Sarafina Chamul’s N.S.E. sojourn in paradise


Sarafina Chamul

Sarafina Chamul

At Johnson State College, students have the chance to participate in the National Student Exchange program where they can study at over 200 different universities within the United States, U.S. territories, and some Canadian provinces for up to one calendar year.

Sarafina Chamul, a senior at Johnson State College majoring in psychology and minoring in art, joined the NSE program to become a student at the University of Hawaii Hilo (UH Hilo) for the fall semester of 2017. Hilo is located on the island of Hawaii, the largest of the seven Hawaiian Islands, which is often referred to as the Big Island.

Chamul, who was born and raised in Vermont, craved to experience a more diverse college community than what she had experienced in Vermont her whole life. Chamul had never been to Hawaii and says that her experience there through the NSE program was life changing.

“It allows you to grow as an individual. I went all the way to Hawaii which was so different, so it was like I was in a different country. I matured more during my time there,” said Chamul.

Chamul said she picked the state of Hawaii to exchange in partly because of how vastly different it is from Vermont and how it would give her a chance to meet all new people from diverse backgrounds. The UH Hilo main campus is 115 acres, the enrollment is at almost 4,000 students, and in 2014, UH Hilo was named as the most diverse four-year public institution in the country by the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Leaving a week before the semester started, Chamul’s mother and little sister accompanied her on the 17-hour flight to Hawaii and were able to spend that week with her, exploring the Big Island and the UH Hilo campus.

Now that she is back in Vermont and experiencing the extremely low winter temperatures, she said she often longs to be back on the island and enjoying the tropical weather, and that it feels almost surreal to think back to being there.

“I feel like a different person, it was like a dream. I didn’t really get homesick, maybe for a day, but it went by so fast. I can’t believe I was there and now I’m back,” said Chamul.

From facing blazing hot temperatures and high humidity to the local Hawaiian wildlife such as giant multi-colored centipedes, to grocery store mangoes that cost six dollars each, Chamul said that she definitely experienced some culture shock during her time in Hawaii. She recommends that all NSE students, wherever they exchange at, arrive with an open mind and a willingness to be genuinely interested in experiencing a new and different community than their own.

“Definitely prepare yourself for culture shock. Even if you’re traveling to a big city in a nearby state, prepare yourself,” said Chamul. “Take it all in because it goes by so fast.”
Chamul put effort into learning about and experiencing the local Hawaiian culture, taking a class on traditional Hawaiian chanting and attending a traditional Hawaiian luau. Chamul also tried a variety of traditional Hawaiian food such as spam musabi, a popular Hawaiian snack comprised of a piece of grilled Spam on a block of rice wrapped in dried nori seaweed. Some other dishes she tried were poke, a raw fish salad that is considered the “hamburger of Hawaii” because of its prominence in everyday cuisine, and ahi, a type of yellowfin tuna.

Chamul’s average day at Hilo involved not only attending classes and doing homework, but also swimming with sea turtles, experiencing the black sands at Punalu’u Beach, traveling to volcanic mountaintops where she saw active lava flowing, hiking to the Rainbow Falls located a few miles from campus, sailing and snorkeling in the turquoise waters, and lounging on the beach.

Chamul was originally a student at Saint Michael’s College in Colchester, Vermont, and eventually transferred to JSC for financial reasons. By transferring to JSC, Chamul was given the opportunity to experience multiple college campuses and communities through NSE while still being able to afford her education.

“When I figured out I could not go to Saint Michael’s anymore, I was looking into other schools, and Hawaii was one of them, but I could not afford it at the time,” said Chamul. “So I transferred to JSC. I had friends who had done exchange programs where one went to Mexico and the other did the Semester at Sea program, so that’s how I heard about NSE.”

Johnson State College is the only college or university in Vermont to offer the NSE program. To be eligible to participate in NSE at JSC, one must be a full-time student prior to exchange, have a cumulative GPA of at least 2.5 or higher and have good academic, personal and financial standing.
Chamul said that not only is NSE an amazing way to experience another community, but it also gives students a chance to learn from new professors, take classes that are not offered at their own school, broaden the diversity of their social circle, and expand their world views.

“I think the best thing about exchanging was being outside of my comfort zone and being totally alone,” said Chamul. “I met some of the best people and made really good friends, which helped me grow into the person I am now. Meeting people from around the world was such a good part of it.”
Chamul says she plans to return in the near future to experience Hawaiian culture more, explore the other islands, and visit friends at UH Hilo who were just starting out as first year students during her time there.

“I would highly recommend doing NSE; it changed me as a person,” said Chamul. “Take every opportunity while you can, even if it scares you.”