Disability from a Cross-Cultural Perspective

Part of my course load abroad was an internship to finish up my psychology major at Hope. The placement process began months before my arrival in which I was able to express my desires and qualifications for an internship in Santiago. Quite honestly, I did not feel equipped to actually contribute to a workplace environment, attributed  to a limited vocabulary and the fear of not being able to understand the directions and responsibilities given to me. Looking back on this semester, my internship challenged me in multiple ways, but more than anything it motivated me in the pursuit of my intended career path.

My main goal for an internship was to be involved with a population with physical and intellectual disabilities. I have always had a passion for working with people with special needs, and I wanted to see how that could grow and be challenged in a new culture. I was placed at a national foundation that offers many services to those with various types of disabilities. I chose to intern at a location that provides a home, schooling, and medical attention to a population who had been abandoned by their own families. There were 93 residents, nearly all of which had cerebral palsy, used wheelchairs, and were nonverbal. From my first visit, I knew this would be a challenging environment to be in, but I felt that my prior experiences had prepared me well.

I vastly underestimated the differences that existed between the rights for those with disabilities and how they vary across countries. Chile is a developing country, and the rights for the disabled populations are very far behind those of the United States. Furthermore, it was a difficult transition from working with privileged families who could send their children to summer camp or hire nannies as simply “an extra set of hands,” to working with an overcrowded foundation of residents who had no contact outside the walls of the residence.

As an intern, I was able to contribute to the building upkeep and supported the teachers and health professionals in their work with the residents. I can’t quite say that I made much of an impact on this organization, but to be a fly on the wall in a completely unique setting offered a cross-cultural perspective on disability that I would not have been able to find here in the States. I learned that empathy, joy, and friendship can be communicated without a common language or even the ability to speak. I also learned how privileged we are to have the facilities, legislation, and compassion for those with disabilities, and this is distinct in comparison with the rest of the world. As a global citizen, it can be difficult to see the injustices and imperfections that exist across cultures and people groups. However, this newfound passion is what motivates me in my studies and in future career, and will be an experience that will always remind me to be an advocate for others.

 

Climb on!

Prior to coming to Chile, I had planned on enrolling in a class at a Chilean university, in addition to taking classes with other study abroad students at IES. Although I decided to take all my courses through IES, I still wanted to find a way to get involved with Chilean university life. Initially, I enjoyed the empty planner and free nights to do as I pleased. However, the transition of being very involved at Hope to coming to a country that had no expectations or obligations for me was a tough one.

La Universidad Católica does a great job of welcoming and including international students (yes, even those who aren’t actually taking classes there, like me). There are plenty of free on-campus events, groups that offer trips and tours around Chile, and even an exchange partner program to practice Spanish with a Chilean Student practicing their English. Even more, the University offers “talleres,” which are just like intramurals. Being a Hope Intramural Volleyball Champion two years running (yeah, it was the less- competitive league…), I was ready to bump, set, and spike it with some Chileans. However, it ended up that the only option that fit into my schedule was the rock-climbing class, so I signed up!

For those of you who are not climbers, let’s just say that my annual summer camp wall climb did not necessarily give me the “climbing experience” that some of the Chileans in my class presented. The two course instructors were professional climbers and had just gotten back from a 3-month climbing trip in Spain! However, most students in the class didn’t have any experience either, and on the first day of class, they equally struggled to find a pair of climbing shoes that didn’t turn their toes into pigeon feet.

Throughout the semester, I climbed every Tuesday and Thursday. Not only was it enjoyable to be active and learn a new sport that I would be able to take back to the States with me, but climbing is relaxing enough that you can engage in conversation while off the wall. Secondly, climbing is not a sport you can do on your own! While on the wall, taking route and learning to belay in Spanish was not easy, but it certainly progressed my listening skills! Lastly, this experience really connected me into a Chilean community. Friends that I met climbing invited me to come camping, celebrate Fiestas Patrias, and go out on the weekends together! Making a Chilean community was certainly not as cookie-cut as Playfair and ice breakers at Hope, but my climbing community invited me in as one of their own!

So, a piece of advice to all those who plan to study abroad, don’t let your friendships and community be confined to the classroom! Go out and try something new. The best people you can find are those who share your passions, and it is an organic connection point that really begins a friendship. Climb on!

Ser Humano

IES Santiago offers a clinical observations program for future healthcare professionals. We explore the Chilean healthcare system by observing medical professionals in private and public hospitals, clinics, and health centers all around Santiago. Yesterday I observed in the neurology unit in Hospital Sótero del Río, a public hospital that provides care to 10% of Chile’s entire population! Here is one of the most impactful experiences that I have had thus far from the this week’s clinical observations:

It was a moment where the language barrier didn’t matter. It was as if the entire world stopped, even just for that split second in time. The regulated beeping of machines continued and brought me back into the reality of the present moment.

