Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.
My STEP experience was a study abroad program through the College of Social Work. The trip was Social Issues and Human Rights in Nicaragua. In addition to learning about the social issues in Nicaragua this trip included a home stay so that we could become immersed in the culture.
What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project
When it comes to study abroad I think everyone expects to experience extreme and shocking differences. And while uncertainty and adapting to change are certainly part of the value of the study abroad experience, I think they eclipse many of the similarities which are equally shocking. I think that for every startling difference our group experienced there was an equally significant similarity between our way of life in the United States, and the way of life we experienced in Nicaragua. One part of the trip, for me, where the similarities were more surprising than the differences was the home stay. When we talked about the home stay as a group many people said that the best part for them was gaining a new perspective on the way others live. And while there were certainly differences between my home in the United States and my home in Nicaragua, the differences are what I have been calling “superficial differences.” The differences were physical differences in the amount of luxury or scale of the homes; my home in Nicaragua and my home in the United States both possess all the same fundamental necessities of a functioning home. They both have bathrooms and showers, they are both structurally sound, they both have beds, a place to store and prepare food, and sources of drinking water.
Similarly, in talking with our host family I felt a connection between the difficulties that each one of us faces in our respective countries. Our host families described that there was very little opportunity in Nicaragua. While the United States likes to export media claiming that this is the land of opportunity, in reality many people experience these same frustration in the United States.
In relation to human rights issues, I’ve found it somewhat difficult to assess the similarities and differences. As heinous as this is, in the United States and in Nicaragua alike different people do not all experience the same basic human rights. Human rights are somewhat fluid, and while one of the articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that these human rights are inalienable, undeniable, and indivisible this simply doesn’t reflect the reality of the situation. In the United States I am fortunate enough to feel that at any given time I have all my human rights. The reason why this question of comparing and contrasting human rights is difficult for me is because I’ve experienced a tremendous amount of privilege for so long that I’m not always aware of my privilege. So my knee-jerk reaction when comparing human rights in Nicaragua and the United States is to say that there are significant disparities. However, based on my studies and my personal experiences I know that tat isn’t exactly the case. Juanita regular experiences harsh persecution and discrimination in Nicaragua. While it seem like the United States has a more progressive attitude towards gay marriage and the LGBTQ community in general, I recognize that everywhere this is not the case. Another human rights difference that initially shocked me was the penial code in Nicaragua. Going to “La Casona” I was stunned to find an some from the United States serving a ten year sentence for position of marijuana. However if you step back and analyze the prison situation in the United States is one of the gravest human rights violations of them all. According to the most recent human rights watch world report states that United States prisons still employ solitary confinement, which is considered mistreatment. In addition drug policy is disproportionately enforced towards minorities. The difference between the prison system in Nicaragua and the United States s that at “La Casona” prisons are rehabilitated and given skills to aid them in reentry while the prison system in the United States focuses on reparations, stripping convicts of many of their human rights after they have served their sentence. In this sense “La Casona” could become a model for the prison systems in the United States.
The one striking difference I noticed between Nicaragua and the United States is a difference in community. During our home stay we rode the public bus to our host family’s home. The bus was very crowded and a mother with two you girls got on the bus. In Nicaragua people drive rather quickly and the little kids were getting thrown around on the bus. Our host mother, Anielka, took one of the small children and sat the child down on her lap. She then asked the child where her mother was and gave the mother a little nod of recognition. I was shocked to see this. In the United States, if you were to grab some else’s child and put them on your lap the mother would probably call the police. There was a much stronger sense of community in Nicaragua then I have felt returning to the United States.
What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?
Upon first arriving to Nicaragua the first barrier I had to address in order to function effectively in the country was the culture barrier. Since returning from Nicaragua I’ve become aware of how loud yet shy the culture is in the United States. In the United States we speak very loudly, while I’ve noticed Nicaraguans are typically softer spoken. Also, In the United States people avoid eye contact with strangers, while in Nicaragua the culture is less shy and rather it’s considered polite to smile and make eye contact. Being a gringo, or an outsider, lowering my voice and meeting everyone’s gaze with a smile was essential to breaking the initial distance I experienced. Eventually I accustomed myself to these Nicaraguan mannerisms and interestingly enough, when I returned to America I had to again adjust to the new social norms. I would smile at that walked by me at the airport and instead of returning my smile people would just look down or away. As I adjust to being back I find that even though I want to keep the friendlier Nicaraguan social norms of speaking softly and smiling, I find it difficult to do so when it’s not reciprocated.
