It is truly difficult to know what you want to dedicate your life to, and it can be even more difficult to have a support system to help navigate this challenge. That is why I chose to work in higher education and student affairs; working with young students to navigate their career paths invigorates, energizes and gives me personal fulfillment. While this study abroad experience is grounded in a Social Work framework, there is much overlap in higher education and student affairs with administration tasks, teaching, and mediating and/or counseling for those we work with. Today, I was able to visit the Universidad Centroamericana “José Simeón Cañas (UCA) and learn about its rich history and meet with the students.
UCA has a powerful history and presence in this country because of its association to political and social happenings. Again, it’s best to research this history on the internet because a quick summary cannot do it justice. A tour of a museum within the university was our first course of action and we learned the Jesuit history of the institution and the brutal history associated with this beautiful area. These actions were very depressing, and the last stop at the chapel area was just a final testament to the struggle this place and supporters faced. Admittedly, I cried because of the overwhelming heartache I can’t even articulate. However I was quickly comforted by a very special person I will expand on later.
After quickly returning to my positive self, I was able to freely explore this awesome campus. The first area I stumbled upon was a classroom where a professor was giving a lecture. The students were engaged and a few students smiled and waved as I looked into their class. As I walked around I noticed the beautiful architecture and just wondered about the vast amount of knowledge that was shared between students and professors.
While exploring I asked every student I could in Spanish what they were studying. Like most El Salvadorians they were receptive with a smile and I quickly learned that Sociology, History, and Religion were among the most common. When I heard many majors and was able to reflect on this for a moment, it makes sense that these were the most common areas of study given the history of this institution and the tradition that most El Salvadorian give back to their communities anyway. While these were just a few common majors, it’s easy to realize these areas of studies are connected to understanding the historic events here and preparing students to give constructively back to their community, rather it’s teaching this history to others or providing programs or services to mend the hurt caused by political, governmental, and military strife. Knowing students were here to educate themselves just energized me and reminded me again that these are the types of students I want to work with and support, internationally or domestically.
My last stop was to the bookstore to buy some university-specific items. I met some students who spoke English and we talked in length about what we were studying, our home countries, and general interest. The student I conversed with most showed me where the bookstore was and I gave him my Facebook information per request. After spending about an hour there, while leaving he and his friends yelled “adios Mario” and I vowed to come back to this great university at some point in the future.
Our next stop was to the Fernando Llort art gallery, a locally owned art gallery where all kinds of detailed, handmade items were created. I spent more money here than anywhere else, and knew these funds would be going right back into their community. Our last two stops really raised my awareness of issues El Salvador currently faces, with the United States tied almost intently with them. The first was on mining, environments, and ecology issues and their negative effects on the country. My pre departure report was on this topic so while I had much context, I learned to really be aware and inquire where my items may be coming from and ponder where they produced ethically. The second talk was on immigration, where I learned about remittances, current international affairs, and how aspects such as student visas may affect my profession of higher education and student affairs.
Tonight was a night to debrief, though before that during dinner one of my classmates found out that the guest traveling with us for a week and who was leaving today was actually a genuine celebrity named Melissa Leo, a Golden Globe, Emmy, and other award winning actress. This entire time my classmates and I treated her like a normal person, when in reality we have all ALREADY met her informally in motion pictures and on popular television shows. My biggest memory of her, while still not knowing her celebrity identity, was comforting me at UCA when I was most vulnerable from hearing all these El Salvadorian struggles. However, my classmates and I agreed that if we knew, we would focus on her celebrity status, asking for autographs, and not treating her like the normal person we thought she was. I will never, ever, forget being in a foreign country, crying in my most comfortable environment and being comforted by Melissa Leo. Wow.