Changing the study abroad experience for real change

Traveling to another country for service is a different but rewarding experience.

Anant Naik

The loud crowing of a rooster woke our team at 6 a.m. after our first night in Yulo, Bolivia. Yulo is a small community of fewer than 100 people living on the valley of the Juckucha River, about one hour from the main Vitichi Municipality. We had arrived in Yulo late the night before, enduring a 16-hour car ride from La Paz, the administrative capital of Bolivia. Some community members had helped us move in, rapidly exclaiming their excitement in fast Quechua phrases that we couldn’t understand. 
As the sun crawled over the mountaintops visible in the distance, the village became vibrant as farmers, miners and schoolchildren all went about their day. Every time one person saw another, they’d say a warm “Buenos días” (or “Buenos” for short). Irrespective of their differences of opinion or whatever problems they were facing, no one ignored each other. Every day was a good day.
I was in Yulo on a trip with Engineers Without Borders, a student group at the University of Minnesota that aims to directly help communities address challenges they face with water. 
In Yulo, this year’s work revolved around insulating critical areas of piping that froze due to the region’s rapid weather fluctuations. Because of this problem, the community didn’t have access to running water for long periods of time in the mornings. 
The first morning, we travelled to a bridge where the piping frequently froze. After taking important notes and measurements, we went to another piping segment in Vasquez, a smaller community on the outskirts of Yulo. 
In Vasquez, a pipe was suspended over a small valley created by erosion. The community feared this pipe would also freeze when the winter came around. 
Over the next several days, we worked diligently to insulate and protect that exposed piping. The sweat from the community members’ (and our) brows was the only water running through the pipes that day. 
Through completing this monumental project, we embraced the love the community gave us. We said, “Buenas tardes” or “Buenos días,” to everyone we saw. We all learned to eat food with our hands, and we began to speak Spanish a little faster. 
Perhaps more importantly, the project gave us the confidence and satisfaction that we were truly making an impact on the community.
Before leaving Bolivia, we gathered essential data regarding the community’s water consumption and health, so we could serve them once again the following year. We also gave them an opportunity to voice other concerns they had about their water supply. 
At the University, the administration has placed a tremendous emphasis on study abroad programs. Many departments encourage their students to go abroad and gain cultural experiences in order to understand how the rest of the world differs from the United States. 
As lucrative as these opportunities are, many of them aren’t accessible for students like me. Planning my major is already incredibly tough — should I add more hassle by going abroad for credits that might not even transfer? Tough call.
Although study abroad programs are great, there are other amazing opportunities students can take advantage of without needing to spend an entire semester in another country. Many University student groups offer these experiences, not only allowing students to travel but also enabling them to make a real impact on the people they work with wherever they study. 
In addition to the group I traveled with, Biology Without Borders also presents another opportunity for students to travel to other countries and do health-related volunteer work. 
“The ability to cross and overcome language barriers, reach out of your comfort zone and become a globally and culturally sensitive citizen takes a lot of experience and exposure,” Chapter President Himal Purani said in an email interview.
We don’t just gain this exposure by traveling through another country — we gain it by forming relationships with people and by actually serving a community.
This trip gave me a new perspective into the problems that people face in the world. Outside of India and the U.S., this was the first opportunity I had to travel to a different country with a different culture. During our stay in Bolivia, we had an opportunity to engineer a solution for the hardships that we got to experience ourselves within the community. 
An important idea to remember for those considering their options, though, is that I just got a snapshot of Bolivian culture. In contrast, a traditional, long-term study abroad program would have given me more exposure to different cultures and perspectives. As a result, alternative study abroad opportunities like mine may not be desirable to all students. 
In any case, it seems that there are more alternatives to traditional study abroad programs than ever before. Nowadays, students who can’t schedule a semester or two of travel in a different country don’t have to miss out. Opportunities to make a difference while embracing another culture exist at the University. 
We should support these opportunities and encourage students to get involved in them. If you’re a student who can’t study abroad, consider looking into alternative options. If you can’t find a student group that matches the causes you’re passionate about, start one yourself. Although it sounds like a tremendous amount of work, it’ll be rewarding to you, your peers and the people you’ll impact.