Amanda Vergara - 2016 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

Since my first year at St. Olaf College, I have been inspired by the many students who have gone abroad. I knew that my college actively supported students interested in a global education, whether the program was sponsored through our college or another undergraduate program. I realized that as a Spanish major, it was not enough to merely develop my language abilities in a classroom setting; I also wanted to learn from the cultures and people who shape the language.

Las Estacas, Mexico
Snorkeling with friends at Las Estacas, a natural water park we visited on a weekend excursion

Why did you choose the Center for Global Education and Experience?

My first year advisor brought the program to my awareness, because he knew it suited my passion for social justice and my intended majors (Spanish and social work). I knew that this program would likely be a good fit for me. Since I already traveled to Spain in the past, I wanted to immerse myself in a Latin American country, and I was drawn to the home stay component of the program in order to foster relationships with a family and continue my language development outside of the classroom. Other than St. Olaf's interim program in South Africa, I was unaware of any other programs designed specifically for social work students. I also appreciated Augsburg College's commitment to diversity and felt as if I would be welcomed into the program.

What was your favorite part about Mexico?

My favorite part about being in Mexico was the connections I made with the people. I formed a positive relationship with my host family, and they continue to be very supportive of me by expressing their affections on Facebook. I also had the opportunity to visit a friend's relatives throughout the state of Veracruz during Semana Santa, and her family treated me as if I was also part of the family. My experiences in the U.S. could not compare to the exceptional hospitality provided by the families who welcomed me into their homes.

What made your experience abroad unique?

As someone with Filipino heritage, I noticed a lot of cultural similarities between my relatives and the Mexican families I encountered during my stay. For example, my host mom in Cuernavaca and my mom in the U.S. both believe that an itchy palm indicates that they will receive money in the future. I later learned about the Manila-Acapulco Spanish trade route that connected the Philippines and Mexico. This explained why I found foods such as adobo, longanisa, and Manila mangoes in Cuernavaca, and it felt very cool to share a piece of history with my Mexican friends.

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

I was going through a difficult time with issues at home and mental health before I came to Mexico, and one of my professors at St. Olaf College recommended that I address some of my concerns with the director of the program, Professor Ann Lutterman-Aguilar. She responded with compassion, offered her support, and continued to follow-up with me throughout the following months to make sure I was adjusting to the program. Additionally, I appreciated Lisanne Morgan's thoughtfulness for providing me with a women-only home stay upon a somewhat late request. All of the faculty staff members were kind and welcoming to me, and I felt that my voice mattered since all of my concerns were taken seriously.

Iztaccíhautl, a dormant volcano in Mexico
Iztaccíhautl, a volcano we hiked on a weekend excursion

What's one thing you wish you would have done differently?

There was a period of time towards the end of the program where I was struggling to turn a handful of projects in on time. I was having a difficult time prioritizing my time spent on class work, my host family, and the friends I made on the program. Although I was able to negotiate extensions with my social work professor for a couple projects, I wish that I had pushed myself to plan out my time in a more strategic manner.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

During the five-week period when I had Spanish classes at the local language school Universal, I would wake up at my host family's house at 6:45 a.m and take a quick shower before eating a sizable breakfast prepared by my host mother. I would then leave the house with a lunch my host mom packed me and take the 10-minute bus route to the language school for my 8 a.m. class (my host mother had previously shown me exactly how to take the bus by riding it alongside me for a couple days).

My class size for contemporary Mexican literature was very small; since there was only one other student and the professor in the class, we two students spent a lot of time discussing the readings and also had individual time to develop our speaking abilities. We had a couple of breaks during our three-hour class session, and I would sometimes join students in other Spanish classes to buy some bread or donuts at the panadería down the street. After Spanish classes, we continued our social work classes down the street at the Casa CEMAL for a few hours in the afternoon.

On Thursdays, we would have Latin dance lessons for a couple hours in the evening, but on days of the week when we had fewer classes, I would visit a cafe in the centro with friends, or exercise at the gym down the street, before heading home on the bus to my host family. I would do my reading for my Spanish class while joining my host sister and host mother in the living room as we chatted about our days and watched television together. My host mother prepared dinner for us, and afterwards I would continue doing my homework in my room before going to sleep.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

A few other students and I bought a gym membership for a couple months, and we would go exercise a few times a week. I liked walking to the centro for coffee or ice cream with friends or taking a taxi to the mall and buy clothes or eat out. My host family took me out several times to meet family members, eat at a restaurant, or visit one of the local nature sites. On hot days, a few students and I would walk to the pool at Universal down the street. Most afternoons, I always enjoyed watching a movie or a television show with my host family, which definitely helped boost my vocabulary. Occasionally I would go out to bars or nightclubs on the weekends with friends.

