Mini-Memoir: What I Learned from Students in Haiti and the Ivory Coast (on SST)

The question comes to me from a blogger in Orange County, CA, who has a following in her own blog from ex-patriots all over the world.  What did you learn from your students in Haiti and in the Ivory Coast?

First of all, you need to know about the Goshen College Study-Service Term (SST).  This program, begun in 1968, is unique in American higher education.  First, it is a general education requirement.  That means the vast majority of students study abroad for one semester.  Second, it takes place in a significantly different (not junior year abroad in Europe!) culture from that of the U.S. (right now that means Jamaica, Peru, China) and over the years students have studied in more than 15 countries.  And third, it includes some kind of service–a mini-Peace Corps-like experience.

My husband Stuart and I were faculty leaders in Haiti 1981-82.

at the airport, before heading home, 1982

at the airport, before heading home, 1982

We had another group of Haiti SSTers whose picture I could not locate.  Anyone reading this post who has such a picture–please send it!

Below is our Ivory Coast group (1993).

A number of our students during these three semesters are now our friends on Facebook. I invite them to make comments on what they now value about the experience, looking back.  Here are a few memories labeled by what I learned.

Curiosity

I was 33 years old, the mother of a 5-year-old and a recently minted PhD when our family went to Haiti.  I loved the country immediately and was heartbroken by it at the same time.  So much poverty and ecological degradation, yet so much beauty, joy, and spiritual energy.  When our first group of students disembarked, one month after our own arrival, Stuart, Anthony, and I were excited.  We rode with them from the airport to the unit house on the little bus driven by Danilo, our storytelling driver.  The students wasted no time in jumping into the new culture.  “Bon soir!” they shouted to bystanders as we pulled out of the airport driveway.  Soon they were kissing host family members on both checks.  And then they were whisked away.  They told us tales in their journals of how they learned.  Often it was from their younger “brothers” and “sisters” whose simpler vocabularies, patience, and curiosity turned them into great teachers.

Here’s one of those young teachers–Francesca–cavorting in the wild flowers with our son Anthony.

Anthony and Francesca

Anthony and Francesca

Courage

It takes a lot of courage to live in someone else’s home in a strange land, speaking their language imperfectly, and losing the comfort of the familiar.  As leaders, we had our own family around us and our own house to live in.  Students were quick to point out that they were subject to more culture shock than we were due to these facts.  They were right.  Of course, it takes a little courage to take on the responsibility of the health, wellbeing, and learning of 12-23 other people, but we didn’t argue about who was braver.  We helped each other focus.  There were mishaps of all kinds from the minor cuts and scrapes to some truly scary situations.  And some students were struggling with difficulties at home that we knew only superficially.  But every student taught us something about our own fears and how to face them.

Students read their journals aloud in some of our meetings.  We would laugh and cry together, releasing fear and gathering strength from each other.  I remember stories about witnessing a beating, seeing vigilante justice in the streets, trying to explain complicated ideas in French and feeling like a fool, feelings of anger toward “ugly Americans” on cruise ships who tossed quarters into the ocean to watch the poor Haitians dive for them.  Students absorbed these shocks and found equilibrium in the midst of great change.  We admired them and found it easy to put our arms around them, literally and figuratively.

Humility

We were not experts in almost anything on SST.  We were not excellent speakers of French or Creole.  We were not anthropologists or comparative religion or literature savants.  We were instead immersed, like the students themselves, in reading as much as we could about the culture, making friends at the university with professors who lectured on their specialties to all of us.  We learned that we could be servants of our students in facilitating learning and that as they learned something new, we did also.

Students also learned humility.  The majority of them were white and the majority of the host country citizens were black.  The complications of navigating racial difference in this setting helped them become more aware of what it feels like to be in a minority.  The perceptions of America abroad, often created by television and movies, made it hard for our students to feel understood as individuals rather than types.  This, too, was humbling.

