For my STEP signature project, I studied abroad in Lima, Perú for 10 weeks, what an experience. In Lima, I took two classes at a local university, Universidad del Pacífico, for the first five weeks of my abroad experience, and for the last fives weeks, I completed service-learning at a local organization called Tangram that works with kids that have learning and physical disabilities.
When I first got to Perú, I was terrified but incredibly excited. Especially since this was my first experience outside of the country and in a culture completely different than my own. This experience has taught me so much about myself and honestly taught me all the things I don’t know and still have to learn. This experience changed my outlook on life and other countries and really put what I consider “big” problems into perspective. The biggest thing that came out of this is recognizing that different doesn’t translate to bad. Just because things are different or the way people do things in a different country or culture is different, doesn’t mean that it is wrong. I think that going abroad, I went in with the mentality that the United States and Perú weren’t really that different because I didn’t want to go into my experience making assumptions about how different two cultures/countries, I didn’t want to distance myself from the country I was going to be living in by assuming that it was a completely different world. But what I came to find out and the mentality that I took on was that yes, they’re different, but it is in response to the needs and the situations, social and political, that make it different and that is okay. This way of thinking allowed me to grow as a person and the way I view the world. Recognizing that there are indeed differences allowed me to connect more with the culture and fully immerse myself in their way of life. By understanding why there are differences, ultimately helped me bridge the cultural gap between what I was used to, and what I was experiencing in Perú. Recognizing these differences made me realize that we really aren’t that different from one another which is what my original mentality was. But I needed to recognize the differences and why they were different in order to see the similarities between the two cultures. Although that may sound opposite, I see it more as everything coming full circle and taking me on a journey and changing my worldview to help me understand why there are differences and how these differences really bring us together and become similarities when you understand the reasons for these differences.
Honestly, what led me to this change and realization are the relationships I made with my host family and my service-learning organization. Not only did these things transform me, but also participating in everyday activities allowed me to engage with the culture and the people. My host family was amazing, outright amazing and had the biggest impact on me and my transformation. When I first arrived in Perú, living with a host family was my biggest fear. I felt that the whole concept was awkward and strange and didn’t know what to expect or how to act because I was trying to go into this experience open minded and not make any assumptions about the differences that there might be. But the relationship I made with my host family allowed me to recognize the differences, but realize that these differences really brought us together and made us closer as to where they became similarities instead of differences. They became my family away from home and helped bridge the cultural gap by incorporating me into their daily lives. They would invite me to go to local markets with them, invite me to go to the grocery store, and teach me how to cook traditional Peruvian dishes. All of these things helped me go through my transformational journey.
The second relationship that contributed to my transformation was the relationship with my coworkers at my service-learning placement. I spent five weeks with the Tangram organization in Perú that worked with kids that had physical and learning disabilities. I worked with a team of specialist that included a teacher, a psychologist, and a physical therapist that worked together to give four students the individualized learning and attention that they need. Of course, working with these kids that had different learning needs had a real impact on me, but it was the relationships I developed with my coworkers that really led to my transformation. They each had their own individual story that made them who they were and shaped their worldview, and helped me learn more about the different sides of Perú. But what struck me the most was my coworker who was an immigrant from Venezuela. Some people know that the political situation in Venezuela is horrible, there is no other way to really describe it. It is really sad and unfortunate for the people living there and many Venezuelans have left the country in search of a better life and better opportunities in neighboring countries. If I am being honest, I didn’t know anything about the political situation in Venezuela until I met this coworker of mine. As I developed this relationship, I started to learn just how sad the situation was and how much this girl sacrificed by completely uprooting her life and moving to a different country with little to no money. Learning about her life gave me a new perspective on life and how I viewed my own life and even the life I lived while I was in Perú. I realized how lucky I really was and how much I still didn’t know. Yes, traveling abroad helped me learn a lot more about different cultures and ways of life, but it also taught me one of the most important lessons of how much I still have to learn.
Immersing myself in this country by doing what the locals did really helped change who I was as a person and helped me realize all of the differences between the two cultures, but also helped me realize how similar we really are. Going to local restaurants and cities that strayed away from the tourist spots of Perú allowed me to “pretend”to be a local and at least engage in activities that the locals did. Although this seems like a small act, this really helped me in my transformation because a lot of my trips to these different groceries stores, restaurants, and cities were through local transportation which I did all by myself. Engaging in these types of everyday activities alone really allowed the transformation to happen because I was able to engage with the culture and people on a different level. It helped me recognize how our differences really bring us together and allow us to create similarities.
This experience has impacted my life in so many ways, both professionally and personally. One of my whole goals of traveling abroad was to gain a worldview that allowed me to have the perspective to create a culturally responsive environment for my future classroom. Because I want to become a Spanish teacher in the United States, I felt like it was crucial to produce an environment that promoted curiosity for other cultures and ways of life and how could I do that if I didn’t put myself in a culture and environment completely different than my own? I was always hungry to learn more about other countries but I feel like that type of curiosity is lacking in a lot of our schools today. Leaving the country for the first time ever for two whole months really allowed me to grow as a person, and really allowed me to gain the knowledge necessary to create a culturally responsive classroom. Recognizing that there are differences between cultures and countries allows you to grow as a person, but learning the reason behind these differences really lets you understand why these are differences and how they really bring us all together in the end. I am forever grateful for this experience to travel abroad and to have the experience of a lifetime that allowed me to grow personally and professionally. I cannot wait to incorporate everything I learned into my own classroom one day.