Posted on March 23, 2009 by Tia Lalani

In this interview, Odessa Sherbaniuk, a Global Development Studies Major, shares her learning experiences during the program.

By Nhial Tiitmamer
Learning abroad is sometimes a scary idea given some possibilities of culture shock and homesickness. However, for Augustana Campus students, who lived and studied in rural Mexico through the Puebla-Alberta Community Service Exchange (PACSE), it was an opportunity that equipped them with experiences of a life time. PASCE is one of Augustana Campus’ Learning and Beyond study abroad programs, which allows students to embark on a comparative study of rural communities of Alberta and Mexican state of Puebla.

Last year, 8 students from Augustana Campus spent three months in Mexico and came back for two more months in rural Alberta. Last week, I got an opportunity to interview three of the eight students. For them, the 18 course credits they obtained over the course of five months form an important part of their degrees.

In this interview, Odessa Sherbaniuk, a Global Development Studies Major, shares her learning experiences during the program.

Nhial Tiitmamer: How was it like to learn and live in a different culture and a different environment?
Odessa Sherbaniuk: The main difficulty was the language barrier for me because I arrived in Mexico without knowing any Spanish. It was a bit overwhelming the first few days living with my host family because there was so much going on all the time and I could barely understand anything. But as time went on, we figured out a way to understand each other and it became easier to feel like part of the family.

Nhial: Any example of cultural shock you can tell if any?
Odessa: I never really experienced culture shock in a big way. There were lots of little things that I noticed were different than what I was used to but never something where I felt uncomfortable or “shocked”. If you take each experience as a chance to learn something about the culture, the people around you, or yourself, then the differences you experience aren’t so difficult to deal with. It also helps that I was never seriously sick on the trip because I’ve heard that most people go through some amount of culture shock when dealing with an illness.

Nhial: What were your typical days like?
Odessa: There were two types of typical days. We had classes twice a week that involved Spanish lessons and discussions on what we were learning about the community of Santa Lucia. Other days were work placement days, where we all went to different places and did volunteer work. My work placement was at a primary school. So I would walk with my host mum and little sister to school, and then either teach English or participate in the gym classes.

We also had research projects that required us to film and do interviews from time to time. I rode in the back of someone’s pickup truck to the nearest city to pick up the school text books before the school year started, I went shopping at the market with my host mum to buy the most delicious fresh cheese, and I would spend hours just playing games and practicing Spanish with my host sister. I had so many different experiences and each of us on the trip had many opportunities to choose how we wanted to spend our time.

Nhial: How has your study in rural Mexico changed your world perspective/view, including the way you had previously viewed yourself and the community around you?
Odessa: I was pretty sure before the trip that I wanted to live and work outside of Canada but before I went on the exchange, I hadn’t been to any country that was culturally very different from Canada. The trip gave me confidence in my ability to adapt to living in another country. It was also interesting to notice similarities between Santa Lucia and my home community in rural Alberta. Despite being culturally unique, the strong sense of community and family ties in Santa Lucia was familiar to me. I think that rural communities around the world probably have a similar solidarity. This realization made me appreciate growing up in a rural setting which was something that I had taken for granted.

 

Nhial: How significant is this learning opportunity going to have on the rest of your life?
Odessa: Given that I hope to work in a development related job after university, I think the skills I gained will have a very positive impact on my life and my ability to work effectively in this field. I learned how to research a community by living in it not observing it from a safe distance. I learned how to make connections with people that probably couldn’t understand most of what I was saying. I was constantly placed in situations that were outside of my comfort zone. Not everyone has the opportunity to learn in this way. So I am very grateful for each and every experience I had, the good and the bad, because I learned about myself and my capabilities on a continuous basis.

Nhial: Can you tell us any particular moment or a particular learning experience worth noting?
Odessa: I had been helping out at the school for about a week doing odd jobs like sorting books when the principal came and told me that I would be teaching English that day. I was led to a classroom full of fifth graders and instructed to teach. The students’ teacher left so it was just me and them. I had no textbook and a very limited ability to speak Spanish. Armed with a dictionary and a rough idea of what I wanted to teach, I spent the next half hour doing my best to make myself understood and to understand. I was completely unprepared and unqualified but by the time the teacher returned, I had figured out how to keep their attention, use the few words of Spanish I did know to my advantage, and also some new vocabularies. It was difficult but because I made it through that class, I felt confident enough to offer English classes outside of the school to anyone who was interested because I knew a lot of people wanted to learn. This was a great chance to meet other community members.

Nhial: If you can advise the next students who want to be on this exchange program, what would you recommend they should do and what would you recommend they should not do?
Odessa: I would tell them to try things they wouldn’t normally do. There are many chances, as I’ve said, to step outside of your comfort zone and I think that they will find this to be really rewarding. I ate a caterpillar for breakfast, won a dance competition during Mexican Independence Day, and saw how fireworks are made. There are so many fun things to try, new food, customs and if they take as many of these opportunities as possible, the trip will be amazing. However, it is almost as easy to stay within your comfort zone and avoid experiencing these things. They could put their headphones on or watch movies in English all day and block out the world around them. It is nice every once in a while to experience comforting things that remind you of home and there is nothing wrong with that, but I would recommend that these sorts of activities are limited to prevent people from missing out on all of the potential learning opportunities.

Nhial: Having volunteered in rural Alberta, what have you learned that you did not know about rural Alberta’s communities before?
Odessa: I grew up in rural Alberta but the community I lived in as part of the exchange was different from my home town in some ways. I think the general feel of rural Albertan communities is the same, but they are all unique in their approach to the different issues that they face. Thorsby, Alberta, where I lived for a month and a half, is a growing and vibrant community that offers a wide variety of opportunities for community involvement. I feel more positively about rural communities’ abilities to overcome adversity then I did before the exchange.

Nhial: What difference did you notice between rural Alberta and Puebla?
Odessa: Rural Puebla is not as dependent on the global market. There are still subsistence farmers, where as in rural Alberta, I think there are very few, if any, people who grow all the food they need to survive. If for some reason Mexico’s access to imports was cut off, I believe that the people of Santa Lucia would be capable of looking after themselves. The knowledge they have has been passed on from generation to generation. However, rural Mexico is going through a transitional period in regards to agriculture. Farming practices are shifting from pre- industrialized methods to a more modern version that relies on machinery and chemicals. There is the danger that the traditional knowledge may be lost and Mexican farmers will become just as dependent on multinational corporations as Albertans.

Nhial: If you can describe this program in any adjective, what would it be?
Odessa: I don’t think I could describe it in one word. It is an experience that gives participants countless opportunities to reflect on their world views and learn about themselves. I think that most people are probably changed in some way as a result of their time on PACSE.


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