Alumni Column – Studying Abroad: Beyond Colgate Education

Alumni Column - Studying Abroad: Beyond Colgate Education

Riji Suh

If you have a chance to go abroad or off-campus during your time at Colgate, do it, without a thought. Really. Life will be there when you return, but in the meantime, while you’re still fabulously a “college kid,” experience life outside school without the responsibilities of career, family and rent. As a junior, Colgate’s Study Abroad program enabled me to leave my comfort zone: classes and athletics, the walk up-campus to Lawrence Hall, Frank Hall for dinner after my run to the boathouse, and cruising to the Junior Apartments to see my best friends.

I would get a glimpse of somewhere else — the world outside the rolling hills of Colgate University — what everyone told us college kids was “the real world” that would await, or crash upon us, at graduation. The best part was that I would come back to the place and friends I knew, no matter what happened.

The CORE Cultures: North American Indians class taught by a visiting professor from New Mexico impacted me so much as a sophomore that I gravitated toward majoring in Native American Studies. His approach to teaching from a present-day, honest and personal perspective resonated with my own unidentified yet powerful feelings about history and social experiences in “separate” worlds.

Going to New Mexico changed my whole life. I will always remember my first visit to Tesuque Pueblo. I was 19 years old, New York City-raised. We sat on the floor as a strong, stunning woman named Virgie walked in — the next moment I raised my hand to volunteer as the fitness program director. I had no idea that teaching people how to exercise simply, outdoors, without gyms, money, equipment, would be the beginning of a personal journey and practice in my life.

Without leaving Colgate, I could not appreciate the amazing cross-country trails right in the university’s backyard, Lake Moraine at dawn, the clean snow with only deer-prints before classes began, and the gorgeous golden sheen of leaves everywhere as far as the eye could see. Nor could I even begin to imagine the lifelong gifts I had received that fall of 2001; it marked the start of a closeness with nature, in all of her forms – the New Mexico sunset, the Tesuque mountains, along with human lessons of respect, humility, and honor from my relationship with the people of Tesuque. The towers in NYC fell that September.

I was miles and mountains and time zones away from my family, my friends, my stomping grounds — and I was given tremendous love, support and encouragement from my new family.

In this surreal time, my hometown was digging concrete to find more missing persons, and the world was blasting heightened emotions through every media voice. I felt distanced by my own silence, one created from the threat of bursting into every feeling all at once, never to find myself again in its source. Joe Suina, from Cochiti Pueblo and the head of the UNM Grad Education program, and Sarah Wider from Colgate, opened up a door of expression for me with the simplest of tools: the pen and paper. I started to write that year, and 7 years later, I have filled notebooks, napkins, even my own walls, with my words.

My Tesuque uncle Joe and his niece Marsha, who I became close with during my stay, came up to Colgate for my graduation in 2003. Since the year 2001, I have gone back to Tesuque at least once a year, staying with family on the reservation, attending feast days, helping and having fun, and going back for sad occasions as well. I am not only grateful to the Native American Studies department, but to the Colgate Study Abroad program for giving me the opportunity to expand in my discovery of nature, human relationship and identity.

No college tuition, no degree, no grade ever could come close to the “education” I continue to receive from my relationship with Tesuque and New Mexico: the people, the mountains, the sky that paints itself over and over, how to be a person in all worlds without attachment to one in particular.

The idea and action of moving fluidly through moments, relationships, life — regardless of what pre-conceived barriers may exist, regardless of the jagged edges that stick out sometimes — drive me to this day wherever I am. That time in my life continuously inspires me in my hatha yoga practice and teaching, and through my collaborations on film, whether moving or still.

So go. Take off. Fly. Leave what you think you know, who you think you are. Experience and live in a place not yet known, and learn about who you potentially can become. Then come back, and fall in love with an old place and a more worldly you who sees that there is always more to know…