That one time I went to Ghana…

So I just got home from an amazing week in Ghana… but before I give you the full play by play, I have to go back to a lazy day at the office this summer. On July 16th, this email came into my inbox:

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tldr: write a 300 word essay to be eligible to win a trip to Ghana.

Thankfully, I was pretty bored at work and therefore used that time to write that essay. Not sure I would have spent the time at home to do it if I were busy… here’s what I wrote:

I have always had a passion for improving the learning conditions of young girls. Prior to starting at MIT Sloan, I was the managing director of a non-profit organization, Girls in Tech Minneapolis. The goal was clear: increase the number of girls pursuing technology professions by increasing their access to education and strong female role models. Even though I am no longer involved in Girls in Tech, this topic continues to be something I feel strongly about and will continue with once I earn my MBA. Girls all over the world should have better, equal access to education. It is this passion that drives my desire to learn more about non-profit education abroad.

The increased popularity of cause marketing has also turned my attention to the 1-for-1 model of non-profits. I first heard of TOMS through Hanson’s Take the Walk tour, and have been interested in the model ever since. How can we encourage more affluent people to give to those who do not have the same? By participating in this once-in-a-lifetime learning experience in Ghana, I hope to learn ways to apply this model to future for-purpose driven initiatives.

Lastly, I know this opportunity will teach me so much. Beyond learning about education and non-profit work, I will see a first-hand account of how to start from scratch. Adam Braun created something that is truly changing lives. Through this inspiration, I know I can do the same.

I also love the impact CommonBond is making and would love the opportunity to connect further! I am also a lot of fun to travel with.

A week later I got a 7am phone call from CommonBond in NYC telling me I had been selected. Cue intense excitement.

[My essay was also published on their blog, which you can see here!]


Last Wednesday, I took a flight from BOS to Amsterdam solo. Once there, I met up with Natalie, a representative from Pencils of Promise (PoP); David, Michaela and Ali from CommonBond; and Jason and Eryn, the other winners. Looking back, it’s kind of funny because I wasn’t once concerned about traveling to Africa with 6 complete strangers.

Completely unrelated, here is a photo of an Amsterdam Airport Donut:

Good donut.
Good donut.

The next seven hours were filled with wine and movies… but nothing really worth mentioning here. We landed late on Thursday and went to bed soon after we checked in. Early thoughts? — Ghana is hot.

Friday morning we left Accra for Ho early. There, we were welcomed by a great group of students who had been in a PoP school since 2013. After a performance of a traditional dance and the recitation of a poem, we were each presented with beautiful pieces made personally for each of us. Within minutes, rain started pouring and the students went back to their classrooms. We then got to see the inside of a PoP classroom and to observe students learning. The great thing about PoP is that in addition to building sturdy structures for children to learn in, they continue to support each and every community through teaching training and onsite support.

IMG_1960In Ghana, the teachers are taught tools to support active classroom engagement. And by active, and I mean active. The kids sing, dance, and move around because that’s a part of their culture. Outside of recess, I don’t remember ever having that in elementary school.

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The junior high school was a different story. Currently, PoP only supports elementary education, due in part to their focus on literacy and obvious financial constraints. The junior high structure was over 20 years old and was in pretty bad shape. The mixture of rain and a “faulty roof” clearly impacted students’ learning experiences. Here, they are moving their desks so their books don’t get wet.

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I left this community with mixed emotions. On one hand, I was so inspired to meet such great children. At one point, a handwashing station tipped over and multiple boys jumped up to help put it back up. The students even show up early to sweep the classrooms – there is so much pride in learning. That isn’t something I’ve seen in the United States – children just ready to jump up and help. On the other hand, the conditions are pretty bad. I can understand not being able to learn when something as common as rain interferes.

Next, we went to a site that showed an example of the “before” environments. Can you imagine going to school here? Whether your answer is “yes” or “no”… it gets worse…

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On Saturday, we were honored to attend an inauguration ceremony. After a few speeches and being gifted a goat (literally), we got to see the before and after. Saying it is a stark contrast is an understatement.

