My STEP experience was a two and a half week study-abroad trip in the Yucatán Peninsula. The course-work explored the globalization of the area with a focus on the Mayan civilization. Students traveled to Mérida, Mexico and stayed with host-families while attending lectures at the Universidad Marista de Mérida. We studied the history, culture and natural environment of the Yucatán by attending lectures from local professors, by visiting local museums and cultural sites, and by traveling across the peninsula to visit Campeche, the Cancún tourist center, and the many Mayan ruins along the way.
While completing my STEP Signature Project, my understanding of myself and assumptions about the world-specifically Mexico- changed quite a bit. In terms of personal change, I learned that I can learn outside of the classroom, and that real-life experiences and cultural immersion are great ways to understand the culture and practices of a different country. I learned that I can safely survive in a different country for two and a half weeks with the right preparations, and that I can adapt to living with completely new people in a completely different environment. I learned that I am independent enough to put myself in new situations without the direct comfort or guidance of my parents or family.
My perspective of Mexico also changed dramatically by actually being there and by being submerged in the culture. Before going there, I had ignorantly assumed that most areas in Mexico were dangerous and that the living situations for most people would be poor, such as small houses and maybe not the best utilities. I was pleasantly surprised that, at least in the neighborhood that our student group stayed in, I felt very safe and comfortable. The houses on our street and that we students lived in were also surprisingly nice: they were fairly spacious, and I personally had my own room. My host family had their own pool in the back, and even though it was small, it was a welcome addition to the living experience. The tap water was different, but it was still enough to shower with; we were advised not to drink the water, but our host families had filtered water coolers for us to use, so that wasn’t a problem. Something that I hadn’t anticipated was the speed at which the natives spoke Spanish, and the fact that most of the members in our host families didn’t speak any English. This was initially disconcerting for me, especially since I hadn’t taken or used any Spanish for at least a year, but after a few days I remembered a lot of the nouns and verbs that I needed to. If all else failed, there were two girls in our group that were proficient in Spanish, so they helped out a lot. Another assumption was about the currency and prices in Mexico; I expected things to be priced similarly to how they are in the U.S. Because of this, I packed a lot of larger pesos, but I quickly found that food is actually really cheap down there, so I had to break a lot of the bigger bills and accumulate smaller pesos and even the coins to pay for things easier.
Living with a host family that didn’t speak any English is the reason for the majority of the above changes in my perspectives and assumptions. For the most part, it was only our host mother, another girl from Ohio State, and myself. Her family came over once to celebrate Mother’s Day, and her daughter was there some nights, but I had the most day-to-day interactions with Mari Lu, our host mother. Even though she didn’t speak English, we both did our best to communicate with and understand each other, even if I had to use Google translate and make a lot of hand gestures.
I gained independence by having to get myself from one place to another before, during, and after the trip and taking care of myself without direct parental guidance. At the three airports we went through, I had to keep track of my belongings and make sure I was at the right place at the right time. During the length of the trip I also had to keep track of my purchases to make sure that I was staying within my fixed budget. I also gained confidence in my ability to be self-sufficient and interact with strangers.
I learned a lot about the Mexican culture both from our lectures and from living with a host family. I learned how and what they cook and that they naturally speak very fast. Even though we were strangers from a different country and generally didn’t speak the same language, all of the host families were incredibly kind and acted as if we fit right in with them. They had likely had study abroad students live with them before, but I appreciated it none the less. All of the host parents seemed to know each other and collectively did an excellent job caring for us. The neighborhood also seemed safe and we students as a group were able to wander around without any issue. I also learned that they celebrate holidays like Mother’s Day just as we do in the U.S. My host mother’s entire family came over for the day, ate together, and celebrated all of the mothers. We had been given the day off, so we were able to be part of the celebration and show our respects. By living there for two and a half weeks, I was also able to get a better grasp of Mexico’s economy. Most things were significantly cheaper there, but still had comparable quality. Restaurants served reasonably portioned food at great prices, and drinks and snacks were a bargain.
As the main focus of this study abroad trip was about the Mayans, we went on several trips to see their ruins. It was absolutely amazing to see first-hand the magnificent architecture and be able to walk around in the same land that the Mayans once claimed. I was able to get a real perspective of how widely they spanned the Yucatan and how big their buildings were. Pictures and books alone would never compare to physically experiencing such as amazing culture.
These changes were important for me because I likely would never have gotten the opportunity to visit Mexico otherwise, and I would have no idea what I was missing. The personal experiences were invaluable to me and allowed me to learn about myself in a brand new light. I was able to utilize my knowledge of Spanish with native speakers and see for myself how much faster they pronounce things. I would never have learned as much as I did by taking a similar Mayan or Mexican culture class at school. Cultural immersion made all the difference in my interest and investment in the class and my understanding of Mexico and the Mayans.