Making the move: Exploring the transfer student experience at Elon University

Published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on March 18, 2015.

Multimedia Reporting by Erin Valentine and Preston Willett

Title Map

Infographic by Erin Valentine

Students transfer for multiple reasons. For students looking to transfer to Elon University, there’s an essay component that asks why a student is motivated to become an Elon Phoenix.

“Some transfer students who intentionally have gone to a local community college, and know from day one, ‘I want to transfer out,’ or ‘I want to go to Elon,’” said Kevin Napp, associate director of admissions and director of transfers and special admissions. “You have other students that have gone to a state school, to other private schools, and for a variety of reasons have decided they want to transfer. It could be a family situation. It might be a financial situation. It might be they are looking for a change of climate or just scenery.”

The transfer population at Elon is typically a smaller population. In the fall, often 90 to 100 students are enrolled as transfers, which is small compared to a freshmen class size of about 1450.

To apply to Elon, a prospective transfer student must have a minimum grade point average of 2.7, have completed at least one full-time semester of coursework, have official transcripts from attended institutions, an evaluation form from their past institution’s dean of student life, and a completed transfer application.

“For our transfer student population, it’s on a rolling process, meaning that when they complete their application they can get a decision quickly and kind of go from there,” Napp said.

While high school work is still important, a student’s academic record at their previous college or university is one of the most essential parts of their application to Elon. According to Napp, this allows for the university to know if they can achieve and function at the collegiate level.

Infographic by Erin Valentine

Infographic by Erin Valentine

The transfer process can have a few hiccups.

According to an academic report released by Elon University on the fall 2014 transfer students, GPAs tend to decrease after a transfer’s first semester at Elon.

The report said, “Students attending a Community College prior to arrival at Elon University earned a 2.75 GPA during the fall semester compared to the 3.14 GPA earned by students transferring from a Four-Year institution.”

Another issue that some transfers come across when applying to come to Elon is the lack of availability of merit-based scholarship.

According to US News, most schools grant merit-based scholarships to students, yet Elon does not. There are need-based awards available; however, merit-based scholarships are not offered due to not having the necessary funding available.

“The limited funding that Elon currently has is tending to be directed towards our first year students who are going to be here hopefully for four years, compared to a transfer student, who could be here anywhere from one to three,” Napp said. “Obviously, for someone who is going to be here less time, their total out-of-pocket expense is going to be less. They still can earn need-based awards, outside scholarships.”

Another problem that admitted transfers come across is not having guaranteed on-campus housing. On-campus housing for transfer students is limited, and assignments are based on the date deposits are received. Once on-campus housing is full, students can continue to apply as commuter students and live off-campus.

“Because all first years and sophomores are required to live on-campus, that’s kind of the priority right now,” Napp said. “And so, when space is available, we’ll do our absolute best to house as may as possible. And some don’t want on-campus housing. Some are intentionally looking to live off-campus.”

Elon was able to house 60 percent of students in the fall of 2014. In the spring of the same year, all of the transfer students who requested to be on-campus were housed.

To address these concerns, the transfer atmosphere at Elon is continuously trying to change and improve.

One addition is the newly formed Transfer Student Organization (TSO) on-campus that offers a variety of sessions and social activities for transfer students. “They do a wonderful job of helping transfer students acclimate to campus, giving them just familiar faces and resources,” Napp said.

There is also a mentor program that has been recently introduced. A new transfer student is paired with a current Elon student to try to make the new student’s transition smoother.

For Napp, this is a helpful addition to his work. “I can answer questions, but I think there’s a little bit more weight sometimes when it comes from a current Elon student,” Napp said.

In an attempt to have merit-based scholarships, Napp said that Elon has recently set up its very first merit-based scholarship for students transferring from Alamance Community College. The ACC scholarship offers an award of $22,500 from an anonymous donor

Napp said that he has plans to keep trying to improve the transfer experience at Elon. According to Napp, his long-term goals include increasing the merit-based aid if possible, increase the number of transfer students at Elon, raise opportunities for on-campus housing, and to further develop the mentor program.

thomasThomas Goode

Thomas Goode realized that he wanted an education that gave him choices in his classes. Unfortunately at the University of Colorado — Denver, he wasn’t able to find that. Now a double major in entrepreneurship and music, Goode seems to have found his place.

