Anxiety to Excitement: A Life Changing Experience in Hong Kong

From anxiety, discovery, to excitement, John Xu shares his emotionally enlightening journey of studying abroad on the Student Exchange Program to Hong Kong Science and Technology, Hong Kong.

Looking over the Hong Kong skyline

Studying abroad for a semester in Hong Kong was not only the best decision I’ve made in college, it was the best decision I’ve made in LIFE. I remember when I first decided I was going to commit to a semester abroad, I almost wasn’t able to because I signed up too late. Every week that led up to leaving the country I’d get more anxious, just because of the fact that I’d never spent an extended amount of time out of the country. I knew I was pushing my comfort zone and that it would help broaden my horizons on a global scale and give me more diverse career opportunities, but it was still nerve wrecking anticipating the process I was going to put myself through.

However, as soon as I stepped off the plane in Hong Kong and hopped into a taxi to my university, I realized I had made a great decision. From the moment you arrive, you begin to realize the difference in culture and environment of the country you’re studying abroad in compared to back home. Those difference were exciting for me; from the food to the city life, to the university environment, everything I did was exciting because it felt so fresh and unique. It seemed like every other day I was experiencing a “once in a lifetime” moment that I had to document and cherish to the fullest extent. I was able to extend these moments by traveling to 7 other countries in Southeast Asia during my semester, allowing me to experience the differences in all of the Asian cultures. By the end of the semester, I had made friends with so many people all around the world who had also chosen to study abroad and gained not only the perspectives of people in Hong Kong but everywhere around the world. I truly feel like I built something special with the group of people I became friends with there and that we would always stay in touch.

Coming back home, I realized how much I had changed and grown as a person. I now feel confident in myself to tackle problems ahead of me and create unique solutions to tasks at hand (I backpacked across 9 cities in Thailand and Myanmar for 17 days straight!!). Before leaving for Hong Kong I couldn’t have even dreamed of doing such a thing. Returning from abroad I feel a deeper appreciation for the comforts of life that America provides and I’m thankful for things that I had always took for granted in my daily life. Biggest of all, I’m happy that I now have a global attitude for my career after college, my goal is to be able to make a difference in the people and places, not just around me but in the world. I’m already planning out my next trip abroad, and I can’t wait for you to get started on your journey too. Don’t pass up the opportunity to make the best decision of your life!

Finally! Our Prince Came!

Fisher undergraduates Hanna Atiyeh, Roni Groebner, Elizabeth Navarre, Adela Pang and Joe Wimer share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Jaisalmer, India.

When we arrived in India, the team believed that the scope of our project was to come up with a way to preserve the fort as a historical and cultural monument while increasing tourism and helping the multiple bodies of fort’s management to better communicate with one another. However, after interview multiple locals, we realized that the problems facing the city of Jaisalmer are more complicated and engineering based. The most prominent issue is the water seepage throughout the fort’s walls that is breaking down the infrastructure. The team identified this slow erosion and destruction as the most pressing issue. Essentially, if this problem is not fixed, the Jaisalmer Fort will slowly crumble away; and, without the fort, the main attraction of Jaisalmer for tourism will be gone. Furthermore, the residents living inside the fort are adamant on staying within the Fort because of their familial connections to the history of the fort. Their homes have been passed down within families for centuries. How they identify culturally and religiously is based on living inside the Fort;  it means everything to them to stay.

Global Projects Program India team

After hearing the locals’ concerns, researching possible solutions, and touring the Fort to see all the problem areas regarding the water seepage and sewage system, we devised a tentative solution: find the best, non-biased group of engineers to come and evaluate the condition of the sewage and draining system and apply for grants or find a source of funding for the infrastructure study. While we thought our tentative plan was feasible, we needed to wait on our meetings with our client, Crown Prince Chaitanya Raj Singh, to hear his feedback.

We met Prince Chaitanya the last week of our time in Jaisalmer. After a dinner where we got to know each other a little bit better, we were able to understand his situation more fully. We met multiple times over the next few days and began to work through how we could offer value-add deliverables.   After much discussion and brainstorming with the Prince, we propsed that the team:  1. Create a persuasive argument and presentation for Prince Chaitanya to use for future awareness and fund sourcing presentations; 2. Generate a strategic partnership analysis that outlines all of the possible sources of funding, engineering groups, and a timeline for the project; 3. Draw a map of key players/stakeholders and their relationships concerning the Fort and outlining roles and duties as well as suggesting ways to improve and clarify roles.

Global Projects Program India team

After returning to the USA, we will continue to communicate with Prince Chaitanya to further focus our plan. Through our class with Professory Tansky in the upcoming fall semester and with the help of our project Faculty Advisor, Heidi Eldred, we hope to create something of value for Prince Chaitanya and the city of Jaisalmer.

Train, Plane, Automobile… Elephant?

Fisher undergraduates Hanna Atiyeh, Roni Groebner, Elizabeth Navarre, Adela Pang and Joe Wimer share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Jaisalmer, India.

