Study Abroad

Interterm in Mexico

Mexico Interterm Group

Our time in Mexico thus far has been wonderful! There are 10 students and two professors (Ada Schmidt-Thieszen and Hamilton Williams) on the Social Work/Social Justice trip. We are currently in Cuernavaca, where we will be until January 17.

We started our trip with an overview of the QUEST program. We are staying in the guest house here. We have spent two days at La Estacion, which is a Squatter Settlement that is home to 6,000 people. It is one of the poorest areas of Cuernavaca. The first day we were there, we visited in homes with residents there about their lifestyles. Today, we went back again to volunteer our time by helping with their breakfast program and the Women’s/Community Center, painting, and helping in the Kindergarten across the street.

We have also taken a QUEST around downtown Cuernavaca where we spent a day living like the bottom 70% of the population do. We were given an amount of money that are equivalent to their wages and had to visit markets to collect necessary food items. We also visited many local downtown landmarks, like the Cathedrals and the People’s Market. On January 6, we went to Xochicalo, which are ancient ruins. We spent the day climbing on and exploring large structures that were built thousands of years ago.

We had the opportunity to try a Temaxcal (Sweat Lodge) that is located on the QUEST grounds. It is a way of cleansing the body in a natural way by being in touch with the Earth and nature.

Gerardo, the QUEST Mexico director, also arranges for us to hear many speakers as they tell their stories about immigration, working as a domestic worker, and much more. Yesterday, we drove to a small village to meet with a traditional healer who creates and prescribes natural (plant) medicines to those who come for her services. In the afternoon, we went to Casa Hogar, which is an orphanage. We learned about how they operate and then spent the afternoon singing, playing soccer, talking, and laughing with the children there. These kids range from ages 3-18. In Mexico, adoption is not really allowed, so these kids will be in there until they turn 18, which was difficult for us to hear.

We are having a great time and are learning a lot. We are definitely not ready to come back to the cooler temperatures!

-Kristin Unruh and Jennifer Scott

The Heart of the People

Today marks two weeks since my arrival in the United States after my study abroad experience in Barcelona, Spain. I am back in North Newton and have been welcomed by family and friends with inquiries about the time I spent away. Their faces, filled with anticipation about the stories I will share and the wisdom I have brought, illuminate at the very mention of Barcelona and I have come to realize how much I am glad to see these people. Because of them, I know now that my value as a person is a reflection of the love and care I have received from others along the way. I am, in a sense, what people have made of me and am more than willing to embrace Bethel as my place and its community as my people. As many of you know my hometown is in Mexico in a city called Xalapa in the state of Veracruz. It is a city of 500, 000 people, known as “the city of flowers,” and it is full of the colors, smells and tastes typical of a green city an hour away from the coast. When I first arrived at Bethel I had doubts about my decision to move to the United States and feared that others would misinterpret my Mexican culture. I grew up with Mexican and American traditions, you see: a hybrid that would always make me feel like I was caught between two worlds, lost between two spaces. I felt pressured to claim a single identity in order to belong, and sadly at times, pretended to be someone I was not. My world was turning and I feared that at Bethel I would never find a place in the heart of its people. Studying abroad in Barcelona brought back similar feelings of displacement.

Although I had been removed from my environment before, I had never been completely detached from family and friends and I soon found myself lost in a sea of unfamiliar faces. As happens in nearly all major cities, people in Barcelona relate to one another through a series of family, work and proximity relationships, which sometimes takes years to consolidate. Lacking the latter, I struggled as an outsider to form bonds with the Barcelonans and suffered at the beginning from the withdrawal of the warmth of human contact. Coming from a Latin American culture and having lived in a small town like North Newton made it hard for me to adjust to the city ways of a metropolis like Barcelona where people forget to smile to one another and avoid the helpless stranger. Once, during my first week in Spain, I was at the subway on my way to school when a toddler unexpectedly got a hold of my index finger. I stared down at the smiling toddler and until tears started rolling down my eyes did I admit to myself that I had been desperate for human recognition.

