Essay

Learning in Study Abroad

By Nina M. Lozano-Reich
Illustration by Simon Pemberton

LMU’s new Casa de la Solidaridad program is an atypical education opportunity for students that combines innovative features of both community-based learning and study abroad programs. The result is an experience in transformational learning.

Transformational learning occurs when course knowledge becomes individually meaningful and is linked to community needs. LMU’s Casa program will be modeled after a similar program at Santa Clara University that takes place in El Salvador. Although study abroad programs may contain a service component, the use of community-based learning in the Casa program is groundbreaking.

The Casa program is based on four learning objectives: accompaniment, academics, community and spirituality. While in El Salvador experiencing the Casa program firsthand, I witnessed a key component of the program:confianza, a deep trust and mutual reciprocity for the other. Confianza permeates the learning objectives. Accompaniment is exemplified at the praxis sites, where students form strong relationships with community members and academic concepts are practiced. Students learn about the social and economic realities of the Salvadorians. As one student said, “You can only learn so much in books.”

In the town of Tepecoyo, students work alongside families cutting coffee and corn. However, due to the impact of free trade agreements, families cannot compete. Thus, students work on education and feeding programs. Accompaniment, however, is not service. Instead, through accompaniment, genuine relationships are built with members of marginalized communities. As one community member said, “When students live and work alongside us, they begin to value things differently.” And a Casa student remarked, “In accompaniment, you are able to see the beauty within struggle. You ask what it means to be a people. What I used to think was beautiful [has changed] now; it’s a totally different world.”

Academic rigor and accompaniment are inextricably linked in the Casa program. Students apply theoretical knowledge in the praxis sites and bring situated knowledge back to the classroom. At the University of Central America, students study subjects such as economics, theology and history. Faculty play an important role in the process of transformational learning. As one student said, “Professors accompany us on our journey.” Professors draw on their own situated knowledge: their hands-on work in communities. For example, a professor of theology accompanied families during El Salvador’s Civil War in the 1980s. An economics professor is now president of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador. Students also met with a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, a former priest and guerrilla, who shared about the struggles of the poor and marginalized.

By blending academics and accompaniment, students form strong bonds of community. For instance, Casa students live and work with Salvadorian students who attend their universities as part of a scholarship program named for Archbishop Oscar Romero. Transformation occurs in the context of community. The sharing of culture is extended when Casa students spend a week with Romero scholars’ families in the countryside, where they witness challenges such as delinquency, broken families, lack of education and poverty. By fostering community, hierarchies of privilege are broken down. Individuals once viewed as “the other” become family.

Spirituality is also central to the Casa experience. Courses are linked with faith-based community organizations. There is societal transformation of the people through their faith. One individual said, “They can kill the people, but not the voice of justice.”

LMU’s new study abroad program raises the bar in Jesuit education and community-based learning practices. The Casa program goes beyond service to educate the whole person by preparing students to engage in solidarity initiatives in the real world. By accompanying people in suffering, and after continuous, challenging and contextualized reflection, students view themselves as advocates for just change. Students return with a deeper commitment, purpose and rejuvenation for enacting the Marymount and Jesuit principle of being men and women for others. Consequently, not only are our students transformed but also the communities and the lives of their members.

Biography
Nina M. Lozano-Reich is associate professor in the Communication Studies Department in the College of Communication and Fine Arts.