Discovering a Sense of Place: Looking Back at Study Abroad

Mattlace, Suzanne Corley, and Ann Sobiech Munson '91 visit Chiapas, Mexico, in 1988.

Mattlace, Suzanne Corley, and Ann Sobiech Munson ’91 in 1988.

Being a guest in the Central College house in Merida, Yucatan, in January for three weeks made me so happy I could not sleep the first couple of nights I spent in the “faculty room.” I was on sabbatical from my home institution, Allegheny College, where I teach comparative and Latin American politics, and I was in Merida doing research for a new project. Val Grimsley, the resident director, graciously invited me to stay in the house during my time in Merida, which gave me a marvelous vantage point to reflect on the impact of Central’s study abroad programs on my life, during this 50th anniversary year.

As a guest in the Central house this winter, I experienced some of the same feelings I felt during those weeks in residence as a student over 25 years ago: the intense delight and sense of discovery in speaking Spanish and the joy of being in such a warm place— both in terms of temperature as well as in terms of Yucatecans’ effusiveness. In general, Mexicans are very verbal and my love of talking—particularly in Spanish— quickly immersed me in Yucatecan culture in 1988 and allowed me to deepen and broaden my friendships and connections in 2014 as well. My stay in Merida allowed me to reflect on the joy I’ve experienced in learning a foreign language and on the importance of finding places that feel like home.


One of Merida’s yellow buses.

Living life in a foreign language makes everything more interesting! A simple thing like riding the bus downtown feels special. Overhearing conversations about the most banal of topics seems like a revelation. I have never quite gotten over my delight at hearing Spanish-speaking tennis players yell, “Ve la bola” (Watch the ball). It just sounds so much more poetic in Spanish.

In January, I asked a transit police officer in the neighborhood adjacent to the Central House (Itzimná) where I could pick up the bus going downtown. He told me that I simply had to “raise my little hand, deposit my little coin and I would be on my way.” I was enchanted. My little hand? My little coin? How could such a charming series of instructions come from the much disliked (in Mexico) transit police? Grinning broadly, I crossed the street to position myself at the corner, little (or not) hand ready for action.

Multiple personalities are also possible, depending on languages spoken. I think I am more forgiving, have a better sense of humor, and may be a more patient person in Spanish.

Mattiace and Trujillo in 1988.

Mattiace and Sonia Lucic Trujillo in 1988.

I met my best friend, Suzanne Corley, on the Merida program. Today she teaches Spanish at Tulane University, and it was in Merida where so much of her love for and immersion in the Spanish language began. Together we learned the difference between North and South America, between Latin America and Latinos and grappled with Mexico’s Hispanic and native histories. On the language front, it was so easy to learn from Yucatecans, with their quiet formality and that politeness that never seemed to fail them, even on the hottest of days.

On so many levels, Yucatan felt like home to me, and still does. The following year in London I discovered a love for the cosmopolitan—the city and all that it offers. I never became an Anglophile, but after living a semester in one of the world’s great cities, I fell in love with the urban experience. For many Central College students, studying abroad offers the chance to live in a city: so many of us are from small towns in the Midwest. And what glorious immersion into the pleasures of metropolitan life. As students at 7 Bedford Place in Bloomsbury, many of us took a course on British Theater from Michael Billington, the celebrated theater critic of The Guardian newspaper. Billington approached us as if we were urban sophisticates, sharing his recommendations for each upcoming weekend, assuming we would want to take in at least a couple of shows, in addition to the ones we were required to see for class each week.

And why not? Several of us spent one unforgettable day at three back-to-back Shakespeare plays performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company. We emerged after nine hours at the Barbican exhilarated and not at all sure if English really was our native language! Just walking down Whitehall Road from Bloomsbury to the Houses of Parliament for my internship with Scottish MP George Foulkes several times a week immersed me in the art and pleasure of city strolling. The varieties of human experience on the streets of London stimulated me, broadening my notions of individual agency and style. And the variety of museums, gallery openings, and bookstores made me giddy. I’ve often remembered the surprise and excitement I felt one Saturday afternoon at the British Museum when I spotted the Dead Sea Scrolls, fragments of which I had read in Professor (Thomas) Kopecek’s Modern Christian Thought class. I wasn’t looking for them, yet there they were. I simply could not believe that I was seeing the original texts of some of the gospels that hadn’t made it into the New Testament canon. As an impressionable undergraduate I wanted to ask the big questions: What would Western civilization have looked like had these gospels become the annointed ones?

I carry much of that semester in London with me each time I am in a city: that feeling of overstimulation and excitement, the sense of desire generated by so many beautiful things to enjoy and to see, that sense of being alone and accompanied that cities offer. And always, always, that sense of discovery and surprise.

Mattiace with George Ann Huck and Merida program alum Sonia Lucic Trujillo ’69 in 2014.

Mattiace with George Ann Huck and Merida alum Sonia Lucic Trujillo ’69

At the heart of a liberal arts education is the notion that the more we know about the world, the more interested in the world we become. That interest propels us to want to contribute something significant and to make our lives matter somehow. George Ann Huck, resident director of Central’s Mérida program for over 35 years who retired in 2005, embodies the intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm at the heart of the liberal arts. She finds virtually EVERYTHING she sees in Mérida interesting. Driving down the street with her in 2014 (in the same car she had in 1988, that green Volkswagen bug), I was caught up, as always, in her excitement in showing me a new art gallery that had just opened, in discussing the talk we attended together about the Maya world on the cusp of the Conquest, in telling me about a human rights group she is a part of, among myriad other observations. (For those of you wondering , she has no plans to replace her beloved bug).

The 1988 group tours Palenque, Mexico.

The 1988 group tours Palenque, Mexico.

Who among the alumni of Central’s Yucatán program could forget pulling into small hamlets in large yellow buses and George Ann’s dramatic entrances, knocking on doors, her booming voice resounding: “Bueno, ¿Hay alguien en este pueblo?” After showing us how it was done, she let us loose to find answers to all the questions we surely had about life in rural Yucatán—get going, people!

Studying abroad is different in 2014 than it was for us, obviously, in the 1980s. There were no cellular phones in those days and no email or Skype or text messages. We anxiously awaited the mail (or the post) each day to see if our name was inscribed on the impossibly thin blue airmail paper, which we opened up with care lest one of the sentences disappear. Immersion into a language and a city was perhaps easier for us then; there were fewer distractions. But the more globalized city of Mérida that I lived in earlier this year was equally exciting to me as the one I lived in in 1988, although certainly quite different. And the students living in the Central House this spring semester seemed to be much as we were: interested, bright, sociable, and open to new experiences. I am deeply grateful to Central College for allowing me those two extraordinary semesters abroad. May the next 50 years be as fruitful.

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