Jaisalmer to Jodhpur to Delhi to Jaipur to Agra and back to Delhi. The second half of our time in India proved to be quite the road trip. Throughout the first two weeks of the Global Projects Program, the India Team was lucky enough to have amazing cultural experiences, shown in the first blog. We all thought it would be hard to top the generosity, history, and culture of Jaisalmer; however, I think we all fell in love with every city we visited.

We arrived in Jodhpur by train – a cultural experience itself. Traveling across India by train, watching the various towns pass by and interacting with domestic and foreign passengers, was certainly an unforgettable adventure. When we arrived in Jodhpur, we were welcomed by the most interesting couple who offered up their gorgeous haveli to us. The Canadian wife and Italian husband showed us another side to life in India as they had met in the city and lived there for over 20 years.

View of "Blue City"

The fort within the city of Jodhpur was well maintained and beautiful to any tourist who visited. Our group, however, received a top of the line experience with a tour given by the curator of the museum. He was able to explain, in depth, history, cultural significance, and even take us to various areas of the fort that were restricted to the general public. The “Blue City”, aptly named due to the blue hue of houses around the city, was a stunning site to see from the top of the fort. Our time in Jodhpur was short, but special.

After some unexpected delays in Delhi, we were able to hit the road to Jaipur – the “Pink City”. This time the Nepal team was with us. Driving through Jaipur showed great contrast to our time in Jaisalmer. The city was massive, monkeys were swinging from shop to shop, and the pink glow of the bustling city illuminated its beauty. In Jaipur, we also stayed at an amazing haveli. During our stay, we were able to watch traditional Indian dancing and even got an amusing puppet show.

Roni and Hanna riding an elephant

While the city was beautiful, I think almost all of us agreed that our favorite part was the elephant ride up the Amber fort. Yes, elephants! These gentle giants carried us up to the top of the Amber fort where our tour guide showed us another stunning piece of history. Not only did we get to see the Amber fort, we also were able to see an old-fashioned textile shop with hand blocking and looming. The shop created intricate works of art and offered us all more background on how they came to be. The adventures of Jaipur wore us all out enough to make the five-hour drive to Agra pass quickly.

About an hour outside of the city of Agra, we had time to stop by the Sufi Shrine. Recommended to us by Prince Chaitanya Raj Sing, we made sure to add this stop to our list – and we are lucky we did because it was another rich and diverse part of Indian culture. Our tour guide took us into the shrine and around the palace. From the pandering children to the emanate worshipping, this visit allowed us another glimpse into Indian culture. We all headed to bed shortly after arriving in Agra due to an early morning ahead of us. A departure time of 5 am seemed cruel, but proved to be a wise decision made by our tour guide. The early morning allowed us to visit the Taj Mahal during the sunrise and with minimal crowds; indeed, standing in one of the new Seven Wonders of the World among so few people in one of the most populated countries in the world was an enigma.

Taj Mahal

The beauty of the Taj Mahal was not exaggerated. From the blue pools to the detailed white marble on the Taj Mahal, our jaws were permanently dropped. The Taj Mahal truly wrapped up our trip to India in the most beautiful way. I know our experiences, the people we’ve met, the cultures we’ve grown to love (definitely including chai at every meal), and all the places we’ve visited will stay with the Global Projects Program teams forever.

Go Bucks!

Screeeeech…. Project Pivot

Fisher undergraduates Hanna Atiyeh, Roni Groebner, Elizabeth Navarre, Adela Pang and Joe Wimer share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Jaisalmer, India.

Upon arrival in Jaisalmer, the team quickly learned that India is entirely different from the US in every way, shape, and form. Adjusting to these differences and finalizing our project scope at the same time was tough work. While we weren’t exactly sure where to start, we knew from our class with our Faculty Adviser, Heidi Eldred, that all good consultants start by asking lots of questions. Therefore, the first couple days were heavily based on tours, interviews, and learning about the fort, its issues, and how it functioned. We also began to develop our network in Jaisalmer through help from the Ohio State India Global Gateway, our tour guide, hotel manager, etc. We asked everyone we met for more introductions and, in this way, leveraged our initial connections.

The Jaisalmer team eating breakfast at "KB" with Lalu, Bhanu and Vimal
The Jaisalmer team eating breakfast at “KB” with Lalu, Bhanu and Vimal

Through various interviews and collaborations with locals, municipal boards, and NGO’s such as I Love Jaisalmer, the team began to see that the scope of our project was quickly evolving from what we originally thought it would be. It wasn’t “scope creep”; it was “scope pivot”!  We came into the project understanding that our task was to hold onto the “UNESCO World Heritage Site” designation and increase tourism in order to raise money to sustain the fort. In reality, we learned that the real need was not tourism; it was preserving the Fort in order to have any tourism at all by addressing the Fort’s water systems- primarily the sewage system.

the Fort’s water tank
The Fort’s water tank that has been leaking for the past seven years

The sewage and water supply systems are the biggest problems immediately facing the fort. There are breakdown issues with the sewage system and maintenance occurs frequently. Basically, the sewage chambers that help move sewage from homes to the sewer evacuation pipes often get blocked and are hard to access; there is a lack of proper drainage, which causes flooding; and the system itself was not installed properly. And sadly, a major overhaul that was completed last year is already in need of multiple fixes and repars. Though these problems are burdensome, it’s not merely about inconvenience. Flooding due to a lack of drainage causes slow water seepage into the Fort’s hilltop foundation and is taking its toll on the integrity of the hill and structural wellbeing of the Fort.

cast iron sewage chamber cover
This cast iron sewage chamber cover was made to accommodate easy access to the sewage chamber for repair. While practical, this cover is illegal. Most covers are cut-to-fit stone slabs cemented in place for aesthetic reasons as dictated by Archaeological Survey of India officials and present a huge obstacle to repair and maintenance.