Once he made the move to Colorado, Goode quickly found that Denver was not too similar to his hometown of Mooresville, NC.

“Part of the reason I didn’t really like it was the people weren’t southernly, like friendly, so that was kind of a culture shock to me,” Goode said.

Goode missed orientation the first week due to an illness, so it felt harder to him to make relationships with people outside of his dorm area.

Another problem that he ran into at Denver was that his class selection was limited. Goode decided he wanted to take a variety of classes, but was told by his advisor that he would only be able to take business classes.

“I wanted to do some film classes and I wanted to do music classes,” Goode said. “I was talking with an advisor, and he was just like, ‘That’s not going to happen.’”

Thus, he began to look at for a new institution.

“Looking for a new school made me focus on kind of getting out of there, so I wasn’t really living in the moment,” Goode said.

Wanting to move closer to home, he looked at Clemson University, Elon University, and the University of Virginia. Elon eventually became the school that Goode chose due to the variety of programs it offered.

“I expressed what I wanted to do, and they said, “Yeah, here’s what classes you can take. Here’s the programs we offer,’” Goode said. “And all these things, FreshTV, and all sorts of programs that they have just really appeal to me.”

The Application process was very different for Goode then applying for college right out of high school. He ran into some issues, including problems with transcripts and initially being denied to Elon. However, he was able to petition the denial and was eventually accepted.

“It would have been a lot more difficult if I hadn’t been in constant contact with people here,” Goode said. “And that’s another really big thing that confirmed my desire to be here, was the communication that I had with the deans and trying to figure this out. They really worked with me and helped me out as much as they could.”

According to Goode, once he knew he didn’t want to be at the University of Colorado, he knew that transferring anywhere was going to be a risk, but it was one that he was willing to take.

“There’s definitely the fear that when you transfer it will be the same, in that you won’t fit in anywhere else,” Goode said.

Goode said that he was pleased overall with Elon’s transfer process and orientation, especially finding help and advice from the newly formed Transfer Student Organization. However, he noted that sometimes transfers were mixed together with the freshmen and he found some of the information redundant.

According to Goode, he found that transferring to Elon was a good fit, specifically because of the smaller class sizes and better relationships with professors and students at Elon.

“I feel like I fit in better here and that I can express myself how I want to and do everything I want to do,” Goode said. “So I feel pretty confident with everything I’m doing here.”

viktoriaViktoria Chiappa

Elon sophomore Viktoria Chiappa always knew she was going to transfer from Central Connecticut State University.

“I didn’t know where I was going to transfer, but I didn’t really have a lot of time my senior year to pick a school because I had a tragedy happen in my family — my father passed away,” Chiappa said. “So, I knew I didn’t want to be far away from my family.”

Chiappa focused on finding an institution with a strong theater program and promising opportunities, as she hoped to become involved in the theater program and to become a vocal studies major.

Having the few years between first applying for colleges after high school and then applying to transfer, Chiappa found that she had come to know herself better.

“I definitely had different perspectives on things to write essays about,” Chiappa said. “I think it showed more of who I was becoming as a person because at that point I was more developed in my mindset of who I was.”

Chiappa was actually about to choose Montclair State University, except they didn’t quite seem to want her at their institution.

“It was almost like they accepted me because they had to because of who I was, that I looked very good on paper, and that I was good in my interview,” Chiappa said. “But they didn’t necessarily want the transfers. They didn’t want to deal with that.”

Once Chiappa finalized her decision on going to Elon University, she ran into a bit of a hiccup — she had a chance to perform with Disney on Ice for a year. Initially concerned that this additional year may cause a rift in her plans, Elon assured her that she would still have a place with them in the fall of 2014. The university would email her updates about what was going on and Chiappa said that she was assured that they wanted her at Elon.

