Alright, so I'm applying to graduate school. Not because I want to go to graduate school, but because I found a one year graduate program in International Studies (don't ask me, they claim it's a real field) where I would spend three months studying in California, and nine months studying and Teaching English in Shanghai. I found the program online two weeks ago, while of all things, searching for an English Teaching job in Shanghai. The total cost of the program is only thirteen grand, and with my experience I'm pretty much a shoe-in to get in.
Here's the reason for the daylog, I have potentially placed myself in jeopardy with this application essay.
The question on the application is as follows: Please provide a narrative stating your reasons for seeking admission to the Master of Arts International Studies Program at Concordia University Irvine, including your long and short term goals and career objective. (Use the back of this page and additional pages as necessary)
So I kind of took the word narrative and ran with it, this is how my response penned out. If any of you budding intellectuals or former grad students have a word of advice, I'd love it if you piped in.
Also bear in mind that on the reference form one of the two questions they ask is about how well you think the applicant could adapt to life in another country, so I thought the bloviated travel experiences would hit on that as well
There is a saying among criminal lawyers, “Once the jury has been acquainted with the facts, there is nothing left for them but the story.” It is with this logic in mind that I offer in the place of platitudes about travel and perspective my own story.
The facts have been delicately placed before you in the form of a resume and a transcript. These documents comprise nothing more than a skeleton crew for a ship meant to contain cities of memory. Between each bullet on a resume lies the patchwork of ambition and failure, and all the lessons learned from their mingling.
My story begins with an unassuming office, on an unassuming September morning. Here, a company on the 84th floor of the South Tower was scythed by the fuselage and left wing of a 767 traveling hundreds of miles an hour. I was meanwhile waking up for my first Tuesday of classes, the first semester of my freshman year of college. The office in question is where I had spent my last three months, until two weeks before the attack.
I do not intend in anyway to conjure sympathy with this memory. It is included only as a moment of perfect lucidity which has invariably led me to this very program. I have within me this paradox, this blessing and curse, of knowing exactly when my life became exclusively my own and knowing how much suffering was necessary for the brief epiphany. Many describe this moment as that when a boy becomes a man. It was only when confronted with mortality that I decided to take up the mantel of a traveler. It has since been the defining and most important decision of my life.
Though many students joining New York Universities understandably took a leave of absence or dropped out altogether, I stuck through that first semester. I found solace in creative writing, and exploring much of the classic literature in the English canon. I soon found however, that with my legs cut out from underneath me, I needed to escape somewhere farther than my legs could possibly carry me.
My sophomore year took me to London for a semester. Here my physical independence found a place to mature along with my changed mental state. All of the students of the program lived in expensive flats one street away from beautiful Regents Park, square in the nexus of Zone 1, the heart of London. Classes were trimmed down to Mondays and Wednesdays, Tuesday was usually reserved for a Shakespeare play, and Thursday was the beginning of the weekend. The rationale behind this schedule was that the students had spent too much money and traveled too far to spend their time sequestered to a classroom. I believe the fundamental logic coincides with that of Concordia’s International Studies program. I took a class on British Politics that spent months discussing the devolution of Scotland and the problems of Northern Ireland. A month later I spent a weekend at a pub with three junior lieutenants in the IRA. Experience is always the greater teacher.
I was 19 years old and living completely absent of any authority; with a very low burden of course work. I had gone back to my previous company the summer before this program, and worked very hard in the company of empty chairs that spoke louder than any professor the school had to offer. I had earned that money everyday and I would finally run out of it at an ATM in Prague sometime around midnight in November that year. During the four months of my stay in London I managed to visit Paris, Versailles, Barcelona, Rome, Florence, Frankfurt, Trier, Amsterdam, and cities within England.
Traveling often does not offer both questions and answers. If one arrives in a country armed with question they often find themselves leaving with unexpected answers. Likewise most travelers who arrive in one of these surreal new worlds with all the answers find they have spent their lives asking the wrong questions. This is how I found myself within the short bursts of long weekends surrounded by strangers who answer gaping mouths with knowing smiles. Every time I stepped foot inside one of these new countries I found my mind had awakened as if thinking for the first time. A traveler questions everything they see. Every detail becomes overwhelmingly significant and every breath struggles to deliver enough coal to keep the train of thought on track. The only word I can find to describe a walk in a new country is euphoria.
Each time I had absorbed all a foreign country had to offer me I would have an intense feeling a footstep before boarding a plane to go back to London. It was the closest I have ever come to prayer, offered up to nothing and everything at once. I had a simple thought, that while on this plane my life would not be in my own hands, that if something were to happen to this aircraft there would be nothing I could do about it, but I would smile, because I had drank life to the last drop every moment I had spent in my recent travel. This is a feeling I had never experienced before, and will never leave me for as long as I live. If for no other reason, this program unlike any other I have seen will offer me a chance to encounter that moment once again.
I returned to Binghamton University having been chewed to the bone by the “travel bug.” I even had a very brief attempt at collecting my experience into a novel. I had written some thirty pages chronicling only JFK airport to Heathrow before the impetus to finish the work left me, and my studies beckoned. The entire time I remained at school, a whisper in the back of my mind was gently tugging me back toward more travels, like a mother rocking her baby to sleep I was being called to the white canvas of the unknown that needed to be thrashed with the colors of life.
