If you could travel anywhere in the world right now, doing anything you wanted, where would you go? Odds are good that Hope College has a study abroad program to get you there. In the array of available abroad experiences—from sipping (legal!) wine by the Mediterranean to skyscraper-gazing in Tokyo—personal transformations arise as a constant theme for those who were able to take part in semesters abroad. No matter the location, one’s beliefs will undoubtedly be challenged, which is a vital part of a college education. Hope College senior and Peace Studies major Carolyn Wetzel spent last semester studying through three countries. She was challenged not only to break out of the “Hope Bubble,” but the American worldview as a whole. Reflecting on her close interactions with international human rights issues, she discussed what it looks like to hold every world perspective at an equal value in this interview.
So, where were you last semester?
I went on a program with SIT (School for International Training). They do multi-site trips, and I did their human rights program (IHP). We were in New York for two weeks, and then Chile, Nepal, and Jordan for five weeks each.
What did you do in each of those places?
The point of IHP is experiential learning. So, like conventional study abroad programs, we took classes. They were all human rights focused. And the reason we went to three countries was to do a comparative analysis of human rights across those countries. So, each month was comprised of site visits, classes, guest lectures, cultural experiences, living with homestay families, etc.
What were some of the main human rights issues you learned about?
A huge theme of the program was decolonization. This shows up in both theory and practice of human rights. So, not only have Westerners literally colonized most of the world—look at India or South America—but we’ve also claimed academia because of global power dynamics. SIT’s program talked a lot about how the western countries—England, France, the US, etc—declared themselves “western” (aka more advanced, more developed)—and that’s permeated into calling other countries things like “third-world” and thus, implying that they’re less. What that means is that westerners have been able to declare what “knowledge” is in academia. So, to combat that, we would try to get our class readings from people of color, women or ethnic minorities, and we trust that what they have to say is also knowledge, despite how westerners have declared it.
How would decolonization apply to Hope college students?
Hope is a tough example because something like 85% of the student body is white, so bringing in more students of color would help with that. It sounds like that is one of President Scogin’s goals, which is really rad and I’m excited to see how Hope implements that. Another part of decolonizing the learning space is your interactions in class. Especially if you’re white, upper class, etc, make sure you aren’t speaking over other students—especially minorities. There’s an acronym that we talked about in class a lot: WAIT—“Why Am I Talking,” but also “Why Ain’t I Talking.” There are some instances where you really need to stop taking up the talking space, but there are other instances where you really need to speak up. It’s about learning that balance.
Also, expand your research to more than just academic articles and databases. Like, I’m a research assistant at the Hope library: use the resources! But also, listen to interviews, sources from indigenous people and oral history. That stuff is out there, and should be recognized as a valid form of knowledge. Those types of human-level interactions and experiences may not be statistically valid or things like that, but they will 100% change the way you interact in the world. We need to make space for that.
Can you tell me about one of the impactful people whom you met abroad?
It’s so hard to pick one! When we were in Curarrehue, the very south of Chile, we lived with families of the indigenous Mapuche people. It was so mountainous and beautiful and we lived on farms—so cool! They were like, “Hey, you’re not going to have cell service this whole time, so don’t even try.” You’re in tune with yourself more, just by virtue of being disconnected.
We met this woman named Anita. She was the head of an indigenous women’s organization that gets together and sells food and art. She had such an impact on me because she taught us so, so much about her organization and the Mapuche culture in general. She taught us about their worldview,which is so radically different than ours. It’s very community oriented. She had this quote: “I never do anything alone. Whenever I go anywhere, I bring ten friends.” She taught us about what the Mapuche people were facing— they have to fight everyday for their land and water. That stuff is huge. Her people’s connection to the land was something I’ve never experienced before. She was always saying, “Somos parte de la tierra”—a part of this land. We’re not on top of it, we’re not over it, we are a part of it.
What was the impact of the semester on your personal beliefs?
I’ve been connected with social justice-y things throughout my life, but you don’t know what you don’t know. Even just reading articles we had for class; it was mind-blowing. Overall, it made me more aware of my space and place in the world. And career wise, I radically shifted my trajectory from wanting to do the State Department or UN. Now, I’m in a place where I don’t know if that’s the most effective or most helpful to change things.
What would you say to someone else changing their beliefs?
It’s tough. As college students, we are going through such a weird time in our lives. On one hand, we’re expected to know what we are doing for the rest of our lives, which is just unrealistic. It’s realizing that you have to be flexible and leaning into that a bit more. But even going back to decolonizing knowledge, listen and speak to people different than you.
How do you do that at Hope College?
There’s stuff that’s going on on campus! Go to a Black Student Union (BSU) meeting. Latin Americans United for Progress (LAUP) is such an interesting organization. The Holland community also has cool events—Tulipanes Latino Art and Film festival, for example. Departments across Hope have incredible professors; talk to them! I know it sounds cliche, but value students of color’s opinions. And of course study abroad to expand your views!
Edited: Emma DesLauriers-Knop