by Julienne Gage, '95
Photos courtesy of Michael Le Roy, '89
As I write this article in the comfort of my air-conditioned space in balmy Miami Beach, 25 Whitworth students are probably lying in hammocks above a dusty floor in some suffocatingly hot Central American village. Maybe they realize how much they miss peanut butter and wish one of their colleagues would scrub that foul odor off his Teva sandals. In between the laughter and complaints, they likely feel jabs of guilt over the fact that most people in the village will never own a decent pair of shoes, let alone a pair of Tevas. Most of the students probably break out their journals each day to try to channel heads and hearts full of moral dilemmas into coherent thoughts on paper.
As a 1993 Central America Study Program alumna, I can vouch for the fact that lessons learned on the trip aren't comfortable. Even today, maybe after I've nabbed a bargain at Macy's, I sometimes awaken from dreams about street kids I knew in Central America. I still experience a certain post-trauma response every time I eat a banana. Maybe the fruit was picked by the blistered hands of a peasant farmer who had to sell out to a multinational corporation when his land was no longer productive enough to compete in the global market. I even feel a bit of anguish and embarrassment over being tagged a "liberal" when I relay what I learned about U.S. involvement in the region.
My empathy is shared by countless other students who have participated in Whitworth's study-abroad programs. The benefits of cross-cultural competence are regarded as so important that Whitworth now requires all students to complete courses in foreign language and global perspectives to graduate. The university's long-term goal is that 80 percent of its graduates will meet these requirements through study-abroad experience.
This spring, Central America Study Program leaders Michael Le Roy, '89 (Academic Affairs), Terry McGonigal (Chapel), Esther Louie (Student Life), James Hunt (History), Kim Hernandez (Modern Languages), and Karla Morgan (Business & Economics) introduced students to Central Americans through social-service projects and lectures.
Students also heard directly from Central Americans, many of whom shared heart-wrenching stories of war, crime, and migration patterns that have torn apart families and de-stabilized the region's cultural identity. Faculty in the Central America program have learned that as students become servants of the poor in a depleted economy and within people's natural environments, they develop a better grasp of history and politics, cross-cultural communication, and the integration of faith and learning. In a nutshell, students get one big lesson in empathy. Between last summer's 30-year Central America Study Program reunion and my e-mail correspondence this spring with some of the program's former participants, I have encountered very few people who aren't profoundly affected to this day by their Central America experience.
Michael Le Roy, Whitworth's vice president for academic affairs, still gets choked up thinking about incidents he witnessed as a student on the 1987 Central America Study Program. One night while he was studying Spanish in Antigua, Guatemala, Le Roy saw the country's military surround a hall where local youth had been invited for a community dance; the soldiers plucked out all the military-aged men in the hall to draft them into the army for what became a four-decade war. The next morning, Le Roy found parents begging at the police station for information about their sons. A man whose only remaining son was drafted told Le Roy, "Spend the rest of your life telling this story: We don't have justice, and we aren't treated fairly."
"In a way, that was my call," says Le Roy a week after returning from the Costa Rica leg of this year's Central America program. Though civil wars in Central America have finally ceased, and U.S. intervention no longer comes in the form of covert military aid to the region's governments, poverty and injustice continue to plague the least fortunate there, much as they did during Le Roy's visit in 1987 – and when Professor Emeritus Ron Frase (Sociology) first started taking students to Latin America, in 1977.
The call that Le Roy mentions is something 1990 tour participant Trish Morita-Mullaney, '89, continues to feel as she teaches English as a second language in an Indianapolis middle school.
"One of the things that brings me great joy is meeting families in the hallways," Morita-Mullaney said at last year's 30-year CASP reunion, "and asking them where they're from, and really knowing geographically, politically, religiously that I've been there and I've seen it and that we can fill one another's shoes for a moment in time."
Kay Andrade-Eekhoff, a participant of the 1984 program, is among those who have gone back to Central America to forge a new vision of social justice. Andrade-Eekhoff spent her first few years after graduation assisting Salvadoran refugees who had fled their country's civil war (1980-92) to resettle in the United States. In 1994, two years after El Salvador signed United Nations-sponsored peace accords, she and her family moved to San Salvador to take part in the country's reconstruction. Today she is developing El Salvador-based internships in business for Central American college students living in the United States.
"I want to be able to help Central American young people in the U.S. participate in the transformative experience that I had through Whitworth," she writes in a recent e-mail from San Salvador. "The trip opened up even more my view of the world and the role that the U.S. government plays and how many U.S. policies have an impact on the day-to-day lives of so many people, often in a negative way," she recalls. "I also lived first-hand the tremendous grace of Central Americans in their willingness to share their lives with a young, naïve North American."
Andrade-Eekhoff's work, like that of many alumni from the trips of the 1980s and early '90s, evolved along with the social and political concerns of Central America during the Cold War. At the beginning, she says, she was deeply affected by what the U.S. government called "low-intensity conflict." Under this policy, the government carried out a covert war in Nicaragua, and later provided training and equipment to the militaries of other Central American nations in an effort to squelch guerrilla uprisings; these were often initiated by peasants who had reached their limits in terms of poverty and oppression at the hands of the elite. Ultimately, such policies – and more recent free-trade policies – resulted in masses of Central Americans fleeing to the United States.
"By visiting communities throughout the region, students are able to connect and share on a new level with Guatemalans, Hondurans, Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Costa Ricans in the U.S. – not just through language, but with a bit of understanding and solidarity," Andrade-Eekhoff says. She hopes that the program "will help students see migrants [in the U.S.] as people, rather than as criminals."
