Service Learning in Mexico

This summer I traveled to San Cristobal de las Casas, a small city located in Chiapas, Mexico for a seven week, faculty led study abroad program. This program was undoubtedly one of the best experiences I have ever had and even two months later, I still think about it and miss it all every day.3One of the most unique aspects of this program was the two-week service learning portion. Each student was assigned an organization to work with in or around San Cristobal and was partnered with a Mexican student who was working on the project long-term. I worked with another student from San Cristobal at a small school in Zinacantan, a neighboring Mayan community. The school, Yo’onik (Yo’onik is Tzotil for ‘heart’), is a non-profit that provides remedial education for students for just as small fee (it is free on Saturday though so every child has an opportunity to attend at least once a week). It is entirely operated by volunteers and funds from donors.

This project definitely pushed me way out of my comfort zone. During these two weeks, I generally had the mornings free because the children did not arrive to their classes until 1. I ended up being able to spend that extra time hanging out with my host family or with my service learning partner exploring the city and the areas around San Cristobal. For almost two weeks, I was spending the majority of my time with people who did not know English and I was forced to really push myself in trying to learn and improve my own Spanish skills.

5In the afternoons, we would take one of the vans or cars that drive up to Zinacantan to start teaching classes. The first week I helped my project partner teach classes on the environment. The kids were enthusiastic to learn and although they were a little shy around me at first, it did not last long. We would spend recess playing tag and hide-and-go-seek or I would just monitor them as they played and pretended on a playground made completely out of tires.

After classes, we would plan the lesson for the next day and make all the materials necessary—the school does not have a lot of resources so making materials for the students required a lot of creativity. I would usually get back to the center in San Cristobal around 5 or 6 which left the evening free for exploring. One of my more memorable evenings was climbing to the top of a huge hill where the Iglesia de Guadalupe sits and watching the sun-set over the mountains surrounding San Cristobal. I am easily overwhelmed by the beauty of the world, but there really was something magical in the peace of that evening.

The next week of my service learning project was a little bit different. My project partner asked me if I would be willing to teach English classes and while there’s not much I could teach the children in a span of a week it was a wonderful experience that pushed me completely out of my comfort zone. Let’s just say we spent a lot of time playing loteria (Bingo) because I will be honest, I’m not exactly what one might refer to as ‘qualified’. But I am hoping the kids got something out of it, even if that was just having fun for a week with a teacher from a different country.2

One of the most interesting things about working in Zinacantan is that the culture there is completely different than it is in San Cristobal. It is a Mayan community that has its own laws and customs apart from the Mexican government. While I was working there, there was a celebration going on. The hill where Yo’Onik sits is considered sacred and as part of a ritual during this celebration, all of the most important political leaders would climb to the top of the hill and a band would play for them. I never figured out why or what the significance was, but it was definitely an interesting experience to have the leaders of Zinacantan standing right outside of our little school.

Another evening, one of the teachers at the school invited us over for coffee and pan dulce. We sat in her kitchen which was made entirely out of adobe while her sisters worked on artesanias to sell all throughout Mexico. The grandmother (I believe) showed me another room where they make and store all of these beautiful pieces of art—everything from purses, to belts, to dolls. I was humbled by their hard work and all of the beautiful things they make with their hands and grateful for their hospitality and for showing me this part of their lives.

The last day of my service learning project I was sick and was not able to go. This is probably my biggest regret (not that I had much control), but I was sad that I could not say goodbye to the kids. They did all write me sweet little notes though and stuck them on a big piece of construction paper. I have it hanging in my bedroom now because it really meant a lot—the whole experience did. Although the service learning portion was only two weeks of the entire program, it definitely impacted me deeply. It was a unique and unforgettable opportunity that I am forever grateful for.4