“Se falleció,” the nurse shared. I hadn’t even heard of that verb before, but the shared response of the hospital room was enough to know. Their faces dropped– every patient, kinesiologist, therapist, doctor, nurse, tech, and visitor. My own heart sunk, too, and it was a strange feeling. I had seen the patient in a coma just minutes before the news broke. I had no connection to her nor to her family. I didn’t even know the state of her condition and, yet, I could still feel the pain. It was a purely human moment.

The therapy sessions progressed, the conversations continued, and life at Hospital Sótero del Río went on, as it always does. I briefly departed my current observation to confirm what I thought was the situation. I went next door to the room of 6 neurology patients to find the loved ones of the deceased woman grasping onto her in the hospital bed, still so close and yet so far from her last breath. The nurses, tears in their eyes, continued their routine duties in preparation for the next patient to take her very place in the already-crowded room.

It felt so human. As future health professionals, we talk a lot about how to separate our feelings from our jobs and how to not bring our work home with us. We will evidently become a bit desensitized to the looks and groans of agonizing pain of our patients, even the sight of death of a patient whose life we have fought and cared for. In this moment, however, I don’t believe the nurses or doctors were worried about hiding their sadness or avoiding the emotions that were provoked. Instead, I saw sympathy and understanding. I saw gentle looks exchanged between medical personnel and the loved ones of the woman. I heard the booming noise of silence that resulted from a lack of any words that could have possibly alleviated the pain of the situation.

I, too, felt helpless. Even if I had the words in Spanish, I wouldn’t have been able to convey them in a way that could have helped anyone. There was no easy fix. Death is a reality of life, but it was a beautiful moment of unity and humanity that exists apart from language or culture. It was simply an aspect of “ser humano” (being human).

Sappy October Feels

It’s one of those nights that I can’t stop gazing out the window. I pace back and forth between the terrace, which faces east towards the Andes cordillera and my bedroom, which faces south towards even more mountains that I am seeing for the very first time, thanks to yesterday’s rain. My study break is well-spent admiring the sunset over the cordillera, a view that never gets old and makes me temporarily forget about the Lake Michigan sunsets that I’ll return to in the blink of an eye.

The view from the terrace never gets old!

It’s one of those nights that I just want to hang out with my host mom because I still can’t believe I am living in an actual Chilean home and have semester-long access to speaking Spanish whenever I want (I’m not always this optimistic about that). I sit down with a bowl of cazuela and reminisce on the first day that I arrived in Santiago when my host mom and I conversed for hours over a bowl of cazuela (well, she talked and I nodded and pretended that I understood Chilean Spanish… some things don’t change). Two months later, I now know that you’re supposed to drink the broth first before digging into the meat and veggies, but I still stick to my old ways.

My host mom makes the best cazuela!

It’s one of those nights that I can’t actually get anything done because I am straddling between planning my upcoming trips and flipping through photos of the many adventures I have already had on the wild weekend trips. I am stuck in this weird in-between… it’s a nostalgia for the places I have yet to go and a longing to relive the moments that have already passed, all the while trying to be present in this very day of October 1.

Study abroad has been packed with new experiences. Here’s one I’ll never forget: skiing for the very first time… in the Andes!
Another great memory: the infamous stilt houses (palafitas) in Castro, a city on the mythical island of Chiloé. This was an IES-sponsored trip that most of my group went on last month.
The classic South American photo-op with a llama! This was taken on my spring break trip to San Pedro de Atacama, the desert region in northern Chile.

It was tonight that I realized how content I truly am. Disclaimer: study abroad is not all peaches ‘n cream and I have probably had more tough than easy days. There have been days of frustration, regret, and just wanting to throw in the towel on this whole “get out of your comfort zone” thing. However, I am learning that being content does not come from a compilation of good and easy days. It is a feeling that has come from trials and tribulations, from being forced out of the comfort zone day-in and day-out, and for the joy that arises from experiencing growth like I never have before.

One of my favorite Bible verses says,  “I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want,” (Philippians 4:12). As I continue into my last couple of months, I cling to this: that the good and the bad and everything in between is all a part of the study abroad experience. Even more, it is a part of the life experience, and I am thankful for the growth that still is to come.

