Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Random thoughts on education

Education is the underlying motive of many of the articles posted in my blog. It is the reason why I decided to relocate more than once; it is a key factor that has played a fundamental role in my life. Education is ultimately part of who I am and here I want to share some thoughts about this world that should improve our lives providing us with all the skills deemed valuable to make us citizens of the world. We have to distinguish though how things used to be in the past and how they are today, in higher education in our home country and abroad.
Formal education has been elevated in dignity and consideration at the turn of the 20th century where schools weren’t only workshops for human minds, but also the place of social and cultural redemption. Education could indeed open the golden gates to once precluded, prestigious and well paid professions. We could say, there was a return of investment. 
Our society has embraced the concept that education goes hand in hand with democracy, implying many issues, one of this giving everything to everybody, which apparently seems fair, but ultimately it doesn’t differentiate the talents in front of us, taking into account their own interests, inclinations, aptitudes and why not…even dreams. But what do we deem to be a good education? Like more educated people on this matter, I also think that education should not be for its own sake, but aimed at real life skills that are meaningful and make sense. It has to be dynamic, keeping up with the outside world, and approachable, meaning that it must bear some relevance to students' experiences. Eventually, it must provide the tools for students to become independent, critical, aware and self-aware of the realities surrounding them. In theory it sounds all good, but how are things in the real world?
In the last twenty years, mandatory education has changed radically. Pupils must attend school for a longer time than ever before, after all life expectancy has increased significantly. In the old days it was probably enough be able to write, read and do some mathematics; and students were left to their own wits with the basics they learned at school. Nowadays, in our global village, children must speak at least a foreign language and be computer literate, besides other skills that are part of their portfolio. And this is all great news; we have to become citizens of our time. But if we look around ourselves and draw comparisons with other parts of the world, we find competitive systems where standard tests determine the future of students. One wrong question can change your life forever. And all this starts at kindergarten! Meanwhile, in other countries creativity has had the upper hand in order to develop individuality, but sacrificing knowledge and inflating grades in such a way they have become meaningless. And things get out of hand with higher education.
Not too many years ago, a high school diploma would suffice to give you a good, respectable and well-paid job. Nowadays things have changed radically. A higher, more qualifying degree is always requested for any given job. And in this flourishing market of degrees, universities are thriving. 
Let’s see for instance how this works in Italy. The university system has turned degrees into mass commercial products. We have more lawyers than plumbers, creating inflating numbers in some already saturated fields. Once there was only an academic degree, the so-called laurea, which required 4 years of academic studies plus one for the dissertation thesis. Back then this was the highest academic degree; in our system there were no words for masters and Ph.Ds. The laurea has been downsized in meaning and downgraded to a mere B.A. even though they don’t correspond to each other in the least for two reasons: the substantial age difference when students achieve the diploma (in Italy at the age of 25 in the best case scenario, meanwhile in the Anglo-Saxon system students get there three years earlier), and consequently the level of preparation achieved in the former system is way higher than in the latter.
