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Solidarity: A different kind of international education

The other day I ran into a professor from Japan. Our chance meeting would have been unremarkable except for the fact that my wife and I, upon meeting the professor, had found ourselves completely lost on a road that rounds the Laguna de Apoyo, a crater lake about 50 miles outside of Managua, Nicaragua. Nowhere near our intended destination, we were desperate for a guide, having placed too much faith in a GPS unit that preferred cliffside routes instead of highways.

The Japanese professor, an expert in epidemiology who teaches at a local university, insisted he drive with us until we reached a certain Ceiba tree, where we needed to take a left toward the highway. Grateful for his kindness and amazed at our luck, I was (for the umpteenth time) reminded that we truly live in a globalized world.

Before getting lost on an inactive volcano this winter, it had been over 12 years since I had visited Nicaragua, which holds the grim designation as the second poorest country in the Western hemisphere, right after Haiti. Historians and guidebooks both point to a confluence of causes for its poverty, from its geographic vulnerability to destructive earthquakes and hurricanes to the reverberating legacies of colonialism, dictatorship and civil war.

Archeology museum in Rivas, Nicaragua

The archeology museum in Rivas, Nicaragua. The American filibuster William Walker was defeated here in 1856.

As an undergraduate attending Loyola University in New Orleans, I had been fortunate enough to spend three weeks living with a campesino family near Los Pueblos Blancos, a series of towns known for their whitewashed Catholic churches. A handful of other students and I, accompanied by a priest and a nun from Loyola, were graciously invited to share in the community of El Arenal and its local cooperative, the Arenal Solidarity Group.

There, members of the co-op explained how they participated in the popular uprising of the 1980s and struggled to rebuild after Hurricane Mitch hit hard in the late 1990s. We were feted by the co-0p’s traditional dance group, visited their community-run pharmacy, and learned about their women’s and children’s empowerment groups.

The most powerful and lasting memories, however, were formed during my everyday encounters with the family who shared their multigenerational home with me. From being taught how to catch hens by the children to enjoying warm rice and beans cooked over an open hearth and catching up on the telenovelas at night, I will never forget the generosity of the Nicaraguan family that “adopted” me.

I will also never forget some of the lessons I learned in Nicaragua and elsewhere in the global south, including El Salvador and even New Orleans:

  • that notions of meritocracy and equality of opportunity, which are so prevalent in the United States, are largely myths;
  • that being poor is, as Barbara Ehrenreich once put it, not a flaw of character but rather a lack of money;
  • and that the way of solidarity can be a strong counterbalance to our tendencies toward solipsism.

The way of solidarity at DePaul and beyond

Even while the academy acknowledges the importance of intercultural exchange–for example, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has created a model rubric for assessing it–some of its critics, including those who are responsible for creating such programs, characterize many trips abroad as more alcohol-fueled spring breaks than time dedicated to serious learning and exchange. Indeed, the topic of Americans studying abroad has been a frequent target of The Onion, our country’s satirical paper of record (see here and here).

There are a number of way for students to engage in an authentic cross-cultural exchanges and there need not be a one-size-fits-all approach. A student considering study abroad should consider how different programs fit with their academic focus, professional aspirations, intellectual curiosity, and more.

San Jorge, Nicaragua

A man watches an inbound ferry from Ometepe navigate the port of San Jorge, Nicaragua.

One approach that deserves consideration–and one that is rooted in the rich tradition of Catholic social teaching–is the way of solidarity. In this sense, solidarity is the recognition of our inter-dependence on one another and the need for us to work toward the common good.

Solidarity can be enacted in countless ways, both big and small, but there are a few particular opportunities to do so when considering international education, both here at DePaul and beyond:

At DePaul

Short-duration trips that offer students and faculty/staff mentors opportunities to engage with marginalized communities in the United States and abroad.

A DePaul-sponsored study abroad opportunity in Merida, Mexico, where students attend the Autonomous University of the Yucatan and live with host families from a variety of backgrounds.

A collaboration between the College of Modern Languages and the Steans Center that offers students Spanish instruction, weekly conversations with native Spanish speakers, and service learning opportunities catering to Chicago’s diverse Latino community.

Beyond DePaul

  • Casa de la Solidaridad Network

Community-based study abroad opportunities in El Salvador (sponsored by Santa Clara University), the Philippines (University of San Francisco), and Argentina (Loyola University Marymount). I am an alum of the El Salvador program and highly recommend it!

Community-based study abroad programs in Mexico and Cuba that focus on social movements (Mexico) and politics, history and culture (Cuba). Students live with host families and have the opportunity to participate in a re-entry program based in Chicago.

Students interested in applying for national awards that provide financial support for international education and/or post-graduate study, such as the Fulbright and Marshall scholarships, are encouraged to prepare their materials early and begin forging relationships with professors now, if they haven’t done so already.

Do you know of any other good opportunities for your students to consider? Please share in a comment below.


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