January 4, 2012

The Immersion Experience: An Inside Look at SCU Women's Golf with Kelsy O'Brien

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The description of Santa Clara University's Kolvenbach Solidarity Progam on the University's official website reads: These immersion experiences, and the profound reflection to which they naturally give rise, are privileged moments of vocational discernment during which participants are uniquely invited to consider their place in the world.

Kelsy O'Brien (Federal Way, Wash./Bellarmine Prep), a Santa Clara student-athlete and senior on the Bronco women's golf team, recently had the opportunity to participate. The experience in her own words...

As a senior in my final year at Santa Clara University I have always wanted to experience one of the immersion trips offered by the Ignatian Center. When I chose to apply for the Lima, Peru winter immersion trip I did not know that I was applying for a life changing experience. Prior to my departure with 18 other Santa Clara undergrads, we had weekly meetings to prepare for the trip. Some of the meetings were dedicated to learning about the Peruvian culture, hearing stories of past student's experiences, and what it means to be immersed. The week prior to my departure, I was very excited and a little bit nervous, but I prepared myself by having an open mind and no expectations.

The 10 days that I spent on my immersion in Peru (December 10-20, 2011) was an incredible experience. Through the Community Links organization we stayed with the Rios family near central Lima. This family so graciously opened their hearts and their home to our entire group and hosted us for the duration of our trip.

One of the main focuses of our experience was to be conscious of living simply. Living simply allowed me to fully immerse myself in the Peruvian culture and be present in every moment without distractions.

Each day we went to the Parish, "San Esteban," to serve whatever needs they may have had. The parish was located in an area called San Juan de Miraflores. This was considered one of many high poverty areas in Lima. During my first visit to the Parish on Sunday evening prior to attending Mass, the Priest gave our group a tour of the grounds. At the end of our tour, he took us up to the roof to gain some perspective on the area.

It was not until this moment that the reality of this trip became clear to me. As far as the eye could see, we were surrounded by a dense sea of low-income housing – home to the 80,000 people that reside in San Juan de Miraflores. It was a sight that left everyone speechless. Also at that moment far off at the top of one of the hills, as the fog was beginning to settle in, I noticed one of many tall-standing Christ statues. It was as if He was built there to watch over the San Juan de Miraflores area. This particular moment set the tone for my week in Lima, and happened to be one of my many "eye-opening" experiences.

Throughout the week, I had the opportunity to work on several painting projects and assist in the kitchen at the parish. The day that I was in the kitchen, I worked with two of the Parish women as they prepared lunch for 30 to 40 Parish members who came by daily for lunch.

Another day I had the opportunity to work on re-painting lines on the soccer/basketball court for the kids at the parish. My favorite time that evening was when kids came by to play after school. I started playing soccer with Manuel, a local boy who was 12 years old. I had the privilege to exchange little conversations with Manuel and other children throughout the week with the little Spanish that I spoke.

Initially, the language barrier was a big challenge for me to deal with. Yet I feel that I formed stronger relationships with people in Peru because I was so keen on grasping their expression and emotion that accompanied their words. By the end of the week I was more relaxed and able to hold small conversations with people.

The immersion experience was not solely dedicated to service. Lima is a loud, hustling and bustling city, full of rich culture, strong Catholic influence, open-air markets, chaotic traffic, and smiling faces.

During my time in Peru, I was able to experience several places and events that were significant to Peruvian culture. We were able to see the strong colonial influence through central Lima, and the union of church and state. Another example was the stark contrast of the extremely wealthy, resort areas to the extreme poverty of the San Juan de Miraflores or Villa Salvador communities.  Adults and children of all ages who appeared to have very few resources were full of smiles, love, and appreciation for all that they had.

I will never forget my interactions and experiences with the people that I have met and the Rios family in Peru. Grower Rios was our main host for the trip. He accompanied our group and facilitated our itinerary. Yolanda and Jorge were Grower's in-laws, who provided every meal for our group. Their Peruvian cooking was impeccable. One evening after dinner we gathered in the living room as Grower's wife, Janett; daughter, Pili; and niece Michelle taught us traditional Peruvian dances, the evening was full of laughs and surprises. Grower told us about past and present Peru, and their entire family let us into their lives by sharing personal stories and experiences.

One of my fondest memories was each day when we would return from our activities, Jorge and Yolanda would greet each and every one of us at the front with a hug and a kiss, asking us how our day went. These people became my Peruvian family. Peruvians were some of the most compassionate people I have ever encountered. I will be forever grateful for the way that they changed my life, and opened my eyes to a part of the world that I have never seen before.