“Universidad Premio” – El Salvador Day 10/15

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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“Santa Marta” – El Salvador Days 7-9/15

Making generalizations of a whole based off a piece will never give an accurate representation, nor set constructive expectations. My first full weekend in El Salvador would be in a community known as Santa Marta, though first our group had a very important stop to make.

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Ciudad Mujer is an organization focused on women’s services for health, employment skills, legal rights and child care if needed for the clients. Because this facility also supports women who may have been abused in some way by their partners, I was thankful that the other males and I could partake in the tour. The facility is very modern with high-tech equipment and the most up-to-date services for the women they serve. Health literacy, work skills, legal counsel, and other empowerment activities were the foundation of Ciudad Mujer. After touring the facility our group had lunch at San Rafael Cedros where we stocked up on supplies before heading to the rural Santa Marta.

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After driving for about an hour or so, we reached Radio Victoria, which is close to Santa Marta and will be detailed later. Our group had the great opportunity to hike to Santa Marta from Radio Victoria and the sights, trails, and views were amazing. I had to keep reminding myself I was in another country as I looked at the scenery and reflected on this new area. The mountains, volcanoes, trails, and vegetation all looked new and historic, leaving me in awe with each new area or path I encountered. I was personally thankful for this opportunity and wondered what new college students would see these same sights in the future.

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Later this night, I met the host family I would be staying with, and it was a phenomenal experience. Foremost, their living area was not as modern as I was used to, yet was filled with organization, love, community, and spirit. After touring the area, my roommate/classmate and I met the family, and this would become the highlight of my trip this far. There was a high schooler, college student and an elementary student. I connected with the 10-year-old not through Spanish communication, but through video games.

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He liked Pokémon (just like me) and had a Nintendo DSi (I had a Nintendo 3DS) and we momentarily traded games to play and played a multiplayer racing game. It was genuine bonding and we both connected on a very high and relevant level even though we spoke different languages (video games was the common language understood by both of us) . While I liked the experience as a whole, connecting with him really reinforces my notion and advocacy that video games are teaching and educating tools, and I was glad to be able to share it with such an awesome niño. We also colored in a coloring book together and I gave him a drawing of a Pikachu which we colored together after I sketched it out.

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Santa Marta is a very strong and resilient community. I cannot do it justice in a brief paragraph. In between staying with my host family, we heard testimonies for residents who lived through the civil war struggle, political corruption and brutal deaths and action. I would recommend researching the El Salvadorian civil war, and getting context for what these residents were speaking on. The most impactful aspect of their stories were two aspects: The first was they were still smiling, still positive after dealing with such inhumane actions and giving hospitality to us as United States citizens, who aided in prolonging the civil war due to providing funding to ARENA, the fraction fighting against FMLN, the party which supported and protected them. The second is how EVERY person said in some way we cannot stop talking about this to remind the next generation and others of these actions. Where I’m from (and this is a generalization) my country is moreso focused on presenting one in a best light, focusing on the positive, and not heavy speaking on non-positive actions for the best portrayal possible. This reminded me that both the positive and the negative historical acts and experiences are needed for growth, learning, and teaching.

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After saying goodbye to our host families, fully exploring Radio Victoria was our last stop before heading back to Hotel Oasis. This was an impactful talk because my pre-study abroad project was on the effects of mining in El Salvador. Radio Victoria started as tape recorded talks and advanced to a full radio station that is still currently played around the community. Listening to the struggles of the staff being threatened, stalked and even some murdered because of their reporting on negative mining effects was heartbreaking, and from 2009 to present, there has been no prosecution for these crimes. Though I was content when the two speakers made it clear they had the support of the community and the US though solidarity visits such as ours. We ended the talk with my classmates and I giving positive comments live on air on their radio station to the community. It was an unforgettable action and I was so thankful to be apart of their struggle and fight for protection, equality, and safety. Aren’t these protections all humans should have? When I return to my community, I will be motivated to be much more inclusive, giving, positive, willing, patient, and trusting: trusting that anything is possible with the support and commitment of others.

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