I thought I would be immune to the emotional ups and downs that my university described would come with the study abroad process. I’m an international studies major studying internationally, and I love to meet new people and experience new things. Despite the protection I thought I would have from depression, sadness, and loneliness, I was not immune. November was the lowest point that I felt during my trip to Colombia. At this point the cohort of US students had spent so much time together we were all a little tired of constantly seeing the same people. This paired with the fact that student strikes in Colombia had delayed their semester, putting CET’s program schedule at odds with Universidad del Valle. Consequently, we weren’t able to direct enroll on the University’s campus and really only ended up spending about one day a week there. This meant I didn’t have as many reasons to go to campus and meet new people or expand my social circle to the level I am normally accustomed to in the United States. On top of my feelings of social isolation, at this point I was also really missing my family and my friends from back home. A prominent death in my community due to gun violence had also shaken me pretty deeply. My longing to be home and mourn with my community made it hard to focus on the incredible opportunities and beauty Colombia had to offer.
The one thing that I still had to look forward to in Colombia before I went home was the Traveling Seminar to Cartagena and Palenque with the CET program. The whole trip was incredible and I had some of my best days in Colombia and some of the best days of my life during this trip as well. However, I want to highlight one particular day that filled me with a joy and happiness that reminded me who I was and why I was doing this whole trip in the first place.
In our second day in Cartagena, we woke up early at 7am to get out and start the day. Today we were going to visit some local schools in Cartagena and learn more about the other side of Cartagena that most tour guides purposely choose to avoid describing. Cartagena has a history of being one of the biggest slave ports in the world and in the Americas. It has a very significant Black population, over 60%, although not all of these Colombians identify as Black due to the long history of white supremacy in Latin America. A lot of this Black population is concentrated in parts of the city where tourism is not present and poverty is prevalent. Inequality is one of the best words to use to describe Cartagena. We travelled to a neighborhood called Barrio Nelson Mandela. Despite its namesake’s historical struggles against inequality, this disparity was still clearly evident when compared to the wealthy tourist area that our hostel was located.
In Barrio Nelson Mandela, we met up with a representative of AFRODES, an organization that works to help and resettle Afro-Colombians that have been affected by the massive displacement stemming from the armed conflict. He brought us to a high school where a lot of the students were preparing to graduate, and we spoke to a few representatives of the school who told us about the history of the school, the upcoming graduation, and the area in which the school was located. This meeting was pretty informal and rather quick, and before we knew it we were back in the van. We were told we were going to another school in the area where we would eat lunch as well, so I was expecting a similar reception, similar presentations, and then a quick meal before we were on to the next activity. I had no idea what I was about to walk into.
At the first school, when we walked in the students largely ignored us as they were busy receiving their grad caps and robes. At the second school, my heart almost jumped out of my chest because as soon as we walked in, an explosion of sparkles and streamers covered the entrance and students poured out of the school. Music was blasting and students were dancing, and it wasn’t long before the students were grabbing our hands and bringing us into the middle of the school’s main plaza to dance. As we danced, a few of the teachers and students brought us tasty dark red juices. When the song ended, we were brought into one of the bigger classrooms where we sat on the floor and got ready for whatever was about to happen.
The reception at this school was so much different than the first school and I was not at all prepared for these displays of affection and appreciation. Most of these students were a lot younger than the first school and the majority were probably under 15 or 16. When we sat down we were given a brief introduction by one of the older students who was probably about 16. He asked each of us to introduce ourselves to the 40 other students who had gathered and were listening very intently. I couldn’t believe the respect these kids showed us with their listening and focus despite their young ages. A few of the older kids also introduced themselves and it was clear a lot of them wanted to impress us but also had high expectations that we would impress them as well. After introductions, we had a question and sharing time, where the US students could ask questions to the Colombian students, and vice versa. I’m not sure quite what got into me in this moment, if it was the energy I was getting from the kids or if I was just feeling confident. I spoke for almost every single question they asked and I also had lots of questions for them despite what at one point would have been a challenging language barrier. We talked about culture and the standard of living in the US as well as our favorite things about Colombia and Cartagena. I asked questions about their favorite subjects in school, what they liked to do in their free time, and what this school meant for them.