“From that, I knew it was the right decision because people don’t go above and beyond any more and that’s just how it was here, it was just an easier process,” Chiappa said.

From her previous experience, Chiappa was not looking forward to orientation. Her previous university had been more of a party atmosphere and Chiappa’s knew that that was not her preferred environment. She found Elon’s transfer orientation to be different.

“This orientation [Elon’s] was just better in that sense in that it was just more… they gave you more room,” Chiappa said. “And I don’t know if that was because we were transfers, so they knew that we had stood on our own two feet before. But, there was less hand holding. They were more there to be a friend.”

Chiappa found that Elon was welcoming to transfers, but often did this by not always acknowledging that the transfer students were their own entity at times.

“I think we do what we can by making them [transfers] feel normal by ignoring the fact that they’re different,” Chiappa said. “I think that’s a positive thing and it’s a negative thing.”

Still adjusting and finding her place at Elon, Chiappa is looking forward to her time here at Elon, and is happy to have an instant bond to other transfer students.

“If I meet another student that is a transfer, it’s like you guys are sisters. You come from the same place. You know each other.”

Scott Interview PicScott Powell

For Scott Powell, the environment he thought he had wanted in a college turned out not to be the environment that he needed. Currently a sophomore at Elon University, Powell transferred from the University of Georgia — Athens.

“It’s kind of interesting how in high school I had this idea of what I wanted out of college,” Powell said. “And then once I got there, things changed a lot.”

Powell realized that he was not where he wanted to be when he was driving to Athens for his second semester of college and he was not looking forward to it.

“I was like, ‘Well, when is the next time I’m going to be home?’ or ‘When’s the next time I can go visit my friend?’” Powell said. “And those are kind of the moments when you realize, ‘Oh crap. I don’t like being here. I don’t want to be here. I haven’t created a home.’”

Powell decided he need to switch his environment. He began to have to tell people that he was planning to transfer, which turned out to be difficult.

“It was nerve wracking,” Powell said. “It was awkward. It was uncomfortable, and I really struggled with it.”

According to Powell, he found it hard to tell people who are having a great time that he was not, and he knew that they might not understand.

When choosing schools, Powell knew he was looking for somewhere he could create a home. He focused on places with a smaller student body, that were more academically stimulating, with a liberal arts education, and had a less intense social scene.

The institutions he narrowed his choices down to were the University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill, University of Virginia, Denison University, and Elon University.

Powell’s choice of Elon was a slow and gradual process.

“It wasn’t like a lightbulb moment where I said, ‘Oh, Elon is the place for me,’” Powell said. “It was more a process of elimination.”

Once Powell made his way to North Carolina, he found the transfer orientation at Elon to be supportive.

“At Elon, I have a small transfer orientation group — that was big for me,” Powell said. “It was other transfer students who were going through similar things and we had an orientation leader that helped us out alot. There was also a lot of structure in the first three days, which I thought was good because it gave me reason to go out and meet new people.”

Powell, who rooms in Danieley, has met and lived with multiple transfer students.

“I think it’s nice that there’s not a stigma around transfer students,” he said. “There’s four or five transfer students on my hall and sometimes you’ll be asked, ‘Oh, you’re a transfer student?’ People don’t even know sometimes.”

For Powell, he said he respects Elon’s transfer program and the effort they made to make the transfers feel at home when there are 1,450 first year students also at orientation.

“The overall process, I think, Elon University did a very good job of insuring that the student is not left without any resources, as far as transfers,” Powell said.

laurenLauren Schuessler

Lauren Schuessler knew from her first day at the University of Rhode Island (URI) that it was not meant for her.

“I like my major, but that’s about it that I liked,” Schuessler said. “And I just knew that I wanted to be somewhere that I was in love with.”

Now a senior early childhood education major and Italian minor, Schuessler has found a home at Elon University.

Schuessler found that many students were not happy at URI, but many people never did anything to change their situation.

