Charles Allison-Godfrey was a junior at Colorado College in Colorado Springs, Colo., when he discovered the semester abroad program at the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College, in Minneapolis, one of the ELCA’s 26 colleges and universities.
The Center for Global Education has been in existence for 25 years. Funded in part by grants from ELCA World Hunger, it has permanent sites in Mexico, Southern Africa and Central America — where Charles spent his semester — and is dedicated to relief, development, education and advocacy that address the root causes of hunger and poverty both in the United States and abroad.
The program’s unique immersion curriculum not only lets students visit other parts of the world but they also get to know the people, culture and stories there. In the case of the Central American experience, Charles says, he saw “an alternate version of history.”
“I’ve been really interested in Latin America for about five years, and it definitely drove me toward the program,” he says.
As a political science major, Charles was particularly interested in social justice and human rights, so he loved hearing from grassroots activists and leaders as well as people affected by the issues going on in the region.
“The Center just has amazing connections in the Catholic community, in the activist community, in the political community,” Charles shares excitedly. “The perspective that you get from the experience really brings it all together.”
Caitlyn Davis, now a junior at Bennington College in Vermont, also attended the Central American experience. She says, “The focus was primarily on learning the stories that are not being told. We were exposed to a wide variety of voices and opinions on the history, politics and culture of the region.”
Their trip began in Guatemala where, in addition to their coursework, students were required to take a Spanish immersion class. Says Charles, “Although there are translators, having that Spanish helps you understand things that might be left out, as well as communicate.”
These Spanish language skills helped students connect with the people they met. From people involved in the 36-year conflict in Guatemala to a Catholic nun in El Salvador to political activists in Nicaragua, Caitlyn says, “In essence, we were engaged all the time.”
Charles says one of the most important lessons he learned in the experience is “the need to get the whole story.”
“You’d hear a people’s history approach,” he says. He remembers a particular experience in Guatemala when they spoke with a number of people familiar with the genocide of Mayan Indians. “We met with a really high-ranking army officer in the Guatemalan army, a former guerilla, and a neutral member, a kind of bystander during the conflict.”
Meeting with so many people with so many varying perspectives helped them put together the bigger picture. Says Caitlyn, “It was far better to hear from them about their experiences than to solely read experiences of others.”
In addition to the speakers, Charles and Caitlyn also lived with host families in each of the countries they visited. Caitlyn still keeps in touch with the family with whom she stayed in Nicaragua, “I still talk to them via email, Facebook and telephone.”
And Charles loved seeing grassroots work in action. “The Center really tries to highlight different grassroots activists from developed countries as well as Latin America and less developed nations,” he says. “I think they do a really great job of showing how grassroots action can be effective.”
Overall, they both agree their experiences with the Center for Global Education and with the people of Central America have had a big impact on how they look at the world.
“This program is one that will make you think, laugh, challenge your understanding of the world, grow, and generally experience the world in ways you never have before,” Caitlyn says.
“I would say the number one reason to go is the people you meet,” Charles adds. “Nowhere else will you get this incredible perspective on life.”