Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Direct Enrollment

I know a lot about many of our study abroad programs, and I know who to ask about most of the rest. As my advisees start filling my office this week, asking questions about course equivalencies and comparable programs, I'll be able to help them. Programs vary, but there are a few constants. Students want to really be there, to get close to the real action. To be far away from home. I've been there, partly, though my introduction to cross-cultural interpretation took place within a different network of ideas about distance, connectedness, and being away.
I never formally studied abroad. I did spend time at the Escuela Policarpa Salavarietta, in northern Ecuador. (Try saying Policarpa Salavarietta three times fast if you're just starting out.) The arrangement was more informal than what we now call "direct enrollment," but spending half days in the 6th grade was certainly an immersion experience. I came from a public middle school in a Midwestern college town; I found myself in a single-sex public elementary school where the girls wore green smocks and lessons were copied into graph paper notebooks using red and blue ballpoint and following a strict code I never quite understood.
For the first few months, we didn't have electric light. (Now there's free Wi-Fi in the plaza.) With phone service available only from a central office, and occasional postal strikes delaying the news from home, I didn't have to try to cut myself off from the familiar, to deliberately speak only Spanish, to push myself to get out of the comfortable but potentially limiting circle of a foreign student cohort. One of my mother's friends once asked her if we didn't speak Spanish at home, since it was so much easier than English, and I've always enjoyed the notion that we might have spoken English among ourselves only when we left the house, just to keep up appearances.
But, no. Spanish was much harder for me than the English I was used to. I smiled inanely at a lot of missed jokes. I was exotic, befuddled, probably grouchy. Still, people were kind. The other girls didn't understand why I had to concentrate so hard to follow the simplest conversation, but they tried to help me along. The teachers were patient. I never once showed up with the regulation pocket handkerchief, neatly folded, but I never had my hand smacked when we lined up for inspection.
After a while, I stopped going to school. I did lessons at home in the morning. We'd brought math books with us and I was assigned to keep a journal of my daily observations. In the afternoons, I was sent out to play, whether I wanted to go or not. Something about making friends and settling in.
It wasn't until a couple of years ago, when I heard my brother refer to "when we were home-schooled," that I connected those mornings to the idea I'd formed of home-schooling in the U.S. When I was in school, home schooling was still considered fairly "out there;" it wasn't a label I'd thought to apply to my own experience, though it absolutely fit. 
The other kids laughed at my mispronunciations--usually gently, sometimes not so much--and acted as though, peculiar and untrained though I was, I was welcome to be there. They moved over a bit on the bench to make space. I rode on the class float in the town fiestas, playing my flute and wearing a fancy blue dress just like the other girls'. I found my way into a tight group of friends.
For me, "direct enrollment" was being lucky enough to be truly taken in, accommodated. People made adjustments for me. Once I got over the shock of how different it all was, I made adjustments, too. Me enseñé.

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