Today’s blog post comes to us from Ellen Emeric, a junior majoring in sociology. Ellen was recently awarded an NSF/REU Summer Fellowship on “Investigating Social Disparity and Social Vulnerability,” in the Department of Sociology and Landscape Architecture & Urban Planning at Texas A&M University.
In the Fall of 2015, I spent my semester in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. I knew I was going there to study, but I didn’t anticipate that the experience would help me to grow as a person as much as it did. My city of Santiago was home to about 500,000 people, comparable to the size of Tulsa, and I stayed with a host family who lived 20 minutes walking distance from the university I attended, nicknamed Pucamaima.
I took a full schedule of courses, all but one of which were in Spanish. I had the opportunity to explore specialized topics, such as feminism in the Caribbean region and Dominican forms of dance. One of my favorite classes covered the history and status of Dominican-Haitian relations as a result of a thirty-year anti-Haitian dictatorship in the Dominican Republic during the late 1900s. This course actually had zero Dominican students in it; it was all exchange students from Haiti. As an international student, opportunities like that gave me the chance to engage with different kinds of people, and understand differing perspectives on economic and social issues that seem outwardly objective.
In addition to the incredible experiences I had on campus, I learned many things from my host family, and not just about language and culture. My host mom taught me so much about life, faith, and strength. She is a dentist who owns and manages her own clinic in the metropolitan area and is a single mother of four equally successful young adults. When life became difficult or overwhelming, she was there to brighten my day, provide encouragement and give me a hug. From my host mom, I learned how to make tostones (fried green plantains), how to make curtains, and how to belly dance. Some days, our ordinary interactions were what made me feel the most at home in this new place.
Personally, I did a lot of growing. I took a course on intercultural communication and learned about sources of conflict (and cooperation) between different populations. Through overcoming the language barrier, I conquered a large portion of my fear of embarrassment; my vulnerability in unfamiliar situations brought out a confidence I never knew I had. I grew in tolerance and acceptance of others, and taking a step back from my own culture taught me that a global perspective is equally as important at home and abroad.
No essay or article can accurately capture the fullness of my experience in Santiago. Public cars, traffic jams, endless bus rides, service trips, empanadas, mosquitoes, merengue, rice, avocado, language mistakes, and an infinite amount of flexibility are just a few of the things that could characterize my trip. More importantly, however, I left more of my heart in the Dominican than I ever anticipated I would. My time there was challenging, but most certainly unforgettable. I wouldn’t want to have had it any other way.