After graduation, Angela Wheeler '12 was awarded a Fulbright U.S. Student Fellowship to pursue research in the Republic of Georgia. During her time as a cultural and historic preservation and international studies major at Salve Regina, Wheeler studied abroad in Saint Petersburg, Russia, where she took intensive courses in Russian language and history and interned at the State Hermitage Museum. She is now enrolled in the dual master’s degree program in urban planning and historic preservation at Columbia University.
While an undergraduate, Wheeler supplemented her curriculum with self-motivated studies of Georgian language and culture, and traveled to the Republic of Georgia in the summers of 2010 (for independent research on Soviet-era funerary traditions leading to a presentation at the American Anthropological Association's annual meeting) and 2011 (as a student in Wellesley College's summer archaeological field school).
Wheeler wrote about her experiences on her blog, The Georgia Philes. Below is a first-person account of her journey.
If you had told me four years ago that I would eventually be living in the Republic of Georgia, writing articles about cultural heritage management and traipsing around historic urban neighborhoods, I would not have believed you. Although I had done volunteer work in Ecuador twice in high school, I had very little interest in other countries (least of all post-Soviet space).
Two things (three, if you count persistence) led me to my current path: making friends with a Georgian exchange student my senior year of high school, and my studies of cultural and historic preservation at Salve Regina. I was generously hosted by my Georgian friend and her family in summer 2010, where I was able to use the historic preservation skills I'd learned in my first year at Salve Regina to survey historic structures and cemeteries. I ended up presenting my findings at a major academic conference, a lesson in making my unique combination of interests work for me.
After my first visit, one of the things that kept me interested in Georgia was actually the lack of relevant, available resources. An Amazon book search for "France" turns up more than 274,000 results, ranging from travel guides and memoirs to intensely specific analyses of ancient Gallic customs or the lives of fashion icons. Searching names of even the most obscure French villages will produce volumes of history as well as a barrage of photos, restaurant reviews and sightseeing suggestions. One can literally experience France without ever leaving the proverbial armchair.
Not so with Georgia. A similar search for "Georgia Caucasus" (so as to avoid the inevitable results for Georgia the U.S. state) turns up a scant 800 sources or so - and many of those are quite general and usually even outdated. So not only does Georgia merit an in-person experience, but if you hope to gain the slightest understanding of it, Georgia demands an in-person experience. And I do love rising to challenges.
I knew I wanted to get back to Georgia as soon as possible, and ended up adding a double major in international studies, which I believe is an excellent complement to heritage studies. The preservation field is particularly conducive to gaining a more subtle understanding of countries you visit - as a rule, cultural heritage projects have more to do with contemporary local or even national politics than with the distant past.
Each day here, I must negotiate the unique social, economic and political dynamics surrounding various heritage management issues in Georgia, with the goal of helping the country successfully compete in a globalized economy, while not succumbing to a globalized mono-culture. So in order to be a good advocate for historic preservation, usually spend a lot more time talking to pensioners about their leaky roofs, meeting with urban planners and reading up on the new prime minister's economic goals than I do studying Georgian architectural history.
Although I had a good idea of what to expect from my two previous visits here, working in Georgia still demands flexibility and throws curveballs sometimes. My initial Fulbright host institution turned out to be undergoing administrative reforms when I arrived and flat-out couldn't work with me, so I had to get creative, meet new people and find a new host institution. The parliamentary election results also turned out contrary to all predictions by Western observers, leading to a change of power and a window of opportunity to negotiate ineffective laws and regulations with policymakers.
While adjusting to these challenges - in addition to different attitudes towards work, gender, education and health - can be frustrating, it is also enlightening. Total assimilation is not the goal of living abroad, because it means you never adapted, you just adopted a facade of local customs and bypassed an actual learning experience. The periodic confrontations I have with various issues in Georgia is sometimes annoying, but I still love this country, and dealing with complex social norms that really hit home is also an opportunity to work on drawing my own ethical, personal and cultural boundaries - a process that every expat must negotiate on their own.
All things considered, I think it is unfortunate that I really wasn't aware of life in other cultures until I was in my late teens, and I should have learned this in elementary school. I think the world would be a much better place if we didn't wait until college to teach children that our culture isn't an unquestionably rational invention, that there are many other cultures around the world that work just as well, and that there are lots of alternatives to our own society. For me, experiencing other cultures and questioning my own is a source of hope, because it has taught me that there is no one way to live, and we can change our culture if we don't like it.