Reflections on Learning in Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador

This post is from Augsburg student Leah McDougall, who traveled to El Salvador with CGEE as part of an Augsburg College class.  

I have dreamed about traveling to Central America since I was in high school. Finally, I was given an opportunity to explore, first hand, the culture of that part of the world. El Salvador was an experience of a lifetime where I was able to become more awake and witness a different type of beauty in the world.

There are many factors that made this trip very memorable, well-rounded, and life changing. The leaders of the trip planned it so we would get a large perspective of the country.  We spent time in three different cities: San Salvador, Suchitoto, and Nueva Esperanza, and were able to see life in El Salvador from many different perspectives.  We met with local historians, attended a local mass, toured church and plaza where Archbishop Oscar Romero preached and was killed, checked out the local markets, toured museums with loads of information about the Civil War, met war and massacre survivors, spent time with Sister Peggy at the Art Center for Peace, talked with the two main political parties, visited with the US Embassy, and spent a night on the beach. Throughout all the travel within the small country, I felt pain, anger. and sadness because of the terrible war they had been through and the amount of people in severe poverty today. But I also felt a sense of hope and beauty that is hard to explain. The people we encountered were very hopeful about the future and not bitter about the past. Religion was a large impact in their life and it showed thro ugh their actions and conversations. They relied on each other’s company and companionship to get through the pain of the war, the struggles of daily life and the hardship of life.

My favorite part of the trip was the time in Nueva Esperanza. It is a small agricultural community that functions like a cooperative. In the 1980s, they were forced out of their homeland and moved to San Salvador because of the dangers of the Civil War. Later, they were sent to a refugee camp in Nicaragua where they remained until the early 1990s. I was exposed to the power of a community in three ways.  First, the majority of this community chose to stay together throughout the war and move back to their homeland together.  Second, the sense of responsibility they had for each other was prominent. They all looked after each other financially, emotionally, and physically. They made it clear through their words and actions that they would never let anyone in their community go hungry or struggle alone. Lastly, the simple lifestyle overall was something very different yet comforting to me.They worked hard and made a lot of time to be in the company of others and be present in each other’s lives. This is something I don’t always experience in my day to day life.

Leah McDougall and her CGEE group worked together with local youth the repaint this mural in Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador
Leah McDougall and her CGEE group worked together with local youth the repaint this mural in Nueva Esperanza, El Salvador

One-on-One Spanish Language Study in Guatemala

Students in the Social Change in Central America study abroad program benefit from one-on-one Spanish language courses during the Guatemala portion of the multi-country experience.  In other words, each individual student is assigned a teacher.  A former student writes about his experience.

At 8am, Xela, Guatemala is refreshingly chilly.   I am on the street and making the five minute walk to Spanish Class. El Proyecto Linguistico Quetzalteco (PLQ) has become much more than a Language School for me; it is truly my second home during our stay in Guatemala. Famous for being one of the longest-running Spanish immersion schools in the region, PLQ Spanish school in Guatemala draws students from all over the world. On our first day of classes, we are introduced to our teacher, and shown to area that will be our work space. On many days, we sit one-on- one at this table, talking not only about verbs and conjugations, but also of Guatemala’s history, politics, and the country’s future. My morning is broken up by trips to refill my coffee mug,  moments of chit chat with fellow students and their teachers, or a trip to the roof top patio with its breath taking view of the city.

I love getting to know my teacher.  He is an expert in the Spanish language with years of experience in making sense of the language for learners.  He is also a living history book, a witness to so many of the historical and social realities we are learning about each day during the Social Change in Central America study abroad program. He brings everything down to earth for me, allows me to see the human side of things, the faces and stories not captured in statistics or political rhetoric. When he senses that my attention is straying, we change things up by taking a stroll to the Central Park. He points out objects, telling me to name them in Spanish and to identify their color and shape in Spanish. We buy pastries and coffee which provides the opportunity to practice ordering in Spanish.  We get a mid-morning break and the school  buzzes with conversation and laughter. Over coffee and sweet bread, I check in my fellow students and take my turn at the foosball table with three of the teachers..