       When Italian universities realized that the rest of the world was luring students into their own university programs abroad such as M.A., M.S. ,Ph.D., they decided to do the same, by launching fashionable masters without even knowing what they were (I guess they liked the sound of it, so exotic, so non-Italian, so it became a catchy thing to have). The concept of laurea was altered, deprived of its original meaning and status. Now with the new reform that shook the system from its roots, there are two types of laurea in place, plus all the Anglo-Saxon degrees imported and adopted in the BelPaese. In this global fish market where you can buy two pieces of paper for the price of one, education has been reduced to a sellable good. Therefore, I must bitterly and regrettably admit that the concept of education has been undergoing a transformation, becoming a self-referential monster created to produce ever more degrees in order to support itself. Education, in this guise, becomes overrated.
The temples of knowledge have turned a high demand for education into a lucrative business model. In the USA, a four-year-college education can cost as much as a house. Tuition and fees are not the only massive costs that burden a family; freshmen must stay in a dorm for their first year, so more money is disbursed for accommodation and meal plans. If life of students is expensive, their teachers’ life is not that easy either.
New generations of researchers and instructors working in academe must publish articles at the speed of light as if there were something new to discover or invent every day. How long can the system go on like this?  Let's face it, the risks are foreseeable: plagiarism, which is spreading like the plague and the incredible amount of publications of meaningless research about fried air. Honestly, do you really have to tell me I need to sleep well to be productive at work?! Well, thanks for researching that, now we know it, we can all sleep deep and sound. 
A higher education doesn’t necessarily secure you a well-paid and gratifying job. But prestigious schools can guarantee an impressive resume only with their name on it. If you can afford an Ivy League education, it will get you a high paid job, that’s the truth. But if you compare the subjects and materials studied with other less prestigious schools you will be surprised to see there is no substantial difference and recruiters know it very well.
And yet the appeal of higher education is hard to die. European students are drawn like bears to honey to the prospect of pursuing university degrees in the USA or other countries because they have more future prospects and who can blame them?
What I admire in the American school system is its pragmatic attitude towards education. As they were moving their first steps as a colony and a young democracy, they invested a lot in education. Benjamin Franklin, a “plain editor” with no formal education, contributed in founding what is today Penn State University. He believed in giving a fair change to the ones who showed the aptitude to learn. Through education it was possible to achieve a more democratic and just society. Whereas a basic education must be provided to everyone, higher education should be attained through meritocracy, a word that is getting out of fashion.
 If you wish to know more about this topic, I recommend you to watch these inspiring talks by Sir Kenneth Robinson:


