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A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation: A Colombian Teacher becomes an ESL student Veronica Pallos Georgia State University AL 8330
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation Introduction Most people in their life have many challenging situations and changes when they may
encounter: a move, a new school or job, a new relationship, a birth or a death in the family and of course, traveling and moving to a different region or even country. All these transitions demand that we adjust to the circumstances that surround us. I myself experienced this transition when I moved into this country, and probably all of us have experienced, at one point in our lives, some major transition that demanded adaptation. We all have felt frustration, especially during the initial phase of adaptation. One has the looming feeling of not knowing if what one was doing and saying is right, just a sense of uneasiness and uncertainty. These feelings can make people consider themselves as not fully participants in their realities. This paper will explore the adjustment of a newcomer and how language is an important factor that facilitates adaptation. My informant, a young Colombian woman, about 30 years old, gave me a fresh perspective on the adjustment process. She has been living in the United States for approximately nine months now and has been making good efforts to adapt to her new environment. As I was born in South America as she was, I thought that we had more similarities than differences. The truth is that the different national histories and personal experiences bring different results into the adjustment process. This is why it is necessary to try to understand Colombia's recent past, and to see if it has repercussions in the adjustment experience for my informant. Studying this culture is particularly relevant now. The Hispanic population in the United States is the largest growing minority, not only because of recent immigration patterns, to which I will refer later in this paper, but also because of the higher birth rate among the Hispanic population already living in the United States.
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation Theory: Cross-cultural Adaptation Young Yun Kim (2001, 2005) developed this model in which adaptation becomes the
result of a process of “stress, adjustment and growth” (as cited in Martin and Nakayama, 2010, p. ). According to Kim, “many people struggle to cope with feelings of inadequacy and frustration in the changed environment: some resist change and fight for the old ways, other desperately try to 'go native' often experiencing a sense of failure and despair” (1998, p.4). My informant seems to have been experiencing cross-cultural adaptation. After the initial shock of finding out several daily realities that were quite different here than in her native Colombia, and for the subsequent nine months, she transitioned from a very scared newcomer to a more or less adapted student of the IEP program at Georgia State University. Toffler argues that “culture shock describes the stress and disorientation to which many people are subjected in coping with too much change" (as cited in Kim, 1998, p. )” and Buttaro (2002) mentions that when people attempt to deal with the shock of living in a new cultural environment, sometimes confusing and hostile, they experience cultural adjustment (p. 448). But my informant's adaptation shows more a cyclical pattern than a linear one because whenever she found a new challenge she struggled with it until she found a way to cope with it, adapting, according to her own possibilities, to the new situation. Kim argues that stressful periods (crisis) permit that strangers in a new culture work out “new ways of handling problems” and actually present opportunities to “strengthen their coping abilities and potential for adaptive changes” (p. 56). Language is a key factor for achieving adaptation. In her theory, Kim argues that “communication is at the heart of cross-cultural adaptation” (p.59). In fact, for her the cross-
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cultural adaptation process is basically achieving the communication capacities necessary to be functional in the host society (p. 59). I perceived the great efforts that my informant undertook to achieve this competence, but as any process, it takes time. During the interview process I saw a significant interest in improving her interpersonal communication skills. She insisted in practicing English during the second interview and also practices her English writing via email.
Review of Literature on Informant's Culture and Culture of U.S. Context We see how globalization has shortened distances and how technologies have broadened our cultural horizons. According to Kim, “Cross-cultural movement, indeed has become common place of our time” (1998, p.5). There is a greater awareness, especially among young people, of opportunities for personal advancement that industrialized countries have to offer. Some people, like migrants and sojourners, travel willingly, other people, like refugees are forced to do so. Among these travelers, a sojourner is a person who has no intentions of permanency, the reasons for a sojourn in a new culture are “often very pragmatic and specific to pursue a vocation, to obtain a degree or merely to enhance one's prestige in the eyes of the folks back home” (p.6.) As Kim mentions, millions of people in a single year relocate and in the case of the United States, it is important to note that not only immigration from foreign countries but also higher birth rates might change future demographics. According to Passel, “the foreign-born population is large and young, and immigrant fertility rates remain higher that native rates.” (2011, p.25). In fact, this same author projects that “by 2050, immigrant youth are likely to represent about one-third of all children” (2011, p.25).
