Alyssah Brown ’18 arrived in Guatemala expecting to learn about its history, people and culture. She did – exploring the Mayan ruins in Tikal, touring an art gallery in Guatemala City and visiting a Mayan women weavers’ cooperative on the shores of Lake Atitlán. Yet Brown’s experience went much deeper than that. She also saw children in the streets, selling small items like gum and bracelets and braiding tourists’ hair to help support their families. The desperation in their eyes as they worked to sustain life in extreme poverty was, in a word, “humbling.” Brown now knows that what she witnessed up close was the impact of globalization on the Guatemalan people, particularly the indigenous population. What she saw in sometimes shocking detail was the growing gap between rich and poor, and the ways in which economic divides can lead to social, cultural and political ones. Those lessons have transformed the DeRuyter, N.Y., native in ways she never could have imagined.
“It’s important to break out of your comfort zone and experience things that help you grow as a person and expand your worldview,” she said, reflecting back on the experience. “It helps you become more independent and self-reliant – and self-aware.”
Brown was one of 12 Le Moyne students who journeyed from Syracuse to Guatemala as part of an honors and CORE course titled Encountering the Other. Led by Associate Professor of Spanish Orlando Ocampo, Ph.D., and Associate Professor of Sociology and Political Science Matthew Loveland, Ph.D., the interdisciplinary class gives students a greater appreciation for the different ways in which people express their humanity, and a deeper understanding of the causes of inequality, exploitation and oppression. Brown and her classmates learned about Guatemala. But more important, they learned to think beyond the world they know, to challenge long-held assumptions, and to become comfortable with the unfamiliar.
Over the course of approximately three weeks, the students explored a range of issues connected to the Ignatian ideal of social justice, and delved into literature centered on those themes. They began to see the world from a different perspective, particularly that of people facing racism and classism, and to wrestle with questions of modernization, underdevelopment and dependency. With backgrounds as varied as biology, English, criminology, and peace and global studies, the undergraduates brought a variety of diverse perspectives to their classroom discussions. The country itself and their experiences became the students’ most important tools. They went from merely “visiting” the nation to “thinking carefully and critically” about what they saw and experienced in it, Loveland explained. As they did they forged an understanding that leads to greater solidarity.
“I hope that students remember to be aware of the lives of those around them, on a global scale,” Loveland said. “We are just a very small part of the world and we sometimes forget that. I hope they remember the value of thinking about the modern world from that perspective.”
For Nathan Wendel ’19, a business analytics and management and leadership major from Cazenovia, N.Y., the experience taught him to think critically about the root causes of poverty in countries like Guatemala and not to look for simple, temporary solutions to them.
“I think about the world differently now,” he said. “I am able to understand how interactions between two different cultures can bring about long-lasting effects, both good and bad.”
It has long been known that study abroad programs can enhance students’ understanding of a foreign language, improve their knowledge of the host culture, and even transform their perception of the world. Yet according to The Chronicle of Higher Education, less than 1 percent of American college students study abroad each year. Of those who do, almost one-third enroll in programs that take place in English-speaking countries or that use English as the language of instruction. Short-term study abroad opportunities such as the one Ocampo and Loveland led can make studying in a foreign country less intimidating and more feasible than long-term ones. In fact, the report in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that they can aid students in challenging their assumptions, gathering and interpreting data, and using the data to reach a better understanding of their own role in a globalized society.
Encountering the Other was created in 2000 by Professor of Philosophy Mario Sáenz, Ph.D., precisely to provide students with the opportunity to experience life in a developing part of the world where English is not the predominant language. The College’s president at the time, the late Charles Beirne, S.J., had spent several years living in Central America, including Guatemala, where he served as the vice president of Rafael Landivar University. He was passionate about helping students learn more about Central America, and helped to establish a fund to support the course. Today more than 150 students have traveled to Guatemala as part of the class.
“One of our challenges as educators is to move through the fog of stereotypes about people because of their culture, their poverty, their ethnicity or their gender,” Saenz said. “When it comes to the people of the regions of the global South, our students often learn from the media, the State Department, and strong economic interests that people from those regions can be understood only as consumers or producers of economic goods, as victims of poverty produced by acts of nature, chance, or inscrutable providence, or as an enemy to be defeated by military force or economic blockade. Those ways of misunderstanding others are harmful intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.”
As she looks to the future, student Alyssah Brown is eager to establish a career as a police officer or advocate for victims of crime. True to the Ignatian ideals she developed on the Heights, she is passionate about justice and building and promoting safe, stable communities. Whatever path she takes, though, she knows that the lesson she learned in Guatemala will continue to serve her well: “Individuals we claim are ‘others’ really aren’t that much different than us and it’s imperative to remember that.”