Sunday, May 18, 2014

On The Road: my journey across America

I was halfway across America, at the dividing line 
between the East of my youth and the West of my future.



My experience abroad has been overwhelming in so many ways and one part of it was exceptionally intense, full of those rich life moments that only a journey across country can give, from the wild bushy East to the open endless West. The real American adventure for all those of you who love the beauties and the contradictions of the USA doesn't lie in a 5 day-tour coast to coast. Visiting the coasts and leaving out all the land in between is like reading the first and last page of a book. And then people make assumptions on the whole book! 
Real die hard America buffs embark on a journey -or even multiple ones- across country, hitting the road for miles and miles, through the big Midwestern States, living and breathing the geographical and cultural changes, being part of those very many special moments made of "heres and nows"across the prairie. The great American plains are much more than emptiness, bareness and vastness; they are recipients of extraordinary lives and stories that have always engulfed my imagination and I was finally there to live them all. 
Driving across America had been a dream of mine for such a long time, and finally we were driving West. Our plan was easy and unsophisticated: pack the car, drive and stop wherever we felt like. Excitement was running high, we were ready to live an epic journey, where the road was the main element. We spent three weeks traveling: from Massachusetts, New York, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, to the plains of Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, to the prairies of Nebraska, up to the mountains in Wyoming, Idaho, and to the hills of Montana, South Dakota, Minnesota and then back. 
Once again, I felt like a pioneer, our wagon was a second hand car that was all set for the thousands of miles it was about to tackle. We had all the supplies we needed, the trunk was adequately full and refurbished. The road was awaiting us. Driving so many miles per day made me imagine those forerunners under the same sky and riding through the same places I was seeing and driving through. And yet my imaginary travel companions were passing through the unknown, following into no one's footsteps, as theirs were probably the first to mark the path for others to come. Ghost towns, dugouts and battlefields are reminders of past lives of miners, gold seekers, road-agents, cowboys, pioneers, farmers, soldiers and Native Americans who still haunt these places and contributed to shape America's spirit.
Since then America has been traveled in width and length. There are plentiful travel accounts, among those one that stands out because it really speaks to my experience, is Kerouac's On The Road. At first I felt compelled to read it only because it is considered a masterpiece of American literature. I picked it up almost reluctantly and after fighting through the first chapter, I began to appreciate the beauty of its style. Some passages were pure poetry to me and had to write them down for fear of losing them. Some of his thoughts are also very insightful about the several journeys undertaken by the characters.
For instance, the characters of the novel are "delighted" about "leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing [their] one and noble function of the time, move". This frenzy and eagerness to be on the road pervades the whole novel. However, the excitement lasts till the wheels are spinning. The novel is infused with a deep sense of dissatisfaction; the search of something better that is always somewhere else and pushes the characters to be continuously on the move, which ultimately causes them to feel lonely and estranged. Their debauched life is an element that aggravates their sense of uneasiness in life, and moving seems the only way out. However, there is no final reward for reaching a goal, quite the opposite. When Kerouac's protagonist finally reaches the West coast, the place of his dreams, he feels like a stranger stating he"never felt sadder" in his life. He adds "LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities; New York gets god-awful cold in the winter but there's a feeling of wacky comradeship somewhere in some streets. LA is a jungle." Disappointment follows the anticipation of finally reaching California "the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America." He goes to end of the American dream, only to leave again. 
Another element that intrigued me is his view of American wilderness. "I thought all the wilderness of America was in the West till the Ghost of the Susquehanna showed me different. No, there is a wilderness in the East" I couldn't agree more. I drove in the North East in all weather conditions and for long distances and quite often I felt lost in the middle of forests, bushes, swamps and dark rivers, which cannot compete with the great spaces but their thickness is untamed and wild all the same.
There are many passages of his journey which thoroughly capture the meaningfulness and intensity of crossing the country; among those I couldn't miss Kerouac's prophetic vision, which has left me quite flabbergasted: "When daybreak came we were zooming through New Jersey with the great cloud of Metropolitan New York rising before us in the snowy distance. Dean had a sweater wrapped around his ears to keep warm. He said we were a band of Arabs coming in to blow up New York." Simply chilling.
Had I read this book before my own journey, probably I would have never finished it. It made me feel nostalgic of driving down one of those endless highways or one of those telegraph roads. I relate to Kerouac's characters for their restlessness of staying put somewhere and their need to move, not so much to their excesses. That's where my journey overlaps and diverges from Kerouac's. The El Dorado is always there, behind the next hill, past the next curve, after the next town. We are travelers on an impossible mission; despite the fact we can't never reach this mythical place, we still like to fall under the spell of the road.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Exciting news for H4 visa holders

Dear spouses on H4 visas,
great news!
I found this article on the New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/05/07/us/politics/us-plan-aims-to-draw-immigrants-with-technology-skills.html?_r=0

I felt overwhelmed when I read it. Even the White House is finally addressing the issue concerning the right to work for H4 visa holders.
Read it and share it with others. It probably won't bring a solution overnight but it is definitely a step forward in the process of recognizing those inalienable rights, among them also happiness, to spouses of H1-B visa workers.
Thanks President Obama for attempting to give spouses the chance to have a normal life being actively part of the American society!

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A re-pat back in Italy: when frustration starts kicking in