The human mind works in unexpected ways and my newly found desire to win myself a place in the heart of the Barcelonan people freed me from the fear of failing to do so. I looked back at my time at Bethel and realized that I had never before questioned the value of offering my friendship to those around me, that I had never before considered myself unworthy of receiving love and attention. What had changed since my departure from Bethel? Why had I let myself believe that a city of millions was not interested in my value as an individual? I have been asked to evaluate my study abroad experience by several residents of North Newton. I have been asked to pinpoint every emotion, share every impression and write down every adventure from my semester abroad: I cannot. A city cannot be described in a few words because words can only begin to emulate the essence of the human condition.

I could never communicate how grateful I am to have reached a broader understanding about myself and my surroundings and how appreciative I am towards the Bethel community who loved me first and got to know me second. I could never stress how meaningful it was to have lived through the humbling feeling of not speaking the Catalan language, of finding myself lost in translation and not sharing a culture. Life in Barcelona taught me I can connect with those with no apparent relationship to my person and whose lifestyle I can only begin to comprehend. I carried a successful life outside of the familiar and my sense of accomplishment is a feeling not even the loudest of voices can undermine or suffocate. I am proud to have exposed myself to the unknown because along with the people I met and the stories I brought, the company I kept and the wisdom I sought, I managed to achieve what not even time can make fade: I captured the heart of Barcelona by capturing the hearts of its people.

A Road to Independence

I am not known for talking politics, but as elections in Catalonia are on their way I have gotten an unexpected urge to share my political opinions. I suddenly came to the realization that politics is not a matter done behind closed doors, but rather one that involves and affects everyone. I no longer believe that politicians are faceless individuals, with names not worth remembering and whose paths I will never cross: they are real people. And just like real people, their actions have real consequences in everyday life and I can no longer pretend that I do not care about their political decisions. At the University of Barcelona I have been taking a class titled Political System of the European Union. The class is small and engaging and because of it I have found myself listening to other peoples’ opinions and beginning to finally wrap my head around the world of politics. It has been fascinating to learn in class about the European Union and to be able to reaffirm what I learn with real life experiences outside of the classroom. I am after all a temporary citizen of the EU and, being caught in the middle of a historical moment for the region of Catalonia,  I feel it is my moral obligation to share an overview of the political situation of my place of residence.

For those unfamiliar with the region of Catalonia (also Cataluña or Catalunya), Catalonia is an autonomous community in Spain with four main provinces: Barcelona, Girona, Lleida and Tarragona. Historically, Catalonia has at times been its own principality and has been considered a part of Spain since the Second Spanish Republic in 1931. In 1937, in the midst of the region’s first thoughts of independence from Spanish rule, Spain fell under Francisco Franco’s regime and Catalonia suffered from a period of repression where freedom of expression was censored and speaking Catalan (a mixture of Spanish and French) became illegal. It would take Francisco Franco’s death and forty years’ time for Catalan nationalism to show its political face in public again. Today, there has been a surge in political movements seeking independence with visible impacts on the regions’ main cities. Public universities ask to install Catalan as the official language for higher education and general strikes exhibit the citizens’ discontent with the Spanish government. Many families speak only in Catalan and a radical younger generation has begun to reject the “Spanish” label and express its disinterest in being a part of the European Union. On September 11th of the present year (Catalonia’s national day) more than a million and a half people manifested on the streets, waving proudly the Catalan flag and asking for a democratic independence from Spain. The manifestation resulted in the convocation of elections to be held on November 25th that will determine the percentage of Catalans who wish for the separation of Catalonia from the Spanish state.

The coming election will define a key moment in the road to independence for the Catalan people but there is still a level of uncertainty surrounding the outcomes of the possible results of the election. If the polls show that the vast majority of citizens desire to become a separate state, the leftists parties will gain political power that could lead to beneficial negotiations with the Spanish government. Yet the minute Catalonia becomes an independent state will be the minute it will loose its membership to the European Union and if Spain’s secession of the territory is not friendly there is always a possibility that any request from Catalonia to re-enter it could be vetoed. And yes, Catalan taxes would be better off fulfilling the needs of the region instead of being destined to support Spain’s poorest areas, but they would also have to cover the social necessities previously covered by the EU. If, on the other hand, the election results do not reflect the need for independence, the Spanish government will feel pressured to put out any remaining political manifestation seeking the separation from Spanish rule and will have to implement policies directed to the percentage of Catalans who fail to take on the Spanish identity. But what can the Madrid government do to unify two regions separated by different languages, levels of religiosity, state governments, distances, industries and cultures?

