Friday, April 19, 2013

Dealing with Stress in Encuentro Dominicano

Living, working and studying abroad can be taxing - emotionally, physically and spiritually.  Being away from friends and loved ones makes it hard to know how to cope with stress when we don't have all of our usual comforts around us.  Here are some stories from students who've learned that lesson the hard way, and some tips for how to navigate the ups and downs in a positive way.  

Tip 1: The ILAC center has lots of beautiful spaces to sit, relax and reflect
Drinking Safely in the Dominican Republic
            As a member of Encuentro Dominicano, you are able to experience studying abroad in a different, but exciting way. Encuentro Dominicano students are fortunate enough to experience a new culture and navigate a foreign country just as all study abroad students, but Encuentro Dominicano differs in that students are exposed to incredibly high levels of poverty and have differing responsibilities. One of these responsibilities is a fifteen to twenty page synthesis paper. This paper is known to induce high levels of stress upon students and I myself am not excluded from this. When I finished the rough draft of my own paper, I went out with the group with the intention of having a good night and letting go of the stress that had built up in the previous weeks. Though I went out that night with good intentions, I was irresponsible and proceeded to become intoxicated enough to the point that I put myself and others in my group in danger. I had also gone out knowing that I had not eaten properly in the past few days and that I was severely sleep deprived. I handled the situation improperly both before going out and during the night.
            The situation was not only dangerous because I was severely intoxicated, but was also dangerous because of my position as a foreigner, especially in a developing country. While being severely intoxicated is dangerous anywhere, I put myself in more danger by not understanding the cultural norms and by not being aware that my options could be limited had the situation been much worse. As an American female in the Dominican Republic, I made myself a target to be taken advantage of.
            As many know, drinking is not a proper way to deal with stress. Encuentro Dominicano is a unique study abroad experience and through its uniqueness can put incredibly high levels of stress on students that they may not even recognize. Instead of drinking, there are many other healthy options that I could have used to release that stress. These options include exercising regularly, keeping a balanced diet, getting enough sleep, and talking about other stresses that occur as they are happening. Paying attention to your body and your emotions is necessary during Encuentro Dominicano, and it is okay to admit that you may be in too deep. The program is set up to be flexible in order for students to be mentally and physically healthy, but it takes the student as well as the advisors to recognize that.
            If I were to be in this position again, I would pay much more attention to my body and would not use alcohol as a stress reliever. Had I devoted more time to my paper earlier in the week, these problems may not have occurred so I also would be more responsible as a student in the first place.  Also, I would try to be more aware of my position as a foreigner in this country because that has a huge effect on how I am perceived and how I am treated.
            I think what I have learned most from this situation is that I am not invincible and I need to be more responsible. I have learned that I need to be more aware of myself and my surroundings and the possible consequences associated with that. Safety in incredibly important as an Encuentro student, but I have learned that I myself play a part in my own safety. 

Tip 2: Get exercise by running on the track or playing volleyball with the staff

Cultural Differences in Drinking Culture
         Thing number one to think about when drinking in a foreign country is to know how strong the drinks are.  Here especially, if you want a drink with less alcohol, you should say suave.  The other thing to note is that like I said, drinking here in the DR is more social and it’s not looked at very well when you are drunk and can’t handle your alcohol.  Another thing, especially for ladies is that the men here tend to be more aggressive concerning romantic pursuits, and if you are intoxicated and don’t have your wits about you, it would be very easy to get taken advantage of, especially because of the language barrier.  
            The most important I learned from this experience is that the culture of drinking in the United States did not prepare me to have complete freedom with alcohol.  I thought it would be easy for me to handle having so much freedom, but I forgot how dangerous alcohol can be, and that I need to remember that drinking in a foreign country should be done with much caution because you are not completely in your element and don’t know the dangers that could occur should you get out of control.  Stay safe, and lean on your comunidad

Tip 3: Make friends with ILAC staff to practice your Spanish and relieve some stress

Knowing How and When to be Alone
        During a previous weekend out with my friends, a couple incidents that occurred would have been better off avoided. My behavior was not exemplary for that of a Creighton student or for a person with adequate self-responsibility. While I typically behave myself and never let things get out of control when out in public, my night out a few weeks ago was an exception to the rule. I had been experiencing sadness, homesickness, frustration, anger, and overall contempt with respect to stuff going on at home and the Encuentro Program itself. While I do not want to address any of these personal matters in this reflection, it should be known that there were prior internal disturbances that affected by behavior that night and that caused me to act in a way that is counter to what I know to be appropriate. The fact that I had consumed alcohol in moderate amounts only further worsened any emotions that I experienced and also the way that I thought was fitting to cope with those emotions.
       Since I had been upset the night that the group was going to go out, I should have reevaluated my mental/emotional preparedness for a night out. In hindsight, I was not fit to go out and manage my feelings at the same time. It would have been a much better idea to stay in at ILAC and reflect for the night. Similarly, it would have been a better idea to simply reject any temptations of drinking for the night. If this were to have been done, my emotions would certainly have been more manageable and no conflict would have occurred.
I would also like to address the dangers of traveling/wandering alone in a foreign country, particularly at night. My decision that night to stray away from the group (without informing them and without a cell phone) is contrary to Creighton’s and ILAC’s expectations for Encuentro students. It was a decision that could have resulted in personal harm and endangerment. Looking back at my actions that night, I am very disturbed by this decision to wander off alone. I could have easily been targeted and hurt if I had passed people with wrong intentions. It is clear that the consumption of alcohol bolstered any naive sense of security I had.
          If I were to relive that night over again, there are several things I would do differently. I would have contemplated staying home for the night or not drinking. I would have informed a trusted group member that I was having a rough time and asked them to hear me out so as to better handle my emotions. I would also have made sure that I had a cell phone with me at all times if I ever had gotten away from the group.  
          Although this experience was an overwhelmingly negative one, I learned a valuable lesson. Alcohol is not an appropriate way to deal with one’s problems. Alcohol simply attempts to cover-up one’s problems and never does so successfully in neither a short nor long term sense. I would like to thank my mentors at ILAC for guiding me through this time and allowing me to realize that my actions were inappropriate.

Tip 4: Make sure you get plenty of sleep!

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