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Service Learning Abroad: Reflections on Accompaniment in El Salvador

by Kelsey Simkins, former Staff Manager

During the spring semester, I lived, studied, learned, and grew in the tiny country of El Salvador. I chose Casa de la Solidaridad, a study abroad program through Santa Clara University, because of its emphasis on social justice, community, and simple living. The approach of the Casa program to these values was unlike anything I had ever experienced before. In El Salvador, we didn’t do service; we didn’t volunteer; we didn’t seek to solve problems. Rather, we accompanied the Salvadoran people; we learned from their reality; and in doing so, we sought the answers to questions about ourselves, society, and the injustices of the world. For many, myself included, it was strange to enter a community with no agenda and no plan to necessarily do anything in the way we typically define doing. But in not doing, I was able to find great meaning in just being and building relationships.

For four months, I had the great privilege to spend two days a week being with and learning from the people of a small community called Santa Maria de la Esperanza. As an accompanier of this community, my desire was to be in solidarity with the people – to develop relationships with them and to open myself to understanding their hardships and their joy. I found plenty of both. The 66 families that make up the community of Santa Maria were all displaced and forced into refugee camps during the brutal civil war of the 1980s. Though these experiences still inspire grief and pain, they have also produced a community based on organization and communal effort. Though originally from different parts of El Salvador, the people of Santa Maria came together to create a community, building roads and houses, cultivating vegetables, fruit, and coffee, and starting a school. In the community school, I encountered so much joy and hope, but also the challenges that come with extremely limited resources. I accompanied a fourth, fifth, and sixth grade classroom with 22 students, two with special needs, and only one teacher. It is a challenging situation, but I have drawn much hope and inspiration from the determination of the teacher to innovate and provide a good education and from the eagerness of the students to learn English, art, and any number of other subjects I was asked to teach them.

I believe the accompaniment model I experienced in El Salvador expresses what is at the heart of service learning. As service learners, we enter the community not as volunteers, but as students. We come humbly to community organizations that they may teach us and educate us in what it means to be a member of the community we live in. From them we learn how we might use our talents and knowledge to create a better society. And as we learn, we recognize our responsibility to the community. It is important to remember that we don’t enter communities, organizations, or the lives of individuals with the goal to fix problems. We come ready to accompany – to walk with, to collaborate. When I entered Santa Maria de la Esperanza for the first time, I was unsure of my role. In reality, I took on many roles over the course of four months: gringa/foreigner, observer, listener, daughter, teacher, sister, friend… By my last day, I knew what my role really was, I was and am a member of that Salvadoran community. But I am not just a member of that community. As a Marquette student, I, as well as other service learners, am a member of the Milwaukee community and a member of the smaller communities in organizations I serve. As service learners, we serve the community by engaging its members, listening to their stories and needs, learning from their realities, and accompanying them as they accompany us. By working together, we are able to move forward.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting our time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” – Lilla Watson, an aboriginal Australian


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