Today marks the one-year anniversary of my study abroad experience in Central America. I embarked on my journey through the then-Augsburg College program titled “Social Change in Central America: Exploring Peace, Justice, and Community Engagement,” which was run by the college’s Center for Global Education. During the journey, I traveled to Guatemala, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (in that specific order). Right now, I find myself in a moment of ambivalent nostalgia over it and can only relive my academic hiatus through memories, pictures, and conversations.
Oberlin is a tough place sometimes. For some, staying at Oberlin for four years (or whatever time is necessary to complete your degree) is the best option. Not for me. It is easy to get used to Oberlin’s bubble, often finding yourself immersed in different literature and having discussions on issues that are rampant in other sections of the world. The hard thing is to go out into the world to experience some of the issues that we spend hours learning about. Lately, colleagues of mine have shared their experiences and interpretations of Oberlin’s unofficial slogan “Think one person can change the world? So do we” (which I recommend you take a look at - they are worth the read: Oberlin College Blogs). If we are destined to be change agents in the world we live in today, it is imperative for us to step away from the comfort we find at Oberlin to expose us to the real-life circumstances happening in the world. That is why I had to get out of Oberlin for some time.
Making a Decision
First, I’d like to acknowledge the immense privilege many Obies have regarding travel away or abroad to another state or country for a study away experience. As I learned during my time away in spring of 2017, there are both seen and unforeseen costs associated with traveling that makes study away programs unaffordable, especially for low-income students. Traveling also sometimes requires a student to acquire a visa and to possess the ‘proper’ citizen documentation that is not universal, which makes it impossible to study away for undocumented students. I had not traveled often growing up for various reasons and heard about the opportunities students have to travel while in college, which I wanted to take full advantage of.
I researched programs of interest to me during the summer of 2016 and began drafting the statements associated with the individual programs I intended to apply to. At the start of the fall semester of that year, I applied to three programs: one in Spain, another in Cuba, and the last one in Central America. I committed to the latter after learning more about the programs and realized traveling to three countries that are in our backyard is a better fit for me. I had minimal knowledge of Central America, which was an issue. The countries in that region are rich in culture and do not get the recognition and respect that they deserve.
Learning Historical Truths
You might wonder, “So what was your time like in Central America, Brian?” Great question. You should check out my personal study away blog here: Bri Guy's Life Abroad in Central America. I had a great time. It was a tough learning experience, but I witnessed some of the most beautiful mountains and lakes, and met some of the kindest and complex people, while I was there. I learned about Guatemalan, Costa Rican, and Nicaraguan culture, dialect, customs, and their respective political and economic histories. Before I delve into that, I must acknowledge the folks who hosted me during my travels. All of the families I stayed with opened their homes to me and ensured that I was comfortable despite being in unfamiliar terrain. I was fluent in Spanish, which made communication between them and me easier, but their generosity was incomparable to any I’ve ever experienced before. They deserve praise and recognition for the knowledge I acquired and experiences I had while abroad.
Upon arrival in Guatemala, I noticed some of the similarities in the architecture of the houses and streets that I experienced in my previous trips to Mexico. Such infrastructure made me feel right at home, and I caught myself making comparisons between Guatemala and Mexico, but I felt I was limiting myself from learning about Guatemala by comparing it to my familiarity with Mexico. I stopped doing that a couple days in and it helped facilitate a learning experience and appreciation for the nuances of Guatemala’s culture and history. I first learned about Guatemala’s thirty-six-year civil war between the military and guerrilla fighters between 1960-1996. There was bloodshed, corruption, and a deep humanitarian crisis. I learned about the hope some Guatemalan folk had for a more just government and living conditions in the country during and post-civil war, as well as some of the first-hand experiences of pain and deception they had in their fight towards a more just world for them. This, of course, was a common narrative for other Central American countries. Other countries experienced severe internal conflicts between the government and the people. For example, the Sandinista revolution in 1979 that fought against an established Somoza dictatorship in Nicaragua. El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, and other countries faced similar deadly and disastrous wars. The common thread? United States influence, participation, and funding of the wars, poverty, and corruption…
For the entire journey, the people I spoke with generally inferred that I was American. I was tall, bulky, and had an accent, which led to me being called a gringo. “Pero eres de los buenos/ but you’re one of the good ones,” my host mom in Costa Rica said over a dinner conversation about the ways the United States has impacted the country politically and economically. The family there has been hosting students for over twenty-five years simply because they believe it is important to have more American folks visit and learn about the impact our beloved country has had on theirs and their neighboring countries. I was fortunate enough to be one of the many students to have stayed and spoken with them. But, it was difficult to know what my place was. I understood some of their sentiments because some of the emotional baggage I felt from their stories I had heard in my own family’s stories. But I am Mexican American, so I carry the privilege and complicity of being an American.
It’s been a year since my journey in Central America started. A year since I met the group of friends with whom I shared my experiences. A year since I expanded my knowledge of another section of the world. The takeaways I had throughout the journey influenced my understanding of the current American discourse on immigration today. We find ourselves in a political turmoil where the two dominant parties are using immigrant lives, primarily those south of the United States border, as pieces on a chess board. But politicians on both sides don’t know how to play this game of chess that requires us to understand the deep historical ties the United States has with countries where immigrants are born and that it is not illegal to flee the violence, colorism, and poverty rampant in their countries. It is a time where DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) and TPS (Temporary Protected Status) recipients must be protected, and the passing of a clean Dream Act MUST occur. A year ago today, I wouldn’t have understood the complexity of the situation we find ourselves in today, but my experience abroad and the stories of those deeply affected by the social injustices discussed in this post have better influenced my understanding of the world.
Ah, what a year it's been! A year of growth. For Obies and prospective Obies reading this, I strongly encourage you to study away if you are able to. It will truly enhance your Oberlin education.
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