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Mexico: Summer Service Learning & Language Immersion

Mexico City, Mexico

Leaving Footprints Behind ... Learning Lessons Along the Way

Published: April 24, 2009

Students and faculty from ACM colleges gather at the ACM Off-Campus Study Student Symposium.

Compelling Stories and Thought-Provoking Discussion Highlight Student Symposium

 

Ariana Kiener

When Ariana Kiener (Carleton College) wants to remember the warmth she felt living with a family in a village in Thailand, she touches one of the dozens of strings tied around her wrist – strings given to her by the people she met and lived with – and the memories come flooding back. Pulling at the strings as she spoke, she admitted that "the truth is that I took them out of my drawer before coming to this talk; at first I wore them all the time, but then I had to take them off for rugby practice and after a while stopped putting them back on again."

Ryan Greene (Ripon College) went to Nagasaki eager to make new friends and experience daily life in Japan. He certainly accomplished that. Yet, he found that history kept intruding on the present. Events of World War II – six decades ago, more than a generation before Ryan and his contemporaries were even born – continue to influence personal relationships among Japanese, Chinese, and American students. "How can we understand and move beyond the historical narratives we grow up with in our own culture?" Ryan asks.

In her first trip outside the U.S., Kathleen Quigley (Monmouth College) traveled to Tanzania, where she counted elephant droppings.  As part of her study to map and understand how elephants damage Africa's signature baobab trees, she also came a bit too close to lions for comfort. And she found beauty in the  craggy, damaged baobab trees which, she said, "according to local legend were turned upside down by God as punishment for their vanity, leaving them looking like roots sticking up in the air."

 

Ryan Casserly (Colorado College) giving his presentation at the ACM Student Symposium

Ariana, Ryan, and Kathleen were among two dozen students from ACM colleges who shared compelling stories about adventure and discovery, academic and personal growth, and insights gained from off-campus study at the ACM Off-Campus Study Student Symposium in Chicago on April 17-18.

 

Chris Ruder (Beloit College) went to India to gain an understanding of South Indian culture through service learning and community participation. He found, though, that his identity as a Westerner placed him in a different – and personally uncomfortable – role, in which others saw him as an authority rather than as a student. "I always felt like an outsider," he said. Dealing with this experience has been very difficult, says Chris, but has led him to a greater appreciation of the complexity of intercultural perspectives and relations.  "I have to ask" he said in some of the most provocative remarks of the symposium, "whether the inequality and contrast of privilege in study abroad is worth it?"

 

The locations and focus of the students’ off-campus study varied widely: interviewing migrant workers on coffee plantations in Costa Rica, studying killer whales in the San Juan Islands near Seattle, working on development projects in Kenya, and studying the Italian Renaissance in Florence, to name just a few examples.

 

Reflecting on her off-campus studies in Argentina and Spain, Polly Young (Knox College) said, "Travel changes you. As you move through life and experience what the world has to offer, you leave your footprints behind and, in return, you learn lessons along the way. These lessons can be beautiful and even sometimes painful, but upon reflection they provide deeper levels of understanding that continue to inform the way you view the world, address future situations, and live your life."

 

"Rich and illuminating" discussions

The Student Symposium was a showcase of liberal arts education and the transformative effects of off-campus study. The students, selected by their colleges and accompanied by faculty members from their campuses, gave presentations about their experiences and engaged in thought-provoking panel discussions on questions that arose from their presentations, such as:

  • A panel discussion at the ACM Student Symposium

    In what ways does encountering another culture cause us to look inside ourselves and examine our assumptions and perspectives?
  • How does research done off-campus relate to courses and research on-campus?
  • How do students deal with the challenges of off-campus study, such as learning to live every day at a different pace, or facing unfamiliar or ambiguous situations?
  • What are some of the effects of “place” on the type of research projects chosen on an off-campus program?

"The different experiences and perspectives offered by symposium participants highlighted the many pragmatic, theoretical, and ethical questions raised through study abroad, and created the opportunity for especially rich and illuminating (though not always easy) conversations," said Natalie Gummer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at Beloit College and a moderator for one of the panel discussions.

"On the subject of 'development,' for instance, student perspectives diverged greatly," Gummer noted. "Some students discussed it as an unquestioned good, the benefits of which they witnessed clearly in their studies abroad. Others articulated quite subtle distinctions among different forms of development, asserting the value of empowering local communities to design and work towards goals set by the communities themselves. Still others questioned the very notion of 'development' – the assumptions about progress that underlie its trajectory, the deep privileging of Western economic and political models in determining what it means to 'develop,' the ethical dilemmas raised by the bare fact that so many American students are able to enter, explore, and depart from communities in which reciprocal opportunities very seldom exist. The conversations among these perspectives were as valuable as they were challenging."

Speakers highlight collaboration and a "daring experiment"

The Symposium began with a reception and dinner featuring three guest speakers who talked about the long-term benefits of consortial collaboration in off-campus study, faculty development, and other areas.

Steven Schutt, President of Lake Forest College

Lake Forest President Steven Schutt highlighted the importance of small, liberal arts colleges to our society. Speaking of ACM colleges specifically, he noted the vital connections that ACM provides and the many ways that those connections enrich the colleges, especially the collaboration that provides a range of off-campus study opportunties that individual institutions might not be able to offer.

The theme of enrichment was continued by ACM President Emerita Elizabeth Hayford, who pointed out ways that ACM’s off-campus study programs enhance the academic curricula of the individual colleges. Among other examples, she discussed how ACM programs in Russia and Zimbabwe during the 1990s supported curricular development and faculty expertise on ACM campuses.

Jody Kretzmann, a founding faculty member of the ACM Urban Studies program, talked about the challenges and excitement of creating an urban-focused program in Chicago in the midst of the tumultuous events of 1968. It was, he noted, a daring experiment at that time to make the city into the classroom – to bring students to Chicago and have them explore and learn firsthand from people engaged in the life of the city, from political leaders to community activists to people on welfare.

The Student Symposium was the culminating event in the celebration of ACM’s 50th Anniversary. As a consortium and individually, the ACM colleges have been leaders in making off-campus study a central element of undergraduate education. ACM has operated international and domestic programs since the early 1960s.

More about the Symposium:

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Christina Moore My experience in Mexico was deeper and richer than I ever could have expected. I had a fantastic host family that taught me so much about the language, the culture, the city, and even about myself. My language skills have improved, I met so many wonderful people, and I had a great experience during my internship, which was both challenging and fun. Mexico City is a beautiful place with endless opportunities and the people are welcoming and friendly. It was an experience I'll never forget and that I'll continue to draw upon both academically and personally.

—Christina Moore, Mexico, Summer 2010

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