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Finding Inspiration in South America – Erika Sawka

The Honors College gave me the opportunity to travel to South America, a part of the world I’ve never been, and engage in a wonderful community service project. I was inspired to visit Argentina not only to see their vibrant culture and practice my Spanish, but also to make an impact on an issue I care deeply about. I volunteered in a Catholic convent that sheltered young girls who had endured traumatic experiences such as mental or physical abuse. The girls were shy and reserved when I first met them, and it took a few weeks for them to feel comfortable around me. I could tell that optimism and a consistent emotional support system was vital for these young girls to build a life past their hardships. This was something that I could provide for the five weeks I was there; however, I found that they gave me so much more than anything I could give them. I’ve been aware of the challenges that children have in under-developed countries, but this opened my eyes to the laughter, playfulness, and determination that could alleviate some of those challenges. The young girls, who were half my age, showed strength I could never have and moved on from traumatic experiences I would never face. They were such an inspiration to me. They taught me the delicate balance of life between hardships and happiness and I’ll never forget their smiling faces no matter how difficult their lives had been.

I arrived in Buenos Aires believing that I was almost fluent in Spanish, considering I had five years of classes under my belt. The incomprehensible accent of the Argentines proved me wrong and I immediately felt outside my comfort zone. I pictured traveling around Argentina smoothly and having wonderful conversations with the young girls in the refuge. However, this took many weeks to achieve. After many broken sentences and hour-long subway rides with my Spanish app, my embarrassment and shyness turned into familiarity of the girls’ phrases and daily activities. Our favorite thing to do together was translating Frozen songs into Spanish so they could finally understand what they were singing around the house. Learning Spanish in Argentina was a test of my confidence, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to improve my language skills while being supported by the young girls.

Traveling to Argentina was the biggest adventure I have ever had. I was grew as a person, improved my Spanish, and visited beautiful places. I was in Buenos Aires for five weeks and integrated myself into their colorful culture. The people, restaurants, and city were unique and full of life, and I wouldn’t hesitate to visit again. After Argentina, I traveled to Chile, Bolivia, and Peru, and it became an exciting challenge to adapt to each Spanish accent, converse with the locals, and discover their distinctive cultures. The most magical place I have ever seen was Machu Picchu, with its breathtaking ruins high in the mountains. While I loved sightseeing these amazing places, the true reward of the trip was volunteering and making a positive, lasting impact on the young girls at the refuge. I doubt I will ever travel to another place without finding a way to give back to its community.

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