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation Latin American seeks for better opportunities by emigrating towards industrialized countries like the United States. According to sociologist Cesar Germana, Latin American societies in the second half of the twentieth century, have become emigrating countries (2005, p.1). Among these Latin American countries, Colombia, the “third largest of the Spanishspeaking South American (SSSA) nations, presents the starkest contrasts (Guerrieri, 215).
Colombia is known for being one of the most “cultured” countries in South America (Guerrieri, 216) I can see this in my informant, that holds a Bachelor's degree and is seeking to get more studies and has started learning English. At the same time, Colombia has had more civil wars and internal conflicts that almost any other nation in the continent. In more recent times, this country has been known for the violence and drug trafficking (Guerrieri 216). My informant is aware of the diversity in campus and appreciates it. This appreciation for diversity in her home country probably is the result of another contrast in Colombia, its diverse ethnic population and geography. Colombia is the only South American country that has coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean and has a very diverse ethnic population of Native Americans, Spaniards and Africans. (Guerrieri 218).
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation Research Method This qualitative ethnographic-like study is based on interviews and on secondary sources. Informant
I met my informant in one of my visits to the Hispanic Club at Georgia State University. This young Colombian woman whom I will call Policarpa, is an IEP (Intensive English Program) student at Georgia State and has been living here for nine months. When I offered her the choice of a pseudonym, she thought of a famous Colombian patriot. Policarpa came to the United States with the specific goal in mind of learning English. She realized the need for improving her English skills if she wanted to advance in her career. In fact, in one phone conversation, she expressed that learning English was something that she always wanted to do; it had become a personal goal in her life. Although I consider her a sojourner, because she has not expressed explicitly the desire to stay permanently –and I just cannot make other assumptions – , she has expressed the desire to find a job (within the boundaries of legality) that would allow her to be self-supporting. It is not surprising that she wants to get a job. She has been working ever since completing her teaching degree at a public university in Colombian. Back there, she worked as a Social Science teacher and then she found a good job for an international company. This previous job lasted five years and the good pay permitted her to save enough money to pay for the Georgia State course. Policarpa searched online and found the course while still in Colombia. She had been searching several English Programs at different universities, but she picked the one from Georgia State because it was the best that would fit her needs, she explained: I had several options. It was just by chance that I picked out Georgia State... Well, it was
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation the first one that responded. I sent the application electronically, I applied to several places, to Georgia Perimeter College, for example, and they were asking me for the TOEFL exam, and I don't have it yet so I couldn't apply (First Interview, 29-09-11) This is how she came to enroll in the Intensive English Program at Georgia State University. Because of the fact that she has visited other South American countries (among them, Peru) and also the United States, she did not find any problems applying for a visa and getting it at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia. Regarding family, she counts on the support of her cousins, who live in Atlanta and her mother who lives in California. Data Collection
We had corresponded via email and talked on the phone. We met for the first time in front of the bookstore and had agreed to go for lunch at the cafeteria. I wanted to thank her for her cooperation with the project so I treated her for lunch. When Policarpa arrived for the interview, she seemed to be in a hurry and a little bit nervous. I was nervous too; neither one of us knew what to expect. Although we had agreed on speaking English, she herself decided to use Spanish because, as she put it, “she would be able to express a lot more in her native tongue than in English” (First Interview: September 29, 2011). Although I feel more proficient in English than she, I decided not to “interpret” for her while she was ordering her sandwich. After all, she came here to learn English and I would be doing a disservice to her if I had intervened. I noticed that although she is very expressive and is able to convey her needs in English, she had a little more trouble understanding what the attendant was asking from her. We decided to go to the inner court of the cafeteria, a place that
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation seemed less noisy and I explained and showed her the consent forms. She agreed and signed.