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A “classroom” under a tree with just a black board and two benches
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The new PoP built school.

Even more touching was the way the children ran and cheered into the new school once the ribbon was cut. After both getting dance lessons from the kids and teaching them to nae nae, we went back to the hotel to drink some beer and tell some stories.

That night, we really got to know each other. Up until then I wasn’t sure if my style was gelling well, but after a few good stories I had at least a few of them on the dark side.

Sunday… just.. wow. We went to a community near Togo where there must have been over 100 community members on site helping build. With PoP, they provide supplies and skilled labor, but require the community to provide the unskilled labor. It both ensures that the community is committed to bringing in the new school and that it is something they truly want. To see 50 grown men giving up their Sunday to literally make 4000 cement blocks to construct a school… I was just in awe. I think football dominates Sundays in the United States.

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After that we got in a small taste of tourism when we went to a monkey sanctuary. We were told a beautiful story about the history of the land and how monkeys came to be as important as they are. Then we fed them and I nearly lost my shit.

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And all of a sudden, Monday was our last day. We visited a commnity where PoP is piloting e-readers. It was so cool to see a classroom full of students on e-readers in the middle of a village with minimal electricity. They were actually in the middle of a sexual education lesson when we began observing. It felt rather intrusive but also really neat that they are learning about that at a young age.

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I left Ghana with such great respect for both the people in the communities and the impact Pencils of Promise is making. The children and families I met have such a strong desire for education and bettering themselves. They are hardworking and kinder than I see most days. Because of this trip, I know I will be a life long supporter of PoP. Beyond that, I formed great relationships and learned about starting a company from a fantastic CEO. I believe I have an even better appreciation for education and am excited to discover how I can impact the next generation. I have a deep understanding of what some lives and cultures in Ghana look like, and I will continue to reflect on the ways life differs in the United States. I believe this experience has even influenced the way I will raise my own children some day. It was the trip of a lifetime and I am so thankful to have been given this opportunity. I’m pretty much pinching myself right now.


 

Update 10/23/2015: a version of this post was also published on the CommonBond blog.

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Saturday in China

Holy crap is this really my life? Saturday was a free day from work, so my hosts said we could do what ever we wanted to. Thanks to Pinterest, I knew of a local tourist destination called Stone Forest, and suggested we go there. It was only about an hour outside of the city and we got there around 11am. It was absolutely stunning and amazing and holy crap how is that even natural? It was an incredible experience and makes me excited to one day see the grand canyon too…

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Afterwards, we went to lunch at a place that was clearly very upscale.

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But we had beer too so it was all good. Next, we went go get massages at the most crazy place I’ve ever seen. I seriously thought it would just be a normal massage joint, but we got there and it was just breathtaking. There were large velvet couches, huge chandeliers, and a staff that could only tell me how beautiful I am. Then, we went to go shower where they had new toothbrushes and all these other amenities for us. We then put on robes and got led to bedrooms and were brought blueberry juice. My masseuse came in sporting a Maserati t-shirt and I knew I was in heaven. After an 80-minute massage and a foot shaving – seriously – I went to the buffet. Thankfully they had corn and cauliflower and watermelon so I got filled up on that. Here we all are in our robes:

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After eating and dominating (aka, losing my ass) in ping-pong, we took a cab to the local KTV spot. I was under the impression that this karaoke place would be similar to karaoke in the US: tons of people, one stage, lots of drinking, etc. However, we arrived at this luxurious place with huge chandeliers and men in suits everywhere. They brought us to our private room, which would be ours for singing for the night. I had never seen anything so cool ever.

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There we drank a lot and they delivered food, such as chicken tenders and French fries, to our room. I sang Sara Barielles (for Joe) and Hanson and Adele and Taylor Swift and Steven Tyler (because I love him) for the whole night. If we had something like this, at a similar price, in the US, I’m not sure I could ever be torn away. Pretty sure I’ll need to have one in my house some day. Best. Day. Ever.

Editor’s note: Kate is in China and unable to post herself, so I’ll be uploading her submissions as they make their way to me.