I spend the remainder of the morning with students who share my same level of Spanish. We read news paper articles and analyze the daily news with our teachers.  Class adjourns at 1pm and I head out the door and down the street to have lunch with my Guatemalan homestay family. At lunch with them, I will try out some new phrases my teacher has taught me.  The school hosts us for a documentary and hot chocolate in the evening.  I amazed how at home I feel after just a few weeks studying abroad in Guatemala; I have PLQ to thank for the welcome and camaraderie.

Nicaragua – An Emerging Tourist Destination

Choosing a study abroad program requires analysis of academics, finances, living situations, dates, credit transfer, and more.  CGE also believes the level of immersion, community engagement, and exposure to a breadth of society – no matter the location – is what constitutes and transformational study abroad experience. Indeed, the actual location may not even be the most important factor in your decision.  Nonetheless, we can’t help but feel excitement that Nicaragua – one of CGE’s most popular countries for both semester and short-term programs – is being more widely recognized for its physical beauty and cultural heritage. Still, Nicaragua is not yet overrun with tourists and it remains an off the beaten path study abroad location.  And the historical context and relationship with the US continues to fascinate those looking for a truly eye-opening educational experience.

Nicaragua has been cited as one of the top “budget” destinations for travelers. This is a relatively new trend because, despite statistics showing its safety for travelers, many people have associated the country with the country’s wars of past decades.  Yet, the colonial city of Granada, the volcanoes of Masaya, and the Miraflor natural reserve are winning over travelers.  CGE’s semester program includes travel to all of these locations and many short-term program participants have the opportunity to visit them as well.


Finding the Light after War

By Maly Thao

Maly received the Mary Witt Scholarship to help support her short-term travel to El Salvador in January 2015. The below is excerpted from a a reflective paper she wrote about the seminar. 

As I sit here reflecting back upon my study abroad short term winter break journey in El Salvador, I keep going back to the time the group departed to Copapayo Viejo and was taken across the lake into the forest where we got a chance to listen to two testimony from the massacre survivors: Rogelio Miranda and Mercedes Menjivar. Both of these stories made a huge impact on me that I felt like I was there with them the whole time on their tragic journey. Most especially, Rogelio’s story because he went through and seen so much at such a young age. This man is so strong. If I were to imagine myself in his shoe, I would not know how to continue on living life being a massacre survivor.

I felt many emotions going through me as I was standing and listening to Rogelio and Mercedes. It was long listening to their heartbreaking stories in the heat and my legs started hurting but, I could not give up letting myself sit down. The reason why I choose to stay standing was because I wanted to feel what Rogelio and Mercedes was feeling as they stood and shared their story. Also, I thought about the long hours of walking the soldiers made all the survivors at the time traveled and some may have walk barefooted. My mind and emotions was all over the place.

Again, Rogelio’s story hit me the most. He watched his sister, aunt, and many loved ones from behind a line they were all standing in get shot at the age of nine years old. He was a smart boy who dodged death; his life flashed right in front of his eyes so many times and yet, he managed to survive. With this, he stated that he knew somehow God was protecting him every step of the way. I do believe in this too and that there is a place and a time for everything.

Listening to Rogelio’s story, I was drifting in and out of my mind. The experience that they went through, I can also relate it on to a personal level because my parents, great grandparents, and cousins went through a similar experience: their journey from the war that is known as the Secret War or Silent War. I know a little about my parents’ journey because they would talk about it when I was younger growing up. It was always tied into some kind of lecturing about how they struggled migrating to the United States of America and was not able to get all the opportunities here and we (their children) should go in all our ways to obtain the most of it for them. I knew my role as a Hmong American daughter and know well what my parents wants for us but, was rebellious because I have some things against my culture and still do. I struggle daily to see why the gender role is what it is today in my culture and is something hard to explain, but I realized that I never took my culture and its history in that serious. It was always like you don’t want to believe the horrible things a human being can do to another human being. I came to realizing that one’s culture is important because somehow, in some way, you will always come back to your own roots.