Realizing that our project scope had shifted and the key question we needed to answer had changed, we sat down together as a group, brainstormed a list of water systems related questions, and then tried to find the best people to talk to about these questions. The manager of our hotel, Bhanu, was very kind and helped us connect with the right people, and from there we were able to get a good understanding of what we could to do or at least influence. Through Bhanu, we made three friends (Lalu, Gapu, and Vimal) who significantly aided in our research efforts as they were members of the NGO I Love Jaisalmer.

The next week was again heavily based on interviews, meeting up with the right people, and even taking a few tours to understand the breadth of the sewage and water systems problems. After this, we spent time figuring out how to finance such a large project with little to no money, and in a country affected by institutional corruption. As we continue to research these possibilities, we are awaiting news from Prince Chaitanya, our client, to get a cost estimate to fix or even overhaul the sewage system inside the fort.

Prince Chaitanya Raj Singh with Joe Wimer
A photo with Prince Chaitanya Raj Singh


Oh, The Places You’ll Go

Fisher undergraduates Hanna Atiyeh, Roni Groebner, Elizabeth Navarre, Adela Pang and Joe Wimer share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Jaisalmer, India.

We can all remember the classic Dr. Seuss book read to us as youngsters by our beloved mothers, fathers, and teachers. However, if you asked any of our parents where in the world we would be, come summer of 2017, India would be close to the last place they would guess. Even two months ago, not one of our group members knew that May 2017 would be spent in the beautiful and culturally rich city of Jaisalmer. We use Dr. Seuss’s story as comparison because just like in the book, our journey has been one of excitement, adventure, frustration, and admiration. The time has come where we are on our own in a foreign place taking with us only the knowledge provided by our schooling and loving parents, and our physical bodies with their limitations that we would find soon enough.

[We] have brains in [our] head[s].
[We] have feet in [our] shoes.
[We] can steer [ourselves] any
direction [we] choose.
[We]’re on [our] own.
And [we] know what [we] know.

That being said, we would not ask for a different set of students for this trip. Our team is composed of five bright, intelligent Buckeyes with the common characteristics of adaptability and compassion. Adela Pang is a soft-spoken, inquisitive, food-courageous young woman. Elizabeth Navarre keeps things animated with her enthusiastic attitude and never-ending desire to understand culture, history, and personal narratives especially when interviewing new people. Joe Wimer can be described in one word: surprising. Joe is a man of many hidden talents and the rest of us often find ourselves taken aback by his unforeseen hobbies, interests, and stories. As for the two of us, Hanna and Roni, we honestly still have no idea how we made it this far.

After four flights and one bumpy car ride we finally arrived in Jaisalmer, the Golden City, home to the world’s oldest living fort. We not only have had the opportunity to see this amazing fort, but to reside in a hotel within the fort. The first few days were spent following our Ohio State contact, Priya Kurle, around the city like little ducklings. Truth be told, the five of us are enormously grateful for Priya’s help and guidance the first couple of days; indeed, we might not have made it without her. Our first thoughts of the city were hot, very hot, and extremely hot, but as we opened our eyes and ears we started to notice how colorful and full of life the city is. We can hear nightly Jain worship chants from our hotel balcony, the constant honks and beeps of motorbikes and rickshaws in the city below, the barks of dogs in the streets, and the hymns of school children in the morning. Each day we take in the infinite colors that the women wear, the gold sandstone repeated throughout the fort and surrounding city, and the kindness each person shows not only to each other, but to every living thing. Everyone told us that when we get here there would be cows – but did we truly understand what they were saying? No! All of us were intrigued by how many cows are in the streets. We estimate the cow to dog to person ratio to be about 1:2:8.

Anyone in Jaisalmer will tell you that tourists come for the fort and the desert; however, we have come to find that even though this is true, tourists stay for the people. Everyone has been very welcoming of our arrival, and not a fake or surface-level attitude. They authentically want us to be comfortable and experience their culture. We have spent many of our afternoons here talking with the most interesting locals in a backroom of a handicraft shop. These guys have looked out for us during our time here and conversed with us about topics ranging from our project to Indian history to American politics to Tom Hanks films. Where some  Americans may be more reserved to open up right away, our Indian family was able to joke around and make us feel comfortable from day one. Everywhere we go we are offered Chai Tea. Unlike the United States, where it is customary for a guest to either refuse or accept a beverage, in Jaisalmer you accept the beverage. Although we initially were hesitant about hot chai tea in 115 degree weather, we politely accepted. This hospitable practice has now become one of our favorite parts of this city.

