iSURF week 6: Vacation during Staycation

Students tend to feel the stress of summer planning during the spring semester. To be fair, our month-long J-term (January break/winter break) has recharged and prepared us to tackle the extra load of stress; especially since final exams are now before – rather than after – the break.


I had one goal for this summer: go abroad. (My sub-goal was to secure a warm location that was conducive to tanning.) My aspiration isn’t unique and when there’s such a high demand to experience life abroad, Harvard tries to supply. There is a ton of support for students’ foreign aspirations such as the OIP (Office of International Programs) or its sister, the OIE (Office of International Education). From studying and interning abroad, if the variety of Harvard programs doesn’t fit your appetite, it’s not uncommon to apply to other universities’ programs. All the opportunities can be a little overwhelming and a little more difficult to navigate – but this is more of a good problem to have.


Last summer, I participated in the Summer Internship Program (SIP) through the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies (DRCLAS) in Lima, Peru where Harvard runs several summer programs. I had some friends who were based also in Lima, but were participating in the international summer undergraduate research fellowship (iSURF) program through the Global Health Institute. I filed the latter program’s name in the back of my mind when I learned that acceptance into the program came with automatic funding! The iSURF program supports 8-10 week projects all over the globe (with the SURF program supporting domestic projects).


With my endeavors to achieve a secondary (more commonly known as minors at other universities) in Global Health and Health Policy, I researched projects pertaining to nutrition and was ultimately placed in Tanzania for the summer to jump on board with clinical trials examining maternal health and nutrition in the context of malaria. Abroad? Check. Tanning potential? Very high. My summer internship offer was a once in a lifetime opportunity to pursue many “firsts”: venturing out to the African continent and acquiring experience in clinical research. If this isn’t the American dream, it’s definitely the premed dream coming into fruition.


In the midst of summer planning stress, it’s important to remember that with a little planning, we can make it something special. –> This was a cheesy-cute introduction of a current summer email thread among fellow summer interns in Tanzania. I like to think we’re a very eclectic group that’s not very representative of a normal population sample. Although a handful of us are still in our undergrad, most of my friends are 1) in grad school (studying something along the lines of international development), 2) have volunteered in the Peace Corps, and 3) have DC origins. We all came together in quirky ways – from a Harvard in Africa summer contact list to random chance encounters. Our “how we met” stories all seem very shady on both the surface and deeper levels, but the more important thing is that we’re sticking together while we’re grasping Tanzanian culture.

Our process of cultural immersion would most definitely be incomplete without a trip to Zanzibar.

The domestic airport is full of baby aircrafts!

Unashamedly pretending to board my private jet to Zanzibar.

Incredible views for the short plane trip!

Before arriving to Tanzania, I was ordered to go to Zanzibar by every single person I knew who has stepped foot in this wonderful country. The opportune weekend finally presented itself so my iSURF program partner and I extended the weekend from Friday to Monday. We spent four fabulous days and three glorious nights in Zanzibar with each night on a different part of the dream-like island.

Stone Town, Zanzibar – no worries with a view like this!

Kendwa Rocks, Zanzibar – not too shabby, eh?

My Zanzibar trip was phenomenal. The pictures don’t do the paradise island justice, but it’s much better than what I could describe with words! It’s dangerously easy to fall in love with the island and its crystal clear ocean. For the first time ever, I pet a tortoise, ate lunch in the company of a peacock and his mistresses, and went snorkeling. When I returned home, I promptly declared Zanzibar as my honeymoon trip.

Prison Island with, like, a 156 year old tortoise!!!!

My home for the summer is in Tanzania where my research is based. I’ll never turn down the opportunity to travel, but I do prefer to travel to one place for an extended period of time so that it feels more of a home rather than a layover; this is just about the only way to discover the nooks and crannies – the real character – of any location.


Studying/working abroad is what I call a staycation: not exactly a vacation, but definitely not real life either because hard hitting responsibilities can be as transient as Zanzibar beaches. My Zanzibar trip was a pure vacation. I was sad when my weekend in paradise came to an end, until I realized I was only leaving one beach vacation and returning to a staycation – I’m no doubt the luckiest girl in the world!


In an attempt to get more comfortable in my summer home, I discovered a group of expats in the area who meet weekly to dine in a new restaurant.

Hibachi style – a Japanese tradition with a Tanzanian twang

The week that I had joined this expat group of foodies, it was their 100th dinner and there was even a celebratory cake! It was both extremely intriguing and exciting to meet such a diverse group of people who had also made Tanzania their home from anywhere between a handful of weeks and up to 13 years! It’s always a refreshing experience to mingle with people who have gone through similar transition phases, Swahili learning curves, and culture shocks.

Speaking of shocks (warning: worst segue ever), my trip to Zanzibar was quite unexpected; but sometimes the best parts of traveling stem from flexibility. My iSURF program partner and I were initially planning on leaving the city to spend a week hiking to Africa’s rooftop – we wanted to hike Mt. Kilimanjaro, otherwise known as the highest peak on the African continent. Our plans were struck down due to calendar conflicts: Professor Wafaie, the Principle Investigator of my project (and an overall champ of every department ever), was traveling from Boston to Tanzania. All the postdocs I work with on a daily basis urged me to reschedule my Mt. Kilimanjaro climb which I did very willingly because I was excited to see the man in action!


I’m very content with the way things worked out. Professor Wafaie and I exchanged a few emails before last spring semester ended in an attempt to meet and acquaint each other before I started on his research project. However, the semester ended quicker than we anticipated and we settled for meeting in Tanzania. I finally got to meet him in a meeting which I anticipated to kind of just sit in on and observe. The highlight of the work-week was definitely when I contributed to the meeting – I felt like it was one of those moments that would have made Sheryl Sandberg proud.


This meeting was filled with all the head honchos of the medical school and our big team of researchers. You could sense the higher tensions all day in preparation for this meeting. I had been assigned to work on some blood samples for the day and I reported some numbers and statistics to my postdocs before the meeting. However, my overloaded postdocs were scrambling to locate the scratch piece of paper where they scribbled my numbers on so I spoke up and announced the numbers out loud, to which Professor Wafaie responded by thanking me personally! … !!


Best week ever.

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1 comment

  1. lara scott’s avatar

    I can see that you are good in planning and organizing events. That’s good. Best luck to you.

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