Summer grant allows senior to visit 4 continents

Steph Yiu

He had only two pairs of underwear. For three months. Along with two pairs of socks, pants, shorts,and shirts.

“I was pretty dirty,” said Christopher Ahern, wearing the same (now washed) pants and shoes that he did on the trip. “But I think it’s OK. It can be expected.”

Ahern, a Weinberg senior majoring in linguistics, was last year’s winner of the Circumnavigators Club Foundation Around-the-World grant. From June 15 to Sept. 10, he traveled four continents, seven countries and at least 15 cities on the grant’s $8,000 award.

This year’s $9,000 grant is open to all Northwestern juniors who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Applicants must propose a research topic and itinerary that spans at least six countries on three continents. According to Christopher Hayden, NU’s assistant to the associate provost, about 15 to 20 people typically apply. Applications are due Nov. 30.

Ahern researched the use of language in education in former Portuguese colonies. He traveled to China, India, South Africa, Mozambique, Portugal, Cape Verde and Brazil.

Immediately after winning the grant, he began contacting professors, linguists and others across the world about his journey.

But the hardest part, he said, was getting the plane tickets. His dream itinerary of 10 countries dumbfounded several travel agents. The dream list shrank to seven countries with a travel cost of $6,400 and a budget of $30 a day for three months, although on some days he spent less than $5. He stayed in hostels or homes of friends of friends for the entire three months.

In preparing for the trip, Ahern packed a hand-me-down backpack with essential clothes and toiletries, a camera, a voice recorder, notebooks, $100 and a U.S. Bank card that expired in September.

He barely slept the night before he left. When he arrived at O’Hare International Airport the next morning, all he wanted was to go back to bed, not travel solo around the world for three months.

“It’s the sort of feeling you get when you get to the top of the roller coaster, you look over, and you’re like, I don’t want to do this right now. But you’re strapped in, you start to fall, and for a moment, you’re kind of like ‘ahh,'” Ahern said, leaning back and raising his hands.

“But then you start to enjoy it,” he continued. “You sort of realize you want to do this.”

The Chicago chapter of the Circumnavigators Club has sponsored the grant since 2000, cosponsoring with NU since 2005. Nationally, at least 80 students have traveled the world on the grant since it was started in 1971. Members of the club must have traveled around the world once, though not necessarily on the same trip. It was founded in 1902, and among its most prominent members are magician Harry Houdini, explorer Robert E. Peary and Presidents William Howard Taft and Herbert Hoover.

NU reviews the applications and picks three candidates for the Circumnavigators Club to interview. The club selects and notifies the winner in January. Hayden said that although only one student gets the grant every year, there are other options on campus for students who want to research abroad.

“Because it is highly competitive, what we find happening is that those students who do not get selected as finalists go on to apply for summer Undergraduate Research Grants,” Hayden said. “They do the same projects, and they aren’t able to travel around the world, but they do go to one country.”

Now that Ahern is back in Evanston, he said he’s a much more relaxed person with a big research paper to write. According to Carol Narup, the international vice president of the Circumnavigators Club, at least two former NU Circumnavigator Award winners have gone on to win Fulbright grants. Ahern hopes to do the same.

As Ahern speaks about his experiences this summer, he looks upward, eyes distant, as if he were sifting through a hundred million memories. He spent the longest time – a month – in Brazil, traveling to five different cities.

He conducted interviews in Portuguese around the world, though he isn’t a native speaker.

“People are incredibly considerate, and they’ll meet you halfway,” he said. “Obviously you’re making an effort … you’re learning their language, their culture, and there’s an automatic reciprocation and respect.”

Coming home was moving from one surreal world to another, he said.

“As I was getting on the plane (to come home), I was just in a very good mood,” he said. “I was just like … I just did that. I didn’t get hurt, I didn’t get sick, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty awesome.'”

Reach Steph Yiu at [email protected]