Students must experience the unknown

By Brandon Desiderio
March 13, 2013

Spring break, and breaks in general, are typically set aside for kicking back and relaxing – maybe by having a binge marathon of How I Met Your Mother and a trip to the beach, or maybe going on a bar crawl with friends followed by a day spent in bed nursing a hangover.

But for some students, there’s more to the picture than just kicking back – for some, it’s about giving back.

Like many colleges, Cabrini gives students opportunities directly through the college to volunteer stateside over breaks, from as nearby as Appalachia to as far away as New Orleans or New Mexico. Also offered are alternative trips – shorter study abroad trips to Ecuador, Guatemala, Ireland and elsewhere. These trips aren’t just a bunch of students flying off to sightsee and kick back like on typical spring breaks, though – it’s about immersing yourself in something outside of yourself, outside of what you already know.

With that said, though, what does that even mean? What is “immersion?”

A common fear for anyone considering these abroad programs is obvious: the fear of the unknown. “Culture shock” isn’t just a term – it’s a reality; on top of that, however, is the greater unknown – of being away from family and friends for a period of time, of being alone.

Overall, these fears are valid because what these immersion trips do most effectively is make us vulnerable.

Two-thirds of our editorial staff have been on such immersion trips – and all of us have experienced some level of vulnerability in the process, whether from simply conquering our fear of flying, or from facing the realities of dentistry in a developing country and fainting as a result. Even more complex is meeting a Guatemalan who, even at your age, has a child or two and a wife – yet lives in a house of cinderblocks and is lucky if they have a safe wood-burning stove.

Experiences like these help you gain perspective. We learned the stories of the individuals that we met; we began to understand the history of their culture, of their country, through their eyes and not through Wikipedia or a textbook.

Something truly transformative happened – and not just to us, but also to the educational framework that we’ve been familiarized with since kindergarten.

We’ve been conditioned to think that an education is earned almost exclusively through lecture, at a distance. The education we know struggles to be as engaging as it can, but only, normally, within the walls of the classroom, within the constrictions of the teacher-student relationship. But once the door is opened – once faculty join students in the learning process, and immerse themselves just as much, and open themselves up to the vulnerability of interacting with the common good, on behalf of the common good – that’s when the education of the heart takes hold.

As students, we owe it to ourselves to realize that what we’re receiving from our time at Cabrini is more than a degree, that what we’re receiving is more than just a bunch of classes and coursework, more than papers and presentations.

And it’s just as important for us to realize that, if that’s all we see our education as, it’s up to us to ensure that that’s changed. If we crave that “something more,” that deeper connection or that tie to the local community, then it’s on us to enact that change, to be a part of that change.

Even in today’s world, only a minority of students go on study abroad trips – and an even smaller minority go on immersion trips, where the object isn’t just to be another college student abroad, but to be a global citizen, and to experience all that being a global citizen comes with.

It’s not for everyone. Not everyone is willing to step outside of their comfort zone, to exceed their own boundaries and participate in something larger than themselves, than their families.

But more people need to serve a community other than their own; more people must experience the “others” that are mentioned in the headlines on TV, whose faces are often included in the depressing commercials calling for donations.

It’s one thing to study in a city in Europe that’s known for its wealth and international presence – but it’s a whole other to study among the poor of a country that’s just getting back on its feet; instead of studying art history in Paris, more students should study the lived culture of a people in poverty.

Unless more people make this move, we’ll grow further into a world focused on this “otherness” of who we see on TV. We won’t think of them as Maria and Angel, but as “those people” from “that country.”

And for a country that prides itself on its citizens’ individuality and diversity, is that how we should be treating others?

We’re a global society. We must live like one.

Brandon Desiderio

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