I am sure it must have happened to you too.
You are back in your own home country and after a first period that felt very much like being on a holiday, where you consider yourself still like a visitor and not a local, now it starts sinking in that this is it, you are not going anywhere, you are staying. You also are a local, a reluctant one maybe. You are part of the picture you have been observing from the outside, like the painter who suddenly realizes he is part of the painting he has been drawing all along. What looked fascinating and peculiar, it is now turning into something bothering and irritating.
It has been quite some time since I returned from my experience abroad but I haven't grown accustomed to life back at home. As a matter of fact, there are things that drive me nuts about being back at home, things I didn't miss abroad even when I was miserable. Being in Italy has its advantages -otherwise I wouldn't have come back :) - but it also has its flaws and these are the top four which make me drool like a dog with rabies:
1) Undisciplined drivers: they don't stop on the zebra crossing, which sign is interpreted more like a suggestion to speed up in order to avoid awaiting pedestrians rather than as an actual stop sign. So I find myself shouting and giving fingers to everyone who doesn't let me cross the road safely (probably something very Italian!). No wonder tourists are shocked to see Italians driving!
2) Queue jumpers: there is always the smart ass who thinks he can skip the line. Is it so difficult to respect the order of arrival?!? It happened once at the movie theater, shortly after coming back from the USA, where I didn't miss the chance to tell off the guy who skipped the line. 
3) State employees: you go into an office, three or four people are gathered around for their coffee break. You ask for something but they tell you it is someone else's job and the person is not there. Time is the most precious thing we have and I hate people who make me waste time with stupid excuses to hide their incompetence and inefficiency. 
4) Uncertainty and chaos about rules, which is an epidemic disease that affects the whole country and everyone seems subjugated by it. It is like playing a board game and the rules of the game keep on changing while the game is on. Let me give you some examples of what I have been going through. Taxes is one: an easy topic to target but not for the reason you might think ;). In Italy there is a chronic confusion about what to pay and how much, especially if you have your own business and even more so now with all these prime ministers changing at the speed of light. I am more than happy to pay my share and see my money wisely used by and for the community where I am living. It is my DUTY and responsibility but I have the RIGHT to know how much is expected from me. It is impossible to plan one's life from a financial perspective without knowing AHEAD how much is due to the State. 
Another aspect concerns notorious open competitions whose only purpose is to squeeze money out from people who don't have any. The demeaning aspect is when you pass the open competition but you don't make it to the first 3 positions let's say (the logic of arbitrary numbers is something obscure to the masses but clear to ones who established this regulatory principle); and you have to start all over again. So you are back to square one, to get a qualification through a course which is expensive and will take you exactly where you already were by passing the open competition fair and square. In fact, these courses organized by universities are real money machines with no basic organization. In this specific case, attendees got to know their schedule only after paying a heavy enrollment fee and guess what?! The first class was scheduled 48 h later! I forgot, attendance is mandatory but for some classes there is no calendar yet! As if people don't have a life to live and things to plan. 
 The list can be longer but these issues only show how insufferable I, as a re-pat, have become towards my own culture. I refuse to oblige and go along with these...how shall we call them??...cultural peculiarities; well, whatever label we might use, I feel I don't fit in this picture. If I could tolerate certain behaviors before going abroad, even though I never approved of them, now I find myself fighting them. With the only result to show my bad temper and having accomplished nothing. I painfully become aware that I am an outsider in my own country and I am struggling to come out of the picture I had been observing from the outside. That's when I am meditating a second chance abroad.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Find and practice your own therapy to help you out of boredom, loneliness and depression

Dear spouses on dependent visas,
you are going through your first or second winter in the USA; even though we are in March, this long and cold season is not over yet. You feel the length, coldness and solitude of this season more than anyone else.
Time passes very slowly when you have to stay home all day either because there is nowhere to go or simply because of the weather. In this desolate surrounding it is way too easy to become apathetic and slip into depression. The TV set becomes your best and only friend and you waste your days away. What can you do to get out of that miserable state? I wish I had a quick and painless solution but I can only share with you some things I tried and helped me somehow.

Organize your day:
you don't have to run on a military schedule but it is nice to have different things to do during the day and dedicate each activity no more than a couple of hours. I realize now how important it was for me to be linear with my schedule. I coped relatively well the first two years when I was doing several things. However, the moment we relocated somewhere else and I lost all my reference points I closed up and stay home all day. It was the beginning of the end. So, don't make the mistake to park yourself on the sofa and watch TV. You must fill in your days.

