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Students Get Immersed in Bolivia's Indigenous Culture

Bolivia Map

A group of Georgetown students recently traveled to Bolivia's fourth-largest city, Cochabamba, to learn about the country's indigenous population.

July 12, 2011 – Four Georgetown students recently spent nearly a month in Bolivia to explore the environmental, social and economic issues facing the country’s indigenous population.

The May 24-June 15 trip was part of the university’s Indigenous Latin American Culture Summer Immersion program run by the Center for Social Justice, Research, Teaching and Service (CSJ) in partnership with Community Links International.

Selene Ceja (C’13), Ricardo Garza (SFS’13), Matthew Kerrigan (SFS’13) and Eliza Pan (B’13) spent their time in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s fourth-largest city.

Meshing Interests

“I saw this trip as a great opportunity to mesh my interests in social justice and international development,” says Kerrigan, an international politics major from Wellesley, Mass.

Each year, CSJ sends a small group of students to one of three Latin American countries – Bolivia, Peru or Mexico.

This marks the third summer Georgetown students have traveled through the immersion program in partnership with Community Links, founded by Georgetown alumnus Jim Petkiewicz (C’87).

Petkiewicz created the organization in 2000 to work with nongovernmental organizations, community leaders and governments to develop solidarity among people from both hemispheres in the Americas. Several other Jesuit institutions, including Fordham and Santa Clara universities, also run programs partnering with the nonprofit.

Personal Relationships

“It’s not study abroad,” says Jane Kirchner, program coordinator for the Summer Global Immersion Program at CSJ. “It’s more about being immersed in the experience, and the students’ personal relationships with people in the community.”

The students, who are proficient in Spanish, lived with host a family and worked with members of the city’s indigenous community painting parks and playgrounds and helping construct schools.

Crucial Issues

Nearly 60 percent of Bolivia’s population is indigenous, and its current president, Evo Morales, is the nation’s first indigenous leader. But remnants of discrimination and limited access against the indigenous population remain.

“The big issues are social inequalities, the shortage of water in the indigenous communities, and there’s still a deep distrust for government,” says Garza, a culture and politics major from McAllen, Texas.

Aside from spending mornings dipping tortillas in milk or tea for breakfast, their days were far from typical.

Host Dad

“It wasn’t a program in the traditional sense with set schedules and rigidly planned activities,” says Pan from Pomona, Calif. “We would spend our mornings meeting people experienced in fields such as education reform, environmental policy, religion and community organizing …  [then] talk about these issues all in the context of Bolivia.”

Many of these conversations involved Jesuits in the community as well as the host family of Alfredo Murrillo.

“Alfredo was not only our host dad, he was also our guide, our leader and our teacher … We did everything with him, from exploring different cities and regions of Bolivia to picking up his kids after school,” Pan says.

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