By the time she got to Colombia, Jessica Slade was no rookie to volunteer projects in developing countries.
But listening to drug addicted street kids got her thinking that maybe she had landed in the wrong place.
Heart-wrenching stories told by the boys — tattooed offspring of Cartagena gang families — knocked Slade off kilter.
“I almost quit,” said the fourth-year Global Studies student at Laurier. “It was so emotional.”
Despite already having volunteered on two previous projects in Latin America, Slade wondered how she could possibly help the boys during this short, 4-week stint.
In fact, her studies at Laurier taught her that short-term volunteer visits can sometimes do more harm than good.
Would the needy kids at the rehab centre get hooked on her friendship, only to have her abandon them?
But Slade soon met 12-year-old Rafael — a boy who behaved like a little devil, but sang like an angel — and she was smitten.
“That really changed everything for me,” Slade recalled recently. “I found my purpose.”
Instead of worrying about the mountain of problems burdening the boys, problems she couldn’t possibly fix on her own, Slade focused on Rafael.
The two bonded, partly by laughing at how badly the other pronounced words in English or Spanish.
In time, Rafael calmed down and stopped disturbing the peace.
“I think I had a small part in that,” Slade said.
Each year more than a dozen third-year Global Studies students take part in the Laurier’s Global Studies Experience (GSE) program.
In addition to volunteering in Colombia, students have worked in a South African conservation park inhabited by elephants, leopards and lions; they’ve cared for disabled children in a rehab centre in Nepal; and they’ve distributed rice in a drought-stricken region of India.
While their stints overseas run anywhere from 1-4 months, students often work for more than a year on their volunteer projects, said Sheri Lynn Gibbings, assistant professor in the Global Studies department and GSE program coordinator.
Students have to come up with their own plans: identifying projects they’re interested in doing; getting approval from the host organization; and fundraising to help pay for their trip.
Before going overseas, students research and write about the country they’re going to visit, and investigate the specific issues they’re going to be working on.
They also learn to have realistic expectations.
“Sometimes students have a very romantic vision of social change,” Gibbings said. “We want them to see that social, political and economic development is complex.”
In short, students go overseas to watch and learn.
“We seek to understand first,” she added.
Students don’t have to travel to exotic locations to do global studies, says Timothy Donais, chair of the Department of Global Studies.
Closer to home they’ve met with politicians, planners and environmentalists to talk about contentious development and water management issues.
Whether they go overseas or do fieldwork near a Laurier campus, the Global Studies program pushes students to see the world through different lenses, Donais said.
“We want them to think of themselves as global citizens, as agents who can go out and make a difference in the world whether they’re in Waterloo or Nairobi.”
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