The First Bout of FOMO

I began dreaming of my college study abroad semester pretty early on in my high school Spanish classes (what else would have motivated me to get through all those “preterite versus imperfect” lectures?). During Hope prospective student visit days, I sat front row at every off-campus study info session, stored away all the pamphlets, and talked to countless students about their experiences abroad.  When I arrived at Hope in Fall 2014, I plotted out my 4-Year Plan based entirely upon my semester abroad.  However, when it came time to actually make the plans a reality, fear and anxiety crept in.  It wasn’t that I lost the desire to go abroad, but rather that I didn’t want to leave Hope for a semester.

Clearly, events occurred that changed my mind, because here I am writing from Chile.  I can confidently say that I am exactly where I am supposed to be– being challenged, humbled, and left in wonder by this new home of mine.  However, I will break the myth that every day abroad is as much of an adventure as an Instagram picture or blog post may convey.

This past weekend at Hope was Orientation Weekend.  Having been a part of the Orientation Staff for the past two years and loving freshman orientation myself, it has been incredibly difficult to miss out on the best weekend of the year.  Flipping through all the Instagrams and Snapchats, the reality hits that life goes on without you.  When your friends are all moving in together and reuniting after summers apart, you’re not a part of the group texts to meet up at New Holland, Captain Sundae, or a Lake Michigan sunset.  No matter how much we glorify FaceTime and Skype to keep us connected, nothing adequately compensates for the 10,000 miles of distance that exists.

Amidst the FOMO, I am reminded of the gift it is to have a place and people to miss.  I would not trade this adventure abroad for anything– even for my long-awaited senior year fall semester at Hope.  As I write this, I fear that this is just the beginning of the FOMO.  There will be an abundance of things to miss out on, and plenty more anticlimactic days abroad.  However, when I allow myself to sit in that ache to be with the people that know me the best and in the place that I feel the most at home, I am grateful to carry that sense of belonging with me.  Best of all, it’s what will welcome me home in just a few months!

Sí, claro…

Chileans are incredible chatters, and they don’t slow down for anyone.  It can be pretty difficult to keep up, especially with all the Chilenismos and “po’s” thrown in.  Within hours of my arrival, I humbly accepted just vaguely understanding most things in the coming semester.  When I don’t know how to respond, or if I get lost in the conversation, my go-to response is, “Sí, claro.”

This response can get me into some interesting situations, and this weekend was the perfect example.  Last week, my host sister and I were talking about how I love hiking and being outdoors, and Santiago’s vast opportunities for exploring and traveling was a huge draw to my decision to study here.  Her boyfriend is a guide in the mountains, so she warmly invited me to join their outdoors group on a “hike” (this is at least what I pieced together).  Naturally I responded, “Sí, claro.”

Come Sunday, I woke up at 5:30am to gear up for the long day of exploration ahead.  Her boyfriend, Alexei, picked us up in his 4-seater Jeep, along with two other friends.  We met up with the rest of the hiking “group,” about twelve 65+ year-old men.  I’m not sure who was more surprised– me, or them when they saw the young, blonde “gringa.”

Our basecamp for the day, surrounded by the beautiful Andes Mountains!

Two hours of windy roads, an outrageous amount of speed bumps, and a stuffed Jeep took us to the beautiful Cajón de Maipo.  We pulled over at a roadside barren area, mountains surrounding us.  What I thought was a pit stop to admire the grazing horses and mountainous views was actually our basecamp for the day, which I didn’t even realize until a few hours later.

Alexei began his lesson on map orienteering, compass skills, and GPS navigation. I tried to understand, but as mentioned before, Chilean Spanish is muuuuy rápido, and I can’t say that I got much out of it.  I was also a little antsy for the long-awaited hike (that never came).  Hours later, we began knot-tying.  This is a skill I’ve been interested in picking up, so I eagerly participated.  I can’t say I have really mastered the skill, but I’ve added it to my semester goals.

I may need to retake this course in English…
Knot-tying competitions! Can’t say this was my forté…

 

 

 

 

 

After 8 hours of Outdoor Adventure Orientation, we took a short drive to a mining town to hunt for fossils.  Good conversations were had with my new adventure buddies as we admired Argentinian cordillera at golden hour, working up our appetites for the fresh empanadas that were to come.

On the late-night drive back to Santiago, my eyes batted heavily from the carsickness and exhaustion of only Spanish communication for the last 14 hours. However, I couldn’t help but laugh when I thought about how my expectations were quite different than the reality of the day’s events.

As much as I love admiring the cordillera from my apartment window in Santiago, it was so refreshing to see the Andes up-close and personal!

Language barriers are tricky, but I am excited to see what else comes from the things I accidentally respond “Sí, claro” to.

