PLP Passport Project: Child Development in Colombia

1460 Gutsy Hours

Occupying space at the airport has never been more challenging. From the moment I checked-in this morning, I felt like I was in someone’s way, constantly saying “excuse me…oops, I didn’t see you there. Yikes.” The morning has been perfectly reminiscent of the last time that I traveled abroad and alone.

Recently I was asked why I studied abroad in Rwanda (by one of my peers that was on my program), and I couldn’t articulate exactly why I felt the need to travel there. I was, of course, interested in post-trauma reconciliation and The Politics of Suffering and Smiling, but I really did not have one concrete reason why I belonged in East Africa, studying post-genocide peacebuilding for almost a third of my third year of college. At first, I felt pretty ignorant and idiotic. My silence said that I was not really living an intentional, purposeful life because I did not truly understand the consequences or benefits of living in Rwanda—I just did it, because it felt right.

But now, as I awkwardly bump into people, finding the right spot to write this post before my flight, I am reminded of a New York Times article that I read in May about why Why You Will Marry the Wrong Person.” The most resonant lesson of the article was that romanticism and the image of the ideal “one” have failed us: it’s time to accept the imperfect, not tokenize special “fairytale” moments with people, and expect the same token during the day-to-day trials of your relationship. It was so irreverent in the sense that it said stop holding out for something that doesn’t exist, and appreciate times despite others’ neglect.

After sufferable treading in the waters of my last relationship, it hit me that I needed to let go of the ideal, the purposive reasons, the refined justifications for why and what should be. What screws us up most in life is the image in our heads of how things are supposed to be. So, as I planned for Colombia, I was reminded that I did not need to occupy the perfect space in order to experience and appreciate traveling to a new city. The tokens I had collected of a fairytale trip with every duck-in-a-row, every goal outlined, and every person kissed goodbye, needed to be deconstructed.

I titled this “1460 gutsy hours,” because that was approximately how long I had in Colombia before it was time to head back to Denver. During that time, I lived in Medellín, interning for the Secretary of Education in the Municipal Government of Sabaneta. The goal was to contextualize just how limited my stay was and to be intentional with the types of activities I engaged in. But, for now, I’m just appreciative that I had the chance to go, and that even if the space that I occupy right now feels slightly off-center, there’s no sense in criticizing it as such. I learned that it’s more than okay to do something just because it feels right and your gut cries “yes.”

After my Community Change Initiative in 2014, which supported homeless and disadvantaged youth in the Denver Metro area, I had a natural desire to learn whether teaching could be the right fit for me professionally. This past summer, I spent two months in Colombia and supported complementary English classes with kids from 6 to 19 years old for 40 hours per week.

With the PLP Passport Grant, I was able to participate in this internship position to the fullest extent. I lived in an apartment with two other students: one from Durham University and the other from University College London. All three of us had jobs in Sabaneta, Antioquia, which made it convenient for late night comparisons of our positions, Colombia’s negotiations with the FARC, and our own personal struggles acclimating and acculturating.

The first two weeks at my position were dedicated to researching English acquisition teaching methods for lower-income and disadvantaged youth.  After completing this report, I was given my own 4th grade and 10th grade classrooms to employ the methods that I had just researched. In the high school environment, many of my students talked to me about the struggles of working a part time job—at the local barber shop, school supply store, or empanada stand—while attending school.

I quickly realized that many of the circumstances which prevent American students from proactively participating in high school are echoed in other parts of the world. Even if resources are allocated and delivered appropriately, students can only engage with their education insofar as their socioeconomic status allows.

Throughout the two months, the PLP Passport Grant allowed me to become a bilingual class assistant and public education volunteer, I created strategies that motivated students to learn English despite their personal circumstances, integrated myself within the learning process at four different public institutions, interacted with these children and their families on a personal level, and reported findings back to the Secretary’s office on overall bilingual public education standards and successes in Sabaneta.

Even after two gastrointestinal infections, a rusty nail through the foot, and getting hit by a taxi, the experience was incredibly rewarding, and I discovered my love for the classroom, whimsical and creative teaching methods, and working in a team environment to meet institutional English standards. I found my calling.

From this experience, I have been able to define what I would like to do post-graduation. I’m currently applying for a Fulbright English Teaching Assistantship Grant. My hope is to return to Rwanda, combining the love of my honors thesis research with my newfound capacity to teach. My gut is unabashedly crying “yes” and thanking the PLP Passport Grant. Without it, I would not have been able to traverse this internship path and land at DU once again with such confident posterity. I’m excited for what the next year entails, and I’m sure this internship experience in Colombia will be incredibly useful the next time someone asks me why I follow my gut.

Post written by: Jaser Alsharhan

This project was made possible through the awarding of a Passport Grant made possible by the generous contributions of PLP Alumni and Friends. Thank you to all who empower PLPers to do amazing things!

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