iSURF week 3: Foreign Friends

udpated 12 July 2013

For a great deal of this summer, I’ll be pursuing clinical research in maternal health and nutrition in malaria endemic areas. I got this sweet gig through the iSURF (international Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) program run under Harvard’s Global Health Institute.


iSURF happens all over the world and across multiple continents. (The domestic version of iSURF is called SURF which supports students pursuing research on/near campus.)

They send 2 students to each location to essentially fend for themselves. It’s a phenomenal program for handfuls of reasons, some of the most prominent ones being how the program closely connects you to professors/postdocs that are experts in the career field you aspire to join and if you get into the program, summer funding is guaranteed.


Just last night, my program partner, Leanna, and I were discussing our experiences in the iSURF application process and how excited we were about the opportunities concomitant with iSURF. I’ve never been involved in clinical studies before and the public health spin of my studies were right up my alley! Leanna even applied while she was studying abroad in Kenya so the program is very accommodating with Skype interviews and whatnot. It also seems like iSURF doesn’t look down upon students with previous abroad experiences – sometimes you’ll get a sense that programs are geared towards first-time abroad students – so this was a nice aspect since I also spent last summer abroad in Peru.


I’m only knee-deep in week 3 of the program and I’ve already immensely learned about the culture differences here as well as picked up some Swahili! It’s been eye-opening as well as thought-provoking – when you’re super accustomed to things being done in a certain, American way, it’s fascinating to peek out of the box and see how others have been doing it. E.g. ignoring street lights to have police officers constantly filter traffic jams; parents’ names changing to their first/last born names. I look forward to wearing my arrogant mask and referencing Tanzanian customs in many, many conversations when I return home.


But this isn’t to say my amazing abroad experiences aren’t well balanced with frustrating ones. The other day, Leanna and I were also discussing the profound independence that the iSURF program springs on students. It’s almost like entering college again and recreating that unique experience where you find yourself with immense, new found freedom which can end up either 1) awesomely incredible or 2) terribly horrible.


iSURF definitely prepares you financially with their generous, automatic summer funding, and the program links you professionally as well by creating an academic purpose to your travels. However, everything else from flights, housing, food, tourism, etc. is all up to you!


It’s been a constant struggle to find housing – it was especially hard trying to book a reasonably priced place from the states. Even on site, I’m having trouble saving money while maximizing convenience and safety. iSURF and its mentors can check in on me to make sure I’m alive, but in terms of housing, they’re not much help, unfortunately. I’ve been meeting a lot of summer interns here who received tons of support from their programs in finding a comfortable place to stay. I think there’s an end-of-the-summer mandatory report (for most summer programs) and I’m going to make sure to stress how important accommodations are and perhaps suggest an emphasis on reaching out to alumni as well as the US Embassy.


Like I said earlier, independence runs down 2 roads. So as difficult as finding a place to live can be, it’s very nice to be able to do whatever I want without needing to report to anyone. I can go to the latest movie screening and talk to sketchy people at restaurants if I wanted.


Last summer, I participated in the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) Summer Internship Program (SIP) which is a much more chaperoned program with a host family as well as pre-planned field trips almost every weekend.


Anyone who knows my first name also knows last summer in South America was one of the happiest summers of my life, and I would not hesitate to put my life’s worth down on betting that I’ll say the same when this summer is over too. I’m very excited to see how the rest of the summer pans out and how I handle all this independence while I try to conquer Africa!


This third week has been even more independent as my program partner traveled about 8 hours away to work at another site. To me, this was like ripping my crutches out without warning. It’s always nice to have someone going through exactly what you’re going through to validate your confusion. Now I’d be in a big city without a roommate!


So as my only friend left the city for an indeterminate amount of time, I set out on a quest to make friends. I’m not sure who is responsible for this (and I wish I did so I can give them more credit), but a Harvard in Africa contact spreadsheet was created in an effort to build a network. I initially thought it was for current students, but after emailing around 45 strangers from the list, there were professors and alum on the list too!


The responses have been beyond friendly and it’s always beyond touching to be helped by a random person where your only link is the Harvard affiliations and location on the same continent. By reaching out to people all over Africa, I’ve been able to roughly outline a travel itinerary with some local insight as well as make plans to hang out – yay friends for me!!


After a frustrating last week, it was inevitable that this week could only be better. However, I think that if this week stood alone, it would still be my best week here! The people you choose to surround yourself with makes all the difference!


