Category Archives: Spring 2015 Issue III: Up Close / From Afar

O, Wonder!: Thoughts on Photography

Some photos make me think beyond the subject: how did the photographer get there, how did they climb so high, how could they elicit such sincerity? I think of photos of wartime, photos on the front pages; how was someone just standing there with a camera? How could someone take a picture of their subject who was crying over their dead son or holding their hanging limbs? I wonder how it would feel to be photographed if I was in pain. I wonder if there are people who protect photographers, who protect the image.

Yet however much it seems to be a passive gesture, it isn’t. Taking a picture is a vulnerable position to put yourself in. Your focus is completely taken away, your eyes are behind a lens, your arms are lifted. You are surrendering to the angle, to the light, to the subject, to whatever happens to you while you take this picture. I think of that while I look at things here, in Buenos Aires. I don’t take as many photos as I want to because I am not in a place that I know as wholeheartedly as Oakland or Northampton. People that I don’t know swarm around me, the landscapes are lit for only a moment. Everything that I seem to know disappears as soon as I understand it.

Sometimes I wish the world were on pause. I could walk for hours, taking pictures without asking anyone to move. Nobody would stare at me, nobody would laugh at me, nobody would hurt me. Truthfully, I wish taking pictures were passive. Perhaps in my amateur photography you can tell that I want that. Or maybe that’s just me.

I think of my mom when I think of active and happy photography. She is never afraid to ask someone to smile, whether they are her daughters or a stranger. Once, we were in the car in San Francisco at a stoplight, and a horse-drawn carriage stopped next to us. Inside, there was a newlywed couple eating sandwiches. My mom screamed, opened the door to the van, leaned out while holding onto the handle of the door and asked if she could take a picture. In the photograph, they are smiling through their full mouths. We all laughed then, but my sisters and I hate it when she gets into her “photographer phase”. She just asks everyone if she can take their picture. I remember she stood at the beginning of the line for the procession of my sister’s graduation and took a portrait of everyone in her eighth grade class. My sister was furious.

I think now about the times when I was embarrassed that she was so shameless, willing to stick a lens in anyone’s face. But, when I look back now, there are portraits. A woman she had never met once called her and asked to buy one of her photos, because it was the last image of her husband when he was alive.

The world is full. Full of walking portraits of people who might not be here tomorrow, landscapes draped in light, landscapes draped in shadows. There are things that are just captured by happenstance: “Oh, the light, stay there.” Then, there are things that must be captured: war, pain, injustice, my sister’s graduation, Buenos Aires.

The world is full, and I think that is what makes photography so brave.

 

 

RUIZ. Olivia.portraitOlivia Ruiz is a double major in Sociology and Spanish. Her dream is to work at an archive abroad where she will be able to use her Spanish and Portuguese. She would like to take part in preserving history and making it accessible to whichever community she is apart of. 

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The Small Parts

I had been in Greece for five weeks, Athens for three. While arriving, I had seen the luminous and looming Lykavittos Hill towering in the distance. I knew there was a path to the top and I imagined a wonderful view, but I had yet to venture towards it. On this day, though, I had the day off from my internship at the University of Athens Museum of Mineralogy and Petrology and I felt particularly up for the challenge. With my camera in hand and map in my pocket, I started in the direction of the hill. I worked my way through the bustling streets, avoiding the masses of bussed-in tourists, and found my way to the base. As I started the often-steep climb to the top, I realized I had escaped the crowds and saw only a lone gardener maintaining the park on the hill. What I saw when I got to the top made my jaw drop. I could see all of Athens, the Acropolis, the Panathenaic Stadium, my apartment. I could even see all the way to Piraeus –Athens’ harbor – with all its docks and ships. It was incredible. But I was completely alone, looking down at this busy, bustling grand city.

HeatherUpin_BirdsEyeViewAthens

For me, the point of traveling is to try and embrace other cultures. I endeavor to begin with a broad bird’s eye view, if you will, of the country I am visiting and then go deeper seeking out intimate and authentic experiences and relationships. I wanted to go out to restaurants that tourists did not go to. I wanted to make friends – and I did. The week I climbed Lykavittos Hill was also the week I found Redpoint, a small climbing center about a half hour out of the city via the metro. It was a scary moment stepping out of the metro station, knowing no one and not speaking the language. But it turned into the best experience of my time in Athens. An avid rock climber, I went and climbed at least twice a week for the remainder of my stay. I met local climbers and became good friends with the man who worked at the gym, Kirykos.

