Author Archive for Chelsea Escalante

Into the field

As the quarter wraps up, it is remarkable to look back and see the ways in which all of the individual projects have developed in a relatively short period of time. For me personally, in just a couple of weeks, I will begin my first interviews with former volunteers and will be simultaneously packing for my trip to Ecuador to record oral histories of community members that have lived near and have been affected by my community partner.

What am I expecting? From my previous travels to Latin America, one thing I’ve learned to expect is that everything takes much longer than you originally anticipate. No one is in a hurry and schedules don’t really hold the same value that they do elsewhere, so I must expect to be flexible with my time tables. Because I will be recording these conversations, I will also expect some technical difficulties because no matter how many times you check the recorder beforehand, something seems to always go wrong right when you need it to function! I expect to be able to find enough participants because of my previous contacts in the community (and am hoping that this is not a faulty assumption!), but as people have pointed out in the seminar, perhaps my original number of 20 participants may be too ambitious and so I am open to cutting the number if needed. Many people in the community that I am working with are very open, and so I don’t anticipate difficulty in getting people to share their experiences, but I do worry that they may paint a very rosy picture of the effects of volunteerism and leave out perhaps some areas of criticism or potential improvement.

What am I bringing with me? This seminar has really given me a broader perspective of what it means to be a humanist. Even though I am technically in a humanities department (Spanish), I study mostly quantitative linguistics and so my research has always been about data collection and macro-implications. I have had very little training in humanistic research methodologies before this course, but am excited to be implementing one such methodology – oral histories—in this project. I also think that being able to dissect the recordings and arrange them into a multimedia format such as an edited video will allow a broader public to be able to engage with the research. This is a format that I would have never thought of before this course. Lastly, I found the theoretical base of public humanities that we focused on at the beginning of the quarter to be extremely applicable to my project, especially the idea of the pseudo-environments. Because the volunteers and local Ecuadorians are participating in an exchange of pseudo-environments as they interact with each other—each group perhaps noticing, valuing, or rejecting the “realities” of the other group – this framework will be helpful to me as I continue to engage with these two groups in the future.

Thank you to everyone who has participated in the seminar, from our leaders to our guest speakers to the other scholars. I have learned so much from getting to hear about the projects and wish you all the best this summer!

What can be accomplished in one summer: The growing to-do list

When I first began envisioning this project, I imagined being able to interview dozens of people—both former volunteers and local Ecuadorians—of hearing about their fascinating experiences and all of the ways in which volunteerism has affected the way that they relate to the world around them. I envisioned pouring over the results, piecing together some similar threads, and sharing with my community partner the ways that those experiences have shaped their lives. Now that the summer is approaching, however, I am beginning to feel nervous about just how much I will be able to actually complete in such a short amount of time, especially because my project has grown in a couple of important ways since I first began envisioning it.

During class, we have talked a lot about oral histories and about how such data could easily end up being archived – never to be touched again – unless the time is taken to convert interesting parts of them into a greater story with a more accessible medium. I really liked the idea of converting my report into an edited video, so that it can be easily shared on the NGO’s website or by other service learning/volunteer programs that may be interested in knowing the long-term effects of volunteerism. However, this change does add a significant work load to my project, as now I have to worry about recording the respondents either by high-quality video or audio – something that can be tricky when you don’t live near any of them—as well as how to create an entertaining yet informational video with no editing skills whatsoever (I will definitely be enlisting help!). A second complication is that the NGO has also asked that part of the project include a Spanish language curriculum for incoming volunteers that can be used to improve language skills. This sounds like it would be an easy task for a Spanish teacher, but it can be a headache when I am unsure of the proficiency level and range of the volunteers, the format of the instruction, the materials that will be available, etc.

So, taking all of this into consideration, my to-do list seems to be growing by the minute. Currently on the top of the list are: get IRB approval, create interview questions, contact former volunteers and schedule interviews, figure out how to record those conversations in high quality video or audio when I am interviewing them remotely, contact local Ecuadorians and schedule interviews for when I will be there, start planning Spanish curriculum, and find an iMovie tutor. Most of these will be done during the first month of summer while I work from home, but the interviews with the local community members will be done the second month when I am in Ecuador. The writing of the report and the editing of the video will take place upon my return.

Given all that needs to be done in such a short time period, I have whittled the interview number down to about 20 people (10 former volunteers, 10 Ecuadorians). I think that as long as I am able to find participants from a variety of different backgrounds and experiences, there will be enough data to provide a thorough report to my community partner and (fingers crossed!) a decent edited video as well.

International volunteerism and the exchange of psuedoenvironments

During the past two decades, there has been an unprecedented expansion of international volunteering and service, both in numbers of volunteers and sponsoring organizations1. Despite the popularity and growth of international volunteerism, scholarship on the long-term impacts of such service has been scarce. Proponents of such service suggest volunteer opportunities inspire ordinary people to get involved in global affairs, giving them the potential to promote global peace and make tangible contributions to the well-being of people around the world2. Critics, on the other hand, contend that these programs can be viewed as a continuation of imperialism that reinforces existing inequalities or is ineffective in providing long-term solutions to exceptionally complex global issues3.

Just yesterday, I came across an editorial online called “Seven reasons why your Two Week Trip to Haiti doesn’t matter: Calling Bull on ‘Service Trips’”3 (http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/). The author argues that short term service/immersion experiences should be called self-fulfillment trips instead of service trips, citing seven major detriments of such programs to the local community, including the focus on the volunteers’ quest for experience, the negligible long-term benefit to the community, the offensiveness of “voluntourism”, the waste of money, the promotion of cycles of dependence, the lack of skilled laborers among volunteers, among others.

