Archives For Sean

How to Avoid ATM Fees

October 14, 2012 — Leave a comment

In an article written for Under30Finance, I talk about how to avoid ATM fees. 

Beijing, Dubai, Hong Kong, Nairobi, and New York. You might wonder what these cities have in common; I’ve never paid an ATM fee in any of them.

We’ve all been there; out for a night on the town, when you realize that you have no cash on you and must run to the ATM. You whip out your iPhone to see where your bank’s nearest ATM is – six blocks away. At this point, you walk into  the nearest bodega and ante up the $3.50 fee for their ATM.

Read the full column here

A man walks down the street, 
It’s a street in a strange world. 
Maybe it’s the Third World. 
Maybe it’s his first time around. 
He doesn’t speak the language, 
He holds no currency. 
He is a foreign man, 
He is surrounded by the sound, sound ….
     -Paul Simon, You Can Call Me Al

 

SriLankan Airlines flight 554 touched down in the predawn darkness of Colombo. Ten hours earlier we had embarked from Frankfurt, and had finally arrived a little after 4am local time. There was a light rain as we left the plane, and I was immediately struck by the humidity. Even in the early hours of the morning it was hot.

I met one other Fulbrighter in the airport and we found our driver, about an hour later we arrived at the bungalow where we will be staying for this month. After a large glass of water and a shower a nap was in order. Some hours later I woke up and made my way to the bank. Sidewalks, apparently, are not common in this section of Colombo. So the thirty minute walk was just what I needed to get out of the fog of jetlag.

After getting some currency, we made our way to a local restaurant. It was a simple place, with good food. For SLR 100 ($0.77) I had a delicious plate of food. It consisted of some rice topped with several curries – most of which were quite spicy – and a piece of chicken. Diving right into the culture, we ate without utensils; instead utilizing the tips of our fingers to mold the curry and rice into balls before shoveling them in our mouths.

Tomorrow starts our orientation.

Questions for Departure

October 9, 2012 — 2 Comments

Today marks the start of my Fulbright. For the next nine months I will be living and working in Sri Lanka.

My monthly stipend of 125,000 Sri Lankan Rupees ($976). The average household income is Rs. 36451 ($704). So I will be earning roughly 38% more than the average family every month.

I’m curious to learn what kind of life this buys someone in Sri Lanka, and I’m especially interested in seeing how someone lives off of the average wage.

This nation’s economy was stalled for nearly 30 years, due to their civil war. Since the war was ended in 2009 the country has begun to flourish once more; tourists have begun to explore the island while the global garment trade has embraced Sri Lanka. For 2012 the country is expected to grow at 7.2%, which ranks among the top growth economies in the world. Growth can easily be assumed to be a wholly positive event, but economic growth presents unique challenges. Sri Lanka is especially vulnerable to energy shocks, as it imports all of its oil; many Americans know the pain they feel as the price of petrol increases, imagine if your income was 10% of what it currently is.

As a nation develops stresses begin to emerge within its social fabric. One of my great takeaways from China was that as a country develops the divide between rich and poor grows at an exponential rate, and this can lead to a great deal of social unrest. Growth at this rate presents many challenges for governments, from containing inflation to constructing infrastructure.

Sri Lanka has a number of things going for it. It claims one of the highest literacy rates in South East Asia (over 90%), along with some of the highest Human Development Index scores. Sri Lanka also has some of the lowest infant mortality rates in the developing world, due in large part to its extensive network of publicly funded hospitals. All doctors are required to spend at least one day a week working in these institutions.

From the reports I’ve read it seems that Sri Lanka is a fairly equitable society on the rise, I look forward to investigating this for myself.

In contextualizing China’s recent growth, many in the nation refer to historical precedent. For a great deal of the world’s history, China was the largest economy in the world. India and China combined made up roughly half of the world’s GDP. To many in China, the last two centuries were an economic anomaly which is on its way to being corrected.

Ceylon, the Pearl of the Orient is reestablishing itself. Once one of the wealthiest nations in the world, it was said a man could walk across the island with just the clothes of his back and not just survive, but thrive off of the local vegetation. Historical evidence suggests that Sri Lanka traded with the Egyptians as early as 1500 BC. Some of the most prized spices in the world originated on this island: cinnamon, cardamom, and citronella. And many other spices flourished in this tropical climate, such as rubber. It might be difficult to imagine today, but for the vast majority of global history wars were fought over the spice trade. To this day Sri Lanka produces over 90% of the world’s cinnamon.

I’m beginning this Fulbright with many questions, and if experience has taught me anything I’m sure that my time in Sri Lanka will raise more questions than it answers.

Graduates of the Class of 2012 began their baccalaureate studies at the worst time during our nation’s economic history since the Great Depression. Today marks the 4th anniversary of the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, the largest bankruptcy in American history – and by some measures the start of the 2008 recession.

The collapse of Lehman is when unemployment in the economy really started to rise, and when global credit markets began to seize.

