Charlie Cubeta '13 describes his fall semester on the IHP Cities in the 21st Century Program in one word: unpredictable. After exploring Detroit, Michigan, Sao Paolo and Curitiba, Brazil, and Cape Town, South Africa, Cubeta recalled one encounter he had while in Hanoi, Vietnam, the final city on his globetrotting journey:
"I was walking down an alleyway to do research for a project on how Vietnamese people memorialize the Vietnam War. These old men were in a communist party café, where neighborhood communist leaders gather. I was walking by with a friend and the men made fun of how tall I was. They beckoned me to come over and poured me some tea. Most of them had fought for the Viet Cong, and we had an hour-and-a-half long conversation about the war. It was pretty powerful. Then we played Ping-Pong and they absolutely demolished me. Those are the kinds of special moments that you can never predict but you will always remember."
Though Cubeta said that he had been bitten by the travel bug by the end of the semester, at first, he was skeptical about the effectiveness of such a mobile study abroad program.
"My biggest concern was that I would be traveling all over the world but not getting a real sense of it," he said. "People would say to me, 'Don't you know that study abroad is all about cultural immersion? You won't be getting any of that.'"
Rather than being fully immersed in one culture, Cubeta experienced a spectrum of urban environments. Throughout the semester, his program held a language class each morning to teach students language survival skills in Portuguese and Vietnamese.
After spending two weeks in Detroit, four weeks in Sao Paolo, one week in Curitiba, five weeks in Cape Town and five weeks in Hanoi, Cubeta said that he forged strong connections with the people of each city.
Cubeta stayed with host families in each locale, and said he formed the closest bond with his host dad, Alé, in Sao Paolo, whom Cubeta described as "one of the most ridiculous people I've ever met."
"To describe him succinctly, he was an intellectual guy. He was deeply troubled by the inequalities of the world," said Cubeta. "He was deeply religious, incredibly caring and generous, and yet in his mannerisms and speech he sounded and acted exactly like Borat. I could not stop laughing. He called prostitutes 'sexy workers.'"
Cubeta recalled one instance of bonding with Alé over breakfast.
"On my second day in Brazil, while I was still a little jetlagged, my dad asked me to tell him about my first time over breakfast. And then I realized that he was asking whether I was a virgin," he said.
Despite the frenetic travel agenda, Cubeta had to adhere to a set program schedule. He took three courses, each focusing on one of the cities on his itinerary: Urban Planning in Sao Paolo, Politics and Development in Cape Town and Culture of World Cities in Hanoi. Additionally, Cubeta conducted an independent study on bicycling in cities and the variety of factors that influence a person's decision to bike.
While mornings consisted of lectures, afternoons were dedicated to site visits around each city. These visits varied from nonprofit organizations in Detroit to cement factories in Hanoi.
"The logistics were stunning. At 1 p.m. we would walk outside and there were bus passes waiting for one group and one van waiting for another group. The country coordinators were always on their cell phones. The level of professionalism was definitely something that impressed me," said Cubeta.
Cubeta said he learned as much about how to conduct himself in unfamiliar environments as he did about his academic assignments.
"I struggled with learning how to explore a city without feeling like I was a scientist exploring a zoo," he said. "I became very self-aware. As a white college student, I didn't want to go into neighborhoods with a clipboard, treating people in a way that they didn't want to be treated."
While in Cape Town, Cubeta said he was very aware of his race.
"It was powerful being the only white person in the black township I was living in. It's a feeling you don't normally have coming from the Northeast and walking in a crowd of hundreds of people...I was already conspicuous because I'm so tall."
Though Cubeta was sensitive to his status as an American student, he says that his status as a foreigner actually allowed him to connect with community members.
"People would have their guard up but once we said we were students, they were very welcoming and wanted to tell us about themselves. It was important for them to know that we were not government agents there to check on their code violations. We were just curious about their lives," said Cubeta. Many of these locals looked to Cubeta and others on his program for more than just a listening ear.
"They would ask us, 'How are you going to help us?' We had to explain that we were students, and not there to directly help or give aid," said Cubeta.
This summer, Cubeta will have the opportunity to give back to a community he visited. He will be working with Data Driven Detroit, an organization he visited last semester that manages the city's data. Cubeta will analyze educational statistics so that underprivileged schools can receive funding.
The majority of the site visits were to impoverished, urban areas. The IHP program particularly emphasized the need to take safety precautions when the group traveled to Sao Paolo.
"At first I was way too uptight and was prepared to trust no one. If someone came up to say hi, I would sprint away. After a while, I realized I became a little calmer. I realized that I would have a lot more fun if I put my guard down," said Cubeta.
Thankfully, Cubeta found himself at ease when spending time with the other students on his program. With 27 girls and only six boys, a strong male camaraderie developed early on.
"The gender imbalance was huge. I think the boys went back and forth between loving and hating it. Also, we were surprisingly not cliquey. That was very refreshing. The program was so small, you could hold up a shirt and you would know whose shirt it was," described Cubeta.
Cubeta was initially concerned that "a couple of people on the trip would ruin it for everyone."
He was relieved to find himself in the company of others who shared his adventurous spirit."I had heard that the dynamics of the program completely determined its success and how enjoyable it was. The program staff really makes a big effort to weed out people who aren't motivated or driven because it is such a taxing program. I applaud them for that," said Cubeta.
The program also told students that computers were not necessary for their four months abroad. Cubeta made the decision to not bring his laptop abroad because he wanted to distance himself from the familiarities of American life.
"I wrote all of my papers by hand. I didn't bring my computer for security reasons and because I wanted to feel a little disconnected." The absence of technology facilitated more personal bonding with host families and other members of the communities, such as through playing sports.
"I played soccer in every place. If I could recommend one skill for anyone to take around the world, it is to learn how to play soccer," advised Cubeta.The universality of soccer was one discovery that Cubeta made after his fall semester. But by the end of his time abroad he was left with more questions than answers.
"I had somehow assumed that the program would clear things up for me and give me some guidance in life, but that wasn't the case," said Cubeta. "I didn't get a sense of closure. It did meet my expectations for breaking outside of Bowdoin and challenging me in non-academic, experiential ways."