The next few months will be critical for the writing of Catalan and Spanish history and as a student from a Mennonite college I cannot help but feel inspired by the peaceful approach to independence by the Catalan people. If the Catalan effort for independence fails, then we should at least applaud its democratic take on an often times violent path. Maybe someday Catalonia can serve as a model for places like Quebec or Scotland and even change the social construct of placing the value of a state in the strength of its government and not the character of its people. Nations do not have to be homogeneous in the expression of their culture and ideas that do not reflect the righteousness of those in power do not have to become threats to authorities. The Spanish and the Catalans have coexisted successfully for decades and their example can teach us that identities should be built by that which is shared, not by that which separates us. People change through the natural course of their lives in the same way that identities tend to shift and there is only shame in forming new alliances if there is shame in discussing them openly with other people. A road to independence is a road that is conscious of the rights of others from beginning to end and is respectful of the weight that tradition tends to bring. May the Catalan effort keep true to its nature and may the Catalan message remain always peaceful.


A Vocational Education

On September 3rd I arrived at the city of Barcelona with the program of Brethren Colleges Abroad and twenty one students from small Liberal Arts colleges from across the United States. Then, most of us felt unprepared for our study abroad experience, and some, including myself, were nervous about the idea of studying in Catalonia’s most prestigious university. As October comes to an end, I am now finally able to say that I feel like a real student at the University of Barcelona. I am comfortable attending classes, talking to my professors, commuting from one department to another and even spending time outside of the classroom with other university students. Yet attending a university in a foreign country can be challenging and requires fast adjusting to the oddities and complexities of university life outside of the US. In this blog post I would like to share with you what I have learned about Spanish higher education and offer you an inside view into the intricacies of attending the University of Barcelona.

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Settling into School

It’s hard to believe that I have been living here in Greece for almost six weeks and that I’m almost done with my third week of classes. Time moves strangely here, fast and slow at the same time. I have a feeling it’ll be time to say goodbye before I even know it.

One thing that is easy to countdown here are my classes. Unlike the U.S., my classes only meet once a week for three hours (with the exception of my Greek language class which meets twice a week for 90 minutes). Additionally, the university I’m attending is on a quarter system which means our term is only 10 weeks long, instead of the typical 15. Ten class periods. That’s all you get before the quarter is done and the last class session is when you take your final. Time flies in the Greek higher education system.

It’s definitely taking some time to get used to, but it has its advantages. Because we’re not restrained to one hour, we can do a significant amount of lecturing and discussion in the same class period. My school also has an online intranet user, so that we can have discussions on discussion boards online outside of class. Even though we don’t see each other multiple times a week, which I’ve found can definitely affect the relationship I have with my fellow students and professor, there seems to be a certain sense of focus in class that I find can be lacking in classes back home sometimes.

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Some Things: A Personal Story

It is the middle of my second month living in Barcelona, Spain, and although I have shared with you a general account of my impressions of the place, the report of an individual human experience has been missing. That is why today I will tell you the story of Jan and Magdalena: two Spanish people I met during my travels who have given me permission to share their life stories. This account, I hope, will help us understand the difficult time Spain is living in its history and offer a particular point of view on some of  the current struggles of the Spanish people.

Magdalena was born in a small city in southern Spain in the middle of WWII and was three years old when the war ended. By the time she was five, her older sister—who suffered from sudden visual impairment—and her mother, traveled together to Madrid to seek treatment. It had been a year since the pair had left, and Magdalena’s father decided to send Magdalena north to live with his sister. Magdalena lived with her aunt for several years while her father struggled to move his shoe-making business to the capital. At the age of thirteen, her family was reunited in Madrid and Magdalena began working as a seamstress.

