Trip to Colombia puts life in perspective
SW Senior: 'Colombians have a happier outlook on life'
Southwest Senior Blanche Kirk spent a third of her summer in Colombia in South America learning about its culture and fostering understanding and goodwill as a youth ambassador for the U.S. State Department.
A few valuable souvenirs she brought back? Knowledge, confidence, awareness and new perspectives.
The three-week trip was sponsored through a collaborative effort between the U.S. State Department and the Partners of the Americas. Ambassadors stay with a host family and visit government and civic organizations, schools and participate in activities for the purpose of empowering youth to care for their communities and bring about positive change.
Kirk first spent a week in Washington, D.C., visiting monuments and government organizations, then traveled to Colombia to be fully immersed into the culture. Kirk shared some of her biggest impressions and takeaways of the culture.
"Columbians have a happier outlook on life," she said. "Here, we're focused on, 'I have to go here or do this or that,' but they seem to have less stress. They put people first whereas here, it's job first, family second."
During her trip, she visited various locations to learn about Colombian culture — and gave her fellow Colombian ambassadors the opportunity to learn about American culture, including Bogota, the capitol of Colombia, Baranquilla and Cartegena.
"We visited a school and talked to students about the U.S., and I learned they only go to school 11 years, then go to a university," Kirk said. "So they looked at me funny when I said I was in my 12th year of school. We visited historical sights and museums, and on their Independence Day, we went to Siete de Abril in Barranquilla, a community center which helps kids in hard situations, and planted trees. Mostly, we went to a lot of meetings to find out how we can implement programs in our communities."
During her stay, she had conversations with locals about stereotypes.
"I've never had a stereotype for Colombians, and I got over there and still didn't," Kirk said. "A lot of people talked about drugs in Colombia before I left, but I didn't see any of that there. I never felt afraid there, anywhere [like I would here]. I was raised not to label people.
"Also, people in the U.S. act like they're the only Americans, and fail to realize that there is north, central and south America, so everyone in Colombia is also American because they're all part of the Americas. The Colombians find that offensive."
One of the highlights of her trip was seeing an ocean for the first time.
"I was mesmerized," she said.
She also enjoyed other sights.
"I liked seeing all the old buildings, the churches and their congress building," Kirk said. "They were really beautiful and inspiring."
Staying with a Colombian family was another highlight.
"I had a host grandmother, mother and sister," Kirk said. "It was nice to see how their family worked. It wasn't much different than a family here. Every morning, we all had breakfast. It was warm and comfortable."
She also got to experience different foods.
"Rice comes with almost every meal, and they can't handle really spicy food," Kirk said. "They have more sweet tastes there, so every morning, I got a different fruit juice. It became a guessing game to figure out which fruit it was; they have more exotic fruits there. I was dying for a Dr. Pepper. The Columbian coffee was really good, and a lot stronger than here, and Columbians dip cheese in their hot chocolate."
She enjoyed spending time in Washington, D.C., too, but found it challenging to sleep.
"I loved the architecture, sites and museums, but it was hard to sleep in either place," Kirk said. "I was raised in the country, so all the city sounds got to me."
Another takeaway Kirk returned home with was awareness.
"There are so many other lives around me, and not just in the U.S.," she said. "Everyone's talking about how others are so different, but if you sit down and take a long, hard look, you see how similar you are. There were so many more similarities [than differences] with Colombians; they have jobs, we have jobs; they care about their families; just simple things like that."
Kirk, who has taken Spanish since the seventh grade, got to put her language skills to the test during the trip.
"My Spanish teachers have noticed how much my Spanish has improved," she said. "You can read it all you want, but until you get that social interaction with a native speaker, you can't really learn the language to its full extent."
As part of the program requirement to implement a local community project upon her return, she is organizing a new life skills class at Southwest high School.
"We will have topics like cooking on budget, car maintenance, sewing skills — important things in life you aren't really taught at school," Kirk said. "We're going to send out a survey to see what students would be interested in. Life gives you the test first, then the lesson afterward; you don't get the luxury of knowing all the answers."
New confidence and friendships were other souvenirs from her trip.
"Before, I was more introverted," Kirk said, "but the trip got out of my shell."
In one activity, Kirk lead youth in a song for a talent show.
"I decided to do singing with a group," she said. "Now, I'm not afraid to sing in front of anybody, or talk to anybody. I also have a lot of new Hispanic friends."
Kirk said she would highly recommend the trip to other students.
"It is a once in lifetime thing," she said. "It's eye-opening because you get to see how people outside of the U.S. live and how things work over there. Some people there have it better than we do, some have it worse. It showed me that there's more than just my little town; the world is a a lot bigger than you think."