BY STEVEN HANDY
For the UAS Whalesong
Thirty years into a successful telecommunications career, I began to question to what greater good my career served. The conclusions led to a lot of soul-searching and exploration of options. Consultations with career advisors and batteries of tests revealed a strong inclination to the field of law, a notion I had for many years. I knew the journey to a new career would be long and complex but I gave myself no choice other than to move forward and figured out the next steps.
Fueled by a long-time interest in politics and world affairs, I solidified my new career plans – I would advocate for greater social responsibility and justice in our country’s foreign policy, particularly toward Mexico. I knew I’d need, among many things, a higher level of understanding of Mexico as well as a view of the U.S. from Mexican eyes. These would become two distinct goals for my exchange experience.
After stopping by the Study Abroad fair tables set up outside the Egan library in fall of 2013, I began following the not-so-difficult path to an ISEP Exchange. Starting with a visit to the Exchanges & Study Abroad office, I received help from staff who were excited to help. As part of my degree program, I secured an exchange at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla (UPAEP), a private, non-profit university located in Puebla, Mexico. To say that my exchange experience exceeded my expectations would be a gross understatement.
To gain the most from the experience, I knew that I would need to keep my two main goals in front of me every day and night of the semester abroad. Keeping myself focused on them allowed me to view the local community culture as a subpart of a larger municipal, regional, and national culture.
During my program, I explored the city on my own and with my new friends, took advantage of excursions made available through student specials, used the local transportation systems, enjoyed the restaurants and nightlife, attended civic events, and other forms of just “living” there. I learned how to ride a horse and rode the hills and valleys around the base of an active volcano. I climbed a dead volcano up to over 14,000 feet. I found out I’m a fan of lucha libre! And I won’t even start on the food! Having previous work and leisure travel experiences in Mexico and Central America as well as being half Latino by blood, I was able to link much of these experiences together. This conscious pairing of the exchange experiences to previous ones allowed me to meet and exceed the goal of gaining as much of an understanding of Mexico as I could in 5 months.
Addressing my second goal of understanding how Poblanos view the U.S. and Americans was a priceless experience (Poblano is a nickname deriving from the chili pepper originating from the area and adopted by citizens of Puebla). I spoke with my professors and fellow students about their views and was treated to their stories, their impressions of what they’ve heard and seen from personal experiences and media. I was even lucky enough to find a graduate-level class titled “North American Studies”, a study of forces and dynamics between Mexico, U.S., and Canada. The professor of this class was a German-born, U.S.-schooled and accomplished attorney who has lived, practiced and taught in Mexico for nearly 20 years.
I wasn’t just there to gain information; I was also just “there”; I bonded with people who had lives, experiences, customs, trials and rewards, social dynamics, and politics so incredibly disparate from mine. This laid the responsibility of representing my town, region, state and country squarely on my shoulders. I needed to remember that Poblanos might judge my country and culture by how they viewed me.
I believe every person should travel abroad and explore “real” places outside our borders, not just the tourist destinations. The experience of actually meeting people of completely different backgrounds not only shows us how pleasant and exciting such differences can be; it also shows us how similar we all are as humans.
The relentless and accelerating advancements in communication technology and transportation are in effect shrinking our planet. This has peace-spreading effects of being able to understand or view a culture on their own terms. On the other hand, depending on the country you visit, you may be lucky enough to get a view of the effects of US foreign policy and the real outcomes of Globalization. Regardless of your opinion or politics, the consequence of living among other cultures is more than eye-opening. The experience is, in itself, an awakening to what is really happening in the world outside our borders.
Student exchange gives the opportunity to receive college credit for travel and adventure. You will make many new friends and connections. You may even find a new passion, be it a sport, a hobby, an epicurean style, or a person! Do it for the lessons you can’t otherwise purchase. Most of all, do it because it’s fun and exciting!
When asked the question “how do you think the experience will benefit you in the future?’, I respond with a question: How will it not? I relive the experiences through re-reading logs, looking at and sharing pictures, and just telling my stories. As long as I live I will have reminders of the lessons I learned about the host culture as well what it learned from me and how I can be a better person.
BY STEVEN HANDY