However, even in the situations in which volunteers are unable to bring about long-term change, I’ve always thought that one of the most remarkable aspects of volunteerism is the exchange of knowledge that each participating group brings to the other. Ways of looking at the world are often vastly different, and each group may not have even considered another perspective before their intercultural exchange. Before this class, I just always thought of it as an exchange of perspective—the two groups have the chance to witness and perhaps, with the right combination of time, inquiry, and desire, may even be able to come to understand how another person interprets their world. However, after reading Lippman’s Public Opinion4, I now consider this an exchange of pseudo-environments. As volunteers and local community members interact, they are exposed to the countless components that make up a person’s pseudo-environment and can choose (whether consciously or not) to adopt those perspectives and carry them forward. I remember clearly that whenever someone got sick, no matter what time of year, the local Ecuadorians would say “Oh, yeah, with this change in weather, it’s no wonder why they got sick”. In our opinions (the volunteers), the weather held pretty constant all year round: hot and sticky vs. hotter and stickier. We just could not adopt this point of view. However, I also noticed that when we would meet people in the community, the questions that they asked would be different than what many people in the US would ask when they first meet someone. Of course this is a gigantic generalization, but here, there is often a focus on the individual (Where do you live? What do you do for work? Where did you go to college? What did you study?). In Ecuador, there was an absence of questions that related to power/status and more of a focus on the family (How many siblings do you have? How are your parents doing? Do you miss them?). Something so small as a shift in the type of questions that you ask when you first meet a person can mean that you are recognizing a difference in the two pseudo-environments and choosing to see the reality in the new one. In more macro terms, being exposed to the pseudo-environment of a developing economy could help to catapult someone into a life dedicated to service which in turn might be a more realistic way of promoting long-term change than just the service experience itself (something that the article failed to recognize).

In my project, I hope to be able to pinpoint some of the parts of the pseudo-environment that volunteers experienced while in-country that they were are able to carry with them in the long term. Likewise, I will try to see if the local community members have carried parts of the pseudo-environment formed through long-term relationships with volunteers—perspectives, ways of doing things that were previously foreign to them—to see if any of those have remained with them over time.

Although volunteer programs cannot go without critique, change can only happen after exposure. An opening of the mind to other possibilities that did not fit one’s previous pseudo-environment is one of the benefits that international experiences have the potential to provide.

 

References:

  1. Sherraden, M. S., Lough, B. J., & McBride, A. M. (2008). Effects of international volunteering and service: Individual and institutional predictors. Voluntas: International Journal of Voluntary and Nonprofit Organizations, 19(4), 395-421.
  2. UNV. (2002). Voluntary action is ‘fourth cornerstone of sustainable development: UNV chief. Retrieved August 30, 2002, from http://www.unv.org/en/news-resources/news/doc/voluntary-action-isfourth-1.html.
  3. Stayton, M. L. (2015). 7 Reasons Why Your Two Week Trip To Haiti Doesn’t Matter: Calling Bull on “Service Trips”. Retrieved May 3, 2016, from http://almost.thedoctorschannel.com/14323-2/.
  4. Lippmann, W. (1922). Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co.

Why I am here: Engaging with an international public

As graduate students, we are deeply committed to our individual research projects, but often our topics are very specific inquiries and those without a background in our area have difficulty understanding the implications of our studies. We spend countless hours inside labs, libraries, and specialty archives, but do our findings make it past academic journals and presentations? How do they impact real lives in our communities? I know that in my own experience, I have collected and poured over linguistic data for months, only to ask myself at the end of it all, is this information really going to make a difference in any concrete way?

When my adviser introduced me to the idea of public scholarship as a way to engage with a general public audience on aspects related to my linguistic research, I became very interested. In the past, I spent significant time in domestic and international service, but ever since beginning graduate school, I have become distanced from community engagement. As I read more about the Mellon Public Scholars Program, I began to envision a project that could bridge my research with public service—something that could bring tangible benefits to an international community while at the same time give me valuable and marketable experience in an area outside of my specific field of study.

My project will research the long term effects of a specific international volunteer program– an American NGO situated in Guayaquil, Ecuador– exploring how the service experience has affected the lives of the volunteers themselves as well as the native Ecuadorians that the foundation serves. Since 1991, the Catholic social justice organization has sent a group of volunteers to live in poverty and solidarity alongside their neighbors. The volunteers live in modest conditions and receive a stipend of approximately $1/day (similar to what their neighbors earn) and serve their communities in different educational and social work capacities such as running after-school programs for disadvantaged youth, providing micro-finance opportunities for women, accompanying leprosy patients and inmates, and assisting in medical dispensaries. Upon the completion of their service period of 12 months, the volunteers typically return to the United States and the Ecuadorian community receives a new group of volunteers who continue the work of their predecessors. Although the NGO receives anecdotal evidence of the positive experience of the volunteers and the Ecuadorian community members, it remains unclear what the long-term effects of such service really are. How does the year of service affect the trajectory of the lives of former volunteers? To what extent does it inspire them toward a life of service? What do Ecuadorians see as the positive and negative effects of the constant presence of a foreign program in their community? Does the volunteer experience benefit one group (either the volunteers or the Ecuadorian community members) more so than the other?

In an effort to answer these questions, my proposed project will elicit oral histories of both former volunteers and Ecuadorian community members in order to explore how volunteerism has affected their personal lives in a long-term manner. This humanistic approach to data collection, which will abandon natural science models of research such as hypothesis testing and measurement and replace them with an example-rich and thoughtful analysis of the insiders’ account, will allow me to explore the interpretations and meanings that volunteers and community members assign to their experience. I hope to be able to create a multi-media report with which to share my findings in order to contribute to the growing conversation regarding how volunteerism affects both the sending communities as well as the receiving communities—a topic that is valuable given the academy’s growing interest in the area of service learning.