Love

The most important lesson our students taught us was love.  At the end of every semester, after students had returned from spending six weeks in the villages and towns outside the capitol city, they greeted us and each other with shouts of joy and tears of gratitude for all that they had learned.  They shared stories of looking up at the stars at night through the open roof of a shack and feeling wonder–wealth–in the midst of what would have seemed like deprivation before.  They told us of the farewells they had experienced as a whole village walked with them, carrying their bags to the bus station, and they marveled at the way their complicated lives had simplified when there was time to talk and walk and experience nature.  Sometimes they told us they felt wrapped in God’s love and in the prayers of friends and family even in the loneliest, scariest times.  Othertimes, they trusted us with the depth of their despair–another form of love. They thanked us for being their surrogate parents, cultural guides, nurses and doctors, guidance counselors, and friends.  We thanked them for their resilience, curiosity, comradeship, energy, and insight.

But we can never thank them, and the people of Haiti and Cote d”Ivoire who shared their lives with us, enough.  We lived enough in these three semesters to continue learning the rest of our lives.

Thank you, SSTers, wherever you are!  And I hope at least a few of you add your own thoughts below.

What have you learned from your experiences in a foreign land, whether on SST or in any other setting?

Advertisements

About Shirley Hershey Showalter

Author of memoir Blush: A Mennonite Girl Meets a Glittering World. Blogging about Magical Memoir Moments and Jubilación -- vocation in the second half of life.
This entry was posted in Personal Reflections and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Mini-Memoir: What I Learned from Students in Haiti and the Ivory Coast (on SST)

  1. I've often thought about my 3 months in Côte d'Ivoire. I was newly 21 and had never traveled across an ocean. Far from feeling like an adult, felt as if I had taken a few steps backward. I often felt as if I were receiving one set of instructions but expected to intuit another set altogether. The moment of grace came in the last few weeks of my service assignment. I met a teenager named Bergmans and her younger sister who offered friendship without strings. Despite language barriers, we were able to talk about things we liked, things that frustrated us, and enjoy each other's company without the “otherness” that had been such a daily part of life up until then in Yamoussoukro. Bergmans and I wrote a few times, and lost touch a few years later, but I've never forgotten her. Since then, I have been more aware of what other people coming into my own country might be thinking and feeling. There's so much one can miss in terms of social cues and expectations, and even the person most willing to be open to new experiences and ideas needs a safe space in which to be able to relax without worrying about doing the wrong things. One thing I thought I had learned is still a challenge: speak more slowly! I am working on that.–Farida

  2. shirleyhs says:

    So true, Farida. Empathy should be another idea on this list. I am sure you have extended to others the understand Bergmans offered you. It might even be showing up in your stories and songs and in your mothering. Great to be in touch. Bon jour!

  3. Betty says:

    I learned one thing really fast. Don´t ever say senteces like: “We did things in Canada/US (or any other country you come from) like ´this´” meaning better… It will not be appreciated! 🙂

  4. shirleyhs says:

    Right, Betty. That's true even when you move from one town to the next!One this that is a little different, however, is that students from the US are bombarded with questions about what it is like to live there if people have only seen TV and movies set in America. They actually are curious, fascinated.But what is always the same worldwide is that no one wants to feel someone is looking down on them.Shirley

  5. Lenae Nofziger says:

    I have also often considered my SST experience, even using it as the basis for my master's thesis, a collection of poems set in Cote d'Ivoire. It was very beautiful there–especially in the country (au village). It tested me because I was alone a lot–not necessarily by myself but without the communities on whom I normally lean for part of my identity: family, friends, country, fluent English speakers, etc. The challenge of that aloneness was a good one for me at that point–invigorating and profound. What was most irritating was my almost complete lack of competency: in language, in chores, in manners, etc. Part of what I appreciated about writing the poems was the chance to reconsider the experiences, landscapes, people, attitudes, and the like through the discipline of poetry in which the writer has some measure of control (and hopefully competency) but in which she cannot control everything and has to face her own incompetence each and every time she starts a new poem.Thanks for your memoir : ).Lenae

  6. shirleyhs says:

    Really interesting analogy, Lenae. Going to another country prepared you to face the blank page over and over again!I never thought of this one although it clearly was a time when almost everyone used writing as a way to try to structure meaning and gain some control over a very confusing experience that often made one feel incompetent.Thanks for the comment.

