by Emma Buckley | Contributor
Studying abroad has always been something I’ve dreamed of doing. Yes, cliche I know, because many college students share this same thought. But, when I started actually looking into it, I was overwhelmed with all of the possibilities, different countries, geography, languages, and programs. I somehow had to narrow it down.
When I started to think about what I wanted in a program, my first priority wasn’t location or classes, it was an experience where I could learn about social issues outside in the world. So, with endless searching on the web and an excessive amount of meetings with Katherine McCormack in the Study Abroad Office, I found the perfect fit. On January 27th, 2017 I would be leaving for a semester abroad in Cusco, Peru. Not only would I be taking classes but I would be doing a service-learning project focused on youth development at a girls’ orphanage.
Almost every time someone asked where I was studying abroad I would get this confused look and be asked “why?” and back then I didn’t quite have my answer yet; it was a jumbled response of the importance of learning Spanish as a social worker and the opportunity of getting to work with adolescents girls. But now, with two weeks left in my program, that timid answer has turned into the most definitive answer. And here it is:
I walked into San Judas Chico, an alternative housing center for girls ages 5-18. It was my first day. I would be spending at least 6 hours a week for three and a half months during my time abroad in Cusco, Peru within the brick walls of this government run program. My initial thoughts were overwhelming as I looked around at the falling apart picnic tables, broken swings and shattered windows that came together to form this bleak residence. As I made my way inside, I was greeted by running, smiling faces excited to meet their newest volunteer. While I had an orientation before my first day, I was nowhere near prepared for the experience that was about to occur over the semester.
There are 32 girls living at San Judas Chico right now because their parents are not able/do not want to provide for them. I knew this when coming in, but wasn’t prepared to meet the girls that actually have to live and deal with this on an everyday basis. Over the course of three months, I have learned so much about these girls and myself. Despite the lack of resources, food, clothing, pencils, games, shampoo and toilet paper, these girls are trying to be their best selves. It is something that I have tried to embody.
It wasn’t until about a month in, my perspective was changed, again. For the first time, I saw two sisters being dropped off by a caseworker. The only things they had were the clothes on their back and a red drawstring bag given to them by the caseworker’s agency. For the first time, it truly hit me that these girls do not have proper homes, and they come here to escape whatever makes up their home life. These sisters are 8 and 11 and they clung to each other with every step they took. For me, the hardest thing was the fact that the workers at my organization provided minimal support to these girls who so desperately needed it.
It broke my heart, because a volunteer who is only there for minimal hours during the week can only do so much. Nonetheless, I have been trying to do as much as I can for these girls with the time left I have because they deserve that much and more. I soon came to realize that I wouldn’t get the supervision and constant contact with my boss like I would most likely have in the States, in fact, I could probably count the times I’ve talked to her on my hands. So, I took initiative and started planning projects with my fellow partner who came on the same days as me. It was then, during our cooking lessons, craft activities and affirmation practices, that the girls started to shift into even more amazing girls than they already were, and I soon realized why.
So many volunteers that come in, stay for two weeks or less, take pictures with the girls and don’t take the time to really get to know them. These girls finally have some stability, though I will be leaving in two weeks. Luckily, it is something that we’ve talked about and the girls know and are somewhat prepared. I will absolutely never forget how much these girls have taught me. I have learned patience, kindness, love, trust in a place where girls are perpetually treated otherwise. And for that I will forever be grateful.
Studying abroad in Peru has been so much more than visiting Machu Picchu, Lake Titicaca or the Amazon Rainforest. While those trips have been amazing because they have brought me closer to my study abroad group and have shown me incredible landscapes like I have never seen, they can not compare to the experience that my service-learning program has been. It is hard to encapsulate into a single essay, and trust me I have tried, but this program has completely changed my perspective on life and my role in it.
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a social worker, it is something that I have always been drawn to, but now, with the experience of seeing one of the most vulnerable populations, I feel even more certain that the career path I chose is right for me. So when I return back to the states in a short two weeks, I am anticipating questions like “How was Peru?”, “Did you get homesick?”, “Did you like it?”, I am going to try my best to explain that I am a completely different person than the girl who got on that plane back in January and I wouldn’t change a single thing.
If even for a second you think studying abroad is something you would want to do, do it. It will open up your eyes to ideas, cultures, language, history. Everyday will be an adventure and at the end you will realize you are a better person because of it.

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