I cut my academic career a semester short, in the winter of 2005; I used the money I would have spent on a final semester to move to Prague in June of that year to obtain a certificate for Teaching English as a Foreign Language. I thought that finally after all the ceaseless activity that accompanies a free floating city of 20 year olds that I would have my pensive introspective period where I could settle down in one of Europe’s gems and commit myself to writing. As it turned out I was foiled yet again, by another adventurous group of travelers as we inhaled the city day by day for a month. I spent a little time re-writing pieces and trying to finish a poetry manuscript but to no avail. I wouldn’t have anything to write about Prague until months later, the interim was filled rubbing elbows with Jazz saxophonists in thousand year old wine cellars converted into clubs. We would later be included in a mass of Czechs in the middle of Old Town Square being filmed for a frame in an innocuous Pepsi commercial.
I had also discovered something rather bizarre in my tenure in Prague; teaching was a fantastic new way to experience a culture first hand. The amount of give and take in the relationship of English teacher to foreign student was almost completely balanced. They wanted more than anything to master English and I wanted more than anything to understand how and why they lived their lives the way they did.
Teaching English in a foreign country is in my opinion the best way to live, support one self and devour every stray bit of information a culture can spit out. Within the span of eight lessons I learned more about the Czechs than I did roaming around the city for a month. For a traveler and an aspiring writer, this is invaluable source material, better than any guidebook can offer with their cagey suggestions.
After I had received my TEFL certificate I left Prague by train, and spent a week in Budapest, Hungary. This was the first time I had traveled to a new country completely alone, there were no classmates or apartments or contemporaries to share the experience with. Reserves of courage previously unused were called up and I ventured through the city day by day and night by night, up above the suspension bridges at the foot of an impressive castle I found an outdoor dance club and after the music ended I spent the day with a man who owned 5 Karate Dojos and helped his mother and her organization fight Cerebral Palsy taking me to the small taverns and bodegas and bars that no guide book would ever mention. The week culminated on July 4th, sitting in a circle in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica; four Americans, three Brits, three Irish girls, two Canadians, two Norwegians, six Hungarians, and three Israeli’s with a small dog named Elvis belted out the American National Anthem at three in the morning. This week in retrospect is when I discovered I could not only survive, but could travel alone and create the life I wanted to lead.
From Budapest I would visit Romania and Bulgaria before arriving in Istanbul. I met a Turkish friend and went on a whirlwind month long tour around Turkey’s border. I was treated to both the tourist outposts and the out of the way villages that dotted the western coast of the country.
When I returned home I immediately bought a map of Japan and a box of thumbtacks. I had applied for an English teaching job in 20 of Japan’s 46 Prefectures before I had a telephone interview and flew off to Shunan City, Tokuyama, where I have spent the last 11 months. It is the first experience I have had living and working outside of the USA, and one may infer by the nature of the program I’m applying to, that it will not be the last.
The doors that a simple one month certificate has opened for me have been staggering. Here I have a private student who is the president of a national bank, and reported to Prime Minister Koizume in private meeting bi-quarterly. I am given clearance to move through the gates of a Japanese Air Force base to teach English to budding fighter pilots. I have a private student who is the president of an international women’s organization that is registered as a Non-Government Organization in the United Nations, and I helped her write an English speech which was read to a gallery of thousands at their national meeting in Philadelphia. I helped a Sake Brewer film a promotional video about the intricacies of his trade to use at vendors in a half dozen major cities across the US. I would not have had access to any of these people or places were it not for a piece of paper and the desire to travel.
The personal experiences outside of the job have also been enormous. I was able to dance on top of an active volcano at a trance party filled with tattooed Yakuza, and dive into a freezing pool of water with thirty Japanese for a New Year’s ablution under the first tendrils of the year’s first sunrise. I have gone scuba diving in Okinawa with a German neuroscientist while discussing the works of Haruki Murakami on the boat.
This program offers me in the short term a dizzying array of experiences which I cannot even hope to imagine until I get to Shanghai. The ability to speak some Mandarin and understand a fragment of China’s convoluted social and educational history will arm me with the questions I want to have when my feet touch its soil. The combination of the job and the language has the possibility of opening millions of lives, from every ramshackle hut to the mansions of the super elite. The program offers undiluted and unfiltered life, without the rose colored glasses of cultural elitism, without the speculation found only in academic tomes, and without the prejudice of a culture where less than 15 percent of Americans even have a passport.
This program offers the continuation of a story that each day fills with something different from the last. A master’s degree in any subject, let alone something as useful to this profession as International Studies also qualifies me for the murky title of Foreign Expert, combined with two years of international teaching experience and a TEFL certificate I will find the doors of Shanghai and Istanbul Universities swinging open for me to teach at a university level. I will have access to an environment within a different culture just reaching the peak of their aspirations.
In the end I want to be a writer, and I also want to live a life that will be worthy of biography. I want to teach English because it offers me the human knowledge of the places I travel to, and a companion perspective to the sources of all these experiences. I want to earn a Master’s Degree, specifically with this program because it allows me to continue this life without sequestering me to the “bubble” of academia and because a Master’s Degree will allow me to teach in more countries and see more of this cascade of cultures we call humanity. This program reinforces and amplifies everything I am doing and want to do with my life. In short, to summarize this entire diatribe, I can kill two very large birds, with a seemingly tiny stone.