What’s Up Alum? – Alison Maassen

11 Jan

Alison Maassen, UHP/ESIA '09

Alison Maassen, a former UHP student staffer, graduated with degrees in International Affairs and Anthropology in 2009. She’s a distance-learning student with the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and will be a field assistant on a Stanford-based research project in San Jose del Guaviare, Colombia for the first half of 2012. She blogs at http://alison-maassen.blogspot.com. She recommends you read some of the other ‘What’s Up Alum?’ posts, they’re good!

Hi UHPers!

Thanks for this opportunity to write and share some thoughts with you…though, truth be told, I’m sure most of you won’t read them…which is completely understandable. As a senior, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time myself. I was wholly absorbed in a haze (or toxic smog) of uncertainty about the future. I’d been rejected by Teach For America, State Department’s Critical Languages Scholarship, and GW’s PAF program. I had been accepted to four graduate programs, but they were far out of my price range, and I didn’t like the thought of piling on more schooling right away. Furthermore, as an ’09 grad, no one yet knew just how far the economic sky was falling. I was terrified of getting trapped in an unfulfilling job, or with no job at all. (Sound familiar to any of you?)

Had you told me in February 2009 that six months later I’d be living on a Caribbean island off the coast of Cancun, I’d have thought you mad. Yet that’s exactly what happened. 

The most important thing I learned at GW is that opportunities abound if you’re willing to seek them out. Of course, you could treat GW as if it was any other 4-year university, and stick to your dorm, your friends, and your Marvin Center sushi. Or you can go out and own the city. Walk a few blocks in any direction and suddenly you’re not just a student, but an individual, amorphous resident of the District. Take advantage of that! Be spontaneous! Volunteer at Miriam’s Kitchen or join a church/temple/mosque/yoga studio. That’s what I did to meet a different DC demographic.  Go to the free movies at Freer or get a ticket to an event at National Geographic. Free events at local organizations and headquarters led to several of my DC internships. Use the Smithsonian as a study hall (or do your thinkin’ with Lincoln on a gorgeous Spring day!). Better still, take advantage of GW’s flexible study abroad options and take your explorations even further afield. I split my Junior year between programs in Morocco, Egypt, and Israel. One of those programs touted its ‘experiential learning’ style. I’d like to think that’s what my whole GW career consisted of.

In order to gain all that ‘experiential learning,’ however, I spent a lot of time exploring and experimenting. Some of it wasn’t so successful. The Freer movies can suck, and you can be cursed out by guests at Miriam’s. Your study abroad family might steal from you, or you could get your wallet swiped in SW. But don’t let that stop you, keep trying and applying! Though it’s easy to get bogged down and discouraged (especially in this job market), good things rarely happen to people who give up. GW–and DC–taught me that opportunities abound everywhere. I got to my island in the sun because I kept looking and applied for an English teaching job. It wasn’t my first-choice career, but I gladly took that opportunity for international experience. That teaching and training experience then got me another job, in my preferred public health field, on the Thailand-Burma border. I taught sex ed. to teenagers and Microsoft Office to medics, among many other things. Then that experience got me accepted to my first-choice MSc. program, and that helped me find my next adventure: a malaria research project in the Colombian Amazon (a place so far off the path that it doesn’t make the index of the Lonely Planet Colombia). I leave for that project in February and haven’t the slightest idea what might follow suit.

Since that senior year, my favorite motto has been “Expect nothing. Live frugally on surprise.” Don’t expect experience to come to you. Go out (yes, past your comfort zone) and take advantage of the rich opportunities and resources you can find all around you on campus and in the community (however global your definition of community may be). Wherever you end up and whatever you’re doing, engage! Explore! Seek to know more!

Best wishes for 2012!

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