-Susanna Hedenstrom, Summer 2016

The Genius of Study Abroad: Revolutionary Imagination

I sit here, cramped and crowded, on the plane flying at mind-boggling speeds toward familiar oceans. The window is dark, wet with clouds turning surprisingly quickly into beautiful patterns of ice. I lay my head back and consider the time I have been away from my little corner of the world. I have had the incredible opportunity to travel throughout Europe over these last three weeks, and I have learned a great deal from my adventures and experiences during this time. I have examined in great depth and detail the meaning of “travel” and of “place”, and I have considered what each of those terms means in relation to myself. I have departed Portland, Oregon as one person and left Paris, France entirely another. In order to understand the true meaning of “study abroad”, I have followed in the footsteps of symbols and figures of the world in a myriad of disciplines, and attempted to understand why they chose to go abroad in their own time and how that experience affected their work and their own perceptions of the world.cliffs-of-moher

I arrived in Ireland, meeting the nine other students who would become my traveling companions. We excitedly traded stories of our flights and embarked together to University College Dublin, our first home away from home. Dublin is full of landmarks, though none so well known as the Eiffel Tower or Big Ben. Ireland’s capital city instead offered a contrast to such dramatic manmade exhibitions. I found myself appreciating the role nature played within the city (and outside it) far more than any architecture. One of my favorite memories was a day trip I and another student took across the country to see the Cliffs of Moher. It was an unforgettable experience and offered a unique view of Ireland. The trinity-college-dublinshockingly green, stunningly beautiful rolling hills and the cloudy gray skies created a beautiful color palette against which to appreciate the culture. I remember it vividly; recalling these hues also brings forth a memory of euphoric music and laughter, the trademarks of the friendly Irish people.

The stunning city of Oxford was filled with the most elegant buildings I had ever encountered. The entire city appeared almost as a single, sprawling castle. Everywhere we went, throughout tours, walks, and strolls, I found myself gazing upwards in awe at the grace and beauty of the colleges. I especially loved visiting the Bodleian Library. This particular collection was incredibly large and full of treasures, on display in exhibits for the public to appreciate. The original draft of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the Magna Carta – all of these amazing artifacts added to my wonder. It was a massive building, more modern than the rest of the town but open and accessible to any who might wish to enter. The library to me represented Oxford well; a hub of learning for any who might wish to search for it and full of historical treasures waiting to be admired. I fell in love with the tranquility of the city and the way I felt while there, and promised myself I would return someday.

The most surprising city, London, was unlike any other European city big-benI had visited previously. Leaving Oxford behind, London was the next step into the 21st century. Bright, loud, and busy, the city was excited to be alive. Londoners walked by their world-renowned sights and symbols on their morning commutes. I stood in front of Big Ben in awe; it surprised me with its elegance. I had never spent much time examining photos of the gigantic clock, believing it to simply be nothing more than a timepiece. Now I stood irresolute, jostled by the hurrying crowd and saw for the first time the intense detail that had been placed within the monument. London is the home of so much of human culture. We had the astonishing opportunity to visit both West End and the Globe Theatre. Attending those performances of The Phantom of the Opera, Les Misérables, and Macbeth were experiences I will treasure for the rest of my life.

Paris is unique to itself, and I believe that is why so many, myself included, feel their hearts pine for it. It is full of beauty, romance, history, and literature, but it is a living city, and reflects this in its dirty metro stations and streets. The Eiffel Tower is famous, but I was more interested in la Cathedral de Notre Dnotre-dameame – the Church of Our Lady, sitting in the heart of the Left Bank. I sat for a long time in front of the church. The sun was setting, and it was bathed in orange light. The crowds were thinning, and the people were quiet as they began to consider dinner plans and their evening activities. I quietly examined each arch and window of the façade, looking at each carved face and wicked grinning gargoyle. I imagined a small silhouette reaching up to ring the bells, and felt literature come to life. I focused so intently on the architecture, without a camera or distraction of any kind. It evoked in me a sense of peace and a sense of loss, on my final evening in the city. The church was serene, overlooking the Seine with the patience of ages and looking down on tiny me with the same tranquility. I stood, vowed to return as soon as I could, and walked back along the winding streets in the twilight.