“A lot of people that go to URI, they hate it,” Schuessler said. “And a lot of people hate it and they don’t leave because they don’t really want to go through that transition again.”

Her search for a new school had her looking at institutions that she previously hadn’t considered or didn’t think she would make it in. After narrowing down her choices to the College of William & Mary, SUNY Geneseo, and Elon University, she finally decided to make her way down to North Carolina.

Schuessler had a couple bumps in the road along the way. The first obstacle was Elon’s lack of merit scholarships available for transfers.

“The only negative thing, and it is kind of a big negative thing, is that they don’t offer any money to transfer students,” Schuessler said.

Leaving a large scholarship at URI, Schuessler found it frustrating to come to Elon with no scholarships and being unable to join any honor programs.

Another issue that Schuessler found was the lack of guaranteed housing for transfers, which almost caused for her to not be able to come to Elon.

Once Schuessler started though, she found that transfer orientation was a different experience from freshman orientation at URI. While not completely satisfied with her transfer orientation at Elon, Schuessler found the process to be good for meeting people.

“Elon made it really easy to meet people, whether they were freshmen or whether they were senior orientation leaders, and everyone was extremely friendly,” Schuessler said. “I never went anywhere alone, that just wouldn’t happen here. It was a huge difference. I felt more at home. I felt comfortable. I was excited to be here. I was more positive. It was the opposite of URI.”

Schuessler knew coming in that she wanted to be involved at Elon, so she made it happen.

“I knew, before I even came, some of the things I wanted to be involved with,” Schuessler said. “And I did. Getting that experience of being a club and having that family and that group of friends, that just changed everything for me.”

After having acclimated to Elon, Schuessler has had three years to look back on Elon and how her experience of being a transfer affected her college experience.

“I just see Elon as like heaven,” Schuessler said. “And I know that most people here, they love it, but they don’t see it in the eyes that I have. I am grateful that I had that experience, even if it was a terrible one, it led me to enjoy Elon and the rest of my college experience much more.”

Elon administration correctly cracks down on hazing

Editorial published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on November 19, 2014.

Elon University’s recent suspension of the Epsilon Theta chapter of Sigma Pi has been an important decision in upholding policies against hazing.

Too often, the concept of Greek Life becomes synonymous with the hazing of pledges. Often, hazing is not reported, causing rumors to circulate. While hazing is sometimes excused as tradition, it can be an incredibly dangerous practice.

Elon has chosen the correct course of action. The university’s administration should be stopping these incidents before they go too far. While this could be an isolated incident, the decision broadcasts that reporting an incident leads to action being taken and may encourage potential hazing victims to speak up.

In the past year, there have been many hazing-related incidents at other universities that have led to dire consequences. Just last Thursday, all fraternities and sororities at West Virginia University were suspended after a first-year student was found unconscious in a fraternity house, allegedly as a result of hazing.

On Oct. 9, Elon police filed an incident report on alleged hazing of Sigma Pi pledges. The report stated that three male students were “forced to plank on bottle caps.”

Effective as of Nov. 11, Jana Lynn Patterson, associate vice president for student life, has upheld the suspension of Sigma Pi. The fraternity will be suspended until spring 2017, and members currently living in the on-campus house will have to find alternate housing for Winter and Spring Terms. Their charter has also been revoked, which means it is not recognized as a fraternity on campus.

These sanctions are essential to break harmful practices that happen behind closed doors. Smith Jackson, vice president for student life and dean of students, said, “Hazing is not unique to these organizations. We want to address it for the student body. We want to re-emphasize policies we have because it’s just not tolerable on campus.”

According to Sigma Pi International’s website, their official motto is, “A new generation of leaders.” The organization is also based on the principles of friendship, leadership, citizenship and distinction. Hazing does not lend itself to any of these principles, and “a new generation of leaders” should not be taught that brotherhood comes from violent hazing practices.

Net neutrality is no-brainer for upcoming policies

Editorial published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on November 19, 2014.

Photo by The Pendulum staff

Photo by The Pendulum staff

The power and influence of the Internet has changed the world in just a few decades.

