“El Final Del Principio” – El Salvador Day 15/15

My biggest takeaways from this trip are what I learned about myself and what I learned about this country. This last post will talk about these top five areas in great lengths and personal detail.

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I learned about an extraordinary country with a powerful, historic background. What’s read in some textbooks, portrayed in the media, and understood based on stereotypes and assumptions are NOT an accurate representations of a country, let alone it’s individual citizens. The opportunity to hear El Salvador’s earliest history from its natural Mayan/Aztec relations to the modern Spanish colonization, personal testimonies about the Civil War that lasted for 12 years and the part the United States played in it, detailing the geographic issues such as mudslides, earthquakes, and volcanos, and conversations about the two political parties (FMLN & ARENA) has given me so much knowledge, and I am confident that studying abroad in El Salvador was the greatest way to convey this as opposed to from a class, a textbook, or the internet. Central America is filled with many other countries, and learning about the small country of El Salvador and its undeniable influence and presence globally was phenomenal. I will now look at the world differently, question injustices, support community-grounded businesses like I did in El Salvador, aim to be resilient like the citizens of this country, and moreso frame my lifestyle around friendships, cooperation, honesty, and soildarity.

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I learned that Higher Education and Student Affairs is where I truly belong as a practitioner. It is often not easy to truly find what your internal drive is–the set of actions, activities, and external environment that gives you the upmost satisfaction and fulfillment. My years as an orientation leader, campus activities programmer, resident assistant, ΟΔΚ executive board member, teaching a studies skill class to freshman students and other work/volunteer experience in student affairs has given me a type and level of fulfillment I cannot quite put into words. Working with college students is such a privilege because these are the individuals readying themselves to enter society, the workforce, and possibly change the world, and if I can impact the learning, growth, career direction, and/or convey the value of education and knowledge, then that is my intentional contribution to the world I enjoy and can give. As a social worker and classmate of mine astutely said: “One person may not be able to change the world, but you can change the world of one person.” Regarding micro, macro, and mezzo changes (small, large, and medium changes respectively) my path of higher education has also granted me the knowledge, skills, and awareness of a researcher. My official title is Research Analyst in Teacher Education. And because many policies and laws dictate the operations in both higher education and social work realms, adequate evaluation and assessment of these policies and laws are needed to ensure the best interest to those affected by them are intended and implemented.

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I learned about my personality, habits, interest, motivations, and how these traits affect different environments and settings. I’m a straight, cis male. I’m an extrovert. I’m an artist. I’m a gamer. I’m a researcher. I’m a risk taker. I have aspects of a geek and hipster. I work in Higher Education. I’m a trend setter. I value innovation. I’m inquisitive. I’m impulsive. I’m a writer. I’m a student affairs practitioner. I’m easily bewildered. I’m compassionate. I’m appropriately sensual. I’m a mentor. I’m a logician. I can be somewhat smug. I’m witty and comical. I’m determined. All of these aspects make up Mario Lee Adkins, and even though I have a twin brother, there is no one like MLA. At this point in my professional life, I am going to be working with many different people, making ethical decisions that could affect many, and directly influencing others in various ways. At this point, I want to fully know and embrace my true self and calculate how this meshes with others, what traits I may have to heighten and what traits I may have to tone down depending on the circumstances. I think of myself (my before-mentioned traits) as puzzle pieces where all the pieces are present and they all fit together, yet aren’t all pieced together yet. As I grow older, the pieces come together piece by piece, I learn which pieces fit together, my favorite pieces, pieces I’m not too fond of, yet are apart of me anyway, and reevaluating the meaning or worth of a piece. As a professional, I want to be able to present this competed puzzle of me and use this self-actualized persona to positively impact and help others. Though for now, I will used the pieces I know how to use best and continue to be open to learning and having new experiences. As Sister Peggy O’Neall said on this trip: “The best professional is someone who has a genuine self. Find yourself, and you’ll find your place.”

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I learned about the story of an El Salvadorian child named Axel and the practice of solidarity. During my two-day service work placement, I worked with many kids and they were so much fun to interact and play with. Their innocence was what made the experience so memorable. When I leave this country, I wanted to have at least one genuine tie that kept me connected in a positive and ongoing way. Sponsoring a child’s scholarship through Programa Velasco was perfect. My natural, internal consensus of this decision was one I’ve never experienced before, and for once in my life I could help another person on a level I never thought possible. Axel (who is ironically named after a popular Kingdom Hearts video game character) is a short, energetic, shy, and slightly inquisitive little 2-year-old boy. His birthday is next month in June and from what I’ve heard he’s an excellent artist. I committed to paying about 75% of his preschool/head start tuition for the year. His family qualifies for it based on a financial assessment via the organization. In Axel I see so many puzzle pieces similar to mine, so much potential if given the chance. After I hugged his mother, she thanked me and was tearing up, as was I. I was able to hold him and I knew a good decision was made today and I could positively impact his life. Though just as important, I know he will positively impact and influence mine as well. I have a lot to learn from Axel. I see this not as an act of charity, but one of solidarity. We are two equals helping and learning from one another.