Then I proceeded with the interview that I, with the help of our teacher Dr. Nelson, had already prepared. Dr. Nelson helped us preparing the questions according to Spradley’s Ethnographic Interview (1979). I used the “Grand Tour questions” to elicit a general response from my informant. I asked her to describe the first day of school at Georgia State. Then, I also asked the “Mini Tour question” referring to an specific experience, in this case, I asked my informant to describe and compare registration to the university here in Georgia to registration at her university in Colombia. She was able to speak in Spanish, and she answered the questions and gave me detailed accounts of her experiences. I taped recorded this first interview and she seemed to feel quite at ease “venting” some frustrations about the challenges that she was encountering as a newcomer, the feelings of powerlessness, the sense of being threatened (by the IEP), which I will discuss later in the paper. I also took a few notes as she used up the tape during the interview. She was able to pour out all her fears and anxieties in her native tongue, Spanish. The process of transcribing the interview was long and arduous because I also had to translate the transcripts to be able to present my written work. On the second interview, because she had insisted on using English more, we had the whole interview in English. Although I thought she would go back to Spanish any minute, she gave it a try and did not speak in Spanish throughout the interview. I had already planned the interview around the themes that I saw were present in the first interview. Once I knew her challenges, I wanted to investigate on her strategies for coping with these difficulties. I also tape recorded this second interview. We had it outdoors because it was a sunny day and we were close
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to the Georgia State Law Building, we decided to go to the courtyard and sat on a picnic bench. This time she seemed much more at ease and was able to answer my questions in English. Policarpa is a very expressive person and uses a lot gestures (face, hands) along with her pitch of voice. She is able to compensate successfully for her lack of English vocabulary and grammar. This interview went faster than the first one. She seemed happier and proud about her feelings of competency. We agreed on keeping in touch via phone or email. In one of these occasions, Policarpa told me that she commented to her IEP teacher that she was able to speak. She asked me if I could give her a copy of the interview for her teacher to see. Data Analysis I read the transcripts several times and looked for topics that were repeated, I wrote notes on the transcripts and highlighted. Eventually, five themes emerged from the data. 1)Becoming aware of differences 2) Having feelings of fear, uncertainty and mistrust 3) Comparing and contrasting teacher and student roles. Her transition from being a teacher in Colombia to becoming a student at Georgia State University 4) Coping with unfamiliar situations/ environments. Strategies used to cope (moving towards adaptation). 5)Personal reflections.
Results and Discussion Becoming Aware of Differences In her cross-cultural theory, Kim argues that newcomers “gradually become acquainted with the daily aspects of living in the host culture” (p.6). When my informant and I met she had been going to school for some months now, but seemed to be struggling with several things that were quite different for her. Policarpa is aware of cultural differences. She seems to have
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation brought with her the concept that punctuality is a very important value in American society. One difference is the concept of time, she explained: “One has the idea that people here are way too strict about punctuality…and it is not just and idea, it is like that! I was so fearful about being late.” (First Interview: September 29, 2011).
