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[Mountains to the World]

Becoming global citizens students create a vibrant educational experience in Bolivia, returning with new insights and understanding

by Jill C. Yarnall

Burt Holmes

Sarah Buchenberger (far left) explains the dangers of lead in the home to a Bolivian family.

As rain hammered on the tin roof of a small home in Montero, Bolivia, UNC Asheville student Sarah Buchenberger paused, pushed back her damp hair and collected her thoughts before addressing the family gathered around her. Humidity, barking dogs and the constant whir of motorcycle taxis on the busy street competed for their attention and interfered with her concentration as she attempted to explain, in Spanish, the health hazards of lead in their home. She framed her sentences carefully to avoid unfamiliar medical terms.

“It’s my hope that our students will go from the mountains to the world, and home again, bringing back to campus what they’ve learned. I want our students to get excited about the rest of the world and to allow that enthusiasm to inform their academic pursuits, their undergraduate research and even their career goals.”

“At times like that, I was deeply challenged, because I was in unfamiliar and uncomfortable situations. But I knew beforehand that it would be difficult and that’s why I chose to go,” said Buchenberger, who traveled to central Bolivia on a UNC Asheville-sponsored international service-learning project.

“It helped me measure my reactions under stress, which is important as I prepare for medical school.”

Not your traditional college spring break. Buchenberger and 13 students joined one of the first Mountains to the World international service-learning trips, which incorporated the expertise of UNC Asheville’s Lead Poisoning Prevention Program, Environmental Quality Institute, International Studies faculty and the N.C.-based Highlands Bolivian Mission. The collaboration of programs advances the university’s strategic goals of providing out-of-class learning and international experiences. Most travel expenses were met by the Mountains to the World Travel Fund, created in fall 2007 through a grant from the Community Foundation of Western North Carolina. A $100,000 gift provides stipends of $500–$750 to students, who may choose to join a charitable organization, pursue faculty-led travel opportunities or organize their own service-learning trips.

“This fund is helping UNC Asheville students become global citizens,” said Mark Gibney, Political Science professor, who holds the Belk Distinguished Professorship in the Humanities. “It’s my hope that our students will go from the mountains to the world, and home again, bringing back to campus what they’ve learned. I want our students to get excited about the rest of the world and to allow that enthusiasm to inform their academic pursuits, their undergraduate research and even their career goals.”

More than 50 students have benefited as Mountains to the World Fellows, taking for-credit International Studies courses in Bolivia and Honduras, joining short-term projects like the Highlands Bolivian Mission trip, or striking out on their own service projects.

Fluent in Spanish, Buchenberger was charged with interviewing Bolivian families in homes selected for lead testing. She learned about their children, homes and lifestyles. “I really got a sense of our differences and similarities,” said Buchenberger, who worked with Linda Block of the EQI lead testing program, instructing families on lead hazards, explaining how to reduce exposure from water spigots and the like, and collecting samples to evaluate back home in EQI’s Robinson Hall labs.

Others, including Political Science professor Linda Cornett, worked with Highlands Bolivian Mission’s established programs that operate a medical and dental clinic, foster home, house-building program, prison outreach and woodshop. As an English and computer-skills tutor in the foster home, B.J. Perkins ’08 said, “This trip made me reevaluate my personal values. It was humbling to offer my time and energy, but I gained so much in return. That’s why this kind of volunteerism is called service-learning, because that’s exactly what it is.”

The first Mountains to the World Fellow, Matt Rumley ’08 went to rural Honduras last November with Asheville-based Hope Center, where he worked in an orphanage. “My whole perspective shifted. I was taken out of my comfort zone and put into true poverty. My experiences posed the question, How I can help change the world?”

In Cochabamba, one of Bolivia’s largest and most progressive cities, Alikhan Salehi ’10 asked himself that question as one of 17 students in professor Elizabeth Snyder’s June class on indigenous rights and social justice. Students took total-immersion Spanish classes at the Maryknoll Institute, and in the afternoons completed coursework and volunteered at the Centro de Apoyo Integral Carcelario y Comunitario (CAICC), a school for children of incarcerated parents. They painted desks, cooked meals, played soccer with the children, tutored them in reading, and even taught a yoga class.

“Because it was emotional for many of us, we dedicated some classroom time to discussing our experiences,” said Snyder, director of the International Studies Program and professor of German. “By the third week, students began to transition out of feeling sad for the children to feeling positive about the impact they were making at the school.” Snyder put the school and the prison system in context—in Bolivia, children live with their parents inside the prison, which becomes a small community, complete with a grocery store. Snyder pointed out the positives: the families stay intact, and the alternative for most children would be abandonment leading to lives on the street.

Volunteering in a battered women’s and children’s shelter in El Alto where, as the name suggests, the elevation was 13,000 feet, the exhausted travelers felt the effects of the altitude, snowy weather and cultural differences. But they rallied to the tasks, painting cheerful, bright murals on the drab shelter walls. “Students were pushed into becoming more aware of their own capacity for leadership, especially in trying situations,” Snyder said. “This experience speaks to the complexities, challenges and opportunities of service learning anywhere in the world.”

What does international service learning mean and how can UNC Asheville students make a difference? Students wrestle with the issue months afterward.

“We got into deep discussions about the trip, the facets of service learning, and how we can continue to affect positive change in the places we had been,” said Salehi, who’s already volunteered as a peer mentor on future trips.

Professor Gibney, who administers the Mountains to the World Travel Fund, said: “One of the hallmarks of the liberal arts education is discovering the sense of the other—learning about the lives of people who exist in diverse times and places. Travel is absolutely the most efficient way of doing this, and by volunteering while abroad, our students gain a stunning glimpse into the lives of very different people while also learning a great deal about themselves.”