Over the weekend, Amigos de las Américas hosted a training for the Loewenstern fellows to help us make any abstract ideas we had about service and research abroad more concrete. Amigos is a Houston-based nonprofit that envisions “a world where each young person becomes a life-long catalyst for social change.” This training mimicked the training that Amigos gives to its own volunteers as they prepare for service abroad.
Going into the training, my goal for the day was to learn about real experiences and situations that I might not expect to be difficult. On a more academic level, we learned about methods to use during asset-based community development, such as appreciative inquiry. However, we also thought about our individual values could affect our research, and I discovered how I personally would react when put into difficult situations. The training opened my eyes to things that I had not considered before, so for me, that represented a success.
International development work is important, which is why people at organizations like Amigos are so passionate about serving others. However, I feel that there is a gap between academia and people. Research is often too theoretical to be practical. I feel that often, research addresses problems that do not actually apply to the lives of everyday people. Academic research often distances us from the real world, which I think can become dangerous. The less we care about the people around us, the more willing we are to ignore what happens. Empathy for others is so important in international development work. How can we care about social issues if we cannot care about the people who experience discrimination and marginalization every day? The concept of fighting for a cause creates a sense of distance, but congregating to support people does a lot to bridge the gap between idea and action.
I think fellowships like the Loewenstern Fellowship gives me and other Rice undergraduates the opportunity to act for the change we want to see. We students are given the opportunity to do our own form of activism using our education, and when we band together and stay aware, we are able to enact social change. Community based research is powerful in that it aims to address specific issues through working with the people that the research impacts. I am optimistic of our ability to engage with people and give a voice to those who feel voiceless. Only when we are able work together on a fundamental human level can we finally make a difference that matters.