She distinguishes her identity as Colombian and refuses to be put in the stereotype of tardiness: “I am from Colombia, but I don’t like to be late!” (First Interview: September 29, 2011). As I mentioned before, there are studies that prove that different cultures understand time in different ways. She is able to see differences between her former and current university environment. For example, she is aware with the way a university's name can be commercialized, she commented on this: I didn’t know people were so devoted to the university here! There are t-shirts, bags, everything with the university’s name on it…it’s like a brand name. This was so very strange to me: when I went to university in Colombia, well, we didn’t have the university’s brand name… (First Interview: September 29, 2011). This idea or “brand-name” helped her with forging her new identity as a Georgia State student by ways of purchasing one “artifact” from her new environment: “Then, I buy this handbag that has been like an identity for me, being the first day”( First Interview: September 29, 2011). As I mentioned before, Policarpa is not only aware of the diversity in campus but also feels quite positive about it. She commented: After you arrive here, you start seeing people. Well, I am in the International Program. You start to see people of all shapes, colors and sizes…it’s very cool! I like working with
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation different cultures, I like history a lot, I like the world a lot. (First Interview: September 29, 2011) Having Feelings of Fear, Uncertainty and Mistrust. Policarpa felt especially disoriented at the beginning of her studies at Georgia State: Then when I came here I felt disoriented because...(pause) you don't know about
anything, I haven't pay anything, the only thing you know is that “something” will begin but you don't know about anything else. (First Interview: September 29, 2011). The very first thing that Policarpa showed was fear and uneasiness when encountering something new. The fact that she doesn't know the environment, does not have a car and does not speak the language with fluency seem to be factors that feed into her fear. Young Yun Kim argues that “newly arrived strangers are required to cope with substantial cultural change” (Kim, 1998, p.5). The solution to this initial problem was to ask her cousin and his family (her cousin is married), to help her catch the train for the very first time: “I was so very scared of getting lost, catching the train by myself…” (First Interview: September 29, 2011). This response as a group protecting and helping a newcomer is typical of collectivist societies. In fact, in a study that measured the levels of anxiety among international students, one of the findings was that “students from collectivist cultural orientations had lower levels of adaptation...and higher levels of anxiety as compared with students from individualist cultures (Sümer, Poyrazli & Grahame, 2008). Policarpa shows signs of a lot of stress regarding being late: I confess that because of the ideas that one has about the United States one is very afraid of several things: First of all, being late. Being late is terrifying.
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation (First Interview: September 29, 2011).
This theme repeated several time in the course of our interviews. I started to ask myself why she was so afraid of being late. According to Edward Hall (1966), people with a monochromatic concept of time value being punctual. He argues that: International students and business personnel observe that U.S. Americans do not care enough about relationships and often sacrifice time with friends and family to complete tasks and keep appointments (as cited in Martin and Nakayama, 2010, p. 278). Later on in the course of the interview, Policarpa told me about some of the rules for international students at Georgia State that seemed to explain her fear. She senses that the IEP program threatens international students: I don't like the culture here when they warn you at all times about being on time, they use this threatening tone of voice....--you know that I am in the International student program. They say 'You cannot be late more than four times because this counts as one absence, and with four absences we will report you with Immigration'. So when you are an International student you are branded with a seal 'You are not from here' and they use this 'We'll report you with Immigration' as a scare tactic... (First Interview: September 29, 2011). These last comments made me realize how powerless she feels as a newcomer and the feelings of mistrust as an international student in the IEP program. Although her reaction could be understood as a defense mechanism, I have to give these feelings credit and recognize that they belong to her. In her theory Kim mentions that in the initial process of adaptation, when newcomers experience a lot of stress “strangers may become more aggressive or hostile toward
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation the new country, attacking its values, customs, food, climate, and so on...” (p. 55).
