Global Service Scholar: Valerie Nguyen
Country: Peru

When I came to Peru, I searched for examples of resilience – and I found this and so much more in the month that I have spent here. I found children and adults who chose to rise above and beyond expectations despite their disadvantages and situations. I met orphans, children at a soup kitchen, and women in a prison, and I learned some of their stories. It is so easy for people to want to give up when life doesn’t seem to go their way, but the orphans I have met have dreams of becoming mathematicians, engineers and doctors despite growing up learning how to make and sell cocaine. The women have hopes of working in international imports or becoming international teachers despite having to serve seven more years in a prison where the highest level of education is secondary school.

Working in the prison was not at all what I expected.

I had the privilege of leading physical exercises/therapy for about 200 women on the very first day I arrived. The women, despite seeing them laugh and struggle, kept asking for more exercises. During our instruction, the professor stopped to explain that the women are human beings first and foremost and that, should they refuse to follow instructions, they will be treated as prisoners. This humanity was exemplified through how the women were free to choose how to spend their time: knitting, chatting, watching TV, studying, or relaxing. As time passed, I forgot I was even in a prison. The women became my sisters, mothers and grandmothers – always caring for me by bringing me food, bringing me a stool so I wouldn’t sit on the cold cement, treating my bug bites so I wouldn’t itch them, buying me water after leading exercises, teaching me Quechua and even knitting me a beanie.

The thing I expected the least? The abundance of color. The walls of the pavilion are not only painted a bright orange, but also plastered with murals of animals. The cells were furnished with purple, pink and silver curtains for each bed, colorful blankets, shelves filled with toys, memories and supplies, not to mention the Peruvian mantas, sweaters, hats, pillows and toys that the women knit and embroidered every day that I was there.

This prison did not come without problems, however. I heard stories about an officer who electrocuted a man and dragged him around the prison by his chains. The women are not allowed to use the bathroom more than twice a night and only for urinating. The women only receive two hours out of every week to go out onto the patio while the men are allowed out every day. There are no medicines or pills, and a doctor only comes occasionally. The women in the classroom all share one textbook. The prison officials were very disorganized, did not have a schedule, and did not know where volunteering might be most needed or effective. When I left, I was frustrated that my Spanish was not strong enough to leave a bigger impact. Although I brought Spanish-English dictionaries, whiteboard markers and painting supplies, I wanted to do so much more. As for the soup kitchen, the special education school and the orphanage, I heard concerns that the people who were in charge had disagreements about how to deal with the children, were disorganized, dealt with problems either by ignoring them or by punishing the children, or did not really seem to care at times.

As for Peru, as beautiful as it was, it did not come without problems either.

For eight years, I told myself that I want to be a lawyer. When I came to college, I began to question that goal. When I became a Global Service Scholar, the clear path towards my future of becoming a lawyer had left my sight and my future became hazy again. It is scary and unsettling – but what I know for sure is that I want to help the world become a better place. For years, I have worked with individuals with mental disabilities, individuals with physical disabilities, indigenous migrants who face discrimination, homeless and domestically abused children, homeless adults, as well as first-generation and low-income university students. I can’t seem to focus my efforts towards any one group, but I noticed they all had one thing in common: Despite where they were, what their stories were and what situations they found themselves in, I always found people who wanted to reach above and beyond what was expected of them. They are optimistic and strong. I learned from these people, and from the people that I met in Peru, how to continue loving, learning, living and dreaming despite the obstacles that might come your way.

I’m not too sure on how I will do this just yet, but I hope to teach others – as well as myself – how to love, learn, live and dream as these individuals do.