For Jefferson Shriver, '92, the trip caused a complete about-face. Shriver came to Whitworth with plans of using his business degree to become a wealthy stockbroker, but the trip led him down an economic path he'd never imagined. He has spent 11 of the last 13 years working in non-governmental organizations in Nicaragua that focus on business-empowerment policies for the poor, taking a two-year hiatus in the midst of that fieldwork to obtain a master's in global environmental policy at American University, in Washington, D.C.
Participants in the 2008 Central America Study Program pose for a group shot near Punta Mona, Costa Rica. Facing page: A Central American classroom buzzes with activity during a visit by Whitworth students.
"The trip made me realize that large populations live in hunger and extreme poverty," Shriver says in an e-mail from Managua, where he serves as chief of party for Catholic Relief Services. "I realized that I had been siding with politicians whose votes in Congress and the Senate helped to exacerbate such conditions."
In fact, it was one sweaty month in Honduras, during Whitworth's 1990 Central America Study Program, that drastically changed his career plans.
"I worked in the fields with a machete and ate rice and beans for 30 days, sleeping on an elevated floorboard. Such an experience (if the student is open to learning) alters one's worldview entirely," he says.
Home-stay projects like the one Shriver mentions teach humility and political awareness; they also give students important technical training on such issues as poverty reduction and environmental restoration, since home stays are usually set up through grass-roots development organizations. Students may learn how using worms to make compost can lead to richer soil for crops or how the introduction of dairy cooperatives has improved a village's economic conditions since the last Whitworth program, three or six years earlier.
Le Roy says that Whitworth is laying the groundwork to set up a base camp in Central America where the university can maintain a longer-term presence in the region; such a camp, staffed by rotating Whitworth faculty as well as local professors, would also offer Spanish-language classes and a headquarters for students who might be interested in exploring and learning about Central America but who are daunted by the rigor and itinerary of the current program. Whitworth also hopes eventually to set up similar off-campus centers in Africa and Europe.
Of the planned Central America location, Le Roy says, "We want to get more students off campus in semester-long programs where they can be immersed in the Spanish language and learn about poverty, development, social justice and theology."
The base-camp semester could have a different theme and an internship focused around such subjects as business, psychology and childhood development. It could also include the Core 350 course, the main thrust of which is the ethical and political application of worldview assumptions emphasized in Core 150 and Core 250. Students interested in the traditional program could even extend their time in the region by first using this base camp for extra language preparation before embarking on the five-month regional experience.
Whether students are in village home stays or using the proposed base camp as their headquarters, Whitworth wants them to grapple with the kinds of difficult ideological and theological questions that surface during their visit to Central America, and to emerge with a tested and dynamic faith.
Whitworthians hear from a fair-trade coffee farmer in Finca La Bella, C.R.
Tracey King, '95, a 1993 tour alumna who now works in Managua as a regional liaison for Central America with the Presbyterian Church (USA), says the tour helped her to ask why things in some parts of the world just don't work the way they should. "Faith is part of that in that I feel called to continue to try and see and understand the injustice and then to try and transform it," she says.
"Christ wants us to follow him to the places where the hard questions are asked," Le Roy says. "That means being fearless about engaging in the realities of the world. Theology should inform ideology."
Asking the Tough Questions
As a journalist, I always have to ask "Why?" I feel fortunate that the Central America study program helped give me the cultural and language skills I needed to pose that question to people whose answers would otherwise be unheard. When a group of five Guatemalan men took up temporary lodging in the studio apartment next door to mine, my answer to their question about why I speak Spanish won me not only a tamale, but their offers to participate (anonymously) in a radio documentary about illegal immigration.
Still, I'd like to think that empathy is what creates these opportunities for me and for them. During an especially dry patch of freelancing, I went to work at a cushy tourist restaurant where most of the busboys were Honduran. When a well-to-do Colombian bartender asked one of them what his hometown of Nacaome was like, the busboy chuckled and said, "Ask the gringa."
"A lotta dust, but the people are amazing – they saved me from dehydration once after I'd been on a long walk in the desert," I said, before running off for another awkward moment of table service to young professionals with steady jobs. The Honduran followed behind me to clean up, making sure my tables glimmered in the sun.
Students learn about sustainable energy and permaculture at Punta Mona.
"Nothing compensates for experiential learning," Ron Frase told CASP alumni at last summer's reunion, his voice cracking as it does whenever he speaks of past journeys to Central America. I'm glad it does, because his intense emotion is part of what piqued many a student's curiosity to go to the region in the first place.
Frase has a profound understanding of the bond that develops between Whitworth students and Central Americans during the students' home stays in small towns and villages. This bond continues, seemingly intact, for years after each student's experience in Central America. If a CASP alum should ever wonder about what kind of real impact his or her home stay had on its Honduran hosts, consider this:
In the middle of last year's reunion, 23-year-old Whitworth student Iveth Canales stood up to tell us that she was just 8 years old when 1993 participant Nhi Hoang, '94, came to live in her village, Las Uvas. The local school offered classes only to sixth grade, and few people in Las Uvas had the ability or inclination to read much, Canales says. But when she saw Hoang sneaking off to read a book or write in her journal, Canales was inspired. A few years later, Canales attended high school in Tegucigalpa, and upon meeting another Whitworth alumna, Sheila Maak, '97, she found her way to Whitworth, where her studies in international development have been completely paid for via scholarships. Canales has a message for Central America alumni and future program participants.
"You might not know the impact you made in the lives of those kids you played with and smiled at," Canales says, "but I tell you that I was once one of those kids, and my life was changed by one student like you. For students who would like to join the next Central America Study Program, I encourage them do it. I would like them to know that we welcome you there with open hearts."
Gage is a freelance journalist and television news producer in Miami.