A Fulbright Teacher in Bogota, Colombia, A Special Series – Helping and Hurting in a World of Inequities – The North Star Reports – by Laura Blasena. Sponsored by The College of St. Scholastica and The Middle Ground Journal
When I went to San Lucas in Guatemala for a service trip during my time at St. Scholastica, I found that when I later told people about my trip I was always hesitant to add in the part about it being a “service trip”. I felt a bit ashamed about it, despite the fact that the San Lucas mission struck me as an authentic experience that was completely respectful of the community in which it existed and served, avoiding the “pity trap.”
For me, the idea of a “service trip” and volunteering abroad has always been a gray zone. I`ve heard so many stories about useless service trips, about white people coming to talk about their faith, about those from the US coming to “save” the underprivileged and take a picture with a child from another country for their next Facebook profile picture. At the same time, I`ve heard some wonderful stories and met some wonderful people who have participated in service projects and organizations that allowed them a cultural experience and, at the same time, allowed them to realize that the idea of swooping in and “saving” people is entirely unrealistic and, at times, offensive.
One organization that I work with runs an after school program for students, providing them with programming in art, music, dance, English, and homework help. The students that the organization serves range in age from 6 years old to 15 or 16 years old, and the organization is mainly staffed by licentiatura students (university students studying to be teachers) as well as a few random foreigners such as myself.
After working with the organization for a few weeks, the director revealed to me that the organization has a parent organization based in the United States. Suddenly, the random pictures of people from the United States all wearing bright T-shirts with the organization’s logo in the hallway made sense to me. All of those people had once come to Colombia on a service trip.
The director asked if I would be willing to come to the organization on a Saturday night to act as a Skype translator for the children at the organization. There was to be a “gala” in the United States for the parent organization, and the members of the United States organization had supposedly asked to be able to Skype with the children at the Colombian organization.
I showed up on Saturday evening.
The wall behind the computer that had been set up to showcase the fifteen young students that had showed up was covered with “traditional” skirts, hats, and flower garlands. The students all crowded excitedly around the computer screen, refusing to stay put in their plastic chairs. The computer was knocked over twice before a Skype call had even been sent, and the younger children cried when they felt like they couldn`t be seen in the webcam.
They were, to say the least, excited.
When the Skype call had gone through, we were introduced to a young high school girl who said she would be our translator. (Thus, my job was rendered obsolete, but I sat in the group of children to try and calm them down and keep them from hitting each other).
Finally, an old couple walked up the screen, saying happily “Hola! Como estas” as the students around me all leapt out of their chairs and shouted back compliments, telling the people that they loved them and that they had beautiful clothes on. The couple asked the girl to ask for a student named “Juan Pablo”. Juan Pablo was not in the crowd of students around us.
They left, disappointed.
In the end, a small handful of approximately fifteen people spoke to the students over Skype. They asked them their ages, their names—very simple questions—and the students adored it, trying to ask question to the people on the other side of the world and getting drowned out by the other students shouting in excitement.
Through the hour and a half long Skype call, I continuously heard a bell ringing in the background and I finally asked the girl we were speaking with what it was about. She explained that they would ring the bell anytime somebody donated money to the fund they were raising for the students in Colombia—the students nobody wanted to talk to.
“How many people are there” I asked, translating for one of the students that wanted to know how many people filled the fancy room in the background of the call.
“About 400, “ she answered, “And there are still people arriving.”
Four hundred people decked out in their fanciest clothes went to the gala on the other side of the world to raise money for the “poor” children in Colombia, and out of the four hundred and counting, only fifteen took the time to talk to the children they were raising money for.
I’ve always been desperately interested in volunteering abroad, working abroad, and organizations based on providing aid in other countries. However, I had never experienced the relationship from the other side. That is, I’m not trying to say that I was an integral part of the organization’s base in Colombia, but I had never experienced the ability to perceive a volunteer organization in the United States without a preconceived bias brought about by working with the organization in the States. I had never been a part of this organization in the states. I knew nothing about those particular “Americans”, as the children called them, and so my perception of them was only influenced by how they treated the children they wanted to help, not by their good intentions to help them.
About our special correspondent Laura Blasena: Ever since I was a little Kindergartner I’ve always wanted to be a teacher.
I graduated from St. Scholastica in the summer of 2015 with a double major in Elementary Education and Spanish Education after student teaching as a 5th grade teacher and also as a Spanish teacher at NorthStar in Duluth, Minnesota.
While my future plans before graduation were initially to become a classroom teacher, I decided to wait a year to begin teaching in the United States and have chosen to work as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Bogota, Colombia. In Colombia, I will be working with a university as an assistant in the language department, attending classes, running conversation clubs, and offering the perspective of a native speaker.
I’ve always loved to travel. In college, I participated in several study abroad trips, visiting England, Guatemala, and Mexico. (I loved visiting Mexico so much that I even went back a second time!). I’m looking forward to the travel opportunities that I will have while working and living in Colombia.
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Hong-Ming Liang, Ph.D., Editor-in-Chief and Publisher, The North Star Reports; Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal; Associate Professor of History and Politics, The College of St. Scholastica.
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