Serving to Learn: Personal and Cultural Shifts

by Daniel Alexander

This past winter, Sammie Walker, a grad student at Slippery Rock University traveled to Amizade’s site in Bolivia for a season of service-learning alongside our partners in Cochabamba She shared with us her reflections, experiences, and adventures of her time meeting people and the local culture. Thanks for sharing this story with us, Sammie!

I’m very thankful to Amizade for providing the opportunity to share a few of my final reflections after our Winter Break program in Cochabamba, Bolivia with our team from Slippery Rock University (SRU). If you want a little background on our university and the preparation for our learning, here’s my introduction blog from before we landed in-country.

I’m currently beginning the end of my time at Slippery Rock University; I am three weeks into my final semester as a Master’s student in Student Affairs in Higher Education. I’ve only been back in the United States for about three weeks now, but my experience in Bolivia — who I met and what I learned — have been present in my mind ever since I bid farewell to lifelong friends in the Cochabamba airport. One aspect of our SRU program, led by Director of Community-Engaged Learning Jeffrey Rathlef, was our consistent focus on the reflective component of service. I’m here today to share what I wrote on our last day of the program and a couple of reflections that I’ve had since I’ve become accustomed to my American way of life again

1. What is your emerging personal philosophy of service?

As I expand my personal definitions of community, duty, and justice, I believe that those who serve are better equipped to see our local issues as part of an entangled global system and global issues as reflections of our hometowns. As a community and student expertise supplement service, the service itself provides a common link to bind these two seemingly separate parties through a human tie, carrying each other in their hearts and minds like pure and clean water (paraphrased a quote from Principal Don Pedro de la Escuela Caramarca Otavi from Vinto, Bolivia).

2. What cultural insights have you gained while in Bolivia?  How will these insights assist you in serving others in the future?

These past few years, I’ve seen more and more American”patriotism” and the destructive effects it has. Here in Bolivia, I’ve met many people who love their country and their people so much that they work to challenge the state to make a better life for all. The many Bolivians I’ve met take the time to educate, guide and show off their country. This profound love of where they’re from and indebtedness to their community makes me hope that I can find a place where I feel similarly and can continue to serve in my future local community.

3. What specific things have you learned about yourself through this experience?  How will you apply those personal insights in your future?

After my time in Bolivia, I have better learned how to meet students where they are, walk with them, and to withhold unnecessary expectations on how they “should” perceive new experiences and knowledge. I learned (en vivo) that development will almost always be messy, confusing, and frustrating, but when you look past the initial discomfort you can see other’s thoughts stretch to include more considerations than the day before. Our minds can stretch from me to you, from others to partners, from local to global and local again.

A Month After the Beginning of Our Program

“Do you live to work or do you work to live?” This phrase has epitomized a huge cultural shift that I finally came to understand about life in the United States, specifically my life in the States. Perhaps I’m at a quarter-life crisis or perhaps I am staring right into the eye of future decisions (with them staring intently back), but I’m making a change to improve my perspective and balance. I will no longer value my life based only on the work that I can contribute to an institution or company. I’ve learned through this experience about my worth as a human being, existing as others exist, contributing what I can when I can, being in service with others, and sharing mutual experiences of helpfulness, helplessness, hope, and love. I feel more connected to lo esencial de mi vida, or the core of my life and connection to community. As a member of my host family told my roommate and me, “Espero que tu tiempo en Bolivia esté tatuado en sus corazones para siempre.” In English, that means, “I hope that your time in Bolivia is tattooed on your hearts forever.” I truly will carry this experience and the lessons I’ve learned with me as I look forward to my calendar to see when I can return.

Photo credit: Marshall Tuten, Slippery Rock University Office for Community-Engage Learning

Bonus: Media Surrounding our Experience!

Amizade – Bolivia: SRU 2018 Photo Album

Article – SRU Group to practice Fair-Trade Learning during service trip to Bolivia

Article – SRU students “learn to serve” during Bolivia trip

Video produced by Marshall Tuten, Slippery Rock University Office for Community-Engage Learning