We cannot begin to express how grateful we are for this experience. The things we have learned, the relationships we have built, and the memories we have made will all stay with us for the rest of our lives. One day, we will be telling our grandkids about the time we woke up to the biggest sand storm we had experienced, the time we saw some locals in Jaisalmer splinting the broken leg of a stray dog, or even the time we were escorted through the street by the Crown Prince of Jaisalmer. We appreciate all the efforts that got us here that have allowed us to experience all of the above. Our trip is still ongoing and we are all excited to see what else India has to offer – although, it will be hard to beat Jaisalmer!

Go Bucks!

CITTA Challenge: Enter the Aatmiya Brand

Fisher undergraduates Chris Schmitt, Gabrielle Trexler, Troy Fritzhand and Takashi Ohkura share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Nepal.

While the first week in Nepal was more research oriented in nature, this past week we organized the research and developed a solution from all the resources we utilized. Thus, we spent a lot of time in the Patan work area we established. In order better access some of the financials to understand the current operations, we visited the main Aatmiya office where accounting and administrative activities are conducted. We received some decent information in regards to the costs for the organization as a whole, as well as some transaction history from the business checking account. However, in general, the information was not specific enough and going forward, financial recording needs to be standardized: specifically, more detailed by individual product versus solely cumulative.

As a team, we also evaluated some of the emails between clients and the economic center to get a better feel for the sampling and ordering process. These emails, however, were not specific enough for us to gain a thorough understanding of sales and sampling procedures and limited our ability to help standardize these processes. Again, moving forward this process needs to be more standardized and one of our goals will be to work with Aatmiya towards this standardization.

The Entire Team Working to Establish the Marketing Plan
The Entire Team Working to Establish the Marketing Plan

After reviewing all the information we received thus far, we came to the conclusion that we need to focus heavily on the branding aspect to capture further business. However, we did feel the need for an organizational overhaul due to the fact that margins are not clearly accessible and perhaps even accurate, and the sampling process has a significant amount of gray-areas. In order to create a working model tested against a real world situation, we decided that we needed to initiate an actual order. Our solution?  The ‘Brutus Project’. We have asked the Didi’s to create a sample doll of Brutus, the Ohio State mascot, and we hope to try and sell this product on campus and/or at local vendors. By doing so, not only will we be promoting the Aatmiya brand and expanding current business, but we also hope to use this project as a way of standardizing costing, negotiations, and the sampling process by witnessing first-hand how a client responds in our business negotiations. If the project goes as planned, we hope to expand into other Ohio State, hand-knit products and develop this business as part of the internal brand (AMA).

The Team Working to Finalize the Brutus Doll Sample
The Team Working to Finalize the Brutus Doll Sample

Recognizing that creating an internal brand (AMA) would require a significant amount of capital, we set up a meeting with the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) to talk about programs or micro-financing that could be made available to Aatmiya. This was a great business experience as we were able to observe the UN operations and hear about the perspective and organizational structure of a UN global program. We spoke primarily with Vinda Magar, the director of UN Women. She shared details regarding UN efforts in Nepal and mentioned the MEDEP program. Essentially, this program provides guidance, oversight, and financing for entrepreneurial efforts, and in the past has made women’s empowerment based organizations the majority of businesses enrolled in the program. How to enroll Aatmiya was not made very clear, but Mrs. Magar stated that it would not be too difficult. As a group, we will continue to look into this option and hopefully utilize the program to expand into our own internal brand, targeted for next February.

Visiting the UNDP to discuss MEDEP
Visiting the UNDP to discuss MEDEP

With the longer-term goal of having an organic brand for Aatmiya, namely AMA, we worked with the web developers of the current website to better reflect an option to ‘opt in’ to the Aatmiya/AMA business, while including information on the other projects that Aatmiya support (education, healthcare, etc) . We met with the web developers on Friday to implement the changes, which was a smooth process. The developers were more than happy to accommodate our requests and said they would complete it all by the following Thursday. As we will be out of the country by then, we will review the changes to the website via internet. Eventually, the goal is to create a more eCommerce-centric website for the AMA brand, which will take over more of the direct consumer marketing and display the available Aatmiya/AMA products.

Final Presentation to the Client, Aatmiya
Final Presentation to the Client, Aatmiya

In our final work this week, we created a slidedeck of recommendations based on our findings and analysis, which we presented to the client. We explained our vision, our business operations model and our goals for the future. The entire Aatmiya team was very excited about our ideas and showed a strong willingness to adopt our recommendations and work with us to grow the Aatmiya brand and create a true Economic Center in Patan. As a team, we are more than enthusiastic about working on this project this summer and into the fall and hopefully passing along the project and our progress to another GPP team in 2018.

Finding the Beauty within the Chaos

Fisher undergraduates Chris Schmitt, Gabrielle Trexler, Troy Fritzhand and Takashi Ohkura share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Nepal.

Upon arriving in Nepal, many cultural differences stood out to us. The first being how unorganized and hectic the traffic is. Despite the mayhem, there seems to be no accidents and drivers yield to each other. This was our first glimpse into how polite the Nepali people are even in the messy traffic. After arriving at the Hira Guest House and exploring around Patan, it became more evident on how respectful the culture is. Our first day in Patan, we got lost multiple times. Every time a local happily helped us find our way. Almost every local has been very friendly to us and we even got to know some of the shopkeepers around the hotel on a first name basis. The kindness and respect the Nepali people show towards even strangers seems to be rooted in their close ties to the Hindu and Buddhist religions.