  7. Sanna says:

    Shirley, I have finally found my way here! So well-drawn, your impressions of the SST experience. Yes. Courage, humility and love. And I would add “new eyes.” I am grateful for the opportunity to learn early to look beyond the surface at people who speak a different language, whose skin is a different color, whose clothes speak of a different socioeconomic status — who are “different” in that immediate, sometimes undiscernable way. We have many new arrivals in Minnesota; having been that new arrival in someone else's homeland, I just can't jump to conclusions the way I see others doing. At the same time, strangely enough, I have developed a certain compassion for people who do jump to conclusions, if that makes sense. They just don't have the tools. Their eyes just haven't been opened. I hope for my children the same opportunity …

  8. shirleyhs says:

    Sanna, I love what you say both about “new eyes” and about having compassion for people who have not had the same opportunity to see with new eyes. So true.Do you have a group picture of your group? Our photography went into slides, and I wasn't able to find a slide of the whole group. I have great pics of Beth Schaeffer getting her hair braided and of several people at the beach in Jacmel. But no group.Your kids look delightful on your fb pictures. Hope they do get the same opportunity–at GC! 🙂

  9. Sanna says:

    Shirley, I have finally found my way here! So well-drawn, your impressions of the SST experience. Yes. Courage, humility and love. And I would add “new eyes.” I am grateful for the opportunity to learn early to look beyond the surface at people who speak a different language, whose skin is a different color, whose clothes speak of a different socioeconomic status — who are “different” in that immediate, sometimes undiscernable way. We have many new arrivals in Minnesota; having been that new arrival in someone else's homeland, I just can't jump to conclusions the way I see others doing. At the same time, strangely enough, I have developed a certain compassion for people who do jump to conclusions, if that makes sense. They just don't have the tools. Their eyes just haven't been opened. I hope for my children the same opportunity …

  10. shirleyhs says:

    Sanna, I love what you say both about “new eyes” and about having compassion for people who have not had the same opportunity to see with new eyes. So true.Do you have a group picture of your group? Our photography went into slides, and I wasn't able to find a slide of the whole group. I have great pics of Beth Schaeffer getting her hair braided and of several people at the beach in Jacmel. But no group.Your kids look delightful on your fb pictures. Hope they do get the same opportunity–at GC! 🙂

  11. Phyllis says:

    Thanks for this blog which is a reminder of the year we spent in Belize, another fragile country. Those SST experiences taught us so much, changed our lives forever. With hope.

  12. Steve Good says:

    The recent news on Haiti's newest disaster has immersed me in memories of Haiti – good and bad, but all opportunities for growing and understanding. Haiti is still in my blood, as it is for many people who have visited/lived there. My worldview is still strongly effected by my SST experience with you and Stuart and the winter '82 group. I have taken numerous church groups to Haiti, as a result, hoping that some of them will have eye/heart opening experiences as I have. I learned about myself as much as I did about Haiti. Though it has been 7 years since I have gone there last, I still find myself dreaming in Creole on occasion. I will urge my congregation to be generous with their emergency offerings and health kit packages for earthquake relief. God bless the Haitians and the awakened world community who seek to help them.

  13. shirleyhs says:

    Thanks, Phyllis. I think all former SSTers and leaders have relived their experiences in the last few days. Thanks for your comment, and I know you will find ways to join others in offering prayers and gifts of compassion.

  14. shirleyhs says:

    Dreaming in Creole, an awakened world community–these are powerful images, Steve. So good to have your wise words here. Just learned through a Twitter friend that UMCOR worker Sam Dixon died in Haiti. Did you know him? God bless.

  15. Steve Good says:

    I did not have the privilege of knowing UMCOR director Sam Dixon, who died in the collapsed Hotel Montana. The sadness deepens as I hear news like this.I took refuge at Hotel Montana in '89 for several days during an attempted coup before fleeing to the D.R. Prayers of comfort and strength for Sam's family and his UMCOR colleagues.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s