Student writer Anna Pickrell ’14 interviewed Emma WestRasmus ’13 about her study abroad experience in Lima, Peru, attending the Institute for Study Abroad–Butler University program. Her program’s classes were held at Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú.

What was the focus of your studies in Peru?
I did a specialized concentration called “Social Constructions of Gender and Community Based Organizations.” This included gender identity and theory classes plus advanced Spanish academic
writing and Peruvian history/political anthropology, plus seminars with health professionals and activists around issues of race, gender, and sexuality. I wrote a paper focusing on the role of
promotoras de salud, or community health workers, and the way they’re used to offer health services throughout Peru. 

Where did you live?
I lived in the home of a Peruvian family—parents, an aunt, and an older brother, plus various other family members who passed through almost daily. The house was located in a quiet neighborhood close to the main avenue where I caught the bus to the university, and a short walk from the misty coast.

Why Peru?
I wanted a Spanish-speaking country and a program that offered gender studies classes. I also wanted a place that would be breathtaking to travel in, and Peru’s diverse geography—from the
dizzying heights of the Andes to the dense Amazon jungle—fit the bill.

What most surprised you?
My mind was blown by how quickly life became comfortable and natural. Lima is bustling and busy, and can be noisy and dangerous, yet I felt so comfortable in the city, my classes, my host family’s home, and my new relationships. I developed genuine connections in a place that only weeks before had been nothing more than a spot on a map. I never expected to settle so comfortably into a livable rhythm on my study abroad experience.

What was the most important thing you learned?
Studying gender and sexuality in a different linguistic and cultural context was a rare and amazing opportunity. I felt so privileged to learn from the professors and students in these discussion-based classes, which ranged from four to 15 students. Many of my classmates were already working in fields related to social justice, public and women’s health, and education, so I learned from and with students attuned to how classroom topics were actually playing out in Peru.

It was also a dynamic time to be at that university, which is in a power struggle with the Vatican. Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú is a progressive institution that has functioned somewhat independently of the Church, but the Vatican is now trying to censor academic content, particularly in the gender studies program. It made me grateful for the breadth of texts, resources, and perspectives that Macalester can use without censorship.

Did you travel elsewhere in South America?
My program took us to Cusco, Machu Picchu, and El Carmen, a center of contemporary Afro-Peruvian culture. I also traveled throughout Peru on my own, including to the jungle, Lake Titicaca,
and many southern Andean cities. I spent the Christmas holidays exploring the city of Mendoza, Argentina, hiking in the Andes, and visiting Santiago, Chile.

Why is study abroad important?
Because it’s a natural extension of the college experience—breaking away from the familiar and comfortable. Studying abroad was the single most transformative experience of my life. It tested
every part of me, made me feel more alive, and transitioned me into adulthood.

What would you tell a fellow student about studying abroad?
Be open to love—for your new surroundings, for the people you meet, and for the person you become. Through developing relationships I gained empathy and perspective and became linked to a transnational web of stories and experiences.

Did this experience change your career plans?
It reinforced my commitment to health and gender issues, and to improving my language skills. Serving as a Chuck Green fellow this summer I’ve designed a project combining these interest areas. I’m working with Spanish-speaking families in Minneapolis at a nonprofit children’s dental clinic, delving deeper into community health and access issues while using my Spanish. After graduation I plan to continue exploring the intersections of healthcare access, gender, and poverty by going into medicine with a focus on women’s health.

August 20 2012

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