Tuesday, April 28, 2009

won't you be my neighbor?

As a little girl I was a faithful fan of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood. I'd tune in practically every day to hear Mr. Rogers talk about what it means to be a good neighbor.  And whether or not he implicitly taught it, I learned that neighbors were the people who lived in the house or apartment next door or the people who lived down the block or across the street.

Volunteer Prisca Alig, from Germany, lives with women in the Pre-University dorm.  She's learning what it's like to live 40 to a room and start the morning with a cold shower. She's made a big impression on our first-year students--and they on her, from what she says.

In college, I read Reinhold Niebuhr and I came upon a whole new definition of the word "neighbor." Niebuhr caused me to consider a more inclusive meaning, a more worldly view. Really, he made me question the boundaries I had assigned to my "neighborhood."

Here, students often comment that one of the things that makes the College special to them is the fact that it's a place, like most any other college campus, where ideas, cultures, life experiences, etc., are exchanged on a very personal level.  In a country that is quite divided--politically, economically, and socially--the UAC-CP is a place where students who often have very little experience outside of their home communities come to know their Bolivian neighbors--in the Niebuhr sense of the word.

Volunteer Lee Lechtenberg (from Boston) and the Tintaya sisters, Berta and Saida (from Carmen Pampa--Berta is a UAC-CP employee, Saida is a UAC-CP graduate) peel potatoes for an all-college lunch during the annual Inter-Carreras festivities.

And not just getting to know fellow Bolivians. Since it opened its doors 16 years ago, the College has attracted a wide array of foreign visitors and volunteers. We've had people from the U.S., Canada, Italy, Ireland, Australia, Germany, Paraguay, and Peru...to name just a few.  All of us in this little Garrison Keillor-esque community of Carmen Pampa, we've come to know each other not by the sweeping generalities that often accompany one's nationality, but rather by the individual people that we are.

UAC-CP visitor Kimberly Lane visited the home of UAC-CP student Beatrice Mamani in the Altiplano. Kimberly is pictured with Beatrice's three younger sisters and their father.

For example, in La Paz, I often tell our students, I'm just a tourist, a gringa.  But in Carmen Pampa, I'm Sarita.  In this remote little village nestled on the side of a mountain in the magestic Nor Yungas, people know me--the good, the bad, and the big crazy hair!  And, likewise, I know them.

Not to say that we all get along.  Like any family or group of neighbors, we have our disagreements, to be sure.  But the difference is that we recognize these problems as interpersonal; they are not based on language or color or nationality.

In order to love our neighbors (or at least justify a good reason for honestly not liking them), we have to know them. The UAC-CP provides a place for that to happen--something that I don't think was ever part of Sr. Damon's original goals for the College, but it's been a powerful bonus. Because, I think, today we're an example of how we can see the world as one giant neighborhood--Mr. Roger's-style.