You can see how this selection of stock market indices began to collapse after the fall of Lehman brothers. Graduates of the class of 2009 had one of the toughest job markets ever. At the height of the recession there were 6.1 million job seekers for every posted opening in America, things are better today but the ratio is 3.5 million to one (WSJ).

Four years on, the job situation in America is still tough. People are working harder for less money, and there is a great deal of uncertainty going forward. The Federal Reserve has started a third round of Quantitate Easing this week, seeking to drive corporate borrowing. But with ultra low interest rates, and record levels of cash on corporate balance sheets, I’m fearful that this will just lay a stronger foundation for inflation in the future. Our economy might already be falling off of a fiscal cliff.

If the Fed wanted to spur economic growth why not lend directly to State and Municipal governments for capital projects? 

To make matters worse, there has been little meaningful reform in the financial sector. Dodd-Frank lacked provisions similar to Glass-Steagall, and it has yet to be fully implemented. The nation’s banking sector has become even more concentrated as banks failed or merged, and they fought hard to prevent over regulation. Last May Rolling Stone published a sacthing article about Wall Street’s fight to end regulation.

Mark Zandi, the Chief Economist of Moody’s Analytics, predicts that unemployment will still be at 6.6% in four years (according to NPR). This past financial crisis was especially hard hitting because it was a financial and real estate driven binge that took nearly a decade to fully form.

It’s no surprise then, that it will seemingly take a decade to return to our pre-crash normal. Until we do thoughFor all those job seekers out there, you just need to find ways to make yourself indispensable.

Can you patent round corners?

Google was unaware that you could, according to David Lawee, vice president for corporate development at Google. In an interview with Bloomberg David made it clear that Google was not aggressive enough with their patent strategy.

Apple’s victory over Samsung and Google sets a disturbing precedent. I fail to see how their patent, Design patent ‘305. Rounded square icons on the home screen interface, is non obvious or new. Look at the Blackberry below, don’t those home icons look rounded?

Consider the apparel industry, which has had a historically loose approach to intelectual property. There is currently a pending lawsuit over the design of yoga pants, which just seems ridiculous.

I believe that this is the approach which should be taken in application of patent law. It’s important to note that patents serve to encourage innovation, and are a necessary part of our economy. But when patents are given out blindly, and lawsuits are considered part of doing business, doesn’t this hurt innovation more than someone copying your rounded corners?

Open does not conflict with making money, according to Venture Capitalist Fred Wilson, by many accounts the top VC in NYC.

To me, Samsung’s official statement says it all:

Today’s verdict should not be viewed as a win for Apple, but as a loss for the American consumer. It will lead to fewer choices, less innovation, and potentially higher prices. It is unfortunate that patent law can be manipulated to give one company a monopoly over rectangles with rounded corners, or technology that is being improved every day by Samsung and other companies.

 

Preparing for Travel

September 13, 2012 — Leave a comment

Packing to leave your home for nine months can be a bit daunting. I’ve been gathering items from clothes to deodorant in order to get ready for Sri Lanka.

I just purchased a pair of linen trousers, to help deal with the heat. I ordered them from BananaRepublic.com, and just got them in the mail. Turns out they were made in Sri Lanka.

Globalization provides for some wacky things. An American packing to travel to Sri Lanka orders clothes from an American company made in Sri Lanka.

Maybe I should return them and buy them there?

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My First Change.org Petition

September 5, 2012 — 1 Comment

Several weeks ago I started a Change.org petition to try and convince Citi Bank to defer my student loans.

As it turns out, if you annoy a bank enough they’ll just sell your loan to get rid of you. After about three weeks of running the petition I received a phone call from the Office of the President at Citi Student Loans to explain how my loan was sold. As it turns out Discover bought Citi Student Loans, and Discover offers deferrals. Citi bank, at this time, does not offer deferrals for the Fulbright or Peace Corps; though they are reviewing this policy.

You can be sure I’ll be following up with Citi to see if they revise this policy.

 

What’s a Fulbright?

August 31, 2012 — Leave a comment

When I tell people I’ve received a Fulbright there has been two common responses:

  • Congratulations! That’s awesome, where are you going?
  • What’s a Fulbright?

The latter is more common than the former, which is quite surprising to me. So here is my attempt to answer what the Fulbright is, and I’ll try to answer this question again once I’ve completed my grant.

What is it?

The Fulbright is America’s premier international exchange program. Every year hundreds of Americans go abroad to research, learn, and teach English, and citizens of other countries come to America to do the same. It’s soft diplomacy at its finest, and the primary aim of the program is to increase mutual understanding between Americans and other nations’ citizens.

What do Fulbrighters do? 

Essentially, the Fulbright program offers two types of grants, teaching and learning. The fellowship allows both recent graduates and scholars to travel abroad to conduct research, it also sends recent graduates to teach English and scholars to teach in their field of expertise. There are grants available for Graduate School, and to learn critical languages. There’s even a grant in conjunction with MTV to research music.