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A Change of Heart

Now I don’t talk about religion and my personal beliefs in depth very much. I don’t like to mainly because I think what a person feels regarding religion and God is extremely personal and more often than not points to our differences as people rather than the much larger number of things we share in common that bind us together.

However, because Bethel is one of what feels like the few colleges that is active in the religion it is associated with, lists discipleship as one of its four central values, and has played a big role in my faith life the last few years, I’m going to broach a subject I often avoid.

Before I came to Bethel, I quickly and with little thought identified as Quaker whenever someone asked me what religion I was. Throughout my childhood I regularly attended the Friends meeting in San Antonio, Texas where I’m from, but as I got older and entered high school, my attendance dwindled. By the end of high school, I was going to meeting maybe once a month and other than the yearly Quaker retreat, wasn’t really interact with Quakers my own age. So when I started Bethel, I felt like a fish out of water to be surrounded by and have so many friends with a strong faith in God, Jesus, and Christianity.

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Living in the Heart of Civilization

Greetings from Athens! I have been here for just over 2 weeks now and life is starting to reach some sense of normalcy again. Classes start in a week and the group of American students I’m here with has really started to bond. All in all, things are going very well.

Athens is a city cloaked in white. Buildings rarely seem to be less than 4 stories tall so many of the streets are blessed with shade except for around noon. Everywhere you look there are balconies and plants and cars and motorcycles and kiosks. Walking out onto the street, you are surrounded by constant noise, movement, and smells. There seems to be a little cafe, bakery, or take-away souvlaki place every 20 feet and you quickly learn which are the best and which aren’t.

Walking around the city, it isn’t hard to get lost since much of it looks largely the same. In the monotony of the streets glows the occasional landmark, a welcome relief. Parliament marks the center of life in Athens, the place where demonstrations and negotiations occur. If you find Parliament and Syntagma Square, you can get anywhere. Not far away is the Acropolis which overlooks the new center for government from its ancient home. It’s almost as if it’s watching over present-day Greece, judging both things good and bad. Read More

Spanish Avant-Garde

Yes, we all have been there. We all have been that person with a map in hand, desperately clinging to that one building by Gaudí left on our list of must-sees. We are the man with the ridiculous tan line, the woman photographing every inch of La Sagrada Familia and the couple looking for a postcard with the word “Spain” on it at Las Ramblas. But what happens when we have visited every place imaginable and find ourselves with nothing left to fill our afternoon schedules? Then, my friends, we do what the locals do and learn to marvel at the curious ways of the city.

Barcelona is a place for the Spanish Avant-garde. It is inquisitive, creative and full of innovation in every aspect of its daily life. From the flawless performance of its subway system to the unspoken agreement between musicians working on the streets of the same block, Barcelona operates in strategic elegance. Sometimes it comes in the form of taxi drivers letting students cross the street past the red light. Others, it comes in the shape of compost bins, magazine bending machines and clothing recycling centers. In the city, the Spanish Avant-garde proves its talent by transforming an ice-cream shopping experience into a visit to a luxurious museum or by decorating high-class restaurants with lanterns made with popsicle sticks and straws. In apartment buildings, people use retractable wires as clothing lines to make up for the lack of space and have learned to hold conversations with their neighbors through closed doors and kitchen windows.

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A Land of Contradictions

The last time you heard from me I was heading off to a new adventure in the city of Barcelona, Spain. Having now been in the area for more than a week, I am finally ready to share some of my impressions of one of Europe’s oldest cities.

Barcelona is a land of contradictions. Century old buildings share the same aura with modern architecture, while a conservative older generation is housing young tourists from all over the world. The city is a breath-taking, open museum and beauty is so often times found on the physicality of the city that Barcelonans forget to smile to each other on the streets. The subway’s signage is written in Catalan, yet most Barcelonans have forgotten how to speak it; and the great number of tourists who have made their home in Barcelona has forever changed the way locals go about their city.

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