International volunteer with host family in Cuernavaca, Mexico
My host family in Cuernavaca

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Over the months we spent in Mexico, we stayed in multiple locations. For a total two months (I opted for an extended home stay, but some students elected to only stay for the required month), I stayed in my urban host family's home. My room was on the ground floor next to the living room and a bathroom equipped with a shower. My host mom and sister lived on the second floor, and their dog stayed on the partially shaded roof on the third floor. I liked the location of my home stay because it was convenient to take the bus to and from classes, and sometimes I could even walk to school. The local market also served as a good landmark for taxi drivers since I often forgot my host family's address.

Additionally, I spent a week in Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, and a weekend in Ixtlilco, for shorter home stays with families. In Amatlan de Quetzalcoatl, I shared a room with a student in the Migration, Globalization, and the Environment program. My host family of four in Amatlan had chickens and dogs in their backyard, and they showed us how to pick coffee beans and shuck corn. The kitchen was separate from the rest of the house, and it was fascinating to watch my host mom cook delicious homemade tortillas on the comal. I really liked the strong sense of community among all of the families, and I learned so much about indigenous medicinal practices from my host sister and the curandera, who did a demonstration of an egg cleanse for us.

In Ixtlilco el Grande, a fellow social work student and I stayed with parents whose children worked in Minnesota. It was evident that the community was proud of their farming accomplishments, and many families had stories to tell of the time they had spent migrating between Mexico and the U.S.

In between times where I was assigned to live with host families, I lived in Casa CEMAL and Casa Verde, two houses across the street from each other that contained classrooms, living spaces, and student dormitories. The international resident assistant lived in the lower floor of Casa CEMAL, and professors' offices were also located on the premises. I spent some of my time in a room with three other students and another period in a room to myself. Since only staff members were permitted to use the laundry machines, students were mandated to either hand-wash their clothes or pay a lavandería to do it.

On weekdays, we had regular meals served to us by the staff members, and we would help ourselves to refrigerated food set aside for the weekends. Students were allowed to use the kitchen upon request. During the weeks spent on the exchange with the social work students from Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico (UNAM), we spent one week in a house close to the campus in Mexico City, and following that, students came to live with us in our rooms in Casa CEMAL and Casa Verde. I became very close with my roommate from UNAM, and I had so much fun getting to know the UNAM students and having activities like karaoke night.

Semana Santa in Potrero Viejo, Veracruz, Mexico
Semana Santa in Potrero Viejo, Veracruz

What is one thing every participant should know before participating in your program?

I would encourage everybody to try to step out of their comfort zone by being proactive about learning Spanish. Although I came with a Spanish major, there were definitely times where I had to challenge myself to speak up when I was anxious or when I lacked the vocabulary to describe certain things. Some students with less experience speaking Spanish also were intimidated that we began the program by spending an entire week paired off with each other with our first set of families, but those who were really committed to learn the language tended to succeed faster than the ones who were not as motivated.

Typically, locals were patient with me and appreciated that I made the effort to speak with them even though my Spanish was far from perfect. Having an extended home stay also greatly helped me improve my language comprehension since I only spoke Spanish at home; if students get along well with their host family, I would recommend that they coordinate staying for a longer period of time with their host family.

Now that you're home, how has your program abroad impacted your life?

I now realize that I used to be rather insulated from the rest of the world due to my privilege as a U.S. citizen. I never knew how interconnected the states Minnesota and Morelos were until I heard the stories of migrant workers, and visited small towns where it was common for family members to periodically work in the U.S. before returning home.

Whereas many Mexican people followed U.S. events closely, I was embarrassed to find that I was largely ignorant of the history and politics in Mexico before I was required to learn about them in my programs. I now try to be more intentional about learning about what is occurring on a global scale. I was also inspired by many of the community leaders who worked tirelessly to effect change, and I now hope to become more active in my surrounding community, not just my college campus.

Why would you recommend CGEE to other students?

Experiential learning taught me so much more than books.

I was able to interact face-to-face with professionals and individuals sharing their lived experiences. Although there were certainly several difficult moments during my study abroad program, overcoming them helped me become more mature and conscientious.