The question comes to me from a blogger in Orange County, CA, who has a following in her own blog from ex-patriots all over the world. What did you learn from your students in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast?
First of all, you need to know about the Goshen College Study-Service Term (SST). This program, begun in 1968, is unique in American higher education. First, it is a general education requirement. That means the vast majority of students study abroad for one semester. Second, it takes place in a significantly different (not junior year abroad in Europe!) culture from that of the U.S. (right now that means Jamaica, Peru, China) and over the years students have studied in more than 15 countries. And third, it includes some kind of service–a mini-Peace Corps-like experience.
My husband Stuart and I were faculty leaders in Haiti 1981-82.
We had another group of Haiti SSTers whose picture I could not locate. Anyone reading this post who has such a picture–please send it!
Below is our Ivory Coast group (1993).
A number of our students during these three semesters are now our friends on Facebook. I invite them to make comments on what they now value about the experience, looking back. Here are a few memories labeled by what I learned.
I was 33 years old, the mother of a 5-year-old and a recently minted PhD when our family went to Haiti. I loved the country immediately and was heartbroken by it at the same time. So much poverty and ecological degradation, yet so much beauty, joy, and spiritual energy. When our first group of students disembarked, one month after our own arrival, Stuart, Anthony, and I were excited. We rode with them from the airport to the unit house on the little bus driven by Danilo, our storytelling driver. The students wasted no time in jumping into the new culture. “Bon soir!” they shouted to bystanders as we pulled out of the airport driveway. Soon they were kissing host family members on both checks. And then they were whisked away. They told us tales in their journals of how they learned. Often it was from their younger “brothers” and “sisters” whose simpler vocabularies, patience, and curiosity turned them into great teachers.
Here’s one of those young teachers–Francesca–cavorting in the wild flowers with our son Anthony.
It takes a lot of courage to live in someone else’s home in a strange land, speaking their language imperfectly, and losing the comfort of the familiar. As leaders, we had our own family around us and our own house to live in. Students were quick to point out that they were subject to more culture shock than we were due to these facts. They were right. Of course, it takes a little courage to take on the responsibility of the health, wellbeing, and learning of 12-23 other people, but we didn’t argue about who was braver. We helped each other focus. There were mishaps of all kinds from the minor cuts and scrapes to some truly scary situations. And some students were struggling with difficulties at home that we knew only superficially. But every student taught us something about our own fears and how to face them.
Students read their journals aloud in some of our meetings. We would laugh and cry together, releasing fear and gathering strength from each other. I remember stories about witnessing a beating, seeing vigilante justice in the streets, trying to explain complicated ideas in French and feeling like a fool, feelings of anger toward “ugly Americans” on cruise ships who tossed quarters into the ocean to watch the poor Haitians dive for them. Students absorbed these shocks and found equilibrium in the midst of great change. We admired them and found it easy to put our arms around them, literally and figuratively.
We were not experts in almost anything on SST. We were not excellent speakers of French or Creole. We were not anthropologists or comparative religion or literature savants. We were instead immersed, like the students themselves, in reading as much as we could about the culture, making friends at the university with professors who lectured on their specialties to all of us. We learned that we could be servants of our students in facilitating learning and that as they learned something new, we did also.
Students also learned humility. The majority of them were white and the majority of the host country citizens were black. The complications of navigating racial difference in this setting helped them become more aware of what it feels like to be in a minority. The perceptions of America abroad, often created by television and movies, made it hard for our students to feel understood as individuals rather than types. This, too, was humbling.
The most important lesson our students taught us was love. At the end of every semester, after students had returned from spending six weeks in the villages and towns outside the capitol city, they greeted us and each other with shouts of joy and tears of gratitude for all that they had learned. They shared stories of looking up at the stars at night through the open roof of a shack and feeling wonder–wealth–in the midst of what would have seemed like deprivation before. They told us of the farewells they had experienced as a whole village walked with them, carrying their bags to the bus station, and they marveled at the way their complicated lives had simplified when there was time to talk and walk and experience nature. Sometimes they told us they felt wrapped in God’s love and in the prayers of friends and family even in the loneliest, scariest times. Othertimes, they trusted us with the depth of their despair–another form of love. They thanked us for being their surrogate parents, cultural guides, nurses and doctors, guidance counselors, and friends. We thanked them for their resilience, curiosity, comradeship, energy, and insight.
But we can never thank them, and the people of Haiti and Cote d”Ivoire who shared their lives with us, enough. We lived enough in these three semesters to continue learning the rest of our lives.
Thank you, SSTers, wherever you are! And I hope at least a few of you add your own thoughts below.
What have you learned from your experiences in a foreign land, whether on SST or in any other setting?