by Courtney Greene, Senior VP of International Operations
“The only source of knowledge is experience.”
The crowd outside the building grew increasingly restless. Weight was shifted from foot to foot. Sighs could be heard. Watches were consulted. What was going on?! The doors finally opened and the eager people pushed their way forward.
It has been twenty-two years since I impatiently waited within that crowd in Quito, Ecuador, outside a mall called El Jardín. Like those around me, I had grown increasingly frustrated when the doors did not open as scheduled at 10 am. I was waiting to access a money-changing kiosk inside. Perhaps I was in a hurry to get cash in anticipation of a trip outside the city. Perhaps I was just a typical impatient young person without any real-time constraints or obligations, simply annoyed that I had to wait longer than anticipated.
I don’t remember exactly how long it took me to broaden my focus. But relatively quickly, my thinking shifted from the simple frustration of a small inconvenience – that irritating wait– to the feelings of being denied entry. My mind sensed a parallel between that experience of waiting on the outside, confused as to why we were being denied access to a place we felt entitled to enter based on the hours printed on the door, to the countless children I passed by on the streets every single day. As I enjoyed my forty-five minute walk to the bus depot each day to get to the university where I studied, I would often see children, gathered around their begging mothers, their beautiful, innocent faces often red and cracked from hours of being exposed to the intense sun of a city nestled high in the Andes Mountains. At El Jardín, the people around me and I had experienced a fleeting moment of exclusion, quickly forgotten, but the children I routinely encountered would never be granted access to that high-end mall. They would quickly have been chased away by security guards, paid to ensure that the experience of the more privileged classes was not marred by the begging of vulnerable children.
Growing up, these were not situations I experienced. Living in a largely homogenous community with a majority of white, middle-class families in a suburb of Detroit, I went to a highly-performing public school and took college-track classes, which ensured I didn’t even share the same halls with students who were not college-bound. Though I had volunteered and organized walks for groups like the March of Dimes, I had attended mass and been reminded, week after week, to serve and care for the poor and the marginalized, my life experiences to date were still so limited.
That relatively insignificant 15-minute wait at El Jardín was just one of the countless moments that provided exposure and access to a reality of poverty that I peripherally knew existed but had never had such direct contact with. Study abroad literally transported me to a new world. And in so doing, my past conditioning was temporarily forgotten in the midst of living in the moment. Every new experience, every little challenge that is an intrinsic part of navigating a new place, forced me to remain in the present, lest I become overwhelmed. And nearly two decades of reflection later, I am still learning from that experience. It is still changing me. It continues to open doors to experiences I would never have had otherwise.
In today’s pandemic reality, we are continually bombarded with statistics– dramatic infection rates, hospitalizations, deaths. And as shocking as the numbers themselves are, they are never nearly as impactful as the personal experiences of loved ones whose grandmother, father, sister, or child has lost a life. And so it is with study abroad. It has the power to change “facts”, stereotypes, even statistics, into lived experience. It affords opportunities to strip away the filters on our eyes that we didn’t even know existed. It allows us to engage in a world where small (and sometimes BIG!) personal failures are an inevitable reality, and because we are just a foreigner, it allows us to more easily forgive ourselves when we don’t quite understand, we don’t quite do it right, or we don’t speak or perform elegantly. The standards we hold ourselves to in our more familiar environments suddenly don’t really matter, for no one we know is watching. And by leaving behind all of that pressure, we have an incredible ability to see ourselves and to see others.
In making personal connections with people having a different set of lived experiences, perspectives, and values, we stop feeling so scared and threatened by that which we do not know or understand. And so we learn. And grow. And are irrevocably changed for the better.
Because we have accelerated our understanding of the beauty of being human.
*Courtney Greene is currently Senior VP of International Operations at API. The photos above are from her first return visit to Ecuador since studying abroad with API. She was able to share the experience with her son Edwin and spent the day with her host father at Mitad del Mundo!
**Courtney will be hosting an upcoming webinar for study abroad offices at Colleges and Universities, Health & Safety at API in Extraordinary Times along with Carolyn Lutes, Associate Vice President of Health Safety and Student Wellness, on the evolution of API’s policies and procedures in response to COVID-19. They will share what they learned and how students were kept safe abroad during the global pandemic. One lucky attendee will be selected to receive a $500 student scholarship from API.