Throughout the month of May, as thousands of students graduate from college and move forward with their careers, ISA will publish a series of stories from ISA staff members about how their study abroad experiences laid the foundation for their time with the Peace Corps.
By Eric Mackintosh, Ph.D. , ISA Director, Academic Resources and Assessment
Eric Mackintosh, Director of Academic Resources & Assessment
Study Abroad: Valparaíso & Viña del Mar, Chile (with ISA)
Peace Corps: Dominican Republic and Haiti
It is somewhat difficult for me to admit that the impetus for my study abroad experience, and perhaps my interest in global affairs, stems from meeting my high school girlfriend’s parents. My girlfriend was first-generation Colombian, and her parents weren’t too keen on her dating an atheist (they were devoutly Catholic) American who didn’t speak a word of Spanish or understand Latin American culture. The relationship ended long before my curiosity to learn what exactly was being said about the gringo at the dinner table ever did, and my insatiable desire to decipher the Spanish language pushed me to study abroad with ISA at la Universidad Católica de Valparaíso, Chile, from August to December, 2000.
Spanish language acquisition turned out to be only a small part of my overall learning experience. Interactions with my host family taught me about generosity and patience, and the various definitions of the word huevón (FYI, context is everything). Climbing the steep hills behind my neighborhood into the maze-like informal housing developments of Viña’s callampas taught me the true meaning of poverty and inequality, along with resiliency. On a few rare occasions while walking with a group of Americans through the streets of Valpo, Chileans expressed animosity towards us verbally, or via elaborate hand gestures. I learned that this was the residual effect of the 1973 U.S. supported coup, which left thousands dead and missing, and propped up a dictator who would remain in power until 1990, (only 10 short years prior to my time in Chile).
My perspective on U.S. democratic ideals and international power dynamics changed during my time abroad. In my heart I knew that the vast majority of Americans disagreed with many of our government’s interventionist tactics, so instead of fighting the system, I figured that joining the Peace Corps would be one way I could change it.
My study abroad experience helped prepare me for my work as a Peace Corps volunteer on the island of Hispaniola in the following ways:
Understanding Nationalism and Nativism. Prior to my time abroad, I had no idea how other countries, particularly in Latin America, distinguished themselves through real, or perceived, differences, and how these identities were leveraged by politicians, and those in power, to either unite or divide a populace. Growing up in the states, I really didn’t feel a strong collective state identity, so my experience in Chile – learning how locals viewed Argentines and Brazilians – helped prepare me for the complicated racial and economic dynamics between Dominicans and Haitians. I witnessed how nationalism can quickly morph into dangerous nativism while I was stationed on the Dominican/Haitian border. This encouraged me to apply for a grant from the Canadian government for a bi-national reforestation project, during which over 1,000 mango, 2,000 pine, and 600 avocado trees were planted, and Haitian farmers traveled to the DR to learn planting techniques to prevent soil erosion. The primary goal of the project was to get Haitians and Dominicans to work together and foster empathy through collaboration.
Patience. We have an on-demand culture in the U.S., where you can get anything, at anytime, relatively quickly. This was not the case in Chile, and even less so in the Dominican Republic. My study abroad experience encouraged me to view time as circular rather than linear – something to share, not “spend.” This allowed me to adapt to the Dominican culture of si Dios quiere much faster than many of my PC colleagues. I took it in stride when meetings started two hours late, using that time to cultivate relationships, play dominoes, read (over 100 books in two years), and become mindful of the present.
If you do plan on applying to the Peace Corps I would recommend that you do so before graduating to get the ball rolling. I also recommend that you start volunteering with philanthropic organizations in your area, as these activities are essential to your application.
I’m sure the Peace Corps marketing slogan has changed, but when I volunteered they used to say that it was “the Toughest Job You’ll Ever Love,” which is certainly true, but I would say that for me it was more than a job, it was life. So I guess I would switch out “Job” for “Life”, and possibly throw a hashtag in there for good measure.