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 Lauren Bruce, ISA Director of Internships
Lauren Bruce, Director of Internships
Study Abroad: Granada, Spain
Peace Corps: Ukraine
My uncle always seemed exotic to me. He’d lived in Honolulu my entire life with my Aunt Chin who he’d met in Thailand during his Peace Corps service from 1962-1964. He’d visit the “mainland” every couple of years to visit his sisters, and he and my aunt would share stories with me about teaching in Ethiopia, crossing the Khyber Pass, and living the Hawaiian life. He was the stereotypical nutty professor. He always wore all black and sunglasses—even indoors. Middle school me wanted his life.
Middle school me was also introduced to a wide-range of cultures having grown up outside Detroit. With a student body of nearly 1400 in my high school, we had large populations of Filipino, Chaldean, Chinese, Indian, Sikh, Lebanese, Armenian, among others. However, having grown up in Detroit I was not naïve to racial and cultural differences either. Yet, it was not until my first semester at university in Columbus, Ohio that I was made aware that my previous education had been a privilege not shared by many of my new peers. It was during my freshman year that I realized how much I really loved living in a multicultural environment. I decided then that it would be a life goal for me to always learn about new cultures and to live in a diverse city.
I quickly added Spanish as one of my majors. I had already taken 7 years of Spanish in middle and high school, and knew that if I continued studying I’d be able to communicate with more people. This all fit into my grand plan of studying abroad in Spain and then graduating and joining the Peace Corps in Latin America (and then starting a restorative arts commune with my college roommates who were Art Therapy majors—that’s a separate story).
During my sophomore year, I visited my “study abroad office” and was handed an ISA catalog. I was told I could pick any program. So, I went for the cheapest one at the time—Granada, Spain. I learned a lot about myself and the world in those short five months. I learned how to be alone with myself, how to navigate ambiguity, communicate creatively, how to be independent, and so much more.
I’ve highlighted below two specific ways my semester in Granada also helped me prepare for my Peace Corps experience in Ukraine:
Language: While Spanish and Ukrainian are not at all similar, the process of learning a new language is. I really didn’t understand verb tenses and parts of speech of the English language until I learned Spanish. Ukrainian is not an easy language to learn, but having already learned Spanish and having a better grasp on the English language propelled my learning of Ukrainian. Also, witnessing in Spain how tightly- interwoven language is to culture and its ability to shape cultural reality helped me to better understand the Ukrainian people and my host community. I’m confident this made me a better volunteer.
Intercultural Development: I studied abroad shortly after 9/11 and was in Spain when the U.S. first dropped bombs on Iraq which signaled the start of the Iraq War. This move was highly criticized in Spain and the locals loved telling me what a bad idea it was. They loved to share all their critiques of the U.S. with me and ask me tough political questions–critiques and questions I was not well-informed enough to answer, unfortunately. I felt so judged. I really began to think about my education and perspective of history of which I was taught. My narrow worldview was being shredded. Though I didn’t have a name for it then, I think this was my first exploration trying to understand the concept of cultural relativism.
The shoe was on the other foot while I was in Ukraine. I really struggled with not judging. After nearly two years there, I had grown accustomed to seeing statues of Lenin looming over city centers. I didn’t get it. And, it had started to make me very angry. I often met Ukrainians who spoke fondly of communist rule and I just wanted to read them the litany of violations to their people, remind them of the murder, and devastation. I didn’t. That would have violated the “political neutrality” clause of the Peace Crops. But also, was it my place to do so? Did I even grasp the full picture? I had to constantly check myself and remind myself of my own biases. I tried to put myself in their shoes.
Life is a sum of the experiences within. My upbringing in metro Detroit influenced my decision to study Spanish, which led me to spend a semester in Spain. Hearing my uncle’s Peace Corps stories from Vietnam from four decades earlier and his subsequent life adventures always intrigued me to follow in his footsteps. And, ultimately, it was my Peace Corps experience in a small Ukrainian town that informed my decision to pursue an advanced degree and career in International Education.
My goal is to help more young adults go abroad and have their own discoveries and lessons learned that shape their own futures. Who knows where each step will lead next?