The Study Abroad Dilemma
In the study of foreign language / literature / culture, it is extremely helpful to visit at least one country where the language you are learning is spoken. This is why every foreign languages department organizes Study Abroad programs for students. In the case of Spanish Majors, students have the option of going either to Spain or to Latin America.
Here is the problem, however. Latin American countries are very much behind even the US in terms of the rights of women. Like light-years behind. Intense harassment of women on a daily basis is rife. I first traveled to Cuba when I was 23 and even though I come from a country where men routinely beat women in the streets to huge popular acclaim and every other woman reports being raped, I was shocked at what I experienced in Cuba.
Of course, in the end, I’m glad that I’ve been to Cuba, Mexico and the DR and experienced Latin American machismo first hand. This gave me a profound understanding of the culture that I would have never acquired otherwise.
But here is the dilemma. Our female students – who are very sheltered by their life in small rural communities in the Midwest – go to Latin America on Study Abroad programs and return in a state of complete shock and panic. They even find endless cat-calling in the streets (and when I say endless, I mean it) to be very traumatizing, not to speak of more serious stuff. Of course, we warn them about machismo before they travel but this is not something you can even begin to imagine before you experience it.
Our students routinely complain that the Latin America they see on their trips is plagued with crime, violence, sexual harassment. But we can’t offer them a prettier Latin America because it does not exist. If we send them to programs where they spend all their time locked up with other US students to protect them from the contact with the non-cute Latin America, they complain they don’t get to have an authentic experience.
So what should we do? Cancel all Study Abroad trips to Latin America and send students exclusively to Spain? They insist they want to see Latin America, however, and then they come back angry. The only positive thing is that they now can express their grievances in very good Spanish because these trips improve their language skills dramatically.
I would still like to hear any suggestions if you have them.