Street festival in the crowded streets of Patan
Street festival in the crowded streets of Patan
Troy playing ping pong with locals on Durbar Square
Troy playing ping pong with locals on Durbar Square

A large part of what we have witnessed this week was how important religion is to the Nepali people. Along the streets, there are many temples and shrines dedicated to deities to which people bring daily offerings. We were also able to attend a celebration of the Buddha’s birthday at Swayambhunath, one of the first Buddhist temples. Many were lighting candles that symbolized unity and the spreading of happiness. We felt a strong sense of community and spiritualism from the people in attendance.

The team at Swayambhunath temple for Lord Buddha’s birthday celebration
The team at Swayambhunath temple for Lord Buddha’s birthday celebration

Some of the locals educated us on the origins of Buddhism in Nepal and how important it is to their daily lives. The good fortune Buddhist flags can be seen everywhere all over the city. According to the locals, Buddhism in particular stresses compassion, respect and kindness towards others, which was evident in how well we were treated on every leg of our stay so far. The incredible hospitality and friendliness of the Nepali people that roots from their strong religious beliefs are defining characteristics of their culture.

Lighting candles
“Thousands of candles can be lighted from a single candle, and the life of the candle will not be shortened. Happiness never decreases by being shared.” – Buddha

During the weekend when we trekked on the Poon Hill trail, we were able to see the culture of the population that lives in the mountains. They live a frugal lifestyle that consists of opening their homes to trekkers as restaurants/guest houses, agriculture, and raising livestock. Like many of the other Nepali people, they are extremely hospitable and friendly. Every guest house that we stayed at was incredibly welcoming and provided us with great meals and company.  Our guide and porter also educated us on their culture of climbing. Many of the mountain men, called sherpas, can carry loads of up to 60 kilograms on their backs and climb the steep mountains easily while the team was struggling to complete the same task with no weight. The sherpas and porters are conditioned to climb in extremely cold temperatures and with massive amounts of weight on their backs. Many of them are former Gurkha soldiers, the most elite of the Nepali armed forces. Our sherpa, Buddhi Man, has been a sherpa for 25 years to support his family and put his daughters in college. They are hardworking and extremely passionate about climbing. We eventually reached the top of Poon Hill 3210 meters above sea level. The view was breathtaking. Hard work and being content with their frugal lifestyles are also cultural characteristics that we observed.

Buckeye Pride on Poon Hill trail

Poon Hill trail
Our trek on the Poon Hill trail in Pokhara. OH!

Arriving in Nepal and the CITTA Challenge

Fisher undergraduates Chris Schmitt, Gabrielle Trexler, Troy Fritzhand and Takashi Ohkura share their cultural and professional development experience during their 3-week Global Projects Program in Nepal.

After getting settled into our accommodations, we arrived at the women’s center in Patan on Sunday. Seitu, the representative from Aatmiya we have been predominantly in contact with, lead us to the worksite. The current satellite worksite has a centralized location in the downtown square of Patan, surrounded by various temples and historic monuments. CITTA, the parent organization of Aatmiya, is planning to shift the main production office to this Patan location from Bhaktapur, thus changing the central location for work. Upon arrival, Seitu introduced us to three of the full-time employees (called Didis) that were currently working on an order for one of their clients, Oja Moon. As a team, we immediately noticed that the center was spacious, clean, and more than adequate in comparison to other establishments and local vendors within Nepal.

We returned the next day and, considering the shift in production to Patan, started to finalize the scope of our project. We focused on confirming our key question, debated the overall scope of the project and tried to rank the priorities of the center, the project, and what the CITTA/Aatmiya brand had in mind. Branded as a women’s economic development project, we determined with the client that  the creation of more work for more women, with the mission to integrate more part-time/piece-rate women was most important. We further identified three main areas where we sought to further improve on this goal: development of an Aatmiya brand, implementing a CRM system, and growing/improving the current client base/work. In establishing the Aatmiya brand, we entertained various ideas, ranging from creating Ohio State branded products to potentially participating in various trade shows such as New York NOW.

Super Eco Brick Innovations Ribbon Cutting
Super Eco Brick Innovations Ribbon Cutting

As a side intermission from our project, the owner of our accommodations (Hira Guest House) invited us to attend the grand opening of another of his business ventures. The partnership, Super Eco Brick Innovations, is a joint-venture between investors in Nepal and a Japanese chemical company. Utilizing a revolutionary new chemical, bricks are produced by simply mixing the chemical with dirt not suitable for proper agriculture to form bricks that are molded in a specific shape for maximum insulation. Most importantly, with this process there is no need for a kiln for a heat treatment/brick firing process thus the environmental footprint is significantly reduced. In addition, the final product has far superior strength, durability, and resilience to water absorption than anything else on the market. In short, the Super Eco brick is the perfect solution for a country lacking stable, universal infrastructure such as Nepal. The ceremony thanked the various partners, investors, as well as the Japanese ambassador to Nepal, whose attendance was more than valued. The ceremony concluded with a ribbon cutting and exhibition of the current batch-process for brick production.