The world is both bigger and smaller than it seems to one looking out at it from their own window at home, and this paradoxical state seemed to be in constant flux for me as I traveled. I walked streets that were filled with people just like me. I felt as though the world was not truly as alien and mysterious as it sometimes seems from far away. I felt confident in the knowledge that though this place was new and on the other side of the world, it was really no different than the small quiet streets of my suburban home in Oregon. This illusion was displaced nearly as quickly as it formed, however, as I gazed in awe upon buildings older than I could fathom and landmarks both huge and beautiful. This incredible adventure was meaningful beyond all expression, and I am forever grateful to everyone who made it possible. I have been changed for the better in so many ways by my experiences abroad. I will cherish my love for these places forever, and hope someday to see them again.


-Delane Cunningham, Summer 2016 happy

A Summer in Tokyo

I had been to Tokyo once before, but this summer I got the opportunity to return to Japan and study abroad for seven weeks at Senshu University. I couldn’t be more grateful for the opportunity. I learned a lot about the Japanese language, but more importantly, got to experience the culture and make friends from all over the world.

We were able to experience many aspects of Japanese culture, traditional and modern. One of my img_0546favorite days this summer (despite the humid heat) was the trip to Kamakura, an old part of Japan just outside of Tokyo that houses many shrines and temples. We went to half a dozen shrines that day. At one we hiked up the side of a hill where the hydrangeas were blooming. After, we all got paper fortunes- omikuji. The next shine was Daibustu, with a giant statue of Buddha. At another shrine, we hiked through a forest of tall bamboo. And at another, we saw a traditional Japanese wedding taking place in the bright red building in the center. Before we returned that day, we also went to the beach at Enoshima and one of our Canadian friends got to see the ocean for the first time. On other img_0501occasions we went to Kabuki theatre and a folk museum.

The streets of Tokyo are crowded, much different than Oregon where I have spent my whole life. Sometimes the crowded trains and thoroughfares could be overwhelming, but there was also an energy there that I miss. It’s weird to leave my house now and not be around hundreds of people at a time. Tokyo is the biggest and most populous city in the world, and I think even if I spent 7 years there, let alone the seven months I had, I don’t think I would even begin to scratch the surface of all it has to offer. It made every day that we went to the metropolitan area an adventure.

But by far the most rewarding aspect of my time abroad is the new friendships that I forged there. Classes were long, but we still had plenty of time afterwards just to explore Tokyo and spend time with the other students.Whenever we made plans, whether we were going across Tokyo to Ikebukuro or Akihabara or just walking down near the train station for karaoke, it was always an invitation. Everyone was so open and inviting. And since we lived in an international dorm with students from all around the world, on any given day, I would be hanging out with not just Americans and Japanese, but I also made bonds with new Korean, Chinese, French, Vietnamese, German, Canadian, Italian, and English friends. They have, all of them, opened my eyes to the world.shibuyaOverall, the experience made me aware of how big the world is. It can be so easy to get caught up in our comfortable lives, not even really aware of just how much goes on outside of our own city, state, or country. I hope I never lose the perspective of how much else there is out there, and how many people there are with completely different experiences. In meeting so many friends from around the globe, it opens your eyes to how easy it is to make a bind with people who may seem completely different from yourself on the surface.tokyonight


-Blair Prater, Summer 2016

Teaching in Cambodia

Having never left the United States before, learning to live and work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia on my own was an opportunity of a life time. I have learned more about myself in the past three months than I would have ever imagined I could in my four years at the University of Oregon. I was given numerous opportunities throughout the duration of my internship that allowed me to fall in love with the country, the culture and the people, as well as learn about a whole new part of myself in the process.img_7289

I arrived at Sovann Komar Children’s village on the first day of my internship with my roommate Ruth, the schools English teacher.  The school day was already in full swing as our bus regularly got us to school half an hour after class started. I spent my first day shadowing Ruth, and touring the school. The children were all very excited to meet me and the held my hands as I walked through the school all the while chattering away about different things that I wasn’t faintly familiar with yet. By the time lunch came I was overwhelmed by the generosity and hospitality that the village offered to me. The staff was very supportive and grateful for my presence from the very beginning. Although It was overwhelming and stressful to be alone in a new country, I was immediately accepted into the community at Sovann Komar and at the time there was no better feeling in the world.

