Students connect with SUNY alum in Peru and explore more service-learning abroad

What? 

In our first week in Cusco, Peru, we collaborated with a community organization called AbrePuertas (in English, AbrePuertas literally translates to Open Doors). The organization is located in Coya District, which is about an hour drive from where we live in the metropolis of Cusco. During our service event at AbrePuertas, we learned that the organization was started by Ellyn, who is a SUNY Geneseo alumna. Her aim for the organization is to provide educational opportunities to children and adolescents in the Coya region as a result of the lack of opportunities available to the population.

On Wednesday, June 8, we were scheduled for our first day of service at AbrePuertas. After class ended at 11 a.m., we took about an hour and forty-five minutes to rest and grab lunch. At 1 p.m., our group separated into two vans and departed for Coya for the first time. When we arrived in Coya, we first took some time to unpack, apply sunscreen and bug spray, snap photos of the surrounding area and use the restroom at the nearby municipality building before we sat in for the orientation. For our project, Elllyn informed us that we would be split into two teams for each day that we will be working in the Coya community (June 8-10). According to her instructions, half of the group would partake in repairing a small building located fifteen minutes uphill from the AbrePuertas center, in the community of Huaynapata. Abre Puertas has been holding mobile libraries at the community, but didn’t have an indoor space from which to guide conduct those activities.

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The first team of Binghamton students was responsible for a number of tasks, which included scraping, sanding, and painting the walls. The same team was also responsible for sweeping the floor inside the building, cleaning and wiping the windows, and removing cobwebs from corners and edges around the building.

The other half of the group was instructed to partake in sports activities with schoolchildren on the soccer field located next to the house that is being repaired. The second team participated in sports such as soccer, football and volleyball. In addition to sports, the organization also provided a jump rope, a parachute, rings and cones, and books for additional activities with the schoolchildren. With organized teams in place for our first service project, we were also informed by Elllyn that we were able to switch our roles every day so that every student in our group could have the opportunity to gain the full service-learning experience.

Benjamin Edwards, one of the few MPA students on the trip, had some symptoms of altitude sickness (headache, shortness of breath and dizziness). He discussed with Professor Giovanna Montenegro, who made contact with a doctor for medical attention. She stayed with Benjamin while he caught some rest and the two eventually made it to the field of service after about 40-50 minutes. By the end of our service project with AbrePuertas, we were all fairly exhausted from the many activities that we participated in, but more importantly, we gained an invaluable experience and a clearer outlook of the underprivileged world that stands in stark contrast to communities in the United States.

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So What? 

Although we took three long and intensive Saturday classes in Binghamton to learn about Peruvian culture, literature and history prior to our departure, we realized that after working with AbrePuertas that our “American” and individual habits are constantly resurfacing in our everyday experiences. The experience of not being in a familiar environment often stands out and causes us to feel a certain way, such as discomfort or frustration, because of our lack of adjustment to Cuscqueño society. One aspect that we learned at AbrePuertas is that the need to change is inevitable if we want to truly be culturally competent and assimilated into another society. An example of an experience that we did not expect to see in Coya was children playing and laying on the ground, which is often covered with litter and feces from animals such as dogs. At the same time that the children were rolling around in dirt, they were also participating in the activities that we have planned for them, which involved human contact with us. After acknowledging that such a behavior was the norm in the area, we had to let down our guards and withdraw from our mindset that being physically “dirty” is a direct impact to our cleanliness, in which many Americans often take for granted. In that sense, we brought home an invaluable lesson from AbrePuertas that week, which was that we must first be open to change and then be able to embrace it if we wish to truly immerse and gain the richness and excitement of another culture.

Benjamin was seen by a doctor the evening of Wednesday, June 8, who recommended that he leave Cusco for the United States as a precautionary step to avoid many complications associated with altitude sickness, end product of which could be catastrophic. He left Cusco for the United States on Thursday, June 9 and arrived on Friday, June 10 at 9:30am.

Now What? (Benjamin)

Manshui and I are completing our blog post at the moment. Though I am in Johnson City, New York, we are collaborating and exchanging ideas for the blog over the internet (emails, WhatsApp, text messaging, etc). While pondering on the experience so far – from the landscape reflecting agricultural practices of small plots versus our American way of large fields of a single crop, to the labor being supplied by humans and animals rather than machines in the United States, along with poorer people forced to live and farm higher up on the mountains where the soil is less rich – I see some similarities, though in a different degree, to the racial minorities in the United States. Residential segregation and poverty have left African Americans and Latinos and other racial minorities in some of the least desirable housing in some of the lowest-resourced communities in the U.S. In addition to much higher poverty rates, African Americans and Latinos live in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty. Recent research suggests that children in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty experience more social and behavioral problems, have lower test scores, and are more likely to drop out of school.

As an MPA student preparing for a career in local/state/federal government, this experience has reignited the desire to highlight on some of these issues to provide opportunities for honest conversations. My host family mentioned robbery in certain areas in Cusco – and of course we were told time and again during our Saturdays class prior to the trip about this as well. Similar problem exists in the U.S in certain areas with low socioeconomic status. It is therefore important to understand that continually skewed distributions of wealth breed conditions that ultimately affect our entire society. Thus, society benefits from an increased focus on the foundations of socioeconomic inequities and its correlates, such as racial and ethnic discrimination. The experience has really fired-up my desire to work toward reduction of the deep gaps in socioeconomic status in the United States.

In addition, the U.S is a nation of nations, made up of people from every land, of every race and practicing every faith, including Peru. Rather than trying to assimilate the immigrants into the American culture, the current view holds the United States needs to celebrate the differences. In 2042, it is projected that racial and ethnic minorities in the United States will become a majority, and the working age population (18-24) will cross that threshold three years earlier (Bazar and Overberg, 2008). Immigrants from Latin America is the largest minority group in the United States. Here again, as a graduate student with a career interest in local, state, or federal government, this experience is a good step in preparing to handle diversity in the workforce. I am now in a better position to understand and see things from the Peruvian or South American perspective than ever before. My experience so far has made me realize how similar expressions mean different things in Peru and the U.S. This will help me to be mindful of my choice of words and manner of expressions when dealing with people from different cultural and ethnic backgrounds. I am better prepared now to handle workforce diversity than before. I am certain my managerial behavior will embody multicultural significance in a variety of ways and a variety of formats.

Benjamin Edwards and Manshui Lam, MPA students

 

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