What has inspired you to pursue a career in study abroad?
I actually got into study abroad somewhat by accident, when the sister of a friend of mine was looking for someone to replace her leading a group from Guilford College to Guadalajara for a semester.
I was already living in Mexico, and they gave me the job. Later while living in Xalapa I learned that BCA was looking for a Resident Director here, and leapt at the chance, especially when I learned of BCA’s commitment to peace and social justice, which had always been of special interest to me.
In my 15 years I have found great satisfaction in helping students to overcome initial hesitations to really grow in confidence to become truly international individuals.
Why is cultural immersion important to you?
Without true cultural immersion, a student’s time abroad is closer to tourism than it is to real cultural learning. Cultural immersion is central to really coming to understand not just how a certain culture behaves, but to understand WHY it does what it does, how it sees relationships between people, how the world is organized, etc.
Until the student understands these things from a different cultural context, he/she is still inside a cultural box. It is only after experiencing how a different society or culture goes about organizing their world, the whole concept that there are multiple valid ways of relating to the world becomes apparent.
What was your favorite travel experience?
Not sure what to answer for this one. So I am going to do both personal travel and student travel. They are both VERY different experiences.
Personal travel experience.
After graduating from college my girlfriend and I headed out to do the traditional “backpack Europe” routine. After a couple of months she returned to the states, but I kept traveling, through Spain, into Morocco, and back up to Seville, where my backpack was stolen.
It was the best thing that could have happened to me. I no longer had to carry around a heavy backpack with lots of stuff. I carried an extra pair of pants and two spare shirts (one of which doubled as my towel) in a potato sack.
I rolled an old blanket up in a foam pad to sleep with. For the next 4 months I was a vagabond hitch-hiking through southern Europe and parts of North Africa, sleeping wherever I could, spending an average of $10 USD a day. It was extremely liberating, and I still consider those to be my glory days.
Travel experience with students.
There have been many “epic” excursions with my students, especially week-long trips through the Yucatán Peninsula or around the state of Chiapas.
But perhaps the most impressive trip was a short weekend excursion to visit a group of women known as “Las Patronas”. Las Patronas are a group of women in a very small town near Córdoba, Veracruz, that live along the side of the railroad tracks.
Many years ago they noticed the many migrants from southern Mexico and Central America who ride the train called “The Beast” on their way north.
More importantly, they realized that these poor migrants often had not eaten in days. So these women began preparing packages of food and water to hand out as The Beast goes by. They have continued to do this every single day for the last 20 years, and our visit (and participation) with them was inspirational on very many levels.
What is the best story you’ve heard from a student of your program after they’ve returned to the USA?
There is really no single best story I could relate – because each story is so important and central to each student that relates it, so for each, it is there best.
I have heard from students that went on to join the peace corps; who are in the states applying what they learned here in grass-roots community development organizations or working with migrants (they have worked with migrants on both sides of the border, actually); a student who after her time in Mexico went on to travel much of the world, and now lives in Jerusalem: “You taught me to travel”, she told me.
A student who after doing volunteer work here found the courage to tell her traditional father that she wasn’t going to be a doctor, she was going to study law and help migrants. How could any one of these stories be “the best”?
What positive changes do you notice in your students during their time studying abroad?
At the end of every semester I ask my students to tell me what the most important thing they got out of the semester was. The answers vary widely, of course, as they should.
The ability to speak Spanish and communicate well with people from another culture at or near fluency was important to many.
But others talked about discovering new aspects of themselves; of new-found independence and confidence; of new interests and new directions to take their lives; or even of realizing that they had limited themselves and how they lived in the past, but were more open now.
Others talked about having a new international appreciation and perspective, a new global outlook. Certainly time living and studying abroad can be very useful not only for learning about another culture, but also for learning about and fine-tuning oneself as well.