As I prepared myself to move to a new country in Central America, I found myself reflecting a lot about the ways my experiences of being abroad would be different now that I am not approaching my global interactions through an academic lens.
For 6 years, I supported international learning programs within higher education before I made a shift back to local community development, before eventually breaking from that too. In these international learning programs, we offered university students opportunities to “engage” with and “serve” global communities, while taking into particular account academic perspectives of power and privilege, global development, post-colonialism, first/third world constructs, international relations, foreign aid, and the construction of global narratives. It was interesting work for a while. It provided me the opportunity to dig into those issues that truly do surround the way we interact globally. During academic focused trips to Guatemala, Kenya and Rwanda, I witnessed how these aforementioned concepts came together, but mostly, and to my enlightenment, where the constructs that we embed in our students tend to fall flat.
They often call programs that bring North American students to countries classified by North Americans as “third world” or the Global South community service or community engagement programs. Young people are told that they will have something of value to bring to these countries, and this value will be provided in the form of a service to a community who “needs” their help. These programs provide great opportunities for resume builders. For many students, they actually do find meaningful opportunities in their global engagement. I’ve been so privileged to be able to witness this through some of the more intentional programs. For others, they come home feeling empty, stuck between this feeling of being helpless against global issues and wanting to do more and eventually went back to their regular routines. For a spoiled bunch, the only sentiments they are left with about other countries are bumpy mattresses or too many bugs.
I became disillusioned about what we were “selling” university students pretty early. In Guatemala, our host admitted to us that we were truly not providing a “service” to the school in which we worked, and I saw this by the way our presence became a disruption for normal classroom activities. I saw this in Kenya when witnessing how a project was working on the ground in actual fact while having spent years hearing a different story from the North American “do-good” initiative’s perspective. In Rwanda, I experienced the tensions between how I approached wanting to help as a person making connections with people and causes I cared about vs. how I should help as a representative of an institution. I kept hearing stories from colleagues and students who had gone on medical focused trips how they were wearing medical scrubs and actually performing medical triage procedures to rural communities, which to me, is a complete abuse of scope of practice. As many in my circles know, it’s what left me to leave the field as well as my own realization of my own incompetence of being an international learning practitioner. Then, I promised that I would take all my experiences with international learning with me into my next quest into global life.
Now I am here, having moved to Costa Rica just days ago. This time, I am not here for vacation, nor am I here for some proposed transformational experience in which I believe I have something to offer those I meet here, whether they be Tico or from any other part of the world. I am not here with any agenda. I don’t represent any institutions, ideas, or initiatives other than those I bring forth through my own steam. I’m not here as a tourist, looking to live off the spoils of a beach lifestyle in a foreign country. I don’t intend to study with a microscopic lens the dynamics of power and privilege, although I will always know they are there. I am not looking at how things are done here, thinking that there is a much better way that North Americans would be able to propose how something is done. I am not here in search of a research topic, a discourse, or something that will one day prove to be a “teachable moment” for my students. No one is waiting for an essay about my experience that will provide me with a mark on my academic transcript. I am not here seeking affirmation of how darn good we have it in North America.
I am here to be a human among other humans. I am here to recognize the similarities that exist in all of us – the quest for love, the great feeling of laughter and good company, paths to adventure, the feelings of sadness and sorrow, the joys and challenges of daily life, the enjoyment of nature, the search for inner peace, the love of beauty, the hopes for a better world – and in at least in my own little corner of wherever my itchy feet take me, I can stop drawing lines in the sand by what makes us different. I am here to learn from people, share with people, and revel with people in this crazy, beautiful thing we call life.
I promise to this country that I will live to honour its history, culture, economy, education, environment, and most importantly its people. I will seek to contribute in any way I can to this beautiful country, but not without first understanding where I am most useful within it by first taking time to listen. I will talk of my country with great reverence, but always highlight the reasons I chose to move to this corner of the world in search of a purity of life I couldn’t find at home. I will learn as much as I can, see as much as I can, experience as much as I can, and when I need to be, use my humble little voice to bring awareness to the awesomeness this country has to offer. Thank you, Costa Rica, for the opportunity for me to get back in touch with my own humanity, and the very beautiful things that make existence and life truly worthwhile.