Catania. Enzo documented most of these and made a DVD of the photos to send to my parents since they could not be here. They also took me to see my old house in Nicolosi, a village at the base of Mt. Etna.

Here is a picture of me in front of my old house.
I stayed with Enzo and Enza (landlords of the house)the first half and Giana and Carmelo (neighbors) the second. And because of Skype, I was able to let everyone talk with my parents on christmas eve! I will always remember Ginevra (Giana & Carmelo's son Giuseppe got married to Loredona, and that's one of their daughters) waiting for midnight so Babbo Natale would bring her gifts. When my family was on skype I looked at her and said "tua famiglia americana"- your American family. Her mom taught her how to say Merry Christmas in English, it was adorable. Dortmund has a Italian class, maybe I can study Italian next semester as well and start relearning something I was fluent in as a kid.

Ginevra is in both pictures, the woman holding the baby (Virginia) is Loredona, and her husband Giuseppe. His parents Carmelo and Giana (aka my surrogate grandmother while I was unable to see mine for 4 years)are with me and Ginevra in the other picture. The bought me the outfit as well as other things as a gift for Christmas. They wanted me to have "Italian style". Like I said, they treated me like family.

I felt so lucky to be able to reconnect after all this time! It meant so much to me reminiscing with them and making new memories. I also spent time with sara and her family, as well as Enzo's son Peppe and his family. I promised to come back in June for Nicko & Esther's wedding, she even asked me to be a bridesmaid. It was a truly magical trip more perfect that I could have hoped for, filled with love, happy tears, memories and Sicilian food. Giana said she always wondered how I turned out, and was so proud of me. I must be doing something right! When it was time to leave, I had to fight back tears. I said goodbye to everyone either night before or that morning, and when they took me to the airport they made sure my bag was stuffed with food in case I got hungry during my trip. Giana now has the permanent address of a house we have a mortgage on, and not the address of a house on a military base that we will leave in a few months or year.

If you would like to see more pictures from those 8 days and are a facebook friend of mine, I was an album up. Here's a picture of Esther, Sara and I sightseeing that Enzo took:

That trip was so emotional that I basically hibernated for a few days when I got back, and then enjoyed a trip to Cologne with my Taiwanese roommate Chia-chen and her friends to see New Year's Eve fireworks over the Rhine river! Said goodbye to an amazing year, and said hello to another one. 2011 will be a hard act to follow.