One afternoon my new Greek friend and I decided to meet for coffee. I left my apartment, camera in hand and map in my pocket, and ventured once again  out into the crowd of people. I headed in the direction of our meeting place through the bustling streets. After coffee, as we were walking off the beaten path in his favorite neighborhood, we stumbled across a gated off building. I hopped over to the fence. It looked as if the roof of the building was gone, there was graffiti all over the walls and litter strewn on the floor. I asked Kirykos if he knew what this place used to be. He told me it was a nightclub and explained that this neighborhood used to be something special, filled with life. Now it was empty narrow streets with broken windows, ramshackled buildings and closed businesses. How different this grand city looked from deep within! I then realized just how far I had come – from sitting alone on that big hilltop to having someone with whom to explore the small parts of the city.

Although the up-close did not look as grand as the view from the hill, it was filled with new kinds of life, conversations and laughter and was all the grander because of it.

Heather Upin, ’16, studies geology at Smith College. During summer 2014 she traveled to Greece where she participated in Smith’s Global Engagement Seminar studying the archaeology of Greece in its geologic context. This experience sparked an interested in travel and deepened her passion for rocks. After completing her education at Smith College, she hopes to pursue a master’s degree in geochemistry.

 

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A Moment of Peace

Our plane was delayed two and a half hours in Shanghai, due to smog so thick we couldn’t see the airport from the plane window. We had originally planned to climb the mountain, but because of the delay, and then the fact that we missed our train from Xi’an to the mountain base and had to take a later one, we arrived at Huashan only an hour before dark. Not wanting to climb one of the most dangerous mountains in China in the dark in the winter, we opted for the safer and faster cable-car route.

By the time we got to the top, it was completely dark. There was snow and ice blanketing the hills around us, but the paths were clear. Our plan was to stay in one of the hotels (I use the word “hotels” rather loosely — they were a collection of stone-floored rooms with no beds), but the first one we came upon was 300 yuan a night (roughly 50USD), and nearly full, so we decided to check out our other options before we settled. Hiking around 45 minutes to another peak, we reached a second hotel; this one was, to our dismay, completely full. As the innkeeper turned us away and we resigned ourselves to hiking back to the other hotel, a man wearing a set of long robes emerged from darkness and caught our attention. With the help of my (rather broken) Chinese, I figured out he was trying to tell us to come with him, and that he had a place for us to stay. Sophie, Justina, and I shared a kind of “what the hell, why not” look, and followed him up a flight of stone stairs that curled around the side of a cliff. When we got to the top, we realized he was leading us to a small temple-like building. We entered, and he ushered us behind the shrine, where there was a bunkbed and a few blankets. He only charged us 80 yuan each (a solid deal), and we were really close to where we wanted to be the next morning to watch the sunrise: the east peak.

The next morning we got up before dawn to find the front room of the temple, and the top bunk of our bed, had filled with people overnight. Needing to pee, I remembered a couple of outhouses I had seen the night before, and slipped out before Justina and Sophie, stepping around the people on the floor. The outhouses were built on the side of the mountain, had no doors, and instead of being built over a hole dug in the ground, hung over the side of the cliff. The snow underneath the hole leading down the slope was not clean. A line was forming in front of them and I, still half asleep, did not trust myself to not fall off the side of the mountain, and decided to hold it.

We hiked to the east peak to find a crowd of people already gathered at the prime sunrise-watching spot. There was a fence along the edge of a steep cliff, covered in golden locks and bright red strips of cloth, which, against the rising light in the sky, looked absolutely beautiful. In the summer, many people choose to make the hike up Huashan overnight to reach the peak by sunrise, or they hike up and sleep on the cliff itself, tying themselves to the poles of the fence so they don’t fall.

There was a lot of fog hanging around the mountains that morning (or smog — in China, it’s often hard to tell which, and Xi’an was at the top of the pollution charts that week, so smog from the city could have blown over to the mountain quite easily), so the light from the sun filtered in slowly, changing the sky to a soft, grey-blue color; it made the mountains in the background look hazy and ethereal.

