When they began their studies at UC Santa Barbara in the 1980s, Greg Massa and Raquel Krach would never have imagined themselves where they are today: growing organic crops on a family farm outside of Chico, CA. But a tropical biology program in Costa Rica sparked an appreciation of the role of ecology in agriculture and kindled a love – for farming and for each other – that set a new trajectory for their lives.
At 12 years old, Los Angeles resident Mario Trejo saw only one path for himself – to follow his brothers into gangs. But by his senior year in high school, good grades and an interest in medicine led Mario to follow the encouragement of his teachers and apply to the University of California, which changed the course of his life.
But it wasn’t until his junior year at UC Merced that Mario realized what he thought was an impossible dream — the chance to study in Florence, Italy. During his semester abroad, Trejo studied Italian, found inspiration in the romantic settings and, most important of all, was able to truly transcend his difficult history and realize the extent of what he was capable.
While studying abroad in Ghana, UC Santa Cruz student Jeremy Kirshbaum launched an effort to help residents of a remote mountain village construct a life-saving medical clinic. Now, students at UC Santa Cruz are helping residents of this mountain community acquire critical funding and health resources through ecotourism, bead sales and benefit concerts, while forging enduring connections across continents and cultures.
One of these remarkable people is Samantha Lynne Wilson, a youth organizer and community builder who, as a UC Riverside undergraduate, enrolled in a program that took her to Hyderabad, India (you can watch her “Going Places” segment here). There she founded and currently serves as the Executive Learner of the Child Leader Project (CLP)— a non-profit organization designed to create safe spaces for young people from Southern California to South India in addressing social justice issues in their local communities.
We asked Wilson if she had some words of advice for students preparing for their own international adventures and she most certainly did. Here they are:
And Who Invited You?: What Every Student Should Ask Before Traveling Abroad Contributed by Samantha Lynne Wilson
I have a bone to pick with success stories: they focus too deeply on one person, neglecting the ecology of people and moments that craft change. Perhaps this blog can be one step towards addressing that.
The far more important and more amazing narrative for one to know (if you are to know anything about my experience in India) are the stories of the young adults in South India expanding the work of child and youth leadership with their own experience, leadership and vision– in India, right now. They formed a young adult-led organization as our Indian partner, the Trust for Youth and Child Leadership (TYCL). This is a team of all-volunteer young adult mentors and child/youth organizers addressing systemic justice issues in their local villages, orphanages and slums.
These young men and women have taught me the most important lesson about being a foreigner in India– to whom or what do you belong? The most important thing a study abroad student can do is ask themselves the hard question about what it means to be alive and to be accountable in their host country. Who invited you to this country? What privilege do you carry? To whom or what are you accountable to? While abroad, who are you breaking bread with? In a riff on the words of Ivan Illich, eloquent and seething critic of the benign “well-intentioned” blindness of international volunteerism– “Is your life even alive enough to be shared?”
Study abroad can give us the blog-worthy illusion of “radical” transformation. But real transformation occurs when we think critically about who we belong to, who we are accountable to and how we choose to move in a world where being from North America (and having the privilege to travel abroad) means you have a lot of privilege with a lot to learn.
This privilege does not mean authority. This privilege means responsibility to be self-reflective, critical and make changes that are uncomfortable to your own way of life– not to export your way of life or assume your life to be “the right way.”
Again– is your life alive enough to be shared?
I am accountable to the incredible young adults in India who became my friends, brothers and sisters and who collaborated with me when CLP began and now lead the organization on their own. There are far too many to name here. To name only a small handful, I honor Arumugham, Amala, Shiva, Jugal, Basu, Karthik. I honor the first CLP child leaders who believed in the idea– Priya and Suhasini, Vimal and Arun… to name only some of the first twenty during that first trip to Tamil Nadu. I honor the people among them now and the people who will come after them. My gratitude and my devotion to them and the lessons they teach me –and hopefully teach you– about what accountability to a land and a people really mean.
Listen more. Talk less. Wait for an invitation. Be accountable to your actions, beliefs and privilege.
I learned an important saying in Tamil on one of my most recent trips to visit TYCL– “poyttu varen.” It is said when someone is leaving. It means that “although I go, I will return– because our relationship is important to me.” Or, more sweetly, “Go… and come back.”
So, when you live a life abroad, should you choose to do so, live in such a way that your neighbors, fellow students and teachers, mentors, host families and community might say such a thing to you.
Samantha Lynne Wilson is now in the second year of her Masters in Divinity at Claremont School of Theology, with in a focus on the ministry of youth-led community organizing. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In “Witnessing History: Arab Spring,” part of UCTV Prime’s new series “Going Places: UC Education Abroad,” recent UC Berkeley graduate Justin Hinton takes us back to his unforgettable study abroad experience that placed the student journalist on the ground in Cairo, Egypt just as the Arab Spring was percolating in Tahrir Square. Since his segment was recorded, Justin has completed his program as a News Associate in Fort Worth and now reports for the CBS affiliate, KFDM, in Beaumont, Texas, about 90 miles east of Houston. But in this guest blog post, he offers additional perspective on how this momentous global event changed him.
Contributed by Justin Hinton
On August 24, 2010, the Justin Charles Hinton that I once knew began a transformation, turning my once seemingly average life into a world of boundless possibilities that continue to expand day by day.
As I planned to spend the academic year in Cairo, Egypt, I never could have imagined that five months later, I would stare danger in its face as I catapulted my face, voice, and camera into one of the largest revolutions to hit the Middle East. To add to that, I never would have imagined that my decision to travel to Egypt would have led me down a slippery slope of life changes that have made me a better person.
As a student journalist, Cairo was the perfect place for me. Dipping and dodging through traffic with deafening horns as taxi drivers raced through the non-lighted streets of Cairo became part of my daily routine. The Great Pyramid of Giza, the Nile River, Aswan, and The Library of Alexandria became part of my backyard. Twenty- cent meals consisting of beans, lettuce, and fries served as my daily breakfast and dinner as I walked the dust-stricken and poverty-engrossed streets of Sayeda Zeinab, only to reach the school-sponsored buses where I would sit and count the 3,600 seconds it would take to reach my destination at the American University of Cairo.
In the classroom I learned how to operate video cameras, present the news, and incorporate all of that information into blogging, Twitter, Facebook, and other multimedia platforms, something I hadn’t learned in my four years at Cal.
Outside the classroom, I learned even more. Gaining an understanding of the Islamic faith became a day-to-day experience as I sat through seminars about Islam, a religion that so many individuals in the Western world are ignorant of because of their largely inaccurate, preconceived notions about “Muslims” resulting from September 11.
But as they say, all great things must come to an end, or so I thought. On January 25, 2011 the crack of a baton and the first shot of tear gas set into motion my evacuation by the Education Abroad Program in Egypt. After leaving Cairo four months early, my advisors informed me that I could finish my program at another school. I chose Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea, and the good times kept rolling, but not from the start.
When I first arrived, the high that I had from being evacuated from Egypt and launching into an entirely new culture quickly sunk to an ultimate low as I faced a culture steeped in media representations of African Americans. Life, to say the least, was hard, but after a month, I settled in and was back to my normal self. I met several Korean students. They changed my life forever.
As a journalist with friends across the globe, I know that if a story breaks in Egypt or Korea, I have people on the ground who can break it down into something that I can understand, or who can provide lodging when I travel to that country. They are friendships that are strong and I know will last a lifetime, and it all began with my study abroad experience.