swag外流

Occidental Students Explore Experiential Learning and Personal Identity Abroad

Laura Paisley

This spring, rising seniors Yenni Gonzalez Salinas and Disha Shah participated in study abroad programs in Mexico and India, respectively, returning with new perspectives on their futures and themselves.

Photo Slideshow

Disha Shah headshot
Disha Shah. Photo courtesy of Disha Shah.

Disha Shah 鈥25 had been to India four times prior to arriving in Delhi for her study abroad program this spring. Although she is a third-generation American, she took Hindi language lessons as a child and had connections with family in India. She was looking for a study abroad experience that would push her out of her comfort zone. But when her program in Jordan was canceled late last fall, Shah found herself drawn to a public health program in India.

鈥淚've reached a point in my life where I鈥檓 feeling a much greater need to connect to my culture in ways that I haven't before,鈥 says the Seattle native. 鈥淚 decided that I wanted to go to India so I could continue learning Hindi and feel more connected.鈥

Shah鈥檚 School for International Training (SIT) program, Public Health, Gender and Sexuality, focused on reproductive healthcare and access to healthcare as a sexual minority. Curriculum included an hour and a half of Hindi lessons each day, and students attended classroom seminars. The program organized several excursions around the country to meet with community organizations and learn about the work they were doing. In addition to a week in the foothills of the Himalayas, participants spent a week in a rural village where they learned about community health workers.

A psychology major and aspiring psychologist, Shah wants to work with immigrants and people from different cultures and backgrounds. Toward the end of the semester, she moved to Chennai for an internship at a mental health research foundation and mental hospital that works with serious disorders such as schizophrenia. It was one of the highlights of her experience.

She was able to talk with psychologists and staff members that were 鈥渟o welcoming and enthusiastic about their work,鈥 and she interacted with patients in the geriatric care unit and at a rehab facility.

鈥淭hey do so much research alongside community work, it was inspiring to see,鈥 Shah says. 鈥淚 think that鈥檚 hard to find in India, since mental health is not really discussed there. In recent years it鈥檚 gotten so much better, but it鈥檚 still relatively new.鈥

Working to support the vulnerable

Yenni Gonzalez headshot
Yenni Gonzalez. Photo courtesy of Yenni Gonzalez.

Yenni Gonzalez Salinas 鈥25 wasn鈥檛 even sure she wanted to study abroad. The history major was involved in so many things locally: working at the mayor's office and the district attorney鈥檚 office as well as Comparte and the Occidental Labor Alliance on campus. But with some encouragement from Associate Professor of Economics Jesse Mora, she started researching and became intrigued by an SIT program called Mexico: Migration Borders and Transnational Communities.

As an aspiring lawyer who hopes to pursue a career helping migrants, the program was right up her alley. Moreover, Gonzalez鈥 own mother migrated from Oaxaca 21 years ago, and she had never visited the place where her mother grew up.

鈥淢y mom鈥檚 a migrant and I know some of the struggles that she has been through. However, the realities of migration are often left undiscussed,鈥 Gonzalez says. 鈥淏eing a part of this program would help me better understand the challenges migrants face when they migrate. Studying in Mexico wasn鈥檛 just an educational opportunity for me, it was more than that. I also wanted to connect more personally to the roots and heritage I was proud of but had yet to explore.鈥

The excursion portion of her program followed the route that migrants from Central America take through Mexico, visiting migrant shelters along the way. She and her classmates traveled to these places to learn more about what it means to be a migrant, how migration works, the difficulties migrants face, and the reasons they choose to do it.

Studying in Mexico wasn鈥檛 just an educational opportunity for me, it was more than that. I also wanted to connect more personally to the roots and heritage I was proud of but had yet to explore.聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 鈥揧enni Gonzalez

Gonzalez also did an internship at a migrant shelter in Oaxaca called Centro de Orientaci贸n al Migrante, working primarily with children. Educational lesson planning was a big focus, since young migrants miss out on school. She taught them about everything from the alphabet to stranger danger.

鈥淭he migration path is very tough, particularly for kids, who are especially vulnerable,鈥 Gonzalez says. 鈥淭hey鈥檒l tell you that they鈥檝e been chased, called demeaning names, and have lived and seen really traumatic experiences. When they come in, you can see it in their faces.鈥

But being able to offer migrants a few days of a safe place to sleep, shower and use the restroom makes such a difference, Gonzalez says.

鈥淭hey look so much better. Being able to see that and be a part of that has been a highlight for me. Being someone that will listen to them without judgment, recognize their feelings and provide them a safe space is truly special.鈥

Reflections on personal identity

For Shah, returning to the Hindi lessons that she had started and eventually abandoned as a child was a source of satisfaction. At one point, she was excited to realize that she could understand the conversations between her host family. She recalled that when she was younger, she didn鈥檛 want to learn Hindi because none of her friends spoke it and it made her feel different.

I鈥檝e learned that there's no one way to celebrate your culture. There's no one way to be connected to your family's history and to who you are.聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽聽 鈥揇isha Shah

鈥淚t felt so good to realize that I could understand the language because I kind of felt like I healed that part of me inside that had refused to learn.鈥

Being in India helped Shah reconcile a sense of identity that is richer and more complex. In the US, she says, there is often a sense that identity needs to fit neatly within boxes.

鈥淚鈥檝e learned that there's no one way to celebrate your culture. There's no one way to be connected to your family's history and to who you are. And my personal identity is not defined by being Indian or American. It's this amalgamation of all these different aspects of who I am.鈥

Growing up in Nashville, Tennessee, Gonzalez didn鈥檛 always feel fully American or identify with American culture. A second-generation American, she grew up eating Oaxacan food, watching Mexican movies, and listening to the Oaxacan music that her mother played. So it was a little strange when she got to Mexico and everyone referred to her as American. Some of the children that she worked with even called her gringa.

鈥淚 have always been proud to be Oaxacan, but now I鈥檓 more in touch with my American roots. Although I don鈥檛 always feel like an American in the US, participating in this program has shown me that I have privileges many in my community do not, reminding me that I am indeed an American. It is a privilege to be able to study abroad as an American鈥攖o come to Mexico and then travel back home on an airplane as opposed to the harrowing journey of migration.鈥

Gonzalez is grateful that she was able to learn about migration borders in transnational communities through studying abroad.

鈥淥ne of the good things about swag外流 is you get to learn outside of the classroom. This program gave me the opportunity to learn something that I'm passionate about differently. Because it's vastly different when you experience it firsthand than when you read it in a book or a textbook or see it in a documentary.鈥