The U.S. government is currently in the midst of changing the speed and accessibility rules of the Internet. Net neutrality, or keeping the Internet detached from the control of broadband network providers, has been a subject of recent debate and could have far-reaching implications depending on the decisions soon to be made.

President Obama, who recently proclaimed himself pro-net neutrality, said we need the “strongest possible rules” to keep an open Internet. And he’s right.

The Internet is intended for open use available to anyone and any upcoming changes should reflect that.

The whole concept of net neutrality is based on large broadband network providers, such as Time Warner and Comcast, trying to control the data they circulate. Ending net neutrality would allow these larger companies to take over the faster Internet speeds, also known as “the fast lane,” and leave smaller companies and start-ups with the slower Internet speeds, or “the slow lane.”

This would effectively end any chance newer businesses have competing in the Internet arena.

A component of the issue is paid prioritization, which allows Internet service providers to charge some Internet content companies, such as Netflix, an extra fee or faster access to customers. This would lead to an increase in membership fees for certain websites.

According to a recent University of Delaware poll, 81 percent of the public opposes paid prioritization.

Interestingly, in the United States, we pay more for our Internet than almost anywhere else in the world, yet we do not have the fastest download speeds — we’re behind countries such as South Korea, Lithuania and Andorra.

A large part of the current issue is people do not understand what net neutrality is and why it is important to keep.

The Federal Communications Commission is now working on balancing the public’s call for net neutrality with the broadcast companies’ desire to up investments by charging for better downloads and streaming. To open up conversation on the issue, the FCC took public comments for 120 days and received millions of responses, most of which strongly advocated for net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a burgeoning issue as the Internet becomes even more integrated into our everyday lives. The Internet is a level playing field, and changing the access to data only benefits large companies.

It’s time for student action on climate change

Editorial published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on November 12, 2014.

Photo by The Pendulum staff

Photo by The Pendulum staff

A huge issue many students might not think about often is climate change. It’s an important issue that has been over- shadowed for decades. Now, the world needs to listen.

“Students have power at Elon,” said Jessica Bilecki, education and outreach coordinator at the Office of Sustainability at Elon University, about the effect students could have on climate change.

Elon offers multiple outlets and initiatives to cut down Elon’s effect on the environment.

To begin with, Elon completed a Sustainability Master Plan in spring 2007. In spring 2010, Elon completed a Climate Action Plan (CAP). The action plan outlines Elon’s plan to reduce emissions from the amount produced in 2008 by 2037, even if campus size increases. Inventory of emissions has been documented yearly since.

So far, emissions have increased overall because of construction, but emissions per square foot and per student emissions are down.

Yet these plans and inventory are irrelevant without student engagement in the issue and will only be successful
if the entire community actively participates.

“Every action we take has consequences,” Bilecki said. “When we choose to take a certain action we are also choosing the consequences that go along with it.”

There is a multitude of ways to become more involved, with varying degrees of commitment.

Students can incorporate sustainable living in almost anything they do, from dance to business to writing.

Simple changes can add up, such as turning off the light when leaving a room, unplugging electronics when not using them, cleaning the lint filter in the dryer, buying local foods, carpooling, walking and biking.

For those who want to become involved in making a larger change, Elon has a sustainable learning community for students to participate in.

There are also opportunities to be- come a sustainability research scholar, participate in the Phoenix Cup, or to become an Eco-rep, which is a student peer educator on sustainability on campus. And these are just a few examples.

According to a United Nations report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “Human interference with the climate system is occurring.” We face changes that will have “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts on people and ecosystems.”

We must take action now because the window for much needed change is quickly closing. Everyone can make a difference.

Elon Community Church should vote yes on Open and Affirming

Editorial published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on November 12, 2014.

Photo by The Pendulum Staff

Photo by The Pendulum Staff

Elon Community Church is having an Open and Affirming vote (ONA) Jan. 18 to determine if it should officially fully accept LGBTQIA members into the ministry.

