The Work Is Far From Over: An MPA Student’s Perspective on Service Abroad and Language Barriers

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We are now nearing the end of our third and final week here in Cusco, Peru, and I can hardly believe how quickly the time has passed. Now that our bodies have adjusted to the ebb and flow of Peruvian life (our eyes and ears have begun to readily absorb Spanish, our stomachs have acclimated to big lunches and small dinners, our lungs have adapted to the higher altitude, our legs have strengthened from climbing a montón of stairs), it is hard to imagine another normal. It is inconceivable to think that soon enough we will all be returning to our regular lives in the United States and our time in Peru will be but a memory, with nothing but our pictures and souvenirs to complement what we may inevitably forget. To me, that is always the most surreal part about going abroad – your environment and therefore your reality changes in the instant that you step off the plane.

 

So what?

When it comes to going abroad, especially participating in service abroad, coming home poses an obstacle in that once we return to our home environments, the lasting impressions of our time abroad may be lost. There has been a lot of emphasis placed on this phenomenon, and how it is important for us to retain what we have learned abroad once we return home. I am reminded particularly of our experience in Saylla with the organization Corazón de Dahlia. The professors and students of the organization held a small thank you ceremony for us on our last day of service and Laura, the director, had a few choice parting words for us. She urged us to keep Corazón de Dahlia in our memories and our hearts, and to recognize that once we leave Saylla, our work with the organization is far from over. There are many ways that we can continue to support the organization when we return to the United States. The founder of Corazón de Dahlia is a Binghamton University alumna, and so there is an associate student philanthropic group on campus that raises money to send to Saylla. By participating in the Binghamton chapter of Corazón de Dahlia, not only will we be able to reinforce our memories and experiences in Saylla, but also, we can ensure our service there will perpetuate into the future.

 

In addition to this valuable lesson about continuing service work past our time abroad, I also learned a lot about the importance of communication when it comes to implementing service. There was one student at Corazón de Dahlia who stood out to me in particular who was from a nearby rural community, and his primary language was Quechua. A large population in Peru speaks Quechua, however, many of them are bilingual and speak Spanish as well. Although the young boy understood Spanish, he had trouble speaking it, and as a result, he experienced communication difficulties as activities were directed and implemented in Spanish. Luckily, Laura spoke Quechua and was able to serve as a mediator between him and the other students and professors. I have had the privilege of being able to study Quechua during my time in Cusco, and so I had many opportunities to practice with him during our time in Saylla. The young boy, in addition to other bilingual students at the organization, expressed great surprise and excitement over the few Quechua words and phrases I could muster. They were eager to speak with me and teach me about their language that possesses so much inherent cultural importance to them.

 

Now what?

When I first began my Quechua classes, my professor, Ursula, a well-known anthropologist and Quechua teacher in Cusco, expressed to me the importance of speaking Quechua in her field. She asserted that her ability to speak Quechua grants her a level of communication with the indigenous peoples that could otherwise not be attained. By speaking their language, she is able to express a sense of community, respect, and understanding. As a result, she does not appear as some outsider seeking to ogle and probe them and their culture, but rather, someone who seeks to truly understand and learn from them.

 

As a future public administrator, I take this to be a very valuable lesson that I will carry with me throughout my career. Service abroad can be very fleeting and impersonal, and has the potential to lend itself to the savior-complex. This can be avoided through dedication to understanding the people who you are seeking to help. Speaking their language, in my opinion, is one of the most profound ways of expressing this dedication because it requires commitment, respect, and appreciation. Prior to coming to Cusco, our group spent many hours researching, discussing, and writing about the culture of Peru, and I believe that experience set a solid foundation for effective service.

Juliana Pereira

B.A. Spanish Language and Literature, Binghamton University 2017
Master of Public Administration Candidate, Binghamton University 2018

 

 

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