Barefoot and wearing sarong, student explores Fiji

Dana Bernardo shops and meets locals in the villages of Fiji.
Dana Bernardo shops and meets locals in the villages of Fiji.

By Samantha Brandbergh

When senior sociology major Dana Bernardo began her time at Rider, she knew she wanted to study abroad.

Once the opportunity to study in Fiji arose, Bernardo quickly realized that the island was the location for her.

“At home, I had never hiked up a mountain in the pouring rain while eating wild fruit in the jungle, but it is one of my absolute best memories,” Bernardo said.

Like many students, Bernardo was unsure at first where to study.

“[The study abroad office] showed me all of my options, but they didn’t feel quite right for me,” she said.

However, Fiji’s tropical atmosphere and alluring culture set it apart from other destinations Bernardo was presented with.

“It was so different and exotic, and I knew I had to do it,” she said.

Her motivation to take the next step, she said, was the fact that she would be the first student from Rider to study on the island.

In the Spring 2015 semester, Bernardo began her adventure in Suva, Fiji, one of the Pacific Islands, where she would study at The University of the South Pacific (USP).

Although Bernardo was slightly concerned when she discovered that Fiji is a developing country, she was taken aback by the city-like feel that the capital possessed.

“I went in with many different ideas of how I thought life was going to be living there, but once I got there, it was nothing like I assumed it would be,” she said. “I was about a 10-minute walk away from two supermarkets, which were located in a shopping center, [where] we could go to the movies and shop.”

When Bernardo arrived at the university, she was introduced to new cultures, people and teaching styles.

“I really enjoyed school there, but what I loved the most was the diversity,” she said. “USP housed students from Tonga, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, Samoa and many other Pacific islands. My professors were also diverse, coming from Africa, Fiji and England.”

During her four-and-a-half month stay on the island, Bernardo noticed many cultural differences in the developing country, but managed to adapt to them quickly.

“Fijians often wear sarongs, which are garments worn around the waist like a skirt, and are worn by both women and men,” she said. “Shoes are optional, so it was not surprising to see someone in the supermarket, school or just walking down the street without shoes. I quickly took to the cultural norm of wearing a sarong and walking without shoes.”

Although the apartment Bernardo and her roommate shared provided them the luxuries of Wi-Fi, a free washer and dryer and air conditioning, the villages in Fiji proved to be very different.

“The houses in the villages are made from tin, and most have no doors and windows,” she said. “Sleeping without a bed and not having a running bathroom was difficult when I stayed in villages for some nights, but it is really mind-blowing to see these people live without all the things we take for granted on a daily basis.”

For Bernardo, she surprised herself by how quickly and easily she embraced the Fijian lifestyle.

“I wanted to be involved with their culture, and I wanted to live just like them as much as I could,” she said. “They were so welcoming, and some of the nicest people you will ever meet. I never felt like a visitor anywhere I went.”

While in Fiji, Bernardo wasted no time getting involved in organizations, including becoming the secretary of the International Student Organization and a member of the International Student Bollywood Dance Team.

“We traveled all over Fiji doing different shows,” she said. “[For] our last performance, we got the chance to go to, for many of us, our first Indian wedding, which I will never forget.”

During her time in Fiji, Bernardo was taken out of her comfort zone and learned the culture and a different way of life.

“I am so happy that I chose to study abroad, and that I chose to do it in Fiji. If I could, I would do it again in a heartbeat.”

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