"I was just so glad to have that experience, because in some ways my experience helped someone else to have an even greater experience than I did... I just want people to know that they can have it too. This is for you as well, you just have to take a leap of faith." (Jazmin, Episode 80)
(Note: This is the last regular episode that I'll be putting out for a little bit. It seems that the pandemic and everything else that's been happening since March 2020 has finally gotten to me, and it's time for a break. Will be back for the 3rd anniversary episode on Juneteenth, and then hopefully back again with new regular episodes in July!)
I'm so excited to say that this is the 80th (EIGHTIETH!) episode of Young, Gifted and Abroad! Eight is my favorite number, so as much as it feels almost unreal that I've interviewed 80 people for this podcast so far, it's also such an amazing feeling to be in the 80s! And how fortunate am I to have such a kind and open-minded person as my 80th guest? You might remember when my previous guest Dai'jah (episode 74) mentioned being inspired to study in Japan after hearing her freshman year RA talk about studying in the Netherlands. Well, Jazmin Bjorlie was that RA! Jazmin is a wife and mother of two who works in full-time ministry, and she's originally from Detroit just like Dai'jah. After Dai'jah recommended that I contact Jazmin, I relished the opportunity of having her tell me about the month she spent in a Dutch college town called Maastricht.
Jazmin was already blazing new trails just by pursuing an undergraduate education; she was the first person in her family to go to college, and she'd never left Detroit before moving to West Michigan to attend Grand Valley State University. As an English and education major specializing in elementary education, at that time she was planning to become a teacher. Jazmin knew some upperclassmen who were traveling outside the U.S. through study abroad programs, and at first she was confused as to why they would want to do that. Eventually she realized she wanted to do it too, but figured she'd never be able to afford it.
Thankfully, despite Jazmin's protests about the financial impossibility of studying abroad, one of her professors encouraged her to attend a presentation about an education-focused trip to Maastricht, Netherlands that GVSU offers every spring. This program would place participants in local Dutch schools so they could practice what they would be learning in class. Jazmin was intrigued, but still not entirely convinced she could spare the time and money for it. The trip came up again the following year, and this time she found out that a friend of hers (a fellow Black girl from Detroit) was also planning on going, to which she responded, "What?! If you do it, we should be roommates!". Studying abroad was a big deal for both of them since it was something neither of their families had done, and now they would be taking on this new adventure together. Furthermore, Jazmin felt the support of her professor, who was incredibly proud her for taking a leap of faith and signing up for the program. The program's lead professor even re-worked the financials so that Jazmin and her friend could have some spending money at their disposal during the trip.
Jazmin, her friend, and the other students in their professor-led group arrived in Maastricht in May 2014, immediately following the end of her junior year. Her mom feared for her safety, and Jazmin was nervous about riding in an airplane for the first time. However, she reassured both her mom and herself that this trip would be beneficial for her, and that the Netherlands was one of the safest places she could be in the world. Everyone in the group stayed in the international dorms at Maastricht University, regularly commuting by bike from campus to their local school placements (where they spent full school days every weekday), and back to campus for afternoon courses with their professors three or four days a week. Jazmin and her friend were placed among middle grade classrooms (sixth through eighth grade) in a public school.
Rather than being able to help teach as anticipated, Jazmin and her fellows' roles were limited to observing class and talking to the students, "I was kind of like a para pro that didn't have anything to do." But she didn't mind it. She appreciated still being included in the classroom, and she could see how much the Dutch teachers valued her communication with the students as a means for enhancing their English immersion. For the GVSU participants, the purpose of their program in the Netherlands was to compare how English is taught and learned in Dutch and American education systems, while also examining what topics or materials aren't censored for Dutch children that would be censored for American children, and why. In discussing it with me, Jazmin joked, "Europe, they don't censor nothing!" before expounding on how the question of what makes good-quality literature is critical in conversations about school censorship. Using Harry Potter as an example of controversial or even banned literature that still has worthwhile themes and life lessons to teach children, she explained how her professors taught her take an approach that says, "Hey. This is good-quality literature, we need to teach it. Because the children deserve it."
