WILL shares El Salvador experience

After months of planning, preparation and fundraising, 11 students from the College traveled to El Salvador in June to understand its unique culture. On Wednesday, nine of them presented their stories in the library auditorium.

The El Salvador Solidarity Project, in partnership with the Women in Learning and Leadership (WILL) program, was created for students to experience first-hand the cultural differences and difficulties of the Central American country. Accompanied by Mary Lynn Hopps, director of WILL, the students spent two weeks spanning the country, visiting various towns, schools and organizations to better understand life in El Salvador.

“There was a solidarity with (the people of El Salvador) as we created an international community,” Kari Osmond, junior women and gender studies major, said. “We came not as tourists, but as friends.”

The students described their nearly year-long efforts to prepare for the trip, which required $22,000 in funding and a background knowledge of the culture.

“They met every week to study, read and reflect,” Hopps, who assisted the group’s efforts leading up to the trip, said.

Aside from using films and novels to become familiar with the country, the students performed odd jobs and held bake sales and on-campus fundraisers to meet their financial goals.

“There were moments of tension during the Spring semester,” Eliana Reyes, senior communication studies major, said. “Everyone was trying, but at the end we all became very excited.”

During the presentation, students talked about the various organizations they visited in El Salvador, including the feminist group Las Dignas and both of the country’s prominent political parties. They described how people were still coping with the aftermath of El Salvador’s civil war in the 1980s and rising poverty rate.

“There is a presence in the country of the war,” Hopps said. “The people were profoundly impacted by war and social policy.”

The students were surprised at how the people of El Salvador remained resilient, despite the hardships they have faced, and welcomed the Solidarity Project.

“I’ve never seen such strength and such hope,” Osmond said.

The experience the students focused upon in their presentation was their interaction with students at different grade schools in the country. As they played games with and got to know the kids, the group was able to understand their way of life. “A lot of the communication was non-verbal,” explained Reyes. “But they were very open with us.”

Osmond described how moving it was to see the children remain in good spirits in spite of the poor conditions in which they were forced to live.

“These smaller kids . they were waiting for us. They don’t have any visitors. It was almost heartbreaking to be with them but in the end it was very rewarding,” she said.

Now that the El Salvador Solidarity Project has returned to the College, its new mission is to spread awareness. The students plan to use various methods, including clothing drives, scholarship programs and the eventual construction of a water well, to improve the lives of the people of El Salvador. The group ultimately hopes to establish the Solidarity Project as a regular program that incorporates different majors.

College President R. Barbara Gitenstein applauded the idea.

“It’s a wonderful project,” she said. “It really creates leaders in the community.”

For Osmond, Wednesday’s presentation achieved exactly what the group had hoped. “We wanted people to know what we’ve been through,” she said. “We wanted to present it. We needed this presentation to show what we accomplished and I think we did.”