Posted on June 14, 2012 by Christopher Thrall

Leah Johnson (4th year Political Studies) shares a speech she wrote for The Friends of the University of Alberta’s Annual Meeting.

I graduated high school in Drayton Valley, Alberta, having grown up on a farm in the area. I chose Augustana because my sister was a student there and I wanted to be able to see a familiar face my first year away from home. That made it a pretty simple decision. My choice in major, political studies, was for interests’ sake.

Growing up, I often found myself frustrated and confused by things much greater than myself, my family, and my home community. Although I did not have much knowledge of politics at the time, I felt that studying politics could be a step in the direction, to explore the tensions I felt growing up and hopefully understanding them a little bit better. I had no idea the depths in which my exploration at Augustana would take me.

My time at Augustana has been defined by two complementary themes: critical academic thinking and its application to my own life through experience. When I think about what has defined my life at Augustana, I think about the places Augustana has taken me.

Augustana has taken me places internationally like the United Nations, to learn about topics in international relations and the challenges that come with diplomacy; to Santiago de Cuba for four months, where I learned Spanish, about Cuban politics, and the beauty and struggle of cross-cultural friendships. Augustana has taken me to mosques and to Hindu temples in Edmonton, where I was transformed from a passive student sitting in a world religions class to becoming a welcome addition to communities outside of my own for an afternoon. Augustana has taken me to the Camrose farmer’s market, to deepen my understanding of the world food system and the huge significance of the smallest actors within it. Augustana has also taken me to a local elementary school as a language aid to a young Cuban girl, where I strengthened my abilities in Spanish and, more importantly, learned that a child had more to teach me than I had to teach her. Every one of these experiences has helped me develop as an individual and as an academic, with Augustana acting as the key coordinator.

Although I believe that the degree of connection a person makes between their education and their own life is individual, Augustana is able to facilitate an environment where a student has the opportunity to make those connections if they choose to do so, all within the context of an encouraging and small community.

In my second year, a staff member from the Learning and Beyond office came to my Spanish class and asked if there was a student willing to donate some of their time to help a Cuban girl, who had just recently arrived in Canada, to understand the goings on of her sixth grade class. My professor and I decided I would be the best candidate for the placement so I visited her later that week.

I ended up visiting her 3 days a week, an hour each time, September through April. My Spanish was weak at that point, so I was not able to translate a lot of what her classes were about. It didn’t help that I was always there during the science block; I could have friendly conversations in Spanish, sure, but the topics of flight, air and aerodynamics? That just didn’t happen. It was when I was at a loss for the right school-related words, which happened often, that her and I developed a friendship, expressed half in English and half in Spanish.

In April, near the end of my project, I was telling Laura’s teacher about my time in the class and how I thought for the most part I had failed this young girl. My Spanish had not been advanced enough to actually help her with her school work, although by the end of eight months together Laura’s English was far more advanced than my Spanish. The teacher expressed that the greatest value in my time spent with Laura in class was not what was happening in the class room. It was that for three hours a week a young girl, who spent the majority of her week feeling misunderstood and unable to communicate with her teachers and peers, had a person there to spend time with her; someone to make her feel like she was being heard.

My placement helped me with different aspects of my formal education, most obviously with my minor in Spanish. I was able to see the Alberta education system at work in all of its strengths and weaknesses. It was also the reason I decided Cuba was the country I wanted to go to for my term abroad.

However, it was the unofficial lessons that have stuck out as the most significant: the value of being a part of the broader Camrose community, rather than just the community we have on campus; the difficulties of communicating cross-culturally; the joy of spending hours around children and the wisdom many of them convey at such young ages.

Every place and experience Augustana has helped bring me has a similar pattern. The partnership of formal education and experience allowed me to make my own assessments and interactions with the world around me. Like I said previously, I have also gone to New York with the Model United Nations; to Cuba for a semester at a university there. I also spent the last eight months completing my senior research project, in which I looked at violence within democracies, using Colombia as a case study. I ended up making connections with Colombians at Augustana through the Spanish club, and am planning a trip there. It is was not necessarily Augustana that organized this coming experience for me, but through the sense of community and togetherness at Augustana this particular experience has been presented.

While these international experiences are highly valuable, the most important lesson that I have learned through my education is the wealth and knowledge of communities and the opportunities that they are able to present to you, whether that is a community in Cuba or the simply the Camrose and Augustana communities.

The lesson has been to appreciate and grow from the people around you, no matter where you happen to be. These are the types of lessons that set Augustana apart.



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