Global Service Scholar: Kimberly Haagenson
I embarked on this journey with a number of preconceived ideas about everything from international travel to personal introspection. Over the course of this trip, many of these notions have been challenged and put to the test of lived experience.
One of my most superficial preconceived ideas was that a foreign country is significantly less safe than the US. Of course, in certain cases, this idea may indeed be true, and as such I believe that it’s wise to keep it in mind. However, I have learned that many of the safety precautions I have been advised to take are no different than those I would take within certain areas of the U.S. – such as Oceanside, a city known for gangs, crime, homelessness and a transient military population, all within 15 minutes of my hometown of Vista.
Another mindset that has changed over the course of my time here is the idea that rules and regulations in the U.S. represent the only way to live – and anything that deviates is wrong or dangerous. To see an example of the error in this statement, one should visit a Peruvian mercado (market), where butcher booths display their raw and red meat slabs sprawled across sloppy counters and wooden chopping blocks, open to the air and to the flies buzzing around the crowded space. At first glance, all I can think about is the many U.S. health code violations that could be found in this single scene. Yet, instead, the people seem to still be walking around alive and well, and the butchers are still in business, day after day.
To see another example, one should try crossing a street in Ayacucho. They’ll notice that there are crosswalks, but no stop signs; there are a few pedestrian lights, but no intersection stoplights. Compared to the way that traffic is managed in the U.S., I believe the traffic in Ayacucho can best be described as controlled cacophonic chaos. Nevertheless, I have not seen any accidents in my time here, and there seem to be unspoken codes or rules of the road by which everyone abides to stay safe.
In these respects, I have realized that my own way of living – or even the U.S. way of living – is not necessarily the only way of living. More importantly, I have also realized that the U.S. way of living is not necessarily the correct way of living – no matter how much I believe it to be. I think that this is an important lesson in both personal and national humility, and I also believe that these realizations have begun to chip away at my previous “fear of the outside” – whether it be outside of the U.S. or outside of my general comfort zone.
Through this experience of traveling with fellow student acquaintances, living with a family of strangers, and working with children whom I had never before met, I have challenged the preconceived idea that strong relationships and families can only be formed by biological or romantic ties.
Not long ago, I had dreaded the fact that I knew very little about my travel companions, and I was nervous about living in close proximity with them for such an extensive period of time. Within a matter of three weeks, I have formed strong friendships – brotherhoods and sisterhoods – with my fellow students, and I find it hard to imagine living without them when I return home. Together, we all moved into the home of a family whom we had only briefly learned about through an email we received a few months ago. Now, it feels as if we have become incorporated into the family itself. We have been incredibly blessed with this host family, and I hope to keep in contact with them long after I leave Peru. And, to my surprise, my interactions with the children from the soup kitchen and the boy’s orphanage have produced sweet friendships marked with many hugs and fond memories. I never expected these children to become so comfortable with me, nor to be so welcoming towards me. Nevertheless, I feel an undeniable sense of love, empathy, and compassion towards them, and it makes my volunteer shifts feel less like an obligation and more like another chance to spend time with such amazing kids.
Since the beginning of this journey, one of the main obstacles that I’ve been facing is self-centered thinking. I’ve realized my need to stay alert to any changes in my state of mind that may cause me to focus more on myself and my own worries, fears, insecurities and homesickness, rather than to focus on the well-beings of others and how I can learn more from this experience. Some of the major catalysts for this self-centered thinking are complaining and a negative focus. I’ve seen these two culprits wreak havoc on my motivation to do good and my overall self-esteem – and I’ve quickly realized that I need both motivation and self-confidence to be an effective servant to others. As a result, I try to remind myself to make the best of every moment and to treat myself with empathy and compassion as a way to practice extending empathy and compassion to others.
I am thankful to have some people in my life to remind me of the value of this trip and the vast potential of what I could experience. I know that I can’t let fear or negativity hold me back from partaking in the adventure of a lifetime. As a result, this journey has allowed me the chance to be brave, to set a new precedent for myself, and to see that there really is so much more waiting for me to discover beyond the borders of my comfort zone.