When I look back at my travels abroad, I tend to remember the “from afar”. I forget the details. It’s when I look at my “up close” pictures, of cute bugs or interesting rocks or cool fences on top of mountains, that I start to remember the little parts of the story. How, when we were waiting for the sun to rise, I sat right on the edge of the cliff, holding onto the chain of the fence, cuddled close to my friends for warmth. I remember how, out of a hectic trip where we missed or almost missed every train and plane we had booked ahead of time, we found a moment of peace on top of this mountain.

 

MORSE.J. portraitJaqueline Morse has always had an interest in travel and in discovering new places. For her junior year abroad she studied in Shanghai, China and Melbourne, Australia, spending the two intervening months WWOOFing in New Zealand. She hopes to someday find a career where she can travel to new places often. 

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A Blurred Reality

They say living is easy with eyes closed, but, that day in the township of Soweto, South Africa, I learned to open my own.

In the summer of 2010, after my sophomore year abroad at the Taft School in Watertown, Connecticut, I was chosen to participate in a leadership and service trip for two months in South Africa and Botswana. From the beginning, my peers and I knew that this would not be an easy experience.
On our first day in Soweto, we pulled up a dirt road leading to a compound made of several dozen wooden huts with sheets of tin thrown on top of them. It wasn’t the first time I had seen poverty, and I certainly knew it wouldn’t be the last. I had seen it in the bulky blankets under Rome’s bridges, in plastic cups rattling to the beat of desperation and solitude, and in the wearers of mismatched shoes staggering on the sidewalks of cities at night. However, I had not seen the contrast between poverty and joyful giggling children.
They ran up to us, tapping furiously on the windows of our bus, and motioned for us to get off. They reached in for whoever’s hand they could touch as we set foot on the muddy soil, and skipped back to the village with their newfound friend. Just as I began to take my camera out, I felt a warm, firm grasp encompass my hand. I looked down. A little boy was smiling at me. He began tugging on my shirt, looking up at me with the widest grin, refusing to let go.

In broken English, he told me he wanted to be my friend. I smiled and squeezed his hand, feeling the tears starting to well up. We walked in silence as he led me in and out of houses made of dirt floors and tin roofs that he and his neighbors called home, where women in the surrounding darkness sat in a circle peeling tomatoes. The South African sunset glimmered onto their faces as the little boy pulled me along from dirt floor to dirt floor, pointing at the spot on the ground in the shack where he spent his nights. He motioned for me to sit, saying his home was now my home, too.

My heart felt heavy in a way I had never known before. I began retreating into my quiet contemplation, trying to take it all in, both the inexplicable beauty of the moment and poverty I was seeing.Suddenly, I felt a pair of arms flung around my waist. The little boy broke the silence, asking me to take a picture of him and of his friends in the hut next door. I nodded with a quick smile, positioned my hands on the body of the camera, aimed, and pressed the shutter just as the group of smiling boys looked my way.

Being a photographer means more than just focusing and shooting; it is often living a life through a lens without completely being a part of it; it is turning and twisting and tilting until something that has been blurred for so long slowly begins to focus. After only a few minutes of what seemed so blurry to me, I began to perceive the lives these children were living. I started to see the reality of their world from up close, the unspoken pain behind their smiles.

It was then that I began to understand the Nguni Bantu philosophy of ubuntu, a word that signifies the essence of humanity, kindness and interconnectedness, and translates to “I am who I am because of who we all are” or “I am because you are”.The boys giggled as the camera clicked, and thanked me with a hug. I embraced them, and said, “no, thank you”. I then lowered my head gently and with a shaking smile whispered, “ubuntu”.

 

PULLELLA.Carmen.portraitCarmen Pullella ’16 is an international student born and raised in Rome, Italy. She is an avid writer, a photography enthusiast, and frequent world traveler who drinks too many café mochas for her own good and who can often be found hiding in used bookstores or record shops downtown. She intends to pursue her Psychology degree in child and adolescent psychopathology after graduating from Smith, and continue her involvement in the world of professional photography, slam poetry, and academia.

