By Meghan McNeill
As I laid under the sun and drifted in and out of consciousness, I thought about how the hilarity of universe brought me to this paradise of convalescence. I thought about how every intention or expectation I previously held for this experience dissipated in perfect cadence of my dwindling energy. I also felt surprised by my willingness to surrender these aspirations to the reality of our collective situation. Within my initial days of exhaustion, throughout the height of my COVID symptoms, and during my recovery, I continued to think about the physical and emotional repercussions this virus has reaped within the communities I orbit. For many of the young people I work with, COVID was especially disruptive to their lives. Many lost important social connections, access to avenues to developed self-esteem and healthy variations of identity, and time spent progressing in formal education. For some, this virus completely dismantled their ability to fulfill their basic need of love and connection. For all of us, the pandemic represented a time of loss, isolation, and interruption to at least some degree.
Before leaving for this experience, I had aspirations of helping a group of adolescent students forge a meaningful connection with Central America. I was excited at the prospect of watching young people become excited to learn more about this place and practice their emerging Spanish skills in authentic interactions with local people. I truly believe in the work of our Global Education program, and I feel driven to contribute to the educational and experiential aims these experiences yield. However, I was not expecting that the universal and transformational impact of this entire experience would be the process of establishing unique connections with each other. In the face of COVID, we traveled – with caution and preparation – only to be hit by the virus that brought the experiences of loss, isolation and interruption to so many. Many of us became sick with something that was supposed to hinder our ability to bond and not facilitate connection.
While still in some stage of quarantine on the last day of this trip, Erin asked me if I regretted coming to Guatemala. Although this experience was not what I intended to facilitate, I feel really grateful for the connections I forged and deepened while in Guatemala. I feel honored to be part of this unexpected community, and I am truly surprised by the strength of connection I feel for the students I lived with in COVID town. If we had facilitated the experience as planned, we would have returned to the United States with memories of working in the lab in Guatemala City, of visiting the beach, and we probably would have learned 25-50 new Spanish words, but I wouldn’t trade the community established through this experience for any of the unfulfilled memories of what could have been. I came on this experience because I am driven to support young people discover the world and their role in it, and I am leaving having experienced the transformational power of connecting in a way only possible by the dissolution of the boundaries within the student-teacher dynamics that suffering through a global pandemic in a foreign country could erode.