ONA is an official decision by a congregation in the United Church of Christ, the denomination of Elon Community Church, that states a church fully welcomes and incorporates LGBTQIA people into its congregation.

This vote is vital to acceptance in the Elon community, and a positive outcome would further the necessary inclusion
of people of any sexuality and gender identity.

Before the church votes, it goes through a discernment period, which can take anywhere from 12 to 24 months and involves open meetings and discussions on the ONA vote. Once members have discussed the issue to its fullest extent, they will come together and vote on it.

Discussion about the vote began more than two years ago, when the church decided it was time to move forward with the inclusion of LGBTQIA members.

This vote would give LGBTQIA members membership in the church and full acceptance of their faith in God, regard- less of their sexuality and gender identity.

According to Rev. Randy Orwig, senior pastor at Elon Community Church, certain members of the congregation have concerns on the subject, and the church wanted all members to have a chance to fully understand the vote.

Orwig noted the church is trying to give extra attention to the biblical aspects and questions behind the ONA vote, which are where some of the congregation may find doubt.

The vote, if enacted, will alter church policy so that it does not discriminate and will affirm a person’s lifestyle. All LGBTQIA members would be held in the same esteem as all other members.

Orwig said he believes the church is ready for this vote on the next step to include LGBTQIA members in the congregation.

For LGBTQIA students looking for a place to discuss the correlation between their religion and sexuality, Rev. Janet Fuller, Elon University’s Chaplain, offers the opportunity for safe discussion.

“I myself am an ally of the LGBTQIA community, my office is a safe space, and want to be active in their full inclusion
in religious and other kinds of communities,” Fuller said.

According to Fuller, her staff and some students are planning a January series on sexuality and religion.

It’s On Us: Take action against sexual assault

Editorial published in the print edition of Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on November 5, 2014.

One in five women and one in 16 men has been or will be sexually assaulted while in college. Eight in 10 victims know their attackers. These statistics, from the It’s On Us campaign website, illustrate that sexual assault is a crucial issue on all campuses.

Thankfully, Elon University and Burlington are encouraging students and residents to prevent and deal with sexual assault. But there is still room for improvement.

According to the It’s On Us website, the campaign is a “cultural movement aimed
at fundamentally shifting the way we think about sexual assault.” It is based on the platform that sexual assault is not just a crime between the attacker and the victim but a problem for the whole community. The goal is to reframe the current assumptions on sexual assault so that the responsibility goes beyond those immediately involved.

In October, North Carolina State University’ released a video PSA with students, faculty and staff stating that sexual assault is up to everyone to combat. The video highlights the university’s awareness and prevention of sexual assault. People from all walks of life, backgrounds, clubs, etc. were shown in the video voicing their support for a community-based response to sexual assault. All demographics are responsible.

The It’s On Us campaign has the right idea.

While Elon supports multiple organizations, committees and events, they can only do so much. It is then the responsibility of the rest of the community to take part in spreading prevention and awareness.

This may seem like a daunting task. Yet, there are multiple ways the issue can be approached. Talking openly about sexual assault can encourage deeper understanding. If you see something, do something.

If a situation looks like it could end badly, intervene.

For prevention, Elon implements multiple programs, talks and campaigns to raise awareness of sexual assault on campus.

According to Jessica Clark, the coordinator for violence response for Elon, a few examples of some of these initiatives and programs include Students Promoting Awareness, Responsibility, Knowledge, and Success (SPARKS) peer education — which focuses on educating students on sexual violence and prevention, the “Can I Kiss You?” program and the HAVEN online sexual assault program that all incoming students, first-year, transfer, graduate and law students, are required to complete.

Elon Feminists for Equality, Change, and Transformation (EFFECT), organized a Support Survivors Week and the Walk Against Victim Blaming earlier this semester. Additionally, Students Promoting Awareness, Change and Empowerment (SPACE), is a new student group that is dedicated to ending sexual violence at Elon.

Elon also has SAFEline, a confidential phone line that is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for community members concerned about or experiencing identity-based bias or discrimination, sexual assault or stalking.