Jamaica: Day 5

The title I had decided on for this post before I even began to write it was “How Hanson lost a fan in Jamaica.” It was going to be a scathing post, about how no one cares about time or others or has any respect in general. Let’s just say, it was going to be a hyperbolic over-simplification of one snippet of my experience here.

So, on day four of the Jamaica experience, Hanson was hosting a photo shoot where everyone had the opportunity to get their picture taken with the three brothers. Joe and I were just having lunch when people started lining up at about 2:30pm. Joe and I thought they were a little cray-cray because they weren’t supposed to start pictures until 3pm and who would want to wait for a whole half hour during their vacation?

An hour later, Hanson finally made it to the party. At this point, at least 90% of the people in attendance of this week were in line. We sat at the bar keeping an eye on things… We assumed that, being paid attendees and all, we’d get pictures no matter what. They wouldn’t cut the line off at a private party, even if Isaac did have his solo show at 5:30.

Surprisingly, the line was moving fast. When it dropped past the original 2:30 mark, we jumped in line. 10 minutes later I was shaking hands with all three of them. They were super nice and friendly and being as it was a little after 4:30 I couldn’t believe that they were still in high spirits. Any love that was lost from them being late was regained in their cuteness and approachability.

We also got a laugh out of them. Initially, I told Joe we should do 2 pictures: 1 with just me and then one with the both of us. You know, in case we break up, I still want good solid memories of this weekend without having to trim him out. As an alternative, I said he could stand on the end. But wanting to feel the biceps of Zac as much as anyone else here, he couldn’t resist standing in the middle. So, as we were approaching, Joe told them why I needed two, just in case we broke up. If you know any of their songs, you know they understood…

And then just like that, I’m all in love again. Plus, they put on an amazing 2+ hour show last night and I did have a great weekend. I just can’t stop by wondering… do they expect to catch a plane with that time keeping?

Jamaica: Day 3

Friday night after blogging, we went out to dinner at this nice Mediterranean place. Joe had turtle and I tried some of it – not bad at all! Next we went to the piano bar, one of the four or so bars they have here. We met a lovely couple from New York and ended up chatting with them for about two hours until the first show of the weekend started.

They were a bad influence. I think we not only drank more than we would have on our own, but we also did two shots. The concert afterwards was amazing though. Joe and I were dancing together on the beach singing like fools probably. Hearing live Hanson while my toes pranced around the sand, a wave brushing me every minute or two was perfection.

Friday night was so amazing that Saturday kind of sucked, mainly because we slept terribly and were hung over for half the day. But, we managed to awake before breakfast was over and then went out to Tie-dye with Zac. I was pretty excited for this, it was the first activity that we were doing with them. The event was supposed to start at 11a, but didn’t kick off until after 11:30. Why was it so late? A few people remarked that they had seen Zac outside of the bathroom, so it was clear he was already at the resort. Sitting out on the lawn waiting didn’t kill me, but its kind of like he wasted part of our vacation by being a “oh, they can wait until I’m damn well ready” type of celebrity. They’d never struck me this way before. I guess that’s what happens when you fly halfway around the world for some married men ;)

Our tie-dye shirts look awesome though. I’m the most proud of my tie-dying abilities I’ve ever been. It was Joe’s first time… it shows.IMG_1532

After swimming on the beach and taking a short nap, it was time for the first solo show, by Taylor. It was sprinkling on us just a bit, which made for an even more enjoyable experience when Taylor changed the lyrics on a whim “standing in the rain…” etc. We were so fricken ready for dinner afterwards – still not feeling quite well, I decided to go all out with Fettucini Alfredo, yes, breaking my January resolution. But I needed the pasta to help me feel better! It didn’t. I then felt more sick. So we went back to the room at 8pm and crashed, skipping the Saturday night show. We were both completely okay with this though because it was just the “fan club” songs, of which we did not know many (if any).

Thoughts so far: holy cow a lot of women have Hanson tattoos. I’ve thought of getting one, sure, but never actually pulled the plug.