One contradiction that I found in her interviews is that although she seemed to be afraid of some situations, she seemed to have less fear regarding others: Even though everybody told that the downtown is dangerous...a little complication, but when I went to school in Colombia, I studied in the downtown and I liked it. So, I'm not afraid of that, I am Colombian! Being a Colombian is being a warrior! (First Interview: September 29, 2011). Perhaps this attitude is a result of the difficulties regarding safety that she might have experienced in her own country. Recognizing the positive effects of having some kind of social support, in one occasion, while asking Policarpa if she had any affiliations to any specific group, she mentioned she had tried one, but then immediately added: I don't think, I don't feel I belong! I don't know, I don't know anybody, it's too impersonal, is too much impersonal...I think this society is too much impersonal! (Second Interview). Comparing and Contrasting Teacher and Student roles. Her transition from being a Teacher in Colombia to becoming a student at Georgia State University Policarpa is also aware of personal differences. She knows that everything is different now that she is a student and not a teacher: “I’ve been a teacher for a long time, well not too long, just for a while…well, everything is so very different.” (First Interview: September 29, 2011). This change of roles is a learning experience for her. In fact, “adults learn continually and informally as they adjust to role changes and other adaptations” (Buttaro, 2002, p. 447)
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation She is also compares her university experience from Colombia with Georgia State:
The teachers explain very cleary...have too many time for you...you are important! They know yours names...is very..uh, they take time for the many activities for class, they really care for your learning! (decisive tone). In my country too. But when I studied my career there were many people in the classroom, I was in the public university too but not too much money like Georgia State. (Second Interview). One salient difference that she experiences right now has to do with her identity as a teacher and how she feels less powerful now in the role of a student: When you are a student is very hard too. You don't have power! When you are a teacher, yes! A little bit more, obviously, it's very different! (Second Interview). Because of her teaching experience, she knows how a teacher thinks. She feels that what she has lost in power she has gained in understanding. She understands much better students and by trying to be a good student, she hopes her own students will be like this to her: Now I understand very well or more my students but it's very hard...because you feel “if you lost something” “you understand perfectly the teachers...you know when the teacher (is) prepared to(for) class, you know everything!... Then, it's very funny because I know how the teacher think(s)! But I try to be good to the(as a) student, because I know how I would like my student (to be), then I try to act in this way (Second Interview). Coping with New Situations/ Environments. Strategies Used to Cope (moving towards adaptation) As any transition to a new environment is difficult, I wanted to investigate how becoming a student in a new country would work out for her. I found the main challenges for her were
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation mainly the issues of transportation and the weather. She mentioned her surprise and feelings of powerlessness when finding out of how transportation works in Atlanta: I used to walk a lot in my country but here...I need to walk much much more to get to
the train station. I am shocked, it bothers me so much that you are not able to survive here without a car....I think it's absurd! Well, I know that there are other cities here in the States where you don't need a car as much...but here you are a non-entity without a car, you cannot go anywhere if you don't have a car. I love walking in nice weather but not so much so during the winter! Anyway, it really bothers me the car situation here. She also expressed her surprise for the cold weather in Atlanta when comparing her own environment: Well, for me, I am from Bogota but the weather there is not as extremely cold as it is here. This was really hard for me! It was, as they say here, “a challenge.” It's a challenge that people can work and all this with this weather... (First Interview: September 29, 2011). One of the first strategies used to cope with the cold weather was finding ways to adapt to this new environment: I try to adapt. Obviously, for me is very strange the weather change and obviously there are some seasons that I like more than others...but it's beautiful, yeah, it's ok. Sometimes is difficult when you need walk, you don't have a car, blah, blah, blah then is difficult especially in cold, in winter or right now, because you feel strange. But I'm from a cold land so is not too hard! (I'm from Bogota where the land is cold) (Second Interview)
A Sojourner's Transition to Adaptation By making a comparison with her home country, I perceived also a more positive attitude
towards the difference in climate and a desire to adapt. This confirmed Kim's theory that explains adaptation as a cyclical process, “similar to the movement of a wheel” (p.56). Policarpa reflects in the various ways that can help her cope with the weather: Then, for (to) face the situation maybe the clothes...and sometimes some foods. In my city, the people drink soup, or coffee or agua panela (is sweet) because make me feel warm... (Second Interview). She concludes by acknowledging the weather and also by brainstorming solutions to cope with it: I like both warm or cold, sometimes the winter is too much cold! Then you need special clothes, the special food...(Second Interview). Personal Reflections During the course of the project we became more acquainted. I attended some of the Hispanic Club functions and we had the opportunity to talk some more. She was exploring a job possibility on campus and told me that if it does not happen, she plan return to Colombia. I have noticed that Policarpa always makes time to participate with Georgia State activities, she seems very alert of what is going on around her. In one occasion, during a function with the Hispanic Club. She seemed more assertive in this environment and was able to talk to some of the presenters in Spanish. I can see that she has another personality, much more confident when she speaks Spanish. By the third time we met, I am sure that I cannot classify this encounter as an interview, I would say that we had more like a conversation and catching up session. We shared a meal, this