Disfruta el momento

The closest translation Spanish has for “carpe diem” is “disfruta el momento.”  Back at Hope, my friends and I tend to throw around “carpe diem” pretty often, but more as a joke or a dare than an actual mantra.  However, since being in Chile, I have learned that “disfruta el momento” is more so a way of life.  Here’s what I mean:

This morning was my first day of classes.  I began the day at a café in Barrio Italia, a quaint and artsy little neighborhood just five blocks from my apartment. I ordered a coffee, drew out my semester schedule, and journaled my anticipations for the coming months abroad.  Side note: I cannot believe my first day of class was this chill… no waiting in line at LJ’s to get a mug of 616, no scrambling to find a seat at Chapel, and my planner isn’t stuffed with coffee and lunch dates, meetings for student organizations, etc.  Disfruta el momento. 

It’s certainly not the warmth and familiarity of LJs, and I’ll admit that the latte I ordered was actually pretty bad. However, ya can’t beat the aesthetics of the café I stumbled upon today!
My two essentials: journal and “Lonely Planet” Chile + Easter Island guide book. Thinking this may be my only “textbook” for the semester…

While journaling, I realized how drastically different this semester will look for me.  It’s foreign not to feel stressed, rushed, and overwhelmed.  As an exchange student, I am here to learn from the people and place that I am in, and there are not a ton of expectations on me.  As much as I loved being so involved at Hope, there were plenty of times that I forgot how to disfrutar el momento because I got so caught up in the obligations and the resume-builders that became more draining than enjoyable. 

It took flying to the end of the world, being stripped of my roles in student organizations, and surrendering the fulfillment that comes from having a rigorous and overcommitted schedule for me to realize that disfrutando el momento is an invitation that I want to accept each and every day.  Life doesn’t have to be busy and/or productive to be satisfying.  I can merely just be… disfrutando el momento, and that should not come with guilt.

The classic “first day of school” photo for mom and dad. Although it felt odd not to be experiencing this at Hope, I think this photo encapsulates my excitement to be here!

I am so grateful for all the opportunities Hope has provided for me to use my passions to influence my community.  However, my encouragement is to recognize the gift it is to enjoy the moment you’re in.  Even if you’re not abroad, or if you find yourself looking at a crazy upcoming semester, find ways to disfrutar el momento exactly where you’re at!

Mi Familia Anfitriona (Host Family)

When looking at the various options for study abroad, I always knew I wanted to do a homestay.  However, I did not realize how pivotal this decision would be until actually being 10,000 miles from my own home and family!  Here’s a little look into my homestay in Santiago, Chile.

Mi mamá lives in an apartment in Santiago with her 30-year-old daughter.  In Chile, it is very common for young adults to live with their parents until their late 20s or early 30s!  Even universities do not have dorms or on-campus housing, so the majority of students commute to university while still living under their parents’ roofs.

The IES staff picked me up from the airport and took me directly to my host home to meet mi mamá. Within minutes of walking into the door, mi mamá insisted on taking a selfie to send to her daughter!

Host parents not only cook your meals (mi mamá happens to be an incredible cook… sorry, Phelps Dining) and do your laundry, but they are your support system and a dependable resource while abroad.  This is only my fourth night in my host home, but I can always count on a warm greeting with “un beso” on the cheek when I enter the door, a heating pad full of hot water to warm my feet at night during the cold Chilean winters, an invitation to watch a soap opera in our pajamas, and good conversation over a cup of tea or maté.

The seasons are opposite here in Chile as they are United States. Although Chilean winters are significantly milder than Michigan winters, energy is very expensive, so the majority of homes do not have central heating. Luckily, mi mamá makes my bed with 7 layers of sheets to keep me nice and cozy at night.

 

Host families are great at accommodating for your dietary preferences, but they will always introduce you to the local cuisine, too! Here is my first dinner: cazuela (a traditional Chilean stew with beef, potatoes, and other veggies), leche de almendras y ensalada. Muuuuuy rico.

As thankful as I am for the way mi mamá has welcomed me in and provided for me already, I am more thankful for the immense grace and patience she gives me!  She stays attentive in conversation as I wrack my brain for the English to Spanish translation, explains over and over how to get from our apartment to the bus stop, and is quick to forgive when I forget to unplug the space heater (again).

Here’s the kitchen where all the magic of Chilean cuisine happens! It’s a bit tight and surely nothing extravagant, but I love the coziness of our apartment!

It certainly is a transition to go from living in dorms and with friends to entering into a family’s home, but it is the only way to fully experience the warmth of South American culture!

This is not to say that I am not missing my own mom back home, but what a gift it is to have a mamá here, too!