Also, why aren’t they staying at the same resort? I get that they are celebrities and all and need their space from a bunch of fangirls… but, I thought we’d see them a bit more than we actually are. Next time I go all fan girl, its gunna be on a cruise so they can’t escape bwahhhahahahha.

Here’s to a lovely, not so hammered, day 3.

Jamaica: Day 1

Let me start by saying: I’m a big Hanson fan. I’m no where near the biggest Hanson fan. This has never been more clear to me than this morning, when at 10am people were already sitting out in front of the stage saving their spots for the 10pm concert. In Jamaica. Sitting, in one spot, all day. Just sayin’.

I knew the male to female ratio would be small, given that we are at Hanson’s Back to The Island event in Jamaica. I don’t have a truly accurate estimate yet, as some people are still coming in (we got here a day early). On the bus from the airport to the hotel though, Joe was the only guy out of 16. At least two people have asked him if he is with the band. Let’s just say there are tons of women.

On the bus ride over here, I reminded myself that women are my friends and not my enemy. Over the last few years, through college and even more so through my involvement with Girls in Tech, I’ve really grown to love and appreciate women. As a young girl, I was not this way. I’m sure it could have stemmed from a multitude of reasons, most prevalent in my mind is that I was weird. Girls didn’t want to be friends with the weird girl, boys were more apathetic. I think a bit also had to do with the small town Minnesota mentality that most had, whereas my mom raised me to think critically and be open to others. Not believing in god and being open to sexualities beyond heterosexual made me a walking target.

College was really the first time I had close girl friends. It was new to me, but I was at college and open to experimentation. I loved it. I realized that there is so much more I get from my girl friends than guy friends. They were able to relate in ways I never knew I wanted. There was never any weird sexual tension, or expectations that the relationship could turn into anything more. I really think that finding those people my freshman year is what allowed me to fully flourish into the person I am today. They accepted me – big burps, stories about pooping, and all.

And then I went into technology and that was liking open a big jar of wax. Actually, I’m not sure what the analogy means, if I even have it right. Wait! I think I mean can of worms. Yes, let’s go with that. I opened a big can of worms.

It took me a few months to realize how starkly male-predominant the technology world is, but once I did, I was like “this is crazy!” Then Girls in Tech happened. I saw all the ins and outs of society, understood what it meant to be a feminist, and how important it is to value and support other women rather than take on a competitive stance. The twenty of us really have to stick together. Just kidding, there are a lot more than that. But, if you have time, read this article about some of the challenges women face just by being on the internet.

Why have I told you all this? Because sometimes being in situations with hundreds of Hanson Fangirls brings me back to the bad place of not loving every woman. I know that in practice this is okay, but I also think I’ll be happier if I remember that not everyone here is an enemy. Assuming I have enemies is something that puts me on guard and has no place in my Jamaican vacation.

In other news, there are not one but two nude beaches at the resort. We found the first one by surprise this morning when we were sitting on the beach and looked off to our right. The second one we found while sitting in the lawn chairs out on our back yard. It now make sense that the only wifi we can catch in our room is: GRANDNUDEBEACH.

Reasons I’m not going to Jamaica

So, Hanson, my favorite band in the entire world, is going to do a week-long concert tour/celebration in Jamaica. However, I will not be joining them. This is the saddest thing since sliced bread (that may not be the saying… but you get the gist).

  1. The trip costs $1500/person, not including airfare. This means that for Joe and I to go, it would cost us each just under $2k. Yet, we only have $500 each in our travel fund, so… this was a point of contention.
  2. I totally would have taken out a loan for this (graaannndddmmaa?) but when Joe said no, I no longer had anyone to go with me. Convincing recent college grads/a cousins that just bought a car is more difficult than it has any right to be.
  3. They sold out. How stupid is that? They weren’t even on sale for a week and now they are all gone. I was hoping to continue working Joe for this… thinking I could leverage both my raise (that was announced today) and my future winnings from the NCAA tourney (TBD.. $500 cause I’m lucky?).

Well, I guess it just wasn’t meant to be. I hope that all the lucky gals who are going enjoy tie dying with Zac and mixing cocktails with Taylor… teardrop.