Where do Fulbrighters go?

The Fulbright program operates in over 155 countries across the world. To date, more than 307,000 Fulbrights have been awarded.

Why is it called the Fulbright?

The program is named after Senator William J. Fulbright, who introduced legislation in 1946 to create this program.

How is it funded?

In it’s inception, in 1945, the program was funded by the sale of U.S. military assets after the end of the second world war. The U.S. government forgave the debts of foreign nations in exchange for funding this international exchange program (this offers some insight as to why there are so many grants for Germany).

The program cost more than $323.3 million in 2010, and its primary funding source is an appropriation from Congress; though host countries contribute to the funding of this program as well.

How do you get one?

There is an extensive application process for the Fulbright program, and I will only speak to the English Teaching Assistantships – as that is the grant I received. During my junior year at Fordham, I was in China, so my application process was a bit different than others. In the second semester I had a few Skype meetings with Fordham’s Office of Prestigious Fellowships, and I began narrowing down the countries I wanted to apply for. There are many tips for various components of the application, let me know if you have any questions.

I began narrowing down the countries where ETAs are granted. As I’m not fluent in Spanish, South America was out. I have a strong interest in emerging markets and economic development, so I wasn’t too keen on applying to a country in Europe. So that pretty much left Africa and Asia.

At this point I went nation by nation and narrowed down the nations I was most interested in to Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. ETAs are not granted in China, save for Hong Kong and Macau. Why these countries you might ask? It was some combination of cultural intrique, economic prospects, transitory factors, and gut feeling.

I eventually settled on Sri Lanka as the country to which I was going to apply, and I spent that summer writing my applications essays. When applying to an ETA you have to write two essays, and are limited to one page per essay. One essay, your Statement of General Purpose is where you answer the following questions:

  • Why do you wish to undertake an ETA opportunity?
  • Why are you applying to this specific country?
  • What do you bring to the classroom that will enrich the learning experience of English language learners overseas?
  • What specific ideas do you have for engaging with students and helping them to learn English?
  • What specific qualifications, training, or experiences do you have to prepare you to serve as an ETA?
  • How do you expect to benefit from the assignment?
  • What plans do you have for civic engagement outside the classroom?
The Personal Statement is where you explain who you are and what makes you a good fit for this program, and to be a representative of America abroad.
By October of my senior year at Fordham I had submitted these two essays, three letters of recommendation, and my academic transcripts. A few weeks later I was interviewed by a board of advisors at Fordham.
Around January I received an email telling me I had made the second, and final round of consideration for the grant. But it wasn’t until April that I was actually awarded the Grant. At that point I had to make a decision, take a job in banking (for which I had signed a contract in November) or take the Fulbright. It was a tough decision, but I’m glad to be pursuing the Fulbright!

What have Fulbrighters gone on to do?

  • 10 Fulbright alumni have been elected to the United States Congress
  • 43 Fulbright alumni from eleven countries are recipients of the Nobel Prize
  • 60 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize
  • 22 Fulbright alumni are recipients of MacArthur Foundation “genius” awards
  • 14 Fulbright alumni are recipients of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Many have gone on to reach the highest ranks of government and business; this includes:

 

I just found out that my placement in Trincomalle has been approved by the Sarvodaya district coordinator!

During my first month in Sri Lanka I will be in Colombo for language training and program orientation. During this time the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission has arranged for myself and the four other English Teaching Assistants to live in a house together.

After the month I will go to the Sarvodaya headquarters for a week of orientation at the NGO.

During my time in Trinco I will be responsible for teaching english for 20 hours a week. My primary teaching responsibility will be with the ‘Youth in Transition’ program.

Sarvodaya’s Youth in Transition program provides vocational training to young Sri Lankans with a focus on war-affected youth and ex-combatants. 6 months of classroom training, 2 months on the job training, then connects them with micro-loans and equipment. Students also receive psycho-social support and participate in multi-cultural exchange programs.

If there is not enough of a demand for English classes through this program I will establish classes within the community for anyone who would like to improve their skills. Outside of teaching English I am really excited for the opportunity to work with this NGO. Depending on the programs in place in Tirnco I hope to work with SEEDS, the microfinance arm of Sarvodaya, or Fusion, a program which seeks to improve access to technology in rural areas.

Many graduates of the Youth In Transition end up receiving loans through the SEEDS program, so there may be some opportunities there.

Entry Visa

August 27, 2012 — Leave a comment

I received my Sri Lankan entry Visa this week, once I’m there I will have to apply for my residence permit. It’s an exciting step, but getting that Visa made this whole experience feel so much more real.

I’ve known for many months now that I’ll be headed overseas to teach on a Fulbright, but getting my Visa was one of those moments that made me stop and think, wow this is actually happening. I remember a similar feeling when I got my Chinese Visa, its a mixture of excitement, fear (mostly of the unknown), questioning (am I ready for this?).

The next nine months should prove to be some of the most interesting of my life, and I know that this last month at home will fly by.