When I first heard about the study abroad program offered by the Global Engagement Studies Institute (GESI) I was a little reluctant to apply. GESI combines two of the things I enjoy the most: community service and exploring unfamiliar territories. As someone who has always been interested in community service, spending a summer abroad engaging in service projects in an unfamiliar community sounded like an ideal way to spend my summer. Despite this, I was concerned about how my stay would affect the local community. I have always been interested in figuring out ways to engage in my community, whether that be here at Northwestern or back home.
GESI is not like your typical study abroad program. GESI is a two-month program that focuses on community engagement and community-driven change. In addition to taking two courses, students partake in an internship while abroad. These internships are often through nongovernmental organizations that focus on public health, the environment, social justice, women’s empowerment, and education. While in country, students focus on developing an extensive project that will provide the most benefit to the organization. Some of the partnering organizations already have project ideas for the students to implement while others let the students decide and implement a project that they believe will be the most effective. In addition to this one project, there are other smaller jobs and projects for the students, depending on the partnering organization.
I was indecisive about doing GESI because of the short period of time I would be in the country. There are countless of articles and documentaries out there that talk about the dangers of service trips. Every time I think of service trips, I think of Pippa Biddle and her experience with a service trip abroad. Biddle spent a week in Tanzania building a library, but her and her classmates were not qualified to construct such a building. The students worked long and hard every day mixing cement and laying bricks. Every night, the locals would gather and undo all of the work the students had done because they did all of it wrong. The locals were very appreciative of their work, so they worked at night so that the students would not feel bad.
Brittany A. Aronson, author of the article “The White Savior Industrial Complex: A Cultural Studies Analysis of a Teacher Educator, Savior Film, and Future Teachers” defines the white savior industrial complex as the “confluence of practices, processes, and institutions that reify historical inequities to ultimately validate white privilege,” (39). The white industrial complex is comprised of people acting and not thinking of what the community they are “helping” actually needs. I was familiar with what the white savior complex and how, despite not identifying as white, I could contribute to this by participating in GESI. I talked to students who had done the program in different locations and I started warming up more to the idea of GESI. I learned that GESI starts off with an intensive week-long pre-departure program. During this week, students take two courses. Both of these courses are geared towards preparing students with the necessary tools and skills to adequately interact with the local communities whilst abroad. One of these courses “Development in the Global Context: Participation, Power and Social Change” was taught by Global Health Studies Professor Noelle Sullivan. Sullivan has done extensive research on voluntourism, a form of tourism that revolves around travelers partaking in acts of service usually through a charity or a nongovernmental organization. All of this led me to make an informed decision about the program.
After researching and talking to alumni of the program, I ultimately decided to GESI this past summer. The pre-departure section of the program was super intensive, but it made me feel a little less lost about the whole process. The material we engaged with and the lectures given by both professors made me more critical of my mindset going in. Both professors reminded the group about how these communities did not need our help and how they were functioning just fine without our intervention. I appreciated the reminder and the realness of the professors when it came to teaching the material. Everyone on the teaching staff made it very clear that GESI had its own issues being a short-term program, but they all emphasized teaching students about these savior complexes in order to make sure students were better prepared to work in these new communities.
I decided to do GESI in Costa Rica because of my familiarity with the Spanish language. I interned at the Santa Rosa National Park in Costa Rica. My internship allowed me to not only connect with locals but also tourists from all over the world. GESI was one of the most rewarding and eye-opening experiences I have done to this day. I learned so much about the culture, community, and also about myself. GESI taught me to be more introspective and reflective about my experiences. Participating in this program the summer after my freshman year prepared me to better engage with the material presented in the entry-level global health courses. It taught me how better communicate with team members when conflict arises. Most importantly, GESI connected me with so many amazing individuals, whether that be students from Northwestern or members of the local community in Costa Rica.
Click here to learn more about the GESI program!