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From the Archives: Fighting for Russia

In the spring of 1917, Bessie Boies Cotton ’03, as a representative of the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), was invited by the Provisional Government of Russia, which had replaced the tsarist government in February, to “establish clubs for working girls” and teach them how use the civil rights they had recently gained (Leighton, 10) . Bessie responded enthusiastically, believing that it was essential to show women how to “use [emphasis added] their democracy” instead simply giving it to them and hoping for the best (Leighton, 58). During her time in Russia, Bessie successfully started clubs in Moscow and Petrograd and organized an agricultural exhibition for peasant communities that travelled up and down the Volga River on a boat. Although this effort did not last long – the YWCA was forced to leave Russia in 1921 after being labeled an “American interest” by the Bolshevik government – Bessie was completely devoted to her task (Leighton, 57;60;67). After being evacuated from Russia once, Bessie returned via Finland and aided American troops stationed in Archangel, hoping to eventually return south (Leighton, 59).

The Bessie Boies Cotton Papers in the Sophia Smith collection at Smith College contain many of Bessie’s personal documents from her time in Russia – diaries, correspondence, reports to the YWCA – as well many images from her personal photo album. Some of these pictures seem to suggest that she was fairly close to, and possibly even involved in, the events of the October Revolution and the ensuing struggle for power; there are more than a few incredible shots of marches, barricades, and the aftereffects of street fighting. And in a certain sense, Bessie was near the events – near enough that one night she “[heard] twelve shots in front of [her] house” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box III, Folder 2).

But these images do not shed as much light on revolutionary Russia as one might hope. One reason for this is the simple reality of revolution – the October Revolution was “in fact such a small action … that it passed unnoticed by the vast majority of the inhabitants of Petrograd” (Figes, 96). Bessie, an outsider and not a member of any Russian political party, would likely have found it incredibly difficult to distinguish between “important” events and day-to-day fighting.  More importantly, however, Bessie just simply did not care about the revolution, or any revolution for that matter. She told an American newspaper reporter that she and the other YWCA workers “[were] as callous to [the political and social crises] as [New Yorkers were] to traffic on Fifth Avenue” (Bessie Boies Cotton Papers Box I, Folder 7). Because of this attitude, almost none of Bessie’s other personal documents contain any significant references to or reflections on the revolutionary activity she saw.  Instead, her papers are wholly devoted to describing her efforts to help Russian women. Bessie’s most cherished goal was to create an “international fellowship of women” – work she considered even more important during an unstable revolutionary time (Leighton 26;35). So while the photographs she collected are indeed astounding, they are only the backdrop to the story of an even more impressive woman who risked her personal safety to try to guarantee a better future for Russian women.

 

Bibliography

Cotton, Bessie Boies. Papers. Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA

Figes, Orlando. Revolutionary Russia 1891-1991: A History. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014. Print.

Leighton, Elizabeth. “A Women’s Mission to Revolutionary Russia: Bessie Boies Cotton and the Young Christian Women’s Association.” Thesis. Mount Holyoke College, 1983. Bessie Boies Cotton Papers (Box I, Folder 6). Sophia Smith Collection, Smith College, Northampton, MA.

 

EEmily Paruolo Author Photomily Paruolo is a Comparative Literature major, her primary interest being the intersection of Western European ideas and Russian culture. She has studied both French and Russian for eight years and began studying German this fall. She hopes to study abroad in both St. Petersburg, Russia and Geneva, Switzerland next year.

 

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An Urban Adventure

HO.Yvonne.Clown-page1

Walking on the streets of Paris with a camera changed everything. I was now more attentive to events that unfolded like a play at the theatre: a man crouching in the metro corner with an empty bottle, a woman with sad eyes leaning against the window, or a husband carrying flowers on his lap, either for his wife or mistress. My friend told me that she once stumbled upon a party inside the train of the metro with guests dressed in suits and evening gowns, clutching several bottles of champagne. She even has the photos to prove it. Here in Paris, you are prepared to run into anything.

The city of Paris was my introduction to street photography but during the first week of my studio course, I wondered why my pictures looked still, as if nothing was ever happening: a garbage can, the Chinese restaurant sign, a homeless man sleeping silently. My teacher urged me to turn to photo books and to visit exhibitions— “those are your greatest teachers”, he said. The truth of his words could be found in the influential works of Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and Vivian Maier. It all made sense now: I am the artist, and I can create as much of a composition as someone with an easel and brush, a compelling revelation.