Do activities you enjoy doing or that are good for you:
In the morning I loved going to the gym or pool, I would alternate between group classes and doing laps. The sport club was within walking distance from where I lived and I made it a habit to go there almost every day. It was extremely beneficial to do physical exercises because I felt relaxed in my mind. Besides I was able to network with people who introduced me to other activities and groups I joined in. I spent also a great deal of time in the kitchen baking and cooking. I had the time for my hobby and I took the chance to experiment new and elaborated recipes. I regret saying that now, since I am back home, I don't do anything of that sort, which after all is really a shame.
Also doing house chores had its advantage...it forced me to get up and do some movements around the house. I have always preferred to be tired because of physical work rather than mental fatigue, therefore any chance I had to move around I welcomed it despite some initial resistance.
Then I spent time reading and watching movies. I'll have to admit I watched more TV than I meant but sometimes I needed to hear noises in the background. However, as I said before, we lived in an area that had its shares of weather related issues, so when we were out of power, I kept busy working on my jigsaw puzzles. And I have quite a collection now!

Music therapy:
Music is important to me from the moment I get up. I need to hear cheerful tunes, music and songs to set me off the right foot. I realized the moment the radio would play some slow cheek to cheek music I would feel awfully down. All that moaning, weeping and crying makes me run to the window and howl too!! Not a nice thing to hear!! I needed something that would give me energy, recharge me, open my mind and soul and above all make me think positive.
Of course it is a matter of personal taste, but for me what worked well was contemporary music played on the radio, some U2, disco music of the 70s and 80s, jazz and also some classic music. Avoid slow, romantic music! You will end up in a spiral of gloom and depression. Also every song with memories attached leads you to treacherous grounds so avoid it. You have got the picture now for your new compilation: Village People in, the Platters out!!

Movie therapy:
Romantic movies will only worsen your condition, you already cried enough watching Ghost when you were fine, now that you are lonely probably you don't need that level of empathy.
A good laugh is better than any medicine, release the muscles of your face and laugh, the louder the better. All the comedies you can think of are definitely in, the rest is sooo out!
Here are some comedies I loved watching: Meet the Parents (the first two are by far my favorite), Anger Management, Along came Polly, and the list can go on. I found out that I needed light hearted, brainless movies that kept me entertained and nothing else. I don't even mind watching old comedies like an oldie by Disney's The Parent Trap but I watched it so many times, I know it by heart. Sit-coms are also in, just avoid those programs where death and misery are the main subject.

People therapy:
socialize and meet people. Going out with them gives you a chance to learn more about the place where you live and spend time together with someone who is in your own shoes. That's empathy! Even your family and friends back home can't understand what you are going through. You need real people around you to share the good and the bad moments.
Most spouses spend a good deal of time on Skype with their own folks. This is all nice and wonderful however it won't make you feel any better, possibly even more homesick and people on the other side can't do too much for you. What I am trying to say is to avoid spending hours on Skype and relate more to the people who are around you. Sharing my experience with other women in the same situation helped me to put everything into perspective. I was not alone after all.

What else?
If you feel like sharing what has helped you just let me know! I am only a click away.
The list as you can see is very subjective but if it can help you, I am very happy.


