Insights from immersion in Central America influence lives
by Katie Thompson, Whitworth Intern
Since its creation in 1975, Whitworth University's Central America Study and Service Program (CASP) has been taking students to experience an immersive semester abroad.
As the university's oldest and longest-running interdisciplinary, faculty-led and semester long foreign study program, it takes students to different locations in Central America each spring, following cultural and academic learning in the previous semester.
The CASP learning model creates a unique experience with transformative effects on the educational, spiritual and socio-political outlook of not just those who travel, but also on Whitworth and the broader community. It takes students out of their comfort zones.
One of Whitworth's five strategic goals—to create global citizens—doesn't happen sitting at Whitworth, learning from books.
"Whitworth believes students should explore their faith and wrestle with its possible connections to the world around them," said Lindy Scott, a professor, who co-leads CASP with professor Kim Hernandez.
"At Whitworth, students and faculty develop mutual trust and lasting relationships as they explore difficult issues," he added.
The educational principles integral to CASP reflect that education is costly in more ways than money and books.
"It flies in the face of much U.S. education that is a commodity," Lindy said. "It says a small town and indigenous people in Guatemala are important. The students become less selfish, more aware and tuned in to the lives of others."
Lindy and Kim recently co-authored a book: Challenged and Changed: Living and Learning in Central America. It follows the life, vision and impact of Ron and Marianne Frase, who founded the program 45 years ago. .
"Ron brought up what was a revolutionary, out-of-the-box idea in those days," Lindy said. "At one point his job was on the line, but he was willing to go to the mat for the program because he thought it was important."
The book informs people about the program and features stories from students who experienced it. It also tells the story of Ron and Marianne, and emphasizes the importance of international education, which is underfunded in this era of high political tensions.
Living with host families breaks down negative ideas of Central America, and bridges the gap between North American and Central American Christians.
In its first year, students traveled to Mexico, Brazil, Peru, Chile and Argentina. Since then, students have traveled to the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Honduras.
A few years after the program started, they began "the plunge," an immersive experience. Given maps and some money, students go off in groups of three or four for three days. They go to an assigned town with a list of goals to achieve. They are to find lodging and food, meet with a priest or pastor, and talk with people about the community's history.
They find they can use their Spanish and intercultural skills to converse with people. They become close to people in small towns as they hear their stories.
"Central America is villainized in today's U.S. socio-political climate," said Kim. "The program invites students to shift their assumptions. CASP allows students to examine the current narrative first-hand and discover truth through their own experiences.
"Students meet people who are honored that a group of North Americans came to their community on purpose," said Kim. "Students want to know who they are and what makes their town special.
"People in Central America say, 'Now we're not invisible to the world. Someone knows our story and will tell it in a way that will honor us and represent us to people in the U.S.' The students become their ambassadors. It's a sacred endeavor," she said. "The students realize their power and impact beyond improving Spanish to be bilingual in their careers."
CASP looks outward. Students see the world outside the Whitworth and U.S. bubble, she said.
"Often North Americans and North American Christians feel superior," Lindy said. "Many feel we are 'the first world,' and they are 'the third world,' or we are 'developed,' and they are 'underdeveloped.'
"Usually our interaction with Latin America is to 'help,' so we're the helpers and they need our help," he said. "Students learn that in God's sight, Central Americans are as important as we are. They need respect for their lives, values, struggles and issues."
That has been the program's focus from the beginning, because Ron and Marianne wanted students to see the equality of those they met by living in their homes, learning their language and preparing in advance.
Immersion in these countries, Lindy said, prompts student and faculty conversations, reflection and action during and after the trip—even years later.
"Graduates say how an event or experience in 1975 shaped their lives, marriages, careers and perspectives on life in the 45 years since." he said.
The impact does not stop there.
Because most are sophomores and juniors, they bring back their perspectives to share in classes, challenging preconceptions of Central American people, theology and politics. This affects both the individual students and the university culture.
Students in Nicaragua in the 1980s came back with questions when the U.S. government tried to overthrow the Sandinistas. Students saw Sandinistas fighting for their freedom against a dictator the U.S. supported, and asked about U.S. intervention.
"Whitworth has changed," said Lindy. "To be involved in society, meeting people's needs, is no longer a foreign concept. Holistic ministry and social justice are emphases of Latin American Christianity. There's now acceptance at Whitworth that social justice is part of being Christian."
In 2014, the program began a three-month internship, in which both the university students and Central American organizations learn from each other.
"Most students believe in Christ, but are in different places in their walk with God," said Lindy, noting that "many here think U.S. Christianity is what faith should be, but Christians in other countries have much to teach us."
He said students broaden their faith and walk with God, unlearning "bad lessons" and observing "good lessons," like Christian doctors in Nicaragua choosing to serve in poor urban or rural areas, rather than making more money in a government hospital.
University students may put career preparation and academic learning before their relationship with God and call. Seeing how people can use their professions to serve God and neighbors, students reflect on the purpose of their education and careers.
Kim, who attends Life Center and has been with the program 19 years, said leading the program and collecting stories for the book have broadened her understanding of God and inform how she lives her faith.
As one who seeks to follow Christ, Lindy is both encouraged and distressed by Christians' lives. He invites students to consider their blind spots of arrogance, selfishness or greed as they see a different way of living and encounter "tough truths" about U.S. foreign policy and faith.
Kim hopes her work as a Spanish professor and faculty leader in Central America expresses her walk with God and is "the Gospel in action." CASP teaches Spanish—beyond grammar and vocabulary. Spanish is a tool that contributes to a student's experience, education and family life.
Lindy, who has been with Whitworth for 13 years, enjoys seeing students grow through interactions with people from another language and culture—sharing in weddings, annual celebrations and deaths with their host families.
Kim said research on cognition points to the value of learning through experience, compared with learning from books and lectures. The brain responds to information in a different way. Learning language and cultural immersion bring new ideas and reactions.
"A second language helps us see how language affects how we understand the Bible," Lindy added. "An English translation may say to seek first the kingdom of God and God's 'righteousness.' Spanish versions say 'justice' instead of 'righteousness.' Is God's kingdom just about personal righteousness or also about justice?
"Central Americans are not better or worse than we are, but they do have insights," he said. "I want students to grow from and through the faith insights of others."
For information, call 777-4837 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Kim 777-4755 or email email@example.com.
Copyright@ The Fig Tree, January, 2020