Each month, the Student Journeys Series will feature a guest blog post by a former student of Vicki’s. They’ll write about how their lives have been shaped through their global education experiences. This week’s Student Journey post is written by Spencer Tilger. Originally from Seattle, Spencer currently lives in Brooklyn where he works as the Program Associate for the Forum + Institute for Urban Design, a nonprofit dedicated to amplifying the influence of urban design in creating dynamic and livable cities.
“Wow, mucha gente,” I said to my host mother as we walked through the crowded streets of Mexico City late one Tuesday night. She looked at me puzzled, and not just because she had not yet grown used to my fragmented Spanglish.
“Si, siempre ay mucha gente,” she shrugged. Yes, there are a lot of people. What to her constituted an unremarkable stroll through her neighborhood revealed to me an entirely new conception of what cities could be, of what forms communal life could take. I was shocked. In Mexico people actually interacted in public. Not just in their houses or in coffee shops, but everywhere. And not just on weekends, but all the time. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. Or Seattle, for that matter. Here, public parks in city centers were not dark abysses to be avoided at night, but were instead full of young couples, young kids playing, and venders selling toys and snacks. Far beyond the fact that people stayed out late, I found experiencing this different mode of living exhilarating.
I was in Mexico as part of a yearlong study abroad program run by the International Honors Program, entitled “Beyond Globalization: Reclaiming Nature, Culture, and Justice.” IHP: BG, as we called it, was an intellectually daunting interdisciplinary program with an equally ambitious travel itinerary. Consisting of two months in four countries across four continents, the program traveled through Tanzania, India, New Zealand, and Mexico focusing on the effects of economic globalization on people and their environments. As a geography major studying the forces that shape space and the built environment, I was drawn to the chance to study how economic forces shape vastly different places in unique but similar ways. Additionally, ever since I’d had the chance to go to India as part of a Global Service Learning (GSL) trip through my high school, I’d been searching for an opportunity to return.
I had incredible and complex experiences in every country we visited, including India, but I was surprised to find myself so enamored with the country the closest to home. In our classes in Mexico City I learned the history of the neighborhood I was living in, and felt at home in a place very different than my house in Seattle. My host family lived in Santo Domingo, a neighborhood that had been settled in the 1970s by an organized land occupation by landless peoples, who created their own plots, street grid, and even school. They had to petition the government for many years to provide any basic amenities, including electricity and water, but they eventually got them. Many houses there are still topped not with a finished roof, but exposed metal support rods ready to provide the foundation for another level. One of our teachers remarked that, “Some people consider them ugly and unfinished, but I think they’re beautiful because they represent hope and aspiration.”
This sense of possibility is what I felt I really learned while there. Experiencing the lives of my host family and living in their home and neighborhood completely changed my perception of how cities are built, who does the planning, who gets to make decisions. A whole new world of possibility came into real life focus. I believe that for many American students the value of international education can be found in its ability to jolt them out of the delusion that their way of doing things or their way of thinking is the only one of value or logic. And for me, those realizations about myself and about my culture was very freeing.
When I returned to the States after eight months abroad, it was great to be with my family but I had a gnawing sense that something was missing. I felt sad when the downtown streets of Seattle emptied after work hours, and lonely walking around my neighborhood. I felt out of sorts, but also hopeful. My time in Mexico had infused me with those aspirational qualities I mentioned before. I wanted to help make places that were meant for people.
A little more than two years later, I now work at the Forum for Urban Design in New York City. The Forum hosts discussions about urban issues, especially around public space and how to build more livable cities with stronger communities. As we explore issues ranging from mixed-use zoning to how to provide affordable housing, I find myself returning to my time abroad for inspiration and the assurance that there is beauty in the unfinished work.