Again and again, the experience in El Salvador left me with a huge impact that I am processing all my thoughts down. After listening to both the stories, the group did a prayer together around a tree, and ended with giving each other hugs. We then got back onto the boat and I turned to glance one last time to the place we were at, and saw the sun shining onto the tree we prayed around on. At that very moment, it hit me that there in the deepest darkness tragedy one goes through, they can find the light (happiness) again. I am thankful for this powerful short moment of my life that impacted me in so many ways unimaginable.


Fresh Student Reviews of Social Change in Central America

Quote with photo fall 2014 Central America

Fall 2014 students from CGE’s semester program in Central America have published their reviews.  Here is a sampling:

“Great program! The trip coordinators and the families welcomed me with arms wide open and provided a very memorable experience. 9/10 overall” – Colorado College Student

“This was a wonderful, transformative trip that really caters to people of all interests and backgrounds. A great program to improve your Spanish, talk to people who have lived through and helped shape history, as well as take in beautiful sights and sounds (and delicious food!) of this diverse and complex region. 9/10 overall” – Carleton College Student

Read the full reviews, as well as view photos and program information online here!

Juan Carlos Lopez: Nicaragua Days in Minneapolis!

Juan Carlos Lopez, Program Coordinator in Nicaragua, will be in Minneapolis on January 21-22.  We have several special events on offer to celebrate Augsburg College’s Nicaragua campus and presence.

January 21

10am-12pm: Nicaragua Days Tabling in Christensen Center Lobby

Students who have returned from study abroad in Nicaragua and Central America will be available to discuss their experiences.  Stop by and chat, view pictures, and learn how to apply to a semester program (if you’re a student) and explore the possibility of designing your own short-term program (if you’re a faculty member).

3:30pm-4:30pm: Meet and Greet with Juan Carlos in the Augsburg Abroad Suite in the lower level of the Christensen Center

Come meet or reunite with Juan Carlos.   Learn more about Central America or reminisce about your time there.   This is a casual gathering open to all; light refreshments will be served.

January 22

5:30-8pm: Master of Arts in Leadership Anniversary Reception

Open to all Augsburg College campus and community members!  Join alumni and current students of the Master of Arts in Leadership and Physician Assistant Programs at Augsburg to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the MA in Leadership course “Universal Responsibility and Leadership: A Nicaraguan Experience.” Enjoy Nicaraguan food, photos, stories, and music, and hear from special guest Juan Carlos Lopez, program coordinator for the Center for Global Education and Experience in Nicaragua.  Diana Pierce, KARE 11 news anchor and 2014 Nicaragua program participant, will MC the event.  Proceeds benefit NicaHOPE, a nonprofit based in Managua that works with communities living around the Managua city dump to offer long-term solutions to entrenched poverty through education and practical skills training.


Staff/Faculty Spotlight – Fidel Xinico Tum

Happy New Year!

As we enter into 2015, I am reminded – again – of the years of commitment many CGE staff members have made (12 years on average).  This longevity is a benefit for host communities and our students/participants.

My 2015 resolution is to do a better job of highlighting our staff members and sharing their stories.  First up is Fidel Xinico, CGE’s program coordinator in Guatemala.  Fidel shared a few thoughts to the following questions:

In what year did you start with CGE?  1993

Can you tell our blog readers a bit about your life, personal or professional? I am a Guatemalan citizen of the Cakchiquel Maya ethnic group. In 1975-1979, I studied at the Catholic High School San Jose Seminary in Sololá.  In 1980-1982, I studied at Francisco Marroquín University in Guatemala City, where I received a B.A. in Secondary Education and Philosophy. In 1984, I attended an ELS program at Hamline University in Minnesota.  Also, in 1984, I  received a scholarship from the New Ulm Dioceses of Minnesota to study at St. Paul Seminary at the University of St. Thomas in where I graduated with a M. Div. in 1988.

In the past, I have worked with the San Lucas Tolimán Parish and as a teacher.

