Laura spent four weeks this summer studying abroad in Toulouse, a city located in the South of France. There, she studied the history and evolution of both French art and architecture, as well as advanced French language. Through her classes, she traveled to many museums including the Museum of Antiquity and the Bemberg Foundation—a private collection of works ranging from Baroque to Pointillism. She also studied historical churches in the area, examining how the architectural styles and artistic decorations used acted as means of expressing political power during the Middle Ages. She had the chance to visit a medieval fortified town and castle in the nearby town of Carcassonne and study the church there as well. Through her studies of art history and language, Laura also learned about the history of Occitania, a nation that included the majority of southern France until it fell under the rule of the French monarchy around the end of the 13th century. She was able to see examples of Occitan language and culture, and well as see historic landmarks from that time period. In her free time, Laura took advantage of her surroundings to practice her French language skills and to learn more about French culture.
Our CEE, (Un)Consciously (Un)Comfortable, focused on taboo subjects both in the U.S. and abroad. The VIH awardees each spoke briefly about a taboo topic that we observed in the countries where we studied. The topics were religion in France, race in Japan, sex in Madagascar, politics in South Africa, sexuality in Tanzania. Our goal was to show how not talking about topics can negatively impact society—for example how in Madagascar unplanned and teenage pregnancy is an epidemic due to lack of education on safe sex; or how in France a fear of mixing religion and politics has led to restrictions on how people may express their religion in public. Then we had students participating in the program vote on topics that they felt were most taboo, and we held small group roundtable discussions exploring those subjects. These subjects, based on student votes, were race and racism, sex and sexuality, and mental health. We had pre-prepared questions to serve as prompts and talked about how we have all encountered these taboo topics both at the University of Pittsburgh and in our hometowns. Our CEE ended with a discussion on why it is important to foster these types of conversations and ways in which students can do so in the future.