During their free time, Jazmin and her cohort biked across the border to Belgium once and also enjoyed a long weekend in Amsterdam, where they took a canal ride that passed through the red light district and later had to squeeze their way onto a train back to Maastricht during a transportation workers' strike. In both Amsterdam and Maastricht, some of her classmates patronized "coffeeshops", which are establishments where people can buy and smoke cannabis. Jazmin wasn't raised in a Christian household but had become a Christian by the time she went to the Netherlands, and since her faith is so important to her I asked if she was unsettled by being in environments that were so lax about weed and sex, or by knowing that her classmates were partaking in such things. The answer was no, not at all.
Jazmin has relatives who smoke weed on the regular, and when it came to her classmates, she was most concerned that people were safe and cared for. From a religious standpoint, in our conversation she gushed about how going to the Netherlands actually strengthened her faith because it helped her realize how small her world had been, and embrace the reality of people living differently to an extent that was unprecedented in her faith journey. As she put it, "I think a huge part of my faith is loving people well, and I don't believe you can love people well without acknowledging and affirming their differences. And that includes difference in religion and beliefs." In short, while she herself declined using substances or kissing strangers in clubs, Jazmin didn't judge what anyone did in the Netherlands, preferring instead to appreciate the mysterious complexity of the people she encountered, "God made all these differences, and they're all beautiful!"
Although Jazmin did have opportunities to step foot in rural Belgium and experience the bustling city of Amsterdam, most of her time was spent exploring the local charm of Maastricht. Unlike other classmates, she and her roommate didn't have the money to visit other European countries that were further away. So when another long weekend came up, they took their professors' advice and stayed local, seeing what the town had to offer. Jazmin relayed a whimsical story to me about how after having someone suggest a local church she could check out, she set out on a trek that involved getting lost, pausing for gelato, and witnessing an impromptu musical performance from a man who randomly started singing for passersby from his apartment window. Eventually she kept going and found the church—which was inside of a hostel—where she met and made friends with other college students from around the world, friends that both she and her roommate continued to hang out with during the remainder of their time in Maastricht. She recognizes how much being present and open to new experiences served her well, "I think it's so important to be where you go and just take in all of what's there."
Upon returning to the States, Jazmin felt amazed and grateful for a long time ("I was on cloud nine for like two years after that trip!"), and made some huge decisions about her career. Working with middle schoolers in the Netherlands made her realize that she didn't want to work with elementary students anymore; now she wanted to work with older kids instead. Not only that, but she wasn't even sure if teaching was the best way to reach the young people she wanted to reach either. She only had a year and a half left to finish her degree and felt it was too late in the game to change it, so by senior year she'd resigned herself to not pursuing the field that her degree was in. Today she and her husband work as houseparents for young moms aged 15-19.
Be a little more trusting
That remaining year and a half of college could have been just enough time to fit in another study abroad experience, and Jazmin's one regret is that she wasn't able to travel abroad a second time. She was worried about money and classes lining up, but she didn't talk to anyone about these worries because she didn't like asking for help, and thus didn't get the encouragement or assistance she needed to leave the country again. That's why Jazmin believes that those looking to study abroad should have someone they can express their fears to, someone who will affirm them while also pushing them to go anyway. It's also why she has tried to motivate her family to be a little more trusting and venture outside their usual surroundings, and looks forward to helping her college-age cousin find the study abroad program that works best for them when it's their time to go.
As for her own travels, when her kids are older and she has more time Jazmin hopes to return to Amsterdam, visit some smaller towns in the northern Netherlands, and see as many different countries as she can. Her list includes the "Motherland" (Africa, especially Ghana) as her top priority, and New Zealand as a place she's been fascinated by since childhood. She and her husband even have dreams of moving abroad once their kids are grown; the first thing they'll do once the nest is empty will be to "pick a country to live in". Jazmin can be found on Facebook (Jazmin Bjorlie) and Instagram (@jazbjorlie).
Be sure to listen to this episode, "Be Where You Go (MAASTRICHT)" for more! And don't forget to check out the resource list below!
Vrijthof Square (Maastricht)