I mostly work in Guatemala, but I have also led seminars in  Mexico City, Chiapas, Cuba, Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua.

What is the most rewarding part of your work with CGE: Being aware of the social-economic reality of my country and other countries in the world.

Are there any particular stories/encounters from resource people/speakers that are poignant for you personally or for our participants?  Participation in a Mayan ceremony has been a key component of programming in Guatemala. It is an opportunity for participants to access the heart of Mayan culture, the majority of population.

Hobbies/personal interests: Travel, soccer, movies

Where is your favorite place to travel and/or what is your dream destination for the future?  My favorite places to travel are Bolivia and Peru. My dream destination for the future is Europe.

Thank you Fidel, for your 22 years of service to CGE and Augsburg College!

Mark Lester presenting at Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice

CGE-Central America co-director, Mark Lester, will be at the Ignatian Family Teach In for Justice this week. The Teach-In is an event of the Ignatian Solidarity Network. He will be presenting a session entitled, “Incarnating Ourselves in the Reality of the Oppressed Majorities: Essential for Sustainable Development.”

His abstract states: Statistics and studies on the poverty, landlessness, and unemployment in the global south abound. But more important is “incarnating ourselves in the reality of the impoverished majorities,” which implies understanding their current survival strategies. When we are able to see the world from their perspective, their current approach does make sense. This is then the key to opening the door for a mutual collaboration where we can discover how we can truly support them in attaining a level of greater empowerment. In the process we, too, are changed.

Learning experiences in Guatemala!!

 by Aaron Smith

We left Guatemala, but here it is a reflection from one of our students.

Now we have moved on from Guatemala, but in no way does that mean that its impact has not left our minds. I hope that I accurately speak on behalf of everyone in the group by saying that our eyes were opened and awareness increased and knowledge enhanced. After reflecting on my time in Guatemala, there are three things that I personally learned; things I was looking forward to learning and others that were unexpected.

First, I learned, or rather, unlearned all of the false stereotypes associated with Guatemala. In our small group discussions, it became apparent that everyone had experienced a situation with friends or family that warned of all of the many perils of traveling to “such an undeveloped and dangerous country’, which were entirely untrue. The people of the country are brilliant: botanists, astronomers, philosophers, teachers, doctors, and doers. Everyone that we spoke with played a vital role in our growth, and everyone left their print in our hearts.

Second, I learned about the perception of the rest of Central America, the neighboring countries, and the United States. I understand this is a broad and rather intensive topic, so I am not going to elaborate, but what I learned, and what heard both shocked and surprised me, as well as intrigued me. There is an authenticity to hearing how someone feels they are being treated by their government that you cannot get from a textbook or a professor.

Last, I learned about the Mayan culture; a culture that is vastly overlooked for their contributions to society, science, and the identity of Guatemalans. The language, the music, the ceremonies, the food (oh yes!) and the stories are captivating. The Mayan people have been through so much in history; from the last thirty years and dating back to the conquistadors. Their resilience and compassion is incredible.

As one adventure wraps up another is about to unfold in Costa Rica. An entirely new culture, history, and people have the chance to teach us anymore, and we are all excited for that. However, it is impossible to forget and overlook all of the amazing and monumental lessons learned from Guatemala.

Bienvenidos to our Central America semester program!! Off to explore social change together!

We are excited to welcome our new semester students in Central America. They are 11 amazing young women and men, from all walks of life, with diverse experiences and unique lenses. In these couple of months they will set out on a journey as a community to explore Guatemala, Costa Rica and Nicaragua. Following our experiential education model of experience-reflection-action students will interact with people from a diverse cross section of local society and learn about social change, justice, peace and community engagement in the region, as well as their role as global citizens.

As part of their orientation week they had some time to learn about each other,  their unique identities, their educational biographies and learning styles. Now in their second week they are each paired with a Spanish professor for their intensive one-on-one Spanish classes. Throughout these 5 weeks they will also be learning about the history, economic, social and political reality of the country. We will make sure to keep you all posted !