After learning the nonverbal cultural norms the next barrier to overcome was the language barrier. Being able to communicate in Spanish is a personal goal of mine. I think anyone that hopes to work in the service industry in the United States will have to be able to communicate in Spanish I had taken one Spanish course prior to this trip, so my Spanish before the trip was extremely limited. At first I was very nervous to speak in Spanish as I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. There were two events that brought me out of y Spanish shell. The first was at Techo. The presenter that spoke to us presented in English for about the first half of his presentation. Even though his English wasn’t perfect everyone in the group really appreciated that he was willing to try to speak English for us. I decided that even if my Spanish wasn’t very good people would appreciate the effort I was making to communicate with them. This premise turned out to be true for every person I spoke with on the trip (with the exception of the build sight leader at, ironically, Techo who didn’t want to slow down his Spanish for us). The next experience that got me more comfortable approaching people and speaking in Spanish was the first time I spoke with someone in Spanish on the street. Some people from the group was taking a walk to the grocery store in Managua. We weren’t sure where the grocery store is so we decided we should stop and ask someone. I asked the group if I could be the one to ask in order to practice my Spanish and they agreed. Before I approached the person I was really nervous, but I got some positive peer pressure from the group and was able to ask the question. In this experience positive peer pressure helped my get over my nervousness and interact in Spanish.
This trip was an English class and all our meetings were translated, so in the day to day activities Spanish was not crucial. The one time I felt Spanish was crucial was during my home stay. When Graham and I first met Anielka the initial conversation we had was very broken and awkward. We didn’t ask many questions or engage with her very much, and overall the interaction was awkward. After that initial meeting Graham and I decided to brainstorm ideas as to what questions we could ask in order to have better conversation. In addition to this brainstorming I downloaded and offline Spanish dictionary. We never ended up using the prompts Graham and I has written, but making those prompts put us in a mindset of getting over uncomfortable situations. This little push, and the vocabulary help a dictionary provided, allowed us to get over our nervousness and really interact with our host family. Even after the homestay I was comfortable using my limit Spanish to interact with people.
Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?
The first and most obvious way this trip was enriched my experience was through learning Spanish. As previously mentioned I feel that being able to speak Spanish is critical to the work I want to do in the future. Beyond just learning Spanish, this experience has shown me how much fun it would be to be able to speak Spanish, and how many doors it would open. Because of this trip I’ve recommitted myself to learning Spanish and have already signed up for Spanish classes. To me that push to motivate myself will be invaluable.
Secondly, through this trip I have discovered the part of me that can lean into uncomfortable situations. Speaking in a different language changes your personality, or at least the external parts of your personality and the way you express yourself. For example, when I speak Hebrew I become more reserved because although I have a level of fluency in the language, I find I’m not able to express myself quite as well as I am in English. So I somewhat expected be withdraw when I had to speak Spanish. But to my surprise the exact opposite happened. Spanish Cory is so inept at expressing himself that in Spanish I rely heavily on being outgoing and funny, usually self-depreciating humor, in order to make a connection with people. Through this trip I’ve learned the importance of the nonverbal parts of communication, and had the opportunity to fine-tune these skills. I hope to bring these confidence skills with no matter what language I’m speaking.
Finally the last learning take-away is what I call “alternate history.” History as it is studied in schools across the United States is not a set of facts but rather a set of moral that society hopes to teach us. In my social work curriculum I have been exposed to many aspects of the history of the United States that traditionally go untaught and unlearned. I’ve really enjoyed stepping out of the confines of socially mandated history; entertaining multiple realities and perspectives at once allows me to think more critically about the current situation. Through this trip I’ve learned a lot about the history of the United States from the Nicaraguan perspective. Knowing that the citizens of Nicaragua feel that the United States has treated Central America as its own backyard gives me new perspective on the foreign policies we put forth and the actual effect it has vs the intended effect it has.