For victims who may want to go outside Elon for help, CrossRoads, a sexual assault response and resource center, is located in Burlington.

Ann Cahill, professor of philosophy, is proud of all that has been accomplished at Elon but acknowledges that there is room for more collaboration.

“We know there’s a need because survivors of sexual assault still think twice about telling their story to a friend, a counselor or a university official,” Cahill said. “We need to work harder as a community to earn the trust of survivors and to learn to respond to disclosures of sexual assault with compassion, effective assistance and understanding.”

Clark explained that if the awareness and education of sexual assault are spread, two goals must be achieved. The first is to create an environment supporting and believing survivors by letting them know that it is not their fault. The second goal is to encourage efforts to prevent sexual assault, such as ending victim blaming, obtaining consent and engaging in bystander intervention, to keep everyone accountable for the community’s safety.

Elon stands together against sexual as- sault in our community. If everyone became more involved, imagine what could be done to stop sexual assault on campus.

We need collaborations to go beyond just committees and organizations — we need to reach to every corner of campus. We need to engage the rest of Elon on becoming educated on the issues surrounding sexual assault and have them join the mission to take it on. It’s on all of us.

Getting outside your comfort zone

Opinion column by Erin Valentine

Published online for Elon University’s student-run newspaper, The Pendulum, on October 22, 2014

The sun sets behind the pagodas in Bagan, Burma. Photo by Erin Valentine

The sun sets behind the pagodas in Bagan, Burma. Photo by Erin Valentine

Standing on one of the thousands of pagodas in Bagan, Burma, I really felt like I was on an adventure. This was beauty in its purest form. There were pagodas as far as the eye could see, and not a skyscraper in sight. As I enjoyed the view, a small voice piped up behind me, “My favorite is the one on your left. It’s one of the oldest.”

A young girl with thanaka paste on her cheeks was standing next to me, holding the post cards she had been selling with one hand and pointing to a pagoda off in the distance with her other. She continued talking to me in incredibly impressive English. “If you look at this pagoda though,” she said, “you can see the lotus flowers carved in to the stone.”

This young girl quickly became one of the most resounding parts of my semester abroad. I talked to her for twenty minutes about her life, my life, and the beautiful place where she lived. She was one of the reasons Burma was one of my favorite places to visit. I connected with her.

Whether you are in an Asian country or downtown Burlington, there is nothing quite like talking to people you don’t know. Getting outside of my comfort zone gives me some of the most rewarding experiences I’ve ever had. Whenever you find yourself somewhere new and unknown, talk to someone. Immediately a random town becomes tangible to you. You go past just the face value of a place and you can give it a personality. You can make connections with places and people.

Another encounter I had, and a little closer to home by about 8,540 miles, was in Franklin, North Carolina this past summer. A small town tucked away in the mountains, it has one main street that is about ten stores long. As I was perusing, I met a man who has lived in Franklin his entire life. He talked to me ecstatically about how he photographs, paints, take videos, and has a budding online presence all about Franklin and its surrounding environment. My experience in Franklin turned from just touring a small town to starting to appreciate the beauty this town is so proud of.

Those are so many stories and so many more to come just from talking to strangers. All over the world there are humans living their lives and full of amazing stories to tell. You can learn so much from people you wouldn’t normally talk to and you can see how much we have in common, no matter our culture.

A personal rule while traveling is to go past the main attractions and tourist spots. I always try to explore something that may not be the main path. As an example, when I was in India I spent my week with the best tuk tuk driver. Babu showed me his India. I went to the shops he went to, ate at the restaurants he ate at and got to know him and his life, just because I talked to him as more than just the person who got me from A to B.

When I think back to the places I’ve been, I think about the amazing people I’ve met. From the mountains of western North Carolina to the bustling city of Cochin, getting out of my comfort zone and getting to know others in their context and environment was far more rewarding then just checking off places on my travel bucket list. Getting to know people gives much more meaning to places you visit. It reminds you that you are human and have an amazing story to share with others that cross your path.