Trip to Bhaktapur Office
Trip to Bhaktapur Office

Later in the week, we visited the other Aatmiya production site in Bhaktapur, the current central production location. Here, we saw some of the same salaried Didi’s at work, as well as several of the part-time Didi’s, with whom we conducted a group interview. In this interview, we wanted to understand how the Didi’s felt about the work they were doing, what they preferred, and what they would be open to. They ended up voicing a strong opinion in desiring consistent labor, with a preference for smaller pieces, due to the fact that they would make more money per hour due to the pay structure (piece-rate). They also showed strong interest in taking supplementary classes to learn things such as computer skills. In addition to the group interview, we were able to view more of the products in their final form and packaging, which helped us visualize the current product mix that the Didi’s were producing.

Following our trip to Bhaktapur, we visited several women’s cooperatives that sell goods created by women and belong to Fair Trade Nepal, an organization that supports ethical production methods and financially transparent economic development. There, we reviewed products from competitors (quality, price, designs, etc.) and examined and compared the overall layout of the shops. This was especially helpful in determining price-ranges that are appropriate for local consumers in Nepal.

Meeting with KTS
Meeting with KTS

Yesterday, we met with KTS (Kumbeshwar Technical School) a not-for-profit with over 30 years of experience in creating opportunity and education for individuals of the lowest caste in Nepal. We spoke to the director who shared the history of the organization founded by his father and how it developed from a daycare center, to a vocational school, to the multi-faceted organization that it is today. They have vocational schools that train individuals in one of three trades: hand-knitting, carpet weaving, or carpentry, and also a textile/knitting business that creates hand-knit products, rugs, and other related goods. What we found especially interesting was that the organization is vertically integrated, with the dying process done in house as part of manufacturing. There was even a shop located within the same building that sold KTS creations, particularly production overruns.

KTS’ basic business model is to fulfill orders from multiple international clients many of whom are themselves organizations dedicated to creating economic development, healthcare opportunities and food supplementation for marginalized societies and cultural groups. (As an example, Americans might know of SERV International)  The profits generated from these orders support the other on-going programs KTS offers to the community (daycare, orphanage, primary school, vocational programs). It was quite astounding to hear about everything they had to offer as a nonprofit. And, as former president of Fair Trade Nepal, the Director lived the Fair Trade creed of transparency by generously sharing some of KTS’ more technical financials, specifically identifying margins, overhead cost application, as well as the standard mark-up by wholesalers, all of which were very insightful in regards to this line of business.

This week, we plan on using what we have learned to start standardizing the business documents used by Aatmiya and begin developing a strategy for transitioning the products into their own brand (AMA by Aatmiya). Our goals are to create more stable work for the Didi’s; standardize costing, margins, and sampling procedures; and develop a plan for finding some short term orders in the coming fall and into the following year.

All in all, we’ve had a magnificent week of gathering primary research. It is infinitely better to be on the ground asking questions in person, identifying areas of concerns, and truly visualizing goods, manufacturing sites, and the local environment over trying to learn the same from afar. We’ve learned first hand about the state of the business, the pricing of competitors and how they operate, as well as the opinions of those involved in Aatmiya. I am looking forward to what the coming week brings as we synthesize all that we have learned and produce a social entrepreneurship project of tangible value to Aatmiya.

From a Broken Phone to Having an Audience With The King Of Spain: Part I

Grant Buehrer, participating in the Student Exchange Program in Spain, tells his story of how a broken phone turned into a meeting with the King of Spain! He shares the strategies and learned lessons from leveraging the most good out of a bad situation while abroad.

Students and staff from the the exchange university delegation to meet the King of Spain listen to a speech prior to engaging in a Q&A Discussion with the King. From Left: Universidad Pontificia Comillas Rector Julio Luis Martínez. King of Spain Felipe VI De Bourbon y Grecia, Universidad Pontificia Comillas Staff and Students with Exchange Student Grant Buehrer center with navy suit and blue tie.

I was just two weeks fresh into my semester exchange in Madrid, Spain at Universidad Pontificia Comillas and I woke up to some concerning news. My communication lifeline, a Samsung Galaxy 7 smartphone, had died while I was sleeping. Although this might seem as a first-world complaint, when one finds themselves in an unfamiliar and foreign country the GPS and Maps capability of a smartphone alone are priceless. As the price of purchasing a new phone while I was in a foreign country was too high, I was relieved to hear from my U.S. based cell-phone insurance company that there was no problem in having a replacement phone shipped internationally. Excitedly I waited till the next week for delivery, anxiously checking the tracking information daily as the package traveled over land and ocean. On the day of expected arrival one of the worst sentences one can hear when shipping internationally flashed across my internet browser, your package has been held in customs.

As I quickly learned, living abroad requires one to quickly adapt to a given situation. As the news came in I raced to the internet to research what I would have to do – after nearly 10 days without a functioning phone – to retrieve the package. Over the course of the next seven days, I visited 3 separate government agencies on 5 total occasions while spending 10 hours of my life in mind-numbing government queues. I had made no progress whatsoever.

