Stretching Outside of My Comfort Zone (posted by Blair in Ecuador)

January 23, 2013

My name is Blair; I am from Montpelier, Virginia, a rural town just north of Richmond. I am a junior majoring in Social Justice: Latin America, an Interdisciplinary Studies major that I created with the help and patience of many incredible University of Richmond professors and advisers to better fit what I want from my university education. I am very committed to social justice and I look forward to incorporate all that I have learned at U of R, and through opportunities brought about with UR’s help, to work toward a more just society following graduation next May.

I have had many wonderful opportunities through U of R to travel to Latin America. A year ago, I was returning from a trip to Havana, Cuba with my SSIR: History of Dance and was in the midst of creating a video and photo story to share what I had learned from the experience. Following that trip, I went with Dr. Ellen Walk to Panama, where we studied Information Technologies in Developing Nations on the ground. This past summer, the Bonner Scholars program allowed me to serve in Cuzco, Peru, learning about and experiencing the differences of operating a non-profit abroad. Finally, I just finished a semester abroad in Valparaíso and Southern Chile, where I studied their history, social justice issues, culture and identity. The semester culminated in an Independent Study Project (ISP) of each student’s choosing; I wrote about an indigenous community-based tourism project in southern Chile that is aiding self-development in the area. The Mapuche people of Llaguepulli have taken back control of their elementary school, creating a cross-cultural curriculum for the students of their community, re-activated an inter-community exchange, and are in the process of creating a medical center and community bank to further aid development of their community.

 I am currently on the plane to Quito, Ecuador for a second semester abroad through the SIT program: Culture and Development. After a week of doctors’ visits for Malaria medications and vaccination records, shopping trips for bugspray with a ridiculously high Deet percentage, a couple great trips to UR to work on course approvals and catch up with amazing friends, and a bit of bonding with my family before abandoning them again, I hopped on my plane at Dulles and am on my way to Quito!

 I am really looking forward to the opportunity to compare this semester’s program with that of Chile, possibly even in a formal academic manner in the Independent Study Project (ISP) at the end of the semester. This is a huge component of the SIT Study Abroad experience and, for me, a huge draw to the program. I hope to be able to relate my two ISPs in a senior thesis at UR, really pulling together my year abroad in the different countries. I also really appreciate the organization that has already been put into this semester by the SIT program. The SIT experience is distinct from some of the direct enrollment programs: the group of US “gringo” students makes it a bit more difficult to meet Ecuadorians and the class format and requirements demand attendance, rather than open opportunities to travel for the semester. But the experiential learning of the history and present of the country, the relationships that develop, and the experiences we have as a group will stick with me forever.

From this semester abroad, I would like to gain a better understanding and ability to speak the Spanish language by making a strong effort to get to know Ecuadorians; to learn and grow from every experience we have in Ecuador, be it the SIT weekend excursions to learn of different parts and aspects of the nation or sitting down to a meal at home with my host family; to continuously connect my learning in Ecuador with what I have learned and gained from University of Richmond classes, lectures, and opportunities; and to maintain my strong friendships and faculty relationships at U of R from abroad, which can be very difficult when you’re trying to immerse yourself in the culture so far away, both geographically and in terms of cultural differences.

It was hard to leave for a second semester abroad. It was hard to drive away from U of R last night, away from my amazing friends, away from the incredible professors and faculty from whom I have learned so much, away from knowing where my classes are and exactly how to get to them. It was difficult to pass a pharmacy or a Target and think of how much more difficult it is to find where to purchase something simple, such as batteries, or to navigate the aisles of a Ecuadorian supermarket. And it was certainly tough to load up the car this morning for the drive to D.C. and see my dog’s face in the front window as I backed out the driveway. However, once I got through security at Dulles, a TV screen was talking about the novelty of iPhones just before the plane boarded, which reminded me of a quote by the late Steve Jobs:

“For the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: ‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am going to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”

What I am doing today is exactly what I want to continue doing until the end of my life: stretch out my comfort zone each day, learning about, and from, people of the world, and sharing what I learn with others. I want to continue to open new doors and expand my horizons. A wise friend has reminded me that days go more slowly and are more appreciated when we get to do something novel each day; I will be keeping each and every day fresh and interesting and I can’t wait to share all of my stories here!

Nonetheless, it was hard to leave. We’re hitting turbulence now as the land of the United States disappears behind the plane and we soar over open water. The metaphor is so obvious, it’s almost painful. As I leave behind all that is customary, I head for a new nation: one with distinctive norms and customs, a different language, and all new professors and classmates. However, as I leave the place and people which have helped me grow into the person I am today, I look forward greatly to the place I am approaching, the culture I am entering, the people I will meet, and how I will grow through my experiences and relationships here.

Well, I went through a lot of work to snag this window seat, so I’m going to get back to pressing my nose against the window. Thank you for taking time to read this entry, look for one next week on the SIT Orientation and my first few days in Quito, Ecuador!

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