Christmas and such

So I know I can be a lame face and blog forever sometimes, but bare with me. It will pay off in the long run.

Sometimes I make an ass of myself at work. Today provided a good example. I was at the team Cookie Exchange (my first ever, which was fricken awesome). My manager asked if anyone wanted to go to a concert, and having just looked at tickets, I knew how expensive it was, so I said “that’s an expensive one!” More an observation than anything, but it made me realize how much attention I pay to the price of things sometimes, and in a corporate setting, I am probably just embarrassing myself.

I’d like to be able to respond with a “Ohh, gee, I’m sorry. I grew up on welfare so sometimes I pay too much attention to financial details…” but then that marks me as something else in itself.

On a similar note, I was visiting with my mentor after he went over a test run of my presentation with me. We were talking about Christmas when I mentioned that I was excited for all the presents I got myself. We were in a full elevator (which is actually where I am usually making an ass of myself…) and I felt weird explaining “my family isn’t big on gift exchanging- my grandma has so many grandchildren!” or “I’ve learned not to have expectations for other people.” I’m really fine getting myself presents, I just didn’t want to tell him what they were because I try to forget them so I’m surprised…

Apparently Joe’s parents are getting me presents. This is weird for two reasons. 1) I don’t think I’ve ever had parents (other than my mom) get me something for Christmas and 2) it just feels weird. I’ve only met them each a handful of times. What does this mean?! Arg. At least Joe said we could add my name to the gifts he gives to them, which is nice of him. Takes some pressure off me that’s for sure. I definitely love giving gifts more than getting them, but I don’t think I know them well enough to get them something sincere.

Joe and I decided to go up north to my family’s Christmas party. We had been batting it back and fourth (why did they both decide to celebrate on Christmas eve?!), because they are about 5 hours apart so hitting both isn’t really a possibility. Both Joe and I knew that if we felt super strongly about it one way or another we could just say it and then that would be it, so obviously we didn’t abuse that. I thought about it for awhile, and for most of the time I had been leaning towards going to his place. I like his family, it’s closer, and then I could avoid seeing my mom. But then when Hanson announced their new Mmmbop IPA and my cousin commented on my facebook wall that she was excited to drink with me at Christmas because of it, I really wanted to see my family. I haven’t seen many of them since Christmas last year, and Joe see’s his family more than I do. He also said that seeing his cousins is the most important part to him, and because we have the “Cousin Party” next week, he’ll be seeing them anyway. So, last week I just said “I want to go to my family’s for Christmas” and that was fine with him. Whenever something like this comes up it really makes me appreciate our ability to communicate.

Last night was my first dinner party ever. It was mostly awesome. I was stressing out beforehand because I didn’t have enough to keep me busy. Everything was cleaned and ready to be cooked and everything, I was just waiting for my guests. They arrive surprisingly on time, which meant my bruschetta appetizer was a little late (I didn’t want it to get soggy!). I took the recipe from here, but sure to hell didn’t boil or peel the tomatoes. What is that even? I also thought that the balsamic vinegar and oil would bring it overboard on the moisture-scale, so I left those out. It was basically chopped tomatoes, salt, pepper, and garlic powder (again, preferred over the real thing). As I was chopping the tomatoes I was again reminded that I don’t actually like them, so I refrained from having any. Everyone seemed to enjoy them though!

For the actual meal I made the chicken parmesan that I made Joe for his birthday (once I find a recipe that works, I hold onto it!). I do the tomato sauce differently though- I just get a can of tomato sauce, then add oregano, garlic powder and basil (all from the shaker…). Then I might throw in some salt and pepper too- I just wing it and then it usually tastes awesome. Typical.

Lastly there was penne pasta and asparagus as well, but those are both basic enough and don’t require much of an explanation. I sure noticed later though that I had asparagus, which is always shocking to me for some reason. Dessert? Oreos. Because I had to buy 4 packs for all the treats I’ll be making for Christmas, not because I actually love them that much (also that would be true too… it just isn’t why I had so many).

