After a rigorous selection and interview process, MLS student Nadia Garzon was selected to participate in the Rotary Club’s international group exchange program. The following story is her account of her travels and experiences.
In order to learn and grow, one must step outside one's comfort zone. That statement is something I have always believed and based my decisions on – it is one of the reasons why I took this trip of a lifetime.
During the spring of 2012, I embarked on a journey where I spent five weeks traveling in Australia with a handful of strangers, living with natives who not only belong to a different country but a different culture. Needless to say, I was definitely stepping outside of my zone. I was enveloped in a new opportunity, and I didn’t let any chance for intellectual or emotional growth pass me by.
I was selected along with four other candidates to take part in the Rotary Club’s Group Study Exchange, GSE. Our goal was to learn how our vocations were practiced abroad. As an entertainer, performing artist, and activist, I was especially interested in how the arts are used in education and how they generate social change. While traveling through the state of Victoria, I was able to interact with nonprofit organizations, performing arts groups, art educators, city art councils, and an art therapist to learn how art was affecting the life of the people in Australia.
A day spent with Neta Kirby, an art therapist, was my favorite vocational visit. Neta is a counselor who uses conventional art forms like painting or writing as a part of therapy. Upon entering her office, your eyes are captured by a variety of figurines. Wall to wall, shelf to shelf, from penguins and unicorns to knights and firefighters, all these tiny toys surround the room. Then your eyes are drawn to two sand boxes centered in the middle of the room. One box contains dry sand, while the other is wet. Neta practices sand therapy and believes this is where the “magic happens.” Her clients are asked to choose figurines from the shelves and create a scene in the sand. The sand players, as Neta calls them, are often victims of violence or abuse. She says that creating a scene in the sand helps them with the healing and growth process as they uncover their feelings. Through the symbolic and revealing scenes the sand players display, Neta says people discover things you wouldn’t believe. Not only was sand therapy something I have never heard of, but it also showed me how truly infinite the power of art is.
Another amazing experience was an unexpected work opportunity. One of my vocational days consisted of spending the workday with Albury City’s Arts Coordinator Narelle Vogell. She was so impressed with my input throughout the day that after the program ended, the city flew me from Melbourne back to Albury to teach a puppetry and performance workshop for Aboriginal women. I was asked to help design a performance piece for an upcoming community festival. Humbled and extremely excited, I set out to help the Aboriginal women introduce themselves to the community. Their goal was to teach the community about their culture, feelings and their stories. The use of the puppets and their crafts assisted them in visualizing the message they wanted to convey and helped them expand on how to present their lives through using objects close to them.
I learned a lot about the Aboriginals’ story and challenges they face in modern Australia. Sadly, there is still a lot of racism and discrimination that takes place against their people. Doctors and pharmacists refuse treatment to them and poverty is an inevitable cycle they are placed in. They have yet to obtain reliable transportation for their people and their life span is 15 to 20 years shorter than the rest of the Australian population. I realized that the challenges faced by minority groups in Australia are almost identical to those in the U.S.
While poverty and struggles are paralleled to the U.S., religion and education are not. Australian people do not profess their beliefs concerning religion; they are more reserved and private concerning this matter. I watched as fascination struck their faces each time my team members would speak of it during presentations or socially. I myself was awed when I found out that school loans are much more lenient in Australia. If you are granted a loan, when and if you get a job, you must pay it back. However, if you decide to forfeit a career and become a stay-at-home mom, for instance, you do not have to pay back your debts. Also, all of their public schools are based around uniformity. The children are all clothed in identical uniforms and standard-issue backpacks. The multi-colored and patterned ones that we Americans know so well are nonexistent.
Although Australia does have its differences, I was amazed to see how Americanized it was. Australian food and portion size are deeply influenced by the “American way.” American media is extremely prevalent throughout their society and, much to my surprise, the Australian people are very knowledgeable about American politics, better than many U.S. citizens themselves.
While most of our time was focused on the vocational exchange, I was able to develop meaningful personal relationships. By the end of the exchange, I had seven new adoptive parents, a slew of new siblings and of course, numerous new friends. I had learned about my vocation and about new practices that would change my outlook on how effective art could be in education, in counseling, and in life. I was able to see the differences between the United States and Australia and also the incredible similarities in the challenges faced by art organizations and by people who work in the community. This was an opportunity to see the world from a different perspective, to truly experience the humanity we all share, which does not change with culture or country.