Culture Comes Alive

Arianna Jesanis '11 in Costa Rica.


Education never takes a holiday. Just ask Aleksandra Wojtalewicz. She knew her world had changed when a routine stop at the store left the international relations graduate student shaken. She’d just returned from an Intersession immersion trip to El Salvador.

“I went with my mom to Costco, and I didn’t know what to do,” she recounts. “The amount of food in the store would have fed the whole village for a month.”

Residents of Guarjila, a remote village near the Honduras border, hosted Wojtalewicz and nearly a dozen USD students and staff for part of their trip in January 2010.

“It was one of the villages that suffered greatly during their civil war,” she says. Thirty years later, the community still makes an indelible impression on visitors. “The village was everything in one. We learned the history of the country and the culture, learned about the war and its effect on the people. Staying with the families and gaining insight into their lives was very powerful.”

First-year SOLES doctoral student Alan Yu, 33, prides himself on preparedness, but he stepped way out of his comfort zone during an Intersession Nonprofits in Civil Society course. He wound up falling in love with Guatemala.

“There’s definitely a little apprehension going to another country for the first time,” Yu says. “You don’t know the culture, you don’t know what the norms are. The idea is you have to go into a culture and have an open mind. I fell in love with the people and the history.”

Elaine Elliott, departing director of the Center for Community Service-Learning, and Elena McCollim, a Joan B. Kroc Institute for Peace & Justice program officer, taught the class. Elliott, who’s worked and lived in Guatemala, says students learn how to make positive social change. She says Guatemala offers much: “The students are exposed to a rich culture, but also high poverty and people who have suffered incredibly due to the conflicts they’ve been through. Yet they have a lot of courage and hope; the students are always transformed seeing that.”

“Pura vida” (pure life), is how Mark Ceder, outreach coordinator of the Experiential Learning and Adventure Center, describes the center’s spring break eco-adventure trip to Costa Rica. Among activities like a ride on a canopy zip-line and a volcano tour, they also explored the jungle of the Cabecar Trail, home to the Cabecar Indians, considered among the most remote indigenous people in Central America. That’s where the USD group, accompanied by tour guides with a strong relationship with the tribe, set up an eco-camp and made a lasting connection.

“A soccer match was played in camp with the USD students, our guides and the Cabecar kids,” Ceder says. “Three languages were spoken and lots of laughter was heard.”

Oh in between? Lessons that will last a lifetime. — Ryan T. Blystone

Pictured: Arianna Jesanis ’11 in Costa Rica.

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