The execution, however, was a whole other story. The skepticism of Parisians was already at a high level, even without the camera. Once I revealed it and peered through the viewfinder, people would scurry away, or hiss at me loudly. “Who does she think she is, taking a picture of me?” they must all have thought. The confrontations drew fear and guilt into my heart, and consequently, I resorted to a timid and all-too-nice way of photographing: from afar. But what was the sacrifice? My work lacked that edge present in the photographs I admired, were the subjects sometimes stared at the camera unblinkingly. My photos couldn’t tell you anything.

When I decided it was time my pictures stopped suffering due to lack of courage, I invented an antidote. I made myself approach the subject without a second thought, despite my fear. I went to them, asked permission, and took the damn picture. The change brought riveting results—I entered into pages of people’s stories. I was a witness to their daily life, whether they were trapped in a state of mind or exuding an uncontrollable energy. They could trust me to document these moments. As a consequence to all this, I gained an enhanced sense of awareness for the city and its people.

Now I stroll on the streets with my camera around my neck, hidden from no one. It could be what you call in French flâner, strolling in a city with no intended destination but for the pleasure of a promenade. With this identity and sense of confidence, I am searching for Paris’s secret life. I want to convey that we’re all living theatre without fully acknowledging it. What a joy when a photographer can be there to document it!

This was how I encountered my little clown here, on the night of Halloween while riding my bike. She was sitting with her costumed friends at an American diner near Odéon, about to order a proper milkshake. Perhaps this picture has too many American themes to be French, but I was surprised to have spotted her. She represents for me all the unexpected discoveries in cities, unconfined by expectations.

HO.Yvonne.portraitYvonne is spending her junior year abroad in Paris, furthering her studies in art history and French. She hopes to continue taking pictures when she returns to Northampton for her senior year, after starting her photographic experience here in Paris.

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Traveling without a Map

What can I find without a map? This was the question I was forced to ask myself this fall when I arrived in London to conduct research for my dissertation in art history and realized I had forgotten to pack a map.

The great irony is that one of the focuses of my research while in London was eighteenth century maps of the British empire. I spent days at the Greenwich Maritime Museum and the British Museum, as well as collections and archives outside London, poring over maps picturing the Atlantic world—a ring of geographic sites ranging from England to the West coast of Africa, the Caribbean, and the colonies of North America surrounding the vast expanse of the ocean. This research brought me up close to the textures and images of the eighteenth-century Atlantic. With my iPad I shot detailed pictures of engraved lines, navigational marks, swirling scripts, and decorative cartouches. Some maps were hand-colored in delicate washes of green and red and blue. Others bore scribbled notes by printmakers in brown gall ink prompting their engravers to make changes.

As an art historian, the question I want to ask of these objects is not how they got people places, but how they helped people in local settings imagine the wider world of which they were a part. In my dissertation I explore how British and American peoples of the eighteenth century imagined and represented the ocean between them in art, literature, and material culture. In the period I study, navigation at sea was an uncertain and often dangerous business. Scientists and geographers were still struggling to figure out how to reliably calculate longitude on a ship. Maps were often outdated or inaccurate. The explorer James Cook complained that he and his crew could “hardly tell when we are possessed of a good sea chart until we our selves have proved it.” In other words, seafarers often didn’t know where exactly they were going, or where they even were until they were there.

The sense of being at sea that I found in the archive reflected how I felt about the state of my own research. As a graduate student, I had reached the edge of the map guiding me through completing coursework, passing my exams, and achieving doctoral candidacy. Now, at the beginning stages of my dissertation, I was a bit like a sailor uncertain of my direction, struggling to navigate with a compass and the sky.

Leaving the museum or library after hours of straining my eyes over yesterday’s maps, I found myself on the busy streets of the city, this time literally without a map of my own. While my maplessness began as an accident of ill-preparedness, it soon became a purposeful means of discovering my place in the city.
Mapless, I looked up, not down. With my feet leading, I was able to focus on what was around me. Without a map, I tramped along the banks of the Thames, encountering the sixteenth-century London of Shakespeare’s Globe and Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind. Without a map, I stumbled over the cobblestones of Spitalfields, finding the eighteenth-century homes and workshops of Hugoenot silk weavers. Without a map, I puffed to the top of the Naval Observatory, stood on the Prime Meridian, and gasped at the bright green parakeets that filled the air.