After we exhausted all the time allotted for the question session, we got right into the presentations that all the students had clearly been working on and preparing for our visit for weeks. The most incredible and beautiful part of it all to me was that the entire thing was student led. I think there might have only been one time where a teacher spoke into the mic or directed any of the activities of the day. Other than that, it was always the students MCing transitions to new performances and events. Their leadership throughout the day was amazing and I can’t imagine being that responsible or capable at 13 or 14. All of the students had created various works of art to showcase their talents and abilities and I found myself being incredibly proud of all these kids without even really knowing them or being related to them. The first girl passed out several drawings that she had made for us, with autographs and everything. The drawings are now hanging in my room to remind me of this day forever. The kids also had several dance routines to perform for us of various styles, but of course not until we showed a little of our own culture with a dance routine. We were obviously not prepared for this at all and thank goodness for Sydney and Vanessa who fearlessly led a demonstration of The Wobble and got a few kids to participate. After they broke the ice, I had to get up and dance along as well. When we finished our dance, the kids proceeded to absolutely blow us out of the water with their choreographed dances to Champeta (a very popular genre of music in Cartagena) and other genres. The students also performed a play, sang duets and solos, with accompanying drums and other instruments played by other students.
When the performances had finished, the main 16 year old kid who had been doing the majority of MCing gave a testimony that brought him to tears, which also got me and a few other members of my program emotional. He told a story of how he had been going down the wrong path, getting involved with gang activity in this barrio that struggled with opportunity and inequality. He had done drugs and other things he regretted while following this path. He became a person he didn’t want to be, and lost his sense of self worth. He said that his life changed when he came to this school, with the teachers and other students that supported him and reminded him that he was loved and valuable. Since then, he had clearly grown to be a leader within the school that took responsibility for being a role model and guiding those younger than him.
After his moving testimony, he turned the attention back to the US students and asked which of us like to play fútbol. One of our group, Julia, had played for several teams growing up and was probably the most experienced of all of us. I had been playing fútbol a lot with some of the kids at our apartment complex in Cali, and so I also said that I liked to play. What I didn’t know was that I had just volunteered to play a pick up game with a few of the school’s best fútbol players against a rival school in the area. They brought Julia and I our own jerseys and told us that we were in the starting lineup. We played right in the main plaza of the school with the whole student body watching us play! It was 3 on 3 in just a small little court, but I can’t remember the last time I sweat that much. It was probably the pressure I was feeling to represent my new friends and their school! After we played for a while, we starting subbing in and out until anyone who wanted to play started coming in and playing their best.
The last activity we did before lunch (it was already like 3:00 so lunch had been delayed many times due to how much fun we were having) was when the music came back on after the soccer game. Music plays a huge influence in Colombia, and all the kids wanted to dance with us again before we left. The most talented dancers that had performed earlier grabbed our hands and led us to the middle of the plaza where they showed us all the best dance moves for some of their favorite songs. The best song was hands down “El Liso,” which had a specific choreography that several US students (and the directors Cyntoya and Mariela) performed side by side with Colombian students in front of everyone. I had so much fun, and when we went out to the clubs in Cartagena later this night we were practically praying that this song would come on for us to perform in the middle of the club.
When we finally ate, we were really in a hurry to get back to our scheduled activities and had to enjoy our last bit of time with the students, and a lot of them insisted on getting our full names to look us up on Facebook and stay in touch. Actually, the bus tried to leave without me because they didn’t realize I was still inside talking to some of the kids. When we finally did leave, as we sat in the van there was a bit of a silence in which I think we were all thinking about the depth of the experience we had just had and how profoundly it had affected all of us. We all realized we’d more than likely never see those kids again, but this experience had collectively been one of our favorite experiences in Colombia and would stay with us forever. Soon enough, however, we were back to talking and discussing which other dances we should have shown them instead of The Wobble…
I was significantly changed after visiting the school in Barrio Nelson Mandela, and it gave me new life to fully appreciate and enjoy the rest of my time in Colombia. While I missed my friends and family, I also knew I would see them soon enough, and I would see them a lot sooner than I would the beautiful friends I had made in Colombia after I left. I knew I had to use my remaining time to enjoy and strengthen the friendships I had made with the Colombian roommates through CET and the other volunteers I had met at the YMCA. I learned through my experience at the school that even though I was in a foreign country speaking a foreign language, there was no reason to be lonely or feel socially isolated. All over the world you can find beautiful, friendly people, and that love can transcend age, nationality, socioeconomic status, race, and language.