Saturday, February 15, 2014

Things to know before you leave on a dependent visa

In this post I am repeating some old concepts that I have already discussed earlier in other posts. But instead of talking about the conditions of women who are currently abroad or have returned to their country, I feel it is important to share some tips with others before undertaking this adventure..so here it goes!
There are a couple of things absolutely worthwhile taking into account before leaving on a dependent visa to the USA. If you are considering the possibility to leave your country to follow you significant other to the other side of the world, don't rush into a hasty decision, mull it over for a while...better be safe than sorry!
In the frenzy and excitement of starting a thrilling experience abroad, most spouses tend to forget or overshadow the purpose of their departure. What they haven't realized yet is that the experience abroad and the opportunities that can derive from it are NOT meant for them but exclusively for their partners. I always refer to legal ways, of course, and your visa status is quite adamant about it. If you are about to embrace this experience you must think of yourself as an accessory to your partner's life. Don't you ever forget the reason why you are leaving! The only reason for you to be there is because of your partner. You are following your spouse's dreams and aspirations, not yours. If your own culture teaches you to be a submissive wife, I guess you are used to be doing as told, so nothing really changes for you. But if you are independent, you must realize for your own sake that your life will take a sudden turn, downwards. When I applied for my dependent visa, the clerk at the Consulate looked at me and asked half smiling half inquiring "What will you be doing there?" I underestimated his question and all its implications; but I found out too late, when I was there. I wish I had known ahead the type of life I would have been living on a dependent visa. 
Another important aspect concerns you and your partner. All this visa issue will test your relationship even more than you could ever anticipate. Your husband, as the person taking you on a dependent visa, must be aware of the sacrifices and all the implications deriving from that visa status you will be sustaining. Your partner should be involved and informed about your life abroad. Concerned partners will take care of their spouses in the best way they can and they will listen attentively to their concerns. Together you will be able to assess priorities and best options for you as a couple and a family. Some people want to spend a couple of years abroad and that can be managed with some sacrifice. However, if the plan is to stay a few more years or forever, that can have an impact on your married life in the long run. My attitude was "let's wait and see how it goes", I tried to be flexible and not to preclude any possibility but the truth was that I would have been still waiting and seeing nothing happening.  
Another aspect which is not secondary is the State you are heading to. There are 50 States and each of them has its own set of rules and some are even stricter than others. Do your research before electing one State over another as your future residence and find out as much as you can. For instance, applying for a driving license can be a huge matter. Without it, you will be even more limited than ever. Check all these details before picking a State as your final destination.
As you can see, the decision to apply for a dependent visa is no business for a one-person only; it has to be seriously considered by both parties. Immigration law puts you on the same level as a carry-on that can travel along with its owner; the person who loves you won't. It requires an open and honest confrontation about all the pros and cons of a half-life abroad for one of you and both of you must be fully aware of it.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Dependent visas, the process of taking awareness: let's talk about it, shall we?

There are a lot of false myths and half truths about life abroad in general. But there is also a dark zone where real lives abroad don't get any attention at all. This is the case of a huge and yet invisible army of spouses on dependent visas, who are scattered throughout the USA and closed in their own solitude. There are several reasons why real life conditions of spouses on dependent visas don't get the attention they deserve. Besides, the lack of discussion around this topic leads us to wrongly believe that the issue doesn't exist. Nothing could be further away from the truth: behind these self-inflicted and imposed silences there are women (and also men) who are suffering and struggling every day.
The protagonists in the first place don't talk about it. They might find it hard to put into words what they are going through. It takes time to realize what you dealt with and put everything into perspective. Some women don't understand how the visa status has deprived them of everything. They might even blame themselves for not feeling exactly like the American dream wants them to feel. In fact, you are not free, you are not independent, you can not pursue your own happiness and dreams. The world around you goes on but you are sent back in time and you are reliving the worst page of history: legally -to use a mild verb- you depend on your husband, but to face reality as it is, you belong to your partner, just like a slave did to his master. Therefore, silence becomes a shield to protect us from hypocritical criticism, judgment and cynical comments. And you are left alone fighting your own battle for survival. What is worse is when you hear women in politics having a very shallow and dismissive attitude towards this issue claiming things like "after all they decided to come here..."or "they knew what they were doing". Once more, spouses are silenced but this time from the outside; and this attack deeply hurts because it aims at ignoring deliberately this voiceless crowd. Even though these women, invited as guest speakers on TV shows, display all their knowledge; in truth they haven't got a clue. Have you ever lived on a dependent visa? If not, please be kind enough to shut your mouth! You must walk in my shoes for some time before passing on comments.
But dear spouses, it is not all darkness and gloom. Once you take awareness of what is going on around you, don't fall in the spiral of isolation. Get in touch with other women who are living your same experience. Now there is an increasing number of blogs dedicated to this topic. Read, be informed and reach out to others in the same situation as yours. But most importantly, you must try to voice your experience, sharing your story will help you also break those silences we have unjustly suffered. Claiming your own story will help you reassess your identity and self-confidence.