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I learned that no matter what I will always have more to learn and it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey. I have also learned I may have to relearn concepts and information I thought were straightforward but now my perspective is more broaden and heightened. During my flight back to the United States, I sat next to a nutritionalist named Cathy, and we had a long conversation about both our professions. We were both returning from other countries: me from El Salvador in Central America and her from Cayman Islands, which is overseas territory of the United Kingdom (check them both
at the bottom left and upper right respectively). After realizing I truly enjoyed my study abroad experience, Cathy gave me a Cayman Islands dollar, and I was in awe at the new form of currency and quickly gave her $1.25 back, which was the equivalent exchange rate. This nice gesture of hers also sparked something else in me; the notion that more places and knowledge exist and the drive to visit as many places that apply to the higher education and student affairs contributions I want to give to this world. We may live domestically, but the world operates globally. I want to become an individual who fully embraces this and live up to the greatest, constructive, and authentic potential possible to support my values and profession. This study abroad trip to El Salvador has positioned me along this path.

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“Pared De La Verdad” – El Salvador Day 13/15

After our three groups finished our separate service sites, today we all debriefed as a whole group about our placements, what we learned, and what we learned about ourselves. My group presented first, and it detailed what my 10th blog post summarized. The second group went to work with women who faced/currently face injustice issues and their summary was very powerful and educational to the group. The final group briefed us on their experiences in an elementary school, the surrounding community, and how affiliated gang members fit into this social structure. Again, it was enlightening and provided a rich context of life for affiliated El Salvadorians.

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With our final lunch at Hotel Oasis finished (because the beach would be our last overnight stay in the country) we had our last formal presentation by AMATE of the LGBTI community. Unlike the United States where LGBT”Q” (queer and/or questioning is used) the “I” stands for intersex, where both genitals are represented. In summary, the discussion was very enlightening because as a heterosexual male, I have much to learn about the struggle of this community. With every comment and statement made, I thought about how I could be more of an advocate and be inclusive for understanding the needs of this community, especially because I will be sure to encounter many students in my profession of Higher Education and Student Affairs who identify in this way. While many of my classmates were able to provide factual statements and comments, my contribution was mostly through questions, meaning I am not as informed as I should be, especially with my chose profession. In the future I will inquired and learn more about this topic to be as inclusive as possible–because I accept all individuals and believe like religion, politics, etc., differences should be embraced and all should be accepted, especially with love as the core factor in this case.

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After out group reflection and final formal presentation, the entire group was able to visit Shicali, a ceramics store where the items are all handcrafted by a person with special needs or a disability. When I looked at these items I was reminded that everyone has talents and abilities no matter their outward appearance; the internal drive to positively contribute to society is all one needs to make their abilities known and I was glad this business conveyed that. Additionally, I have a brother with low to mild special needs, and I was reminded of him and how he also conveys this notion as he obtains his bachelors degree and follow his dreams. I was more than happy to buy from this business because it is concrete proof of the extraordinary abilities of persons with special needs, not to mention the proceeds would go directly back into the community.

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The Wall of Truth was our next stop, a detailed, beautiful wall that told a powerful story of El Salvador. 10% of the wall was covered with visually crafted scenes that told a historic story, with the remaining 90% dedicated to those who were affected prior to the Peace Accord, which included some (not all) stacked names of missing/murdered El Salvadorians and those who were thankfully rescued and/or found.

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The power of the truth has become strikingly influential for my study abroad experience. Many El Salvadorians tell testimonies, write literature, and share experiences all focused on the truth to reflect on it, explain the repercussions of actions, and debrief about how this experience affected themselves and others. This, little did I know, would be a huge life lesson I embraced personally on this study abroad experience.

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I was able to grow both personally and professionally on this study abroad experience, and after a day of buying final souvenirs and having dinner with my great classmates, it became very apparent how important the truth is, especially when it effects others. Mistakes happen, and how you deal with them and learn from them matters most, in addition to accepting the attached consequences. I can wholeheartedly say that honesty is indeed the best policy, and thinking about actions before making decisions is one of the most powerful tools humans have at their disposals. Just like the Wall of Truth, honesty is best conveyed openly and in its entirety.

“Pensamientos Aleatorios” – El Salvador Day 12/15

I have had MANY experience on this trip that do not necessarily fit into a day’s blog post, so because I did the exact same service project today as yesterday, I dedicated this post to some aspects of this trip that don’t necessarily fit into other blogs, but nonetheless are quite interesting and educational.

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The first is how the city is structured and built. There are many different styles of living in El Salvador (ES). The rural Santa Marta is very open to nature with how the homes and rooms are built. However, San Salvador (where my Hotel Oasis is) has a more modern look in terms of traffic, buildings, etc.

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To elaborate on the city structure, ES has one of the best highway/road systems in Central America. Even though ES is considered a two thirds world country, it is important to remember it has modern aspects of what we consider “modern”, which is essentially just social construction. I thought this photo of construction workers nicely captures this notion.

