Making Colombia Our Classroom: One Student's Journey

By Krystal Giraldes, Office of Development Communications Posted Wed, 05/16/2018 - 15:00

The wind was whipping through my hair and there was a mix of dust and humidity burning my eyes. Still, I was in awe. Beautiful mountain ranges. Cows wandering across grassy, rolling fields. This was Colombia, thousands of miles from my suburban hometown and also from the University of San Francisco — and rich in a culture that I had never come even close to experiencing until now. It was a dream come true.

Krystal GiraldesWe climbed aboard a chiva, a traditional Colombian bus that transports people around the towns. The sides were left open, without doors or windows, so people could hop on and hop off. On our chiva, long benches were packed with USF students, their eyes equally as wide as mine.

For us, none of this would have been possible without the scholarships we each received that allowed us to afford this trip of a lifetime. Raising scholarship funds for immersion trips is a priority at USF, and 80 percent of students who go on USF’s immersion trips receive some type of financial aid.

Learning in The Global Classroom

As we sat side-by-side with a group of children later, they told us how they had come together and learned martial arts. It was their way to stop conflicts between rival groups in their hometowns. They passed around candy and when there wasn’t enough to go around, they simply shared a joke, a song, or a sweet hug with us.

Although their homes had been torn apart by a conflict, they showed us how resilient they were. Conflict has broken so many families in Colombia for decades. This was an historical moment in their communities — a time of peace building.

Stories of transformation like this were everywhere in Colombia. We spoke with women who, despite losing their husbands nearly 20 years ago in a massacre, had risen up to rebuild a beautiful town. They told us how the paramilitary and guerrilla groups tore into their homes and took the lives of every man in the town, from young boys to the town elders.

After the battle, most of the town’s people fled, but not these women. They utilized their skills, growing plants and herbs, which they then used to make shampoos, lotions, and herbal medicines, selling them to raise money that kept the town running.

As students, we reveled in learning in such a tangible way, and we empowered each other to try new things. Many nights, we danced with the local people we had met, and they taught us their dance moves, despite language barriers between many of us. They managed to make us laugh without a single word.

A Journey of Spirituality and Self-Reflection

Our leaders from USF’s University Ministry encouraged us to immerse ourselves in a journey of spirituality and self-reflection as well. Evenings, we sat together and reflected on our days and on our mission in Colombia — to learn about peacebuilding and social justice and then translate it back home in San Francisco, and beyond.

It was hard not to be inspired by the people I met in Colombia, and it was impossible not to be inspired by the USF group I journeyed there with. Each of us had come from different places. We all had varying perspectives and insights to share.

I have learned a lot at the University of San Francisco, but the type of knowledge I acquired in Colombia was something new and transformative — how conflict affects families, how resilient a group of women and children can be, and the importance of peace-building.

I also gained a whole new perspective on life and got to know a new USF community that I could call home (as every new person I met repeatedly told me). It was an experience I’ll cherish forever and an experience I hope every student has.

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