In addition to studying, I am here in Mendoza this year to serve as an ambassador of goodwill, one of hundreds of Rotary scholars across the globe working to further Rotary’s mission of spreading cultural awareness and understanding, and, ultimately, international peace and goodwill. Or, in less-ambitious, more-concrete terms, I’m sharing some of the culture and friendliness—some of the buena onda, as they say here—of good old North Carolina with Argentines, and I’m soaking up a lot of Argentina to share with you all when I return. The Rotary Foundation has been using educational programs and intercultural exchanges (like mine) toward this end since 1947. To learn more about Rotary’s work and the opportunities it offers folks of all ages across the globe, check out their website: http://rotary.org
Thus, in addition to studying, I have been visiting various groups around the city—most often Rotary Clubs but also sometimes schools and other civic groups—and giving presentations about my home Rotary Club (Hillsborough) and District (7710), about Hillsborough and NC in general, and about the experiences that have shaped who I am today and landed me in Argentina. Overwhelmingly, folks are gracious listeners, seemingly very impressed by the natural beauty of NC and my home and interested in the myriad opportunities I’ve been provided for international travel, study, and work.
An interesting note: unlike the Rotary Clubs I’m familiar with in the States, which meet briefly and efficiently over breakfast or lunch, almost all Argentine Rotary Clubs meet for dinner… ceremonious affairs to which neither of the proceeding adjectives can apply. Also, whereas all U.S. clubs are open to both men and women, in Argentina clubs are either all male, all female, or mixed gender, the latter two of which are much less common than the former. Women have only been permitted to join Rotary since 1987, 82 years after Rotary’s founding, and the vast majority of Argentine Rotarians are still male. This is not abnormal, though; apparently women only make up around 15% of Rotarians worldwide.
Thus, when I’m invited to give a talk at a Rotary meeting, I don my “elegant professional” garb (which otherwise gathers dust in my closet) and prepare myself for 2-2.5hrs of extravagant food, bottomless wine glasses, and aging Argentine men humor (which I can’t decide if is better or worse than young Argentine men humor…). It’s always an enjoyable evening, though, as the Rotarians here—male or female, old or young—are without fail warm, welcoming folks. Below I'm sharing an entertaining dinner (complete with a tango performance and live Argentine folkloric band) with my host counselor (the blond seated in front of me, also named Laura) and a Group Study Exchange delegation from Mexico at the annual District Conference here in Mendoza.
Another common way scholars fulfill their ambassadorial responsibilities is participating in community service throughout their time in country. I had every intention of doing the same during my year here. However, from day one I’ve been hard put to identify and become involved in a meaningful, sustained community service. First off, there seem to me to be far fewer outlets for an interest in service and civic engagement (in the form of non-profit and community groups or agencies/offices to connect people to them). Perhaps the bigger obstacle, however, is the inexperience of those that do exist in utilizing volunteers. This is not a criticism, but rather a curious commentary on what I perceive as an all but absent culture of volunteerism here. Admittedly, the communities I’m coming from—UNC-CH, where every student wants to start his/her own service group, and post-Katrina New Orleans, home to approximately 5billion different organizations whose missions relate to service or engagement—are both on volunteerism overdrive. Nonetheless, I still find it surprising how difficult it is for someone trying to offer their time and resources for free to find a way to do so.
While volunteering is an integral part of most any dialogue about civic engagement and social responsibility we have in the States, here I’m convinced the term all but doesn’t exist (for the infrequency with which I’ve heard it and the blank/confused looks I’ve gotten when I’ve used it). This realization got me thinking about a conversation I had with a professor a few years ago about this very topic—the differences in conception and practice of civic engagement and social responsibility between Latin America and the U.S.—in which he suggested that “volunteering” as we know it doesn’t really exist in much of Latin America, hence the difficulty U.S. non-profits and organizers sometimes have in engaging recent Latino immigrants in traditional service events. Subsequent talks with some of you and observations have led me to believe that, though this is mostly true, it doesn’t mean that a sense of social responsibility in Latin America is similarly absent; on the contrary, one could argue that it is even more prominent here than it is in the U.S., albeit in different form.
Rather than exist as a self-contained activity that is often extra-curricular, extra-work, extra-personal life (as volunteering can tend to be is in the States), people’s sense of duty to their communities is a part of their everyday consciousness and inextricably intertwined with the way they live their lives and relate to the people around them. They may not spend all Saturday volunteering at a neighborhood event, but they support their communities by being present and available day in and day out. This is not to say this type of community awareness and camaraderie doesn’t exist in the States; coming from a small, tightly-knit neighborhood I know first-hand that it does. Rather it’s to suggest, on the whole, that while in the U.S. service to community is conceived of as above-and-beyond and for our extraordinary efforts we are patted on the back and given an extra star on our resumes, in Latin America, it is very much a routine, expected, unrecognized part of daily life.
A contradiction to this conclusion (about a lack of volunteerism as we know it) I’ve encountered is the way in which Chileans have responded to the earthquake that devastated its second largest city and countless small towns in February. There has been significant organizing, at least amongst folks in the capital of Santiago, not only to collect aid but also to travel to these communities and work on reconstruction. And as far as I’ve heard, these groups are a diverse mix of Chileans and foreigners living in the city. My friend and travel buddy Shepard (think Colombia and Ecuador) was among these folks, so obviously she knows infinitely more about the efforts and can better comment on them (and maybe on the theme of civic engagement/responsibility in Chile?)… thoughts, Shep?
Bueno, as usual, I digress from the goal of sharing with you all what I’m up to. This is all to say that, for one reason or another, I have not been filling very much of my free time with community service as I once thought I would be. I could continue to pick apart this theme, or meander down any of the various tangential paths evolving in my head as I digest all of this, but instead I will leave you all in peace for now with the promise of another, (maybe) shorter entry soon, one that details some of the things I actually have been getting into during my time here!