When living abroad, there are times when you realize that you are in over your head and need the support and advocacy of a trusted party, requiring you to think critically and accordingly as to who that might be. As such, I turned immediately to my exchange university academic advisor for help. After pointing me towards an International Relations office housed within my exchange university, I had a dream-team of two of the nicest and caring Spanish women I think I have met in all of my 6 months in the country helping me. Through broken Spanish we began to discuss what the issue was and began the process of correctly retrieving the necessary government documents to get my phone back.

A critical point must be made here, my ability to make it this far into the process of retrieving my phone falls back on one huge factor, learning Spanish prior to coming to Spain to a high enough level, so that I could communicate through these events albeit at the level of a fourth-grader. One of the worst attributes of the ugly American tourist stereotype is the inability to understand that not everyone speaks English in the world. That is okay, in fact citizens in foreign countries have every right to speak exclusively in their native tongue and you have to adjust accordingly to this reality rather than letting it bog you down.

As the next week passed I paid daily visits to my government-bureaucracy savior, Marta. This rekindled how much I have realized the importance of building relationships are, during this time I learned about Marta’s family amongst other things as I shared photos of my dog back home and stories. Not only from hearing others experiences can you learn lessons about the world that you wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, but it also opens dialogue between yourself and another that allows you to share your dreams, interests and goals with others.

This part is critical, as it is the bridge to the rest of the story and why I have found myself in some incredible experiences on the Student Exchange Program, and in life. At some point in our many interactions and through my intermediate Spanish, I shared my interested in the developing world and that I had previously visited Washington D.C. due to interests in International Finance. Marta immediately lit up, from what I could understand from our conversation in Spanish she had a friend that worked in D.C. that would be coming back to Madrid very soon and that I should meet him.

More time passes and I forget about the prior conversation we had regarding Marta’s D.C. connection. With luck, 21 days after my phone dying I had finally gotten my replacement phone out of customs. In my own eyes I realized that words of gratitude would not be sufficient for Marta and the other woman that had helped me. Sometimes another’s action is great enough that it requires a gift. I opted for flowers.

Thanks to the gift of gratitude I found myself once again in the International Relations office. After expressing my gratitude deeply, I remembered the conversation that I had with Marta and asked her about her D.C. connection. To my surprise he wasn’t a friend of her’s, he was actually the manager of a study/work abroad program at the University and was back in Madrid just an office away.

We immediately hit it off, as it turned out Jose was not only a long-time resident of the U.S.A. but his study abroad programs were incredibly successful at the university. As we continued to discuss U.S. politics and global affairs, Jose informed me of a few events and conferences that he was coordinating at the university. After learning a little more about me he asked if I might be able to speak at a few of the conferences regarding the U.S.A. and its culture.

I really credit the time that I spent at Ohio State for preparing me for this request. Thanks to the many opportunities I have had to present in front of professionals and fellow students through student organizations, I was prepared. Over the next couple weeks I spoke on several occasions at his scheduled events.

This is where things come full circle, as I have found through the many opportunities that I have had in my life the old adage “luck is where opportunity meets preparation.” After my final speaking engagement, Jose shocked me with the information that he was requesting that I be allowed to join a delegation from the university to meet with His Majesty King Felipe VI of Spain. The delegation visits the King annually as a sign of support from the Royal Family towards globally-minded university programs. After a decade of visiting delegations to King Felipe VI, Jose said it was time for a foreign-exchange student to join the delegation, and thanks to my rapid involvement on campus he believed I was a good fit.

Forward-thinking really came in handy when preparing for Spain, I thought that I might find myself wanting to attend a formal event while in Spain. Therefore I made the effort to make enough room in my luggage for my suit, tie and dress shoes. Never did I know that I would be using my suit to meet the King of Spain!

With the event a week away, I decided to take a step back and prepare myself for meeting with the King of Spain. I had been honored to have been blessed with the possibility.

Want to know how it went meeting the King? Stay tuned for my next blog post about the meeting with the King!

Returning Home: It’s Not the Country That’s Changed, It’s Me

Now finished with her time studying for a semester at WHU-Otto Beisheim School of Management on the Student Exchange Program, Colleen Sauer reflects on her last weeks abroad. From her last European adventures, bittersweet partings with friends made abroad, reverse culture shock in the U.S., to the discovery of how much she has grown and changed from her experiences going abroad. She shares her message to students considering going global: “Just do it!”

When I planned to spend the semester in Germany and realized that I would be there for seventeen weeks it seemed like the time would pass slowly, and I would be so ready to return to the States at the end.  Well, if you talk to anyone who’s been abroad for an extended period of time, I’m sure they’ll agree that the time flies by, and before you know it’s time to leave.  During my last weeks I had countless fun, bittersweet moments with my friends and started to notice how much I’d learned and grown.

I am now officially back at OSU in the States, and it’s been so fun reflecting about my time and reminiscing to willing parties!  I definitely underestimated the existence of reverse culture shock though, I can now say that it is in fact quite a real thing! As strange as it may sound, given I can usually only understand portions of what’s said in German, I miss hearing German spoken around me.  Everything also felt oddly different, it was a bit odd.  I soon realized that the US hadn’t changed–I had.  But in my first few weeks when I’ve found myself surrounded by my family and friends and having as much fun as old times, I’m reminded how much I missed them and why I came back to the US! (Granted, I had already purchased my plane ticket and my German residency permit expired the day that I left.)

The Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, France

I’ll talk a bit more about my recent post-abroad reflections later of this post. For now, I’d like to catch you up on the fun experiences I had in Germany since I last posted! My last major trip after London was to Paris over Thanksgiving weekend. It was a bit odd to not be with my family but from previous years of being with them as we excitedly called a family member that wasn’t able to attend, it was fun to be on the receiving end of that as the phone was passed around the table allowing everyone to talk to me.  My favorite part of Paris was visiting The Louvre and the Sainte-Chappelle, a highlight of those two events was spotting the Winged Victory statue at The Louvre.  An interesting fact that I often tell prospective students on my tour (I’m a university Ambassador at Ohio State, so I give tours of the university to high school students and their parents) is that what originally prompted me to visit Ohio State was the fact that they had a replica of Winged Victory at their library, and here I was a little less than four years later seeing the real thing!  That moment was so surreal.

I nearly started hyperventilate when I spotted Winged Victory…

Another day trip I went on was to Heidelberg, Germany where I met up with my friend Troy Weider (find his exchange blog posts here!).  Troy was actually studying in Strasbourg, France at the same time that I was in Germany and we were both on exchange through the Fisher Student Exchange Program.  Two weeks before he left Europe to return home we realized that for how close we were to each other, we never met up while in Europe, so since Heidelberg was a midpoint destination we both wanted to explore we decided to take advantage of a free day and meet there.  It was much more of an exotic location for catching up than at the Union Market at OSU!  That was a fun day because not only were we able to see a beautiful town, but also relate to each other in so many ways about our adventures in Europe.

Visiting with Troy in Heidelberg, Germany

In the final weeks of my time in Germany I stuck around Vallendar, partly due to the fact that I needed to study for exams, but also to make sure I was taking advantage of the time I had left with the friends I met at WHU.  I realized that I could come back and see Austria, Italy, and the other places on my list that I didn’t make it to, but it would be much more of a rare occasion to have all my friends from my time abroad together again.  Therefore my friends and I planned game nights complete with mini-golf courses organized around my Swedish friend John’s flat, trips to the nearby city of Koblenz to enjoy the Weihnachtsmarkt (Christmas market) there, and plenty of meals together at our favorite restaurant in Vallendar called the Goldene Ente.

Game night with some of my closes friends

It was so hard to leave Germany, especially not knowing which of my friends I’d see again.  I’d say being the only Ohio State student at WHU was such a wonderfully independent experience, but I soon realized that no one would be returning with me to Ohio!  But of course as the tauschies said their final goodbyes we all  invited each other to our various countries, so I now have people to visit and places to stay when I come back to Europe.

The gang during our last Dancing@WHU Dance Class

When I came back to the States I had plenty of time to reflect on my time abroad, between making a photo book for myself of my semester and telling people about my time there.  Two big takeaways from my time abroad came from these reflections, the first of them was realizing how much I coddled myself when I first arrived, and how this could have potentially hindered my experience the first few weeks.  Before even arriving to Germany I imagined myself completely freaked out the first few weeks, and to combat that I told myself that I probably won’t feel comfortable travelling until the third weekend, and that it was perfectly fine not to.  Then here I was my first Friday in Germany, being invited to join a trip to Frankfurt the following day.  Looking back going to Frankfurt for a day isn’t at all intimidating, but going would essentially be taking away that comfort blanket of the “third weekend rule” I’d previously given myself.  With encouragement from my friends I eventually decided to go and had a great time.  If I hadn’t gone, I have no idea if I would have had the courage to leave Germany for Luxembourg the following weekend, or travel alone to Marburg to visit my friend Nora during my third weekend.  In all this, I learned to appreciate the value of having people around you to push you past your comfort zone, and the importance of being able to put aside “your plan” when a better idea presents itself.

Köln, Germany

Secondly, I can remember a point during my first week when I was having a hard day in Germany and thought about my life at Ohio State.  I wondered what I was thinking leaving OSU, where I had lots of friends, was involved on campus, and generally felt comfortable. This is a point that I strived and longed for as a first year student.  Meanwhile, here I was in Germany not knowing anyone, not being proficient in German, and generally not fully understanding how things worked here.  Later in the semester I realized how much I had grown, learned, and faced my fears.  I started to think critically about how I had previously described my life at Ohio State as “comfortable”.  As a college student, I’m at a point in my life where I should be growing, making mistakes, anything but comfortable!  If I could impart any advice to someone after what I’ve learned last semester, I’d say they should face their fears, try something new, have an adventure, be challenged, just be anything but stagnant.

Somehow living abroad changes you in so many aspects, makes you think critically about your home country and life there, and teaches you in countless ways.  When talking with students who are thinking about studying abroad I am now a huge supporter of long-term study abroad programs, because I believe that the degree of independence and submersion into a different culture is where real growth and change of perspective occurs.  In the wise words of Shia Lebeouf’s hilarious motivational speech, “Just do it!”