Tonight Joe and I are going to Les Miserables and I’m super excited for it! We are going to eat at Capital Grille beforehand, and hopefully it is better than all of my experiences at Crave (I shutter just saying the name). I don’t remember where I was going with this… it may or may not have been exciting.

Hanson MMMbop IPA

So this is just the most amazing thing in the entire world. The best band ever, Hanson, has just announced that they will be releasing their own brand of beer. For the full story (which isn’t much more than what I’ve just said here) go to: http://www.express.co.uk/features/view/286799/Hanson-eye-up-ale-business

Hopefully it’s out for Christmas and it is super yummy!! (Even though I’m not a fan of IPA… I might have to turn into one just for them…)

Pizza

So I have a slight addiction to pizza. If I have just one slice, I cannot seem to stop eating it. I literally have no problems with taking down the entire large pizza by myself, and I’ve accepted this. I know that this isn’t just a problem I have, but rather a very common conundrum. However, in my attempt to not be a fat ass, I’ve decided to stop eating pizza.

Because I have taken this vow of abstinence, pizza has never been a topic of discussion between Joe and I. Or, rather, it has been a forbidden topic- I can’t even handle watching pizza commercials or seeing the coupons on his table, let alone him telling me that he is craving it.

However, I’ve been thinking about pizza more and more lately, partially due to my recent visit to CO, where Drew and I were about a hop, skip, and jump away from ordering some for ourselves (out of tradition of course!). So, I’ve decided that because I’ve managed to lose a couple pounds, I can let myself splurge a little and enjoy pizza on Friday night when Joe is having a couple friends over to play Rock Band all night and eat and drink.

I’m pretty fricken excited, one reason being that I get to meet his friend from out of town that I have heard tons about. Apparently him and I have similar senses of humor. I’m thrilled to see someone who can dance with me on sexual innuendos.

There is also the opportunity to listen to Joe sing. He has such a fricken awesome voice. I remember him winning me over on one of our first dates by not only having Hanson playing when he picked me up, but also knowing more of the words than I did. Ever since then, I take every opportunity to hear him sing.

Lastly, my excitement resides in the beer and pizza which I have not been allowing myself to indulge in. Seeing as the pizza is quickly approaching, last night Joe and I were discussing what type we should get on Friday. I started by asking him where we were going to order it, and once he listed off Pizza Hut as an option, I quickly interrupted him asking him if he wanted to know my favorite kind. For those of you who don’t know, my favorite kind of pizza is pepperoni and pineapple, preferably on Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust.

As you may be expecting, this is certainly not a normal combination.  I often get cocked off for it: “Do you mean Canadian bacon?” Fuck no. If I wanted Canadian bacon I would have asked for it. This may explain why I’m often eating the entire pizza- it’s hard to find people to share with me. My mom would never even let me get it on half, because “fruit does NOT belong on a pizza, and I cannot even risk it coming over to my side.” In high school, Sam would let me get only pineapple, but hated pepperoni (who doesn’t like pepperoni? wtf). Alas, I was left to fend for myself.

After sharing this story with Joe, I looked at him and he had this look of shock/horror on his face. I figured he was going to walk out, unable to accept my pizza preferences. However, he just said “that’s my favorite kind of pizza.” I pretty much knew instantly that this could be it for us – it basically sealed the deal.

It was mainly because of this revelation that we decided to become “Facebook official”, which, as everyone should know, is a hella big deal. Not only in the general sense, but for me specifically too. I’ve never been Facebook official with anyone, and I can be pretty weird about making serious relationship steps.

In other news, I spent the night making treats for my Halloween party on Saturday. I made tons of Oreo balls and then some chocolate dipped pretzels with what chocolate was left. Turns out, the awesome part about having a bathroom larger than your kitchen is the ability to use the counter space in there too.

Also, because it isn’t too obvious from the picture above- I had some trouble with the green melting chips. Turns out, not having a microwave can be an inconvenience when trying to use melted chocolate. Until now, I’ve coped with the stove just fine, but when I tried to get my baking on tonight, I realized that the white and colored melty stuff doesn’t get as smooth. I’m just going to have to splurge for the powdered food coloring and dye almond bark myself.