With the help of teachers and staff at Sovann Komar I began to settle into my new surroundings and learn how to appreciate the more relaxing culture that exists in Southeast img_7473Asia. I found it very hard at first to transition from my busy American student life to a more flexible professional environment. However, as the summer wore on I began to adapt and replicate their culture in my own daily routine until I was able to let my organization and time management skills rest to appreciate all that was available to me in the moment at the village.

For the majority of my time in the village I taught various classes for about six hours a day. I created and taught two lesson plans; one that focused on animals and one that focused on multiculturalism and diversity. Teaching came with its own set of challenges, language barriers were one obstacle that I continuously worked to overcome. I learned how to effectively work through and adapt to cultural barriers that I have never been exposed to before. As a human service professional, this skill will be very applicable as I continue to work with vulnerable populations. After teaching for eleven weeks, I was also able to leave the two curriculum packets that I developed for the school to continue teaching.

img_6893I was fortunate to have my weekends free to adventure around the country and learn more about the rich history that exists in Cambodia. One of my most memorable trips was when I took a bus six hours north to Siem Reap to visit the Angkor Wat temples. I spent two days wandering in and out of the largest religious monuments in the world, observing gigantic intricate pieces of stone that were quite possibly older than anything I had ever seen before. I was amazed at how beautiful and individual each temple was, it really signified why they call Cambodia the Kingdom of Wonder.

I was able to learn and grow personally and professionally in a way that I have never had the opportunity to before. I think about my community at Sovann Komar often and will be forever grateful for the gratitude they showed me during my stay. I no longer feel limited by my lack of travel knowledge. Through this trip I was able to gain confidence in myself as a teacher, traveler, and individual, and although thi s may have been my first international trip I know that it will not be my last.img_7436

-Chelsea Kimura, Summer 2016


A Trip to Palenque

This summer I spent seven weeks in Southern Mexico on the GEO Maya Communities and Social Justice in Chiapas Study Abroad Program. For the most part we stayed in the beautiful city of San Cristobal de las Casas, but we also explored a lot more of the state of Chiapas. img_20160805_154246-1jb9et8-300x169Our longest excursion was an overnight trip to Palenque.

The trip one way was supposed to take about five hours but it was closer to six due to the winding roads and low speed limits, that are enforced by speedbump. After we left San Cristobal the temperature increased from about 75 degrees Fahrenheit to 90 with close to 100% humidity.  We left the mountains and drove into the rainforest, although certain parts had been cleared for farming or raising cattle. Finally, after a six-hour car ride we made it to the small city of Palenque. We stayed just outside of the city center in a nice hotel that had a pool and air conditioning. My roommate and I walked into the town to explore it a little bit and went to a pizzeria, while everyone else ate at the hotel. After dinner we all went swimming and then we went to an awful hotel karaoke bar.img_20160820_120414-15r0zqm-300x169

The next morning, we got up at eight and it was almost just as hot as when we arrived the evening before. We ate breakfast and took off toPalenque. The town Palenque is named so because it is next to an ancient Mayan city of the same name. We arrived and I bought a hat and a huge water bottle because I could tell I was going to need it. There were vendors and tourists everywhere. Our tour guide gave us our tickets, we covered ourselves in bug spray and we all went in. At the entrance to the site there is a sign informing visitors that Palenque is a UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) heritage site. Basically, that meant if there was ever a war that threatens the site the UN would come in and protect it because it is an important human historical site.

After we climbed a jungle covered hill, we came to a plateau and the trees opened up allowing us to see a grass field before a giant stone edifice. We climbed inside of what is known img_20160825_115957-1hw3f57-300x169as the Temple of the Inscriptions and saw a stone sarcophagus painted red with an arsenic rich mineral. Next we headed to the Palace. The Palace has a large maze of tunnels in it, a courtyard, and a Mayan watchtower unique to Palenque. After climbing through tunnels we emerge on top of the Palace and were able to explore it. These are the only two imposing structures we explored because a majority of the site is still covered by tropical forest. Exploring this pre-Columbus American city was a once in a life time opportunity!

-Casey Smith, Summer 2016