Each month, the Student Journeys Series features a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Graeme Aegerter. Graeme graduated from Chapman University in May of 2015 and currently serves as the Statewide Training Coordinator for School’s Out Washington, supporting the delivery of high quality, culturally competent, and inclusive professional development opportunities for workers in the after school and youth development field across the state of Washington.
Global travel has woven my life’s tapestry from my birth onwards. With a mother from Harare, Zimbabwe and a father from Ketchikan, Alaska, the bonds of my being were forged across vast distances and seemingly disparate origins. Since I was a baby, I have had the immense privilege of traveling to the parts of the world where my family lives and beyond.
As I have come into adulthood, these roots in geographical “opposites” have motivated me to explore and embrace the term my parents gave me when I was young: an Alaskan-African, an “Alafrican.” My search for identity and belonging has also been profoundly impacted by my participation in global education programs. The learning I’ve experienced through these programs has given depth and context to what it means for me to identify as an “Alafrican,” an American, and a global citizen.
Two of the most formative periods of my life were the months I spent abroad through global education programs. The first of these was a month-long exchange in northern India through the Lakeside Global Service Learning (GSL) program in the summer before my junior year of high school. My peers and I lived with host families in two villages situated in the beautiful foothills of the Himalayas. Some of my fondest memories from this month are of small moments: carrying buckets of water through tall grasses back from the well with my host siblings and learning to make chapatti with my host mother, to name a few. There were many moments of discomfort, miscommunication, and cultural disconnect—memories I hold equally as dear. This was the first time in my life really learning to conscientiously sit in my discomfort in the hopes of cultivating empathy, humility, and understanding.
Many of the lessons—physical, emotional, and spiritual—that I gained from this month in India have remained with me through the years. Our daily yoga and meditation practice with a local yogi from a nearby village has carried on into to my own practice today; these traditions have been life saving in the face of my own personal struggles and hardships. In addition, GSL’s partnerships with local women’s cooperatives provided my first insights into global gender inequities and indigenous forms of feminism—topics that provided the theoretical foundations to my undergraduate senior thesis.
In many ways, this month of learning in India laid the foundation for my study abroad experience at the University of Cape Town (UCT), South Africa. Having experience with global immersion as a high school student prepared me significantly for an exchange at the university level—from using foreign currency, to navigating language barriers, to intentionally creating time to reflect on experiences throughout the exchange. During my six months abroad, I experienced some of the highest highs and lowest lows of my life. This extended time in a part of the world that I had been visiting since I was an infant challenged me to dig deep to those familial roots and confront my “Alafrican” identity. At times this element of my identity felt affirmed and empowered and others it felt completely broken down and lost. Those latter experiences, however challenging, were necessary and formative.
Perhaps most importantly, my experience as a student at UCT was utterly transformative: I was able to take classes in criminology, South African history, sustainable development, and African gender studies. I encountered a fearlessness and level of engagement amongst my peers that was truly invigorating. On the “Jammie” bus downtown, I would listen to strangers talk about race, politics, and gender-based violence. When I was feeling bold, I joined in. I was proud to be a UCT student, even if temporarily, because I got to be a part of a groundswell of students who took academia seriously—for many, as a matter of life and death—and who held their institutions accountable using the combined tools of their education and lived experiences. In the year and a half since I left Cape Town, students at UCT and schools across South Africa have led successful student movements protesting neo-colonialism, racism, and tuition hikes at their universities.
Whether I was studying the peacemaking activism of Zimbabwean feminists, solo hiking through the mountains where my parents backpacked during their honeymoon, or learning to accept emotional support from a new group of friends, studying abroad provided me countless opportunities to engage all parts of my being to understand my place in the world and how to shape the world for the better.
It is not acceptable, I have learned, to simply reap the benefits of getting to travel the globe. Nor is it acceptable to simply participate in a service project in a foreign country and head home brimming with self-satisfaction. It is my responsibility to reflect deeply on my engagement and apply what I’ve learned in my daily life. Furthermore, the privilege of this travel necessitates problematizing the mechanics and underlying meanings of global education:
I am an “Alafrican” at UCT…so…what does it mean for me (a white, queer American man studying abroad at a university founded by white men on stolen indigenous land) to claim an identity that includes Alaska and Africa, two parts of the world that have been devastated by white men’s colonization and genocide?
Through my experiences with global education programs, it is this sort of challenging question that now stimulates and moves me to action, instead of shutting me down. In my daily life, I am compelled to find compassion and to honor my teachers of all ages and backgrounds from around the world.