Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Changing Lives, For Better or Worse

Worrying seems to have been my volunteer 'project' here in Peru. For the past 3 1/2 months (has it been that long?!), my primary worry was one thing or another regarding the details of a study abroad program I got involved with. I had been named an official Peruvian representative for ISE, an international student exchange program, and spent countless hours finding documentation and filling out forms for one student in Pisac, Peru who wanted to study in the US.

The first stressor was turning in the application to ISE. We had gotten started late, and the deadline had already passed, so time was of the essence. We gathered documents, got vaccinations, paid fees, administered tests, searched for records and finally turned in the application, 6 weeks later than the normal deadline. But, I like to think due to our hard work, the student was accepted instantly! We also lucked out with a very special exception to a Portland School District rule and they held a spot for the student at Cleveland High, 1/2 mile from our house. The hard part was now over... or so I thought.

At the tail end of that major accomplishment, what I thought was simply highly sensitive parents expressing their disappointment that their kids couldn´t go abroad too, turned into an all-out war of words between some of the leaders in the student's school and supporters of the exchange program idea. The student took the brunt of the pain. Important adults in his life acted childishly and irresponsibly. It was a sad and difficult time. Friendships were broken.

The next stressor was raising money to pay for the program. You all have probably heard about that part enough already! I learned how to create my own website expresssly for fundraising. I made connections with people I have never met before. I found that people can be amazing! From the $9 donated by a Peruvian neighbor, to the $900 donated by an anonymous gentleman from Michigan, I managed to raise the funds in record time with one or two days to spare!

Next was the US non-immigrant visa. I thought we had it pegged. After all, it was for an internatonal exchange program sanctioned by Hillary Clinton and the State Department. It should be a simple "Yes", right? Slowly, I learned that the US Embassy in Lima is like a colonial fortress, prepared for enemy attack at all times, where even US citizens have to pay to gain access, with blood, sweat, tears, and of course, money. I tried to ask questions to clarify conflicting information on the government websites. I was rebuffed: there are procedures for asking questions. I followed the procedures: the responses either never came or were meted out as though every word cost a hundred dollars.

Finally, I figured I had squeezed as much information out of the rock as possible. I made checklists and gave my student assignments to prepare for his interview. He arrived at the intimidating, razor-wire gates with every shred of paperwork we were told he might need, and...his application was rejected!

We were shocked and dismayed. But I hustled. I made more lists and gave more assignments. I rushed to Lima and scheduled an appointment to see the citizen services branch of the embassy (where I learned nothing). I got another load of documentation ready for a second try. To make a long, stressful story short, he returned to the embassy two days ago and was granted his visa.

Immediately, my life changed. No longer did I feel the typical fretfulness about the exchange program. (Had I done the absolute best a person could do?) No longer did I feel the overwhelming crush of possibly letting down this student and his family, who had risked so much for this chance. I slept well. I felt...calm.

I had practically forced through the success of this project. When someone told me it was impossible, I ignored them. When someone said it couldn't be done, I went ahead anyway. Yes, I was pushy. Yes, it consumed too much of my emotional energy. But with the visa granted, it was finally for real. I could happily say that we had won the battle.

That day, I was less grouchy. I was able to look around me at the wonderful things I was expereinceing on my travels, at my wonderful family, at the amazing good fortune I have as a person who can do what we are now doing. Such a heavy burden those worries have been.

And now comes the good part. The student will travel with us to Portland in August and his dream of studying abroad will become a reality. It will be a life-changing experience for him as he learns more about a different culture and becomes fluent in English. He will return to Peru in 2012 wiser to the world. Equally important, he will have four more people who love him and consider him family, because that is how we already feel. The time we have spent preparing for this adventure was itself an adventure, a time for growing closer, sharing secrets, laughter and tears. Naylamp is already a part of our family. Our lives will be changed forever.