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time, I felt more a sense of equality because each of us paid for our own meals. We talked about classes and the different courses that we are taking. I also shared my experiences and challenges with my classes. It was more like a give and take conversation instead of finding out about specific things. Policarpa mentioned that she really needs to work and as a student she cannot find a good and reliable job. In a more personal note, she shared with me some conflicts that she has been having with her cousin. She feels misunderstood because she perceives her cousin as invading her personal space and trying to dispose of her time. Policarpa avoided talking with her cousin about things that bothered her for months because as a guest, she felt in a less powerful position. It was a very difficult situation because Policarpa did not want to appear rude or ungrateful to her cousin and give the impression that she is scoffing her hospitality. The building tension came to a breaking point and Policarpa decided to move with another cousin and his family. This new cousin lives close to Georgia State and seems more laid back. The wife of the cousin is trying to find conciliation between the two parties. I hope they will resolve their differences. Policarpa seemed disappointed for not being able to stay longer. Although she faced several difficulties, she seemed to have adapted to life here in Georgia up to a certain point. Because she asked for help regarding job possibilities, I asked around campus, although without much success. On another occasion, we went together to the Latin American Association, asking for assistanship opportunities for her. As always, they told her that they could not hire her unless she had legal status here. Therefore, as she had been told before, the only job possibilities –of legal employment – seem to be on campus. Policarpa has decided to go back to Colombia. She thought that she could find a job
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opportunity here but she realizes that being a full time student, working and commuting is very different here than in Colombia. She plans to spend Christmas with her mom, who lives in California now, and by the second week of January going back to Colombia . She feels much better prepared now to get a better job back there. I remembered one of my classes with Dr. Nelson and also my personal experience and I told her that somehow she had adjusted here and she would feel this uneasiness back in Colombia. She mentioned that the only thing that she needs now is a job because she wants to have her own space and wants to have a more stable situation. I listened and shared some of my experiences as a newcomer as well. We have exchanged information. I hope she finds the stability she is seeking.
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Implications: After writing this work several implications come to mind. One is that the GSU IEP Department could pair new students with a more experienced student that can serve as a mentors. This pairing should be highly encouraged by the IEP Department. The more experienced student could match the cultural and academic background of the IEP student and be roughly the same age. Another implication is the use of surveys for newly arrived students. These surveys would try to find out about their background regarding education and work experience. The purpose for this would be to offer to the newly arrived student opportunities to participate more actively in campus life. For example, my informant has background professional experience as a teacher and during her stay she could have helped giving classes or tutoring in Spanish. Lastly, another part of the survey would include a way to measure how much they are acquiring English during the course of their stay and if there is a significant improvement throughout the course. This definitely can help the Linguistics department and more studies can be made to measure the improvement of newly arrived students and how acquiring English has a significant impact on their general academic performance and adaptation.
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References Buttaro, L. (2002). Second Language Acquisition, Culture Shock and Language Stress of Adult Latina Students in New York. Germaná Cavero, César & Max Meneses. (2005) La migración internacional. El caso peruano. (pp. 1-2). Lima, Peru.: Fondo Editorial de la Facultad de Ciencias Sociales (UNMSM). Guerrieri, Kevin, G. (2003) Colombia: A Nation of Nations. In Stephenson, Skye. Understanding Spanish-Speaking South Americans. Bridging Hemispheres (215-244). Yarmouth: Intercultural Press. Inc. Kim,Young Yu. (1998) Communication and Cross-cultural Adaptation: An Integrative Theory. ( pp.4-137). Clevedon, England; Philadelphia: Multilingual Matters Ltd. Kvale, S. (1996). Interviews: An introduction to qualitative research for interviewing. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc. Martin, Judith & Nakayama, Thomas (2010). Intercultural Communication in Contexts. (5th Edit.) New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc. Passel, J. S. (2011). Demography of Immigrant Youth: Past, Present, and Future. Future of Children, 21(1), 19-41. Spradley, J. P. (1979). The Ethnographic Interview. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. Sümer, Seda; Poyrazli, Senel; Grahame, Kamini. (2008) Predictors of Depression and Anxiety Among International Students. Journal of Counseling and Development: JCD; Fall 2008; 86,4; ProQuest Social Science Journals.
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Appendix Items: a)Human Subjects Form b)Draft of paper with peer reviewer’s comments on it c)Copy of transcripts.
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