If money was no object and the only stipulation was you must fully immerse yourself in the cultures of no less than six countries, where would you spent the next eight months?
How would you go about exploring what interests you?
Those are two essential questions posed to applicants of the Bonderman Fellowship, a unique opportunity for students at the University of Washington to engage in the transformative experience of travel and exploration.
Offered to just 14 UW students every year (across all three campuses), the Bonderman Fellowship empowers students to experience the world in a way many people only dream of. Each fellow is granted $20,000 to embark on an international journey, to embrace the unanticipated moments that make exploration so rewarding and to transform their understanding of the world around them, experiencing cultural and geographical differences first-hand.
This year, UW Tacoma was proud to announce that two of its students, Shantelle Johnson, an Environmental Sciences major, and Nick Rogen, who recently earned a Master of Social Work, were chosen to be 2014 Bonderman Fellows.
Shantelle and Nick are currently on their Bonderman journeys. We reached out to both of them to see where their travels had taken them and to gain insight into their experiences so far. Although we were unable to reach Shantelle at this time, we were able to catch up with Nick while he was busy exploring Cambodia.
How long have you been in Cambodia? How would you describe your experience there so far?
I’ve been in Cambodia for a little over two and a half weeks. So far my experience has been, in no particular order: exciting, eye opening, terrifying, fast paced, scary, very humid, wild and absolutely indescribable.
It’s almost impossible to properly describe all the new feelings, emotions and thoughts firing off in my brain. And again, it has only been two and a half weeks! Have you ever gone through something life changing and it’s just too much to process all at once? That’s a bit how I feel right now. The culture, the laws, the mannerisms and the entertainment … everything is different.
One day, I’ll have a proper answer to this question, but for now, I can only describe it as the wildest adventure of my life so far.
What is your level of experience when it comes to international travel?
This is my first time ever traveling alone, so everything is a new experience. I did go with my family backpacking around Europe when I was 18 and that was a great starter course on how to survive with little more than a 60-liter backpack that held my entire world in it.
It was a fascinating experience, that’s for sure, but most of the places we visited weren’t too far removed from life in the United States. It wasn’t until my family went to China to adopt my sister that I was introduced first-hand to places and situations that were unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. I’m definitely out of my comfort zone and it has been great.
Is Cambodia the first stop on your itinerary, or have you been to other locations? If so, where else have you been?
Cambodia is indeed my very first stop. It is wild and vibrant and a million other adjectives. I wanted to start with a bang, so I chose to fly to Siem Reap first and foremost because nothing shouts epic quite like the ancient temples of Angkor Wat.
What has been the most memorable experience so far?
Hands down, being taken out to a friend’s farm on the outskirts of Siem Reap was the most impactful experience I’ve had so far. I’d like to think I know a lot about poverty, having just gotten my Master of Social Work, but I was in no way prepared to see what I did in the villages outside town.
I didn’t take a single picture, because I felt completely ashamed to even have the luxury of owning a camera. The road that led out to the farm was several miles long, all flooded. So we had to get the largest tractor known to man in order to get through.
There was no room for me, so I hitched a ride by grabbing the side and holding on tight (very safe, I know). The tractor got stuck, though, so we had to take a jeep back to town. But the jeep broke down as well in the middle of nowhere.
I met a lot of people in that period of time, and they happened to be the most modest, nicest and smartest (they fixed the jeep faster than any mechanic I’ve ever had) people that I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
What about your travels and experiences with other cultures have changed the way you think about your own culture?
I certainly think that we live in a culture bubble inside the United States. Granted, I’m appreciative of many things in the states (especially, now, for the condition of our roads!), but it’s been wonderful to leave that culture behind for a little bit and realize that the American life is far from the only way to live.
Coming from a capitalistic culture that seems to create an insatiable appetite for wanting more and getting the latest and greatest everything, it’s been very strange to come to a country that is extremely poor, but makes do with what they have, and is appreciative of even the smallest things. I think that'll be a theme in many of the countries I visit in the coming months.
What are the next few stops on your itinerary?
My next few stops will include Thailand, India and Sri Lanka. From there, I’m heading down south along East Africa and then back up toward Northern Africa and Iceland.
With regard to your decision to apply for the Bonderman Fellow, did you have any reservations about being away from home for such a long stretch of time or were you simply eager to immerse yourself in other cultures and locations?
I would be lying if I said I had no reservations about being gone for 8 months. In fact, I had quite a lot of them.
I’ve only been gone a few weeks, and I already miss my family more than I could have imagined. For example, it’s tough to think my sister will be whole year older (the big 10th birthday) before I see her again. But that being said, the adventure is so large and so amazing that it makes the sacrifice worth it.
Do you have a travel philosophy, something that helps make the stress of traveling a little easier? If so, what is it?
“Use your common sense and you’ll be fine.” I’ve heard this from countless travelers and locals since arriving in Cambodia, and it’s certainly true. Whenever I read comments and articles on the internet, the horror stories about everything that could go wrong while traveling are pretty terrifying. Some advice is important to heed, such as “don’t walk alone really late at night,” but if I listened to all the advice, I’d never leave my hostel/hotel!
I’ve realized the world is not as scary of a place as it’s sometimes made out to be. Use of common sense makes everything much, much less stressful.
Also, another philosophy I think is essential to help with stress is simply: learn to let go. Backpacking brings new experiences, but at the loss of amenities I've been used to. From washing clothes in a sink, to using broken showers and hole-in-the-ground toilets, and trying to unlearn simple routines like rinsing my toothbrush in the sink water has been tough. But I'm just letting it happen. I'm doing my best to let go of my fears and embrace everything around me. Loss is not always a bad thing. It really helps to open your eyes to living a more simplistic life.
Once you embrace it, it’s an absolute wonderful, freeing feeling. At least it has been for me.
And last, as a de-stressor, I've been typing everything out that happens to me on a blog. With all the new emotions and observations and thoughts coming my way, it's been the easiest way to break down and truly appreciate what's going on around me.
And finally, what are your plans when you return from your travels?
Good question! It’s very hard to say because I know the person that left on this adventure will not be the same person that returns. I have no idea what’s going to happen. Of course, I will need to look for a new job almost immediately (those student loans aren’t going to pay themselves, unfortunately), but other than that, and it’s strange to say this, but I’ll need to see who I will be when I get back to make that decision.
Maybe I’ll write a book about my experiences or start up that non-profit I’ve always wanted to do. Who knows! I think I’ve done pretty well for myself so far, and I have no doubt I’ll land on both feet, wherever that place may be. The adventure is sure to continue long after I return home.
Like the 12 other applicants who were awarded the fellowship, Rogen and Johnson’s selection was based on their standing with the university (the program requires a minimum 3.8 cumulative GPA) and partially on the strength of their 4-page essay, in which they described how they would use the time, money and opportunity, and what their ideal itinerary would be.
Selected applicants were also evaluated based on how they demonstrated an aptitude for leadership, as well as their desire to participate in the global community. And while students are not required to generate a theme or develop a project for the fellowship, they are expected to be creative in their proposed plans and to express an interest in exploring and experiencing foreign cultures.
The Bonderman Fellowship is named for David Bonderman, who graduated from UW with a degree in Russian in 1963. The inspiration for the program came after Mr. Bonderman’s graduation from Harvard Law School, when he was the recipient of the Sheldon Fellowship – which afforded him the opportunity to travel internationally. That experience made an indelible mark on Mr. Bonderman and led him to find a way he could provide UW students with a similar opportunity to explore the world.
John Burkhardt, Media Relations, 253-692-4536, firstname.lastname@example.org