How does a young college student enter an unfamiliar community — especially those overseas — and adapt to the often tight-knit relations, languages, and local practices? That is the question that Brandeis University’s Sorensen Fellows often face, and an issue they reflect upon using the tools of writing and imagination.
Yesterday, I attended “Shifting Perspectives: Encountering Community in a Changing World,” the annual campus presentation by the 2010 Sorensen Fellows of the International Center for Ethics, Justice, and Public Life, as well as other students in the PAX89 course “Internship in Peace, Conflict and Coexistence Studies.” The Sorensen Fellowships are prestigious awards given for a year-long service project, which includes a summer internship of the student’s own design, and significant writing and reflection through course work. They are named after the late Ted C. Sorensen, the former counselor to John F. Kennedy who embodied a life devoted to public service. Ironically, on the very day of the presentation, Mr. Sorensen’s memorial service was taking place in New York, making this year’s event especially poignant.
The event is typically set up as a “spoken word”-style event, where the students share some of their writing with the audience. From the beginning, this audience was put in the collective shoes of the group, as they chanted words that encompassed their experiences: “frustration,” “confusion,” “overwhelming.” The students were situated all over the world, in places ranging from Egypt to Tanzania to India. Although each internship was very different, what drew the experiences together was a familiar sense of unfamiliarity.
Language often played a key role in this feeling of unease, both for the student and local hosts. Madeleine Stix ’12, who interned with a Coptic Christian community in Cairo, Egypt, told the story of a young Egyptian volunteer who she worked with. While the volunteer’s ability to speak English drew them closer, it also drew the volunteer further apart from the traditional Coptic community. Meanwhile, Tess Raser ’12, who worked in Tanzania, had difficulty forming deep connections with the women she was working with due to language issues — but was able to share little things, like a walk to get ice cream together in times of stress.
Perhaps the most striking example of disorientation came from Christopher Lau ’12, who interned in Ecuador through WorldTeach. With a flavor for graphic detail and awe, Christopher recalled the day he was asked by his host family to slaughter a pig. After getting over the shock, Christopher said it gave him a new appreciation for the connection between people and land.
These experiences were not just simple encounters between “traditional” and “modern,” however, or between the bucolic and the urbane. They were in some kind of crossroads between the two. In all cases, the students needed to navigate radically different ideas about daily life, created by the forces of culture, space, and time.
While the students may have felt confused, overwhelmed, and frustrated, I think the audience came away feeling a sense of confidence. It’s easy to run away from frustration, but much harder to confront it and process it — especially in front of your peers.
Download the publication produced from this course here.