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The food here is so great and flavorful–chicken, fish, beef, every meat I’ve had is just delicious! Fruits and veggies are another highly eaten item and avocado (and lime) is great in almost anything. Plantains can be fried like potato chips to make a tasty snack and I bought many of them! Pupusas (a thin bread folded in meat, beans, and/or cheese) are another great food and I learned how to make them.

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Street life is always busy in the urban areas, with people selling food, items, hanging around, or the rare sight of street performers. A single photo does not do this guy justice, though nevertheless here’s a glimpse of his show.

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In the United States I’m used to security guards and the occasional police offices, but in ES there is the national civilian police paid by the government. They carry many different guns (simi-automatics, handgun, shotguns, etc.) and it took some getting used to being so close to them because they patrol many areas we frequent. They do smile.

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The last day at Programa Velasco, my service site, was similar to yesterday. The highlight though was I was able to sponsor Axel, who’s almost 3 years old and is just an awesome little guy. I have always wanted to support a child in a different country and it felt so right to do so. Hopefully this will ensure Axel makes it to the 1st grade and lives a happy, safe life. I’m already looking forward to getting some mailed updates from him!

“Adorables Niños” El Salvador Day 11/15

H. Bart Merkel, Vice Provost of student affairs at Grand Valley State University says: “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.” Indeed, how you grow up has so much influence on your childhood, adolescent years, and young adult path. I was home schooled and had the fortunate opportunity to grow up free of mental/physical abuse, bullying, peer pressure and dictation. Exactly on the contrary: I grew up doing what I liked, which is drawing, playing video games, and helping others. My tattoos, hobbies, friendships, and profession echoes this testament.

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For this study abroad experience there are three placement sites where my classmates and I could work for the next few days. The first is with current and ex gang affiliated youth, the second is with girls who have been victims and/or survivors of human trafficking, and the last site was working with kids 2-7 in a preschool program. I, of course, chose the most educationally focused placement. Ironically and iconically, I asked for wisdom via our celebrity guest Melissa Leo before she left us what was the best way for new college students to possibly realize what their place in life is and how to commit to a career path. Her response: “Ask your mother or father how you genuinely acted as a kid and how you developed naturally, and where might this lead.” This was powerful because in summary, how you acted as a kid is a natural representation of your true self. I kept this in mind as I reflected on my own constructive childhood and for the kids I would encounter today.

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After dividing and getting to our placement sites, the school was a beautiful building surrounded by vegetation, bight soothing colors, and posters and paintings of Mons. Romero. We met two North American coordinators and they explained that this building started as an orphanage, gives scholarships to needy families, aims to provide holistic care, includes a health checkup which is “preventive focused” while other health clinics are “curing focused” with natural medicine a priority, detailed commitment that all children have access to a genuine counselor/physician, and equal access to education that will prep students for elementary school.

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As soon as I entered a classroom on our tour, the kids gravitated to me and began jumping, talking in Spanish and grabbing me to follow them to different places around the room. My two classmates and I said our names in Spanish, and because my name is a common Spanish/Italian/Hispanic/Latino name it was easy for them to pronounce, albeit said in a slightly different way. I was placed with 5-year-olds and our first part of the day was recess.

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Playing with the kids was truly a genuine moment of this study abroad experience when I interacted with innocence in the most absolute of context. El Salvador may have many ecological trials and political challenges, but these kids are able to have fun without the cares of murder, drugs, etc. Playing on the swing, climbing play ladders, sliding, high fives and playing with toys with them filled the bright, breezy afternoon and I had just as much fun as those adorable kids did.

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Inside the kids were learning about careers (the irony of this day is just unimaginable) and the children learned how to pronounce and articulate careers such as firefighters, police officers, doctors, etc., and we drew and colored in what these careers were visually. I drew a police officer and colored it in as the kids kept showing me their drawings and I would give them their deserved affirmation. I ended my time with them by playing with blocks, puzzles, stuffed animals, and other toys before leaving. I hoped to myself that these innocent kids could grow up free of violence, sexual abuse and other injustices we heard about during our orientation here. I want to know each and every one of them can go to college if they want and can pursue the careers they have a genuine interest in and drive for.

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Our last stop was to a few home visits, where the two coordinators would visit the homes of the parents and chat about their academic performances and behavior–both praises and concerns. We took the city bus to the first stop and it reminded me of home because I took one so frequently there. Interestingly, it was only 20 cents per ride. We got off and met a young women with an adorable 2-year-old son and we walked to their home to chat about casual, random conversational topics. We played with toys at their house and I let him draw on my 3DS and watch the intro to Tales of The Abyss, one of my favorite RPG games. The second visit was similar, though there were two older teenage boys with the youngest an excellent anime artist and the oldest owning close to 30 swimming medals! I congratulated them both and hoped that like the kids I met today at the preschool, they could make a living out of what truly makes them happy.

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