The director of the Harvard Decision Science Lab (where I’m a research assistant during term time) connected me with a Harvard College 2011 alum who is working for an agriculture NGO nearby. After a slew of email exchanges, I was excited to meet him and his coworkers at their work’s launch of an innovation competition. Their NGO created this competition, challenging locals to come up with ways to try to make the chain from farmer to consumer more efficient. The launch event brought together a lot of people from the tech/coding community and it was really interesting to mingle!

As a part of the competition, the NGO offers tours of one of the biggest markets in the city – I tagged along on this too! During the tour, I even got a watermelon for hopefully not a ridiculous-tourist price. One of the competitors had a fun little side experiment by having me ask how much certain things were in order to compare the price differences for non-locals vs. locals.


I definitely feel like I got to know the city a little more intimately as I basically shadowed my friends and the competition they’re running. Before you start thinking we exclusively do nerdy things together, we’re normal friends too! We went to go watch The Great Gatsby in 3-D. This may sound weird, but one thing I always love to do while living somewhere abroad for an extended amount of time is go to the movies! They’re always much cheaper than back in the states and practically every movie is 3-D. Maybe my abroad cinematic experiences are so special to me because it’s a symbol of summer and the slower pace of life I’m afforded during this beautiful season.


Although my new friend, Sam, and I didn’t know each other during our one year college overlap, it was really cool making a new friend abroad and instantly connecting about all of Harvard’s quirks i.e. saying “concentration” instead of major, Sunday Sundaes, and blocking.


Blocking is an activity – you may even call it a friendship exercise – during the middle of your freshman spring semester. The College asks you to form groups of up to 8 people so that the entirety of the group will be placed in the same upperclassman house. If you have more than 7 friends, you can “link” with another group so that the 2 linked groups will be placed in the same neighborhood. Hence the terms “blockmates” and “linkmates.”


One of Sam’s blockmates was actually visiting which was beyond touching to see because as my senior year and college graduation approaches, the thought of disconnecting hips with my blockmates breaks my heart! Drama is necessary to describe this kind of dire situation. Living together definitely helps make your friendships convenient so it’s fair, if not cynical, to question how these friendships will morph without convenience. However, seeing blockmates visit each other across continents is a prime example of the strong interpersonal relationships Harvard fosters! The alumni network is great and I’m happy to have utilized the network for some friends abroad!


To my surprise, the network is inclusive of grad schools too. After emailing people on the Harvard Africa contact spreadsheet (mentioned earlier), I’ve made some friends who are current Harvard graduate school students too! One of which accompanied me to the special Farmer’s Market over the weekend where we tried Tanzanian chocolate, Mango jam, and expat cupcakes.

I guess I’ve complained about how the iSURF program didn’t help me figure out accommodations abroad, but the Harvard network definitely helped me connect with people to find a better footing in an unfamiliar place. So it seems like everything is going to be getting exponentially better from here as my social calendar is booked for next weekend already! I’ve been maintaining contact with my program partner via email, but I still have no idea when she’ll be back. It’s very rewarding for me to know that I can still stand strong when someone rips my crutches out from underneath me.


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  1. lara scott’s avatar

    It is nice to read your blog. I can now foresee what it is like to be a law student. Just be positive and you will surely achieve your dreams. Study hard.

    1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

      Thanks for reading and your warm words Lara! I have faith you’ll take your own advice in law school, best of luck!

    2. Teh Tarik’s avatar

      I’d never heard of iSURF until I came across your blog. It sounds like you’re having a great experience in Tanzania. I would love to visit Stone Town in Zanzibar!

      1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

        I didn’t hear about it until the end of my sophomore year – no doubts, it’s definitely a hidden gem!!

        Gah, an upcoming blog will be dedicated to Zanzibar 😀 My life in Tanzania is beyond fabulous. I might never leave if my family joined me out here!

      2. DGC’s avatar

        I’m surprised that you had such difficulty with finding suitable accommodations. I agree with you that it could be better if Harvard was more involved in the process of getting them, however there has got to be some sense of pride for getting by all on your own, perhaps a new level of resilience is developed through this.

        1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

          I think a lot of my struggles stemmed from this being my first time ever looking for a place to stay (is that embarrassing to admit?). I anticipated challenges looking for accommodations while being on a different continent, but I found it equally hard looking for a place to stay while I was here too. I definitely agree with you that good lessons came concomitant to my struggles! My housing situation has gotten so SO much better for the month of July and I can’t wait to put my housing search skills to use in the nearish future 😉

        2. ineshap’s avatar

          This sounds like an AWESOME summer, Jeannie! Just had to comment– very jealous of your travels!

          1. Jeanie Nguyen’s avatar

            I hope you know I only try to live an interesting life in anticipation of our Mather mealtimes.

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