At least once on every walk I would capture an image with my iPhone. Like the little boats and recordings of a ship’s trajectory that showed up on the old maps I was studying, this gesture marked my place in space and time. Looking back through all the pictures I took while in London now, I see where I was, and where I was going. Traveling without a map helped me approach my research with greater curiosity and creativity. The visual record of my wanderings in the city and the archive is a sort of map that reminds me where I have been, even as I continue to chart my course toward new waters.

 

CASEY.portraitEmily Casey is a doctoral candidate in art history at the University of Delaware. In her research she seeks to bring global perspectives to the art, history, and material culture of the Americas. While a Smith student, Emily worked at the Smith College Museum of Art and studied abroad in Paris.

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High Tea: Atlas Mountains Edition

For the days we were in Morocco, my three friends and I had signed up with a tour company that would take us to the main attracting tourist experience: camel trekking in the Sahara Desert. Ortman, our tour guide who had lived in Morocco all his life, drove us in his minivan for six hours to get to our destination. As he took us through the winding uphill roads, I watched as the desert canvas to my right flooded with sand and erosion landscapes which leisurely transformed into a blend of green-brown mountain trees and shrubbery. The air grew brisk as we became surrounded by the sun sparkled snow caps of the Atlas Mountains themselves climbing the clear blue skies, and we decided to break at a cafe off the main road for a warm drink.

Glad to bring some life back into our legs, we stretched out our limbs and strolled into the cafe. Immediately the man behind the counter welcomed Ortman in Arabic, and nodded and smiled at the rest of us in greeting. They seemed to know each other because they starting chatting and laughing with each other. Meanwhile, we let our eyes explore the intimate ambience, architecture, and interior patterns on the walls and floors of the Moroccan styled cafe. Sunlight beamed through two windows and an archway, calling us out to a stone deck which we discovered to have more tables and chairs for guests, perfect for enjoying the backyard mountain vistas in a glorious full screen view.

Ortman’s friend came out to see if we wanted any food or beverages. We had been excited to get a real taste of the country’s culture during our stay, so we requested Morocco’s famous mint tea. As we were waiting for our tea, a man sitting alone at one of the tables near us started talking to Ortman in Spanish. I remembered Ortman said many people in Morocco could speak French and Spanish in addition to Arabic and Berber, the official languages. The man turned his attention to us.

“Where are you from?” he asked, in a soft accent.
“We’re all from the States,” I replied, noticing his bowl of bread and his small glass cup sitting on a saucer with two white sugar cubes resting on it. There were a handful of green leaves swirling around in the drink, and so I assumed the cup contained the mint tea we were eagerly awaiting.
“Ah, yes… the people of Obama!” he exclaimed and chuckled as he lifted the dainty clear cup from its saucer to his lips. His face was welcoming, and we chuckled lightheartedly in return at his way of identification.
The cafe worker soon returned to us with our teas in the petite glass cups. After thanking him, we carefully brought our little cups to our lips for a hearty first sip. A grin swept over my face as my tasted buds kicked in with delight, and I nodded. My friends’ smiling eyes met mine and we all nodded in delicious satisfaction.
The drink was warm and sweet — sweeter than I had expected a mint flavored tea to be. I peered into the concoction before me, wondering how many sugar cubes had dissolved in it. Then I wondered how fragrant the mint leaves were. But within the next sips, we let the majesty of the Atlas, standing tall and still, subdue all other background thoughts. We sat in our chairs in a few moments of enchantment as we drank and watched the Moroccan splendors before parting ways towards the desert dunes.

 

Angela TaiAngela Tai is a senior at Smith, studying neuroscience with an interest in pursuing medicine and public health. During her time abroad last spring, she traveled to thirteen countries and seventeen cities, which she considers to be some of the most rewarding experiences of her life. She loves learning about different cultures, meeting new people, and eating lots of pizza. 

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