Study Abroad at it’s most basic can be divided into three acts: Pre-departure, experience and re-entry; the before, during and after. Pre-departure is paperwork, preparation and reassurance – all leading toward the experience itself.
It’s important to realize that the experience does not stand alone.
Students don’t just board a plane and come home six months later ready to hop back into the life they left. It is not a series of journal entries or photographs, but an entire experience. Re-entry, the third act, is not the downward slope of the roller coaster coming to a halt; it is a continuation, a process.
As we so often counsel our students (right after the Power Point slide on Culture Shock): You will return home a changed person. I joke and say Charleston will not change, which always gets a laugh as if to say “Duh, Kelly.” I point out that the traveler is the one who embodies the change. Their parents, siblings, partners have remained the same – but the student has experienced a shift. We use the time worn phrases to coach them: broaden your perspective, open your mind, change your life. So with our blessing, they go forth and conquer .. and then what?
Re-entry, which conjures images of space shuttles breaking the atmospheric bonds of Earth, is not to be taken lightly. Students are counseled to articulate their experience – we put them in focus groups, teach them to craft an internationally ready resume and encourage them to talk and share with other students. Their enthusiasm is infectious, and stories often tumble out of them as if someone (or something) opened the flood gates.
Articulating an experience is not just for students – I try to unpack my experiences, too. As a returning student, I was asked to sit on panels and speak at trustee events, effectively selling the experience of study abroad. Nowadays my means of unpacking often means writing. I have always seen writing as a means of catharsis, as evidenced by this blog and the host of notebooks, napkins and journals that line my travel bag.
My thoughts about Nicaragua have a lot to do with observation of others, including my students – several of whom had never left the US before, or flown on a plane. Each time I sit down to write about my experiences in the other Granada, I am waylaid by images from history, presented to me via Susan Meiselas photographs, and a verbal history from my teacher for the week: Maria Lidia. Growing up in the late 1970’s in a family of nine, she saw and heard many things during the revolution. Flipping through the horrific photos, her voice provided the soundtrack to a history I knew nothing about.
Riding in a van from Managua to Granada in the dark, we passed open trucks full of people and kids and teenagers playing on the street. In broad daylight, the brightly painted homes revealed themselves next to rundown shacks. We spent an afternoon at a local after school project, and made our way down dirt roads bearing gifts of empanadas and white boards. The educator in me flared up and I found myself wishing I could distribute sustainable change like candy, drowning the Savior complex in the rain barrels outside the door.
In the shadow of tourist-ready Costa Rica, Nicaragua clamors for attention on the Central American stage. Websites are few, reports are less so. And yet on my first day in Granada, Americans jogged through the streets, stepped into markets and collected at the fountains. I wasn’t ready for them, or for the poverty around them. Barbed wire lines the rooftops of local homes, and doubles as a clipped clothesline. Houses are open to accept the heat, and the lack of screens allows for bugs and other visitors. I collect information on wages and the school system, the price of bread and the state of politics. My students and I climb volcanoes and zip line like tourists, and I watch the matriarch of my host family sew infant clothes in the evenings.
I get sick. So viciously sick that I am unable to stand up in our two room schoolhouse, preferring to sit on the stone floor. I sweat, and sweat, and sleep. High doses of amoxicillin start to battle back whatever has taken over my system and I prop myself up to play Barbies with two of the girls at home. My señora takes care of me, going to the store for crackers and Gatorade. I miss out on a special dinner served on Fridays during Lent, and watch a religious procession from a chair in the living room. By 3 a.m. on Sunday, I am fumbling with the lock on the door, letting go of the gigantic iron hook with a BOOM, bringing my señora and her sister to the door. They send me off with sleepy blessings and good wishes, and I go through the motions of getting back to Illinois.
In Miami, I am speaking English and looking forward to my own bed in an enclosed home with air conditioning. I think about my students back in Spain and how they used to flip over photos of our houses and gardens. I think about the hot shower waiting for me, and the undrinkable water in the city I’ve just left. I think a lot. And I’m still thinking.