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Sep 23, 2013

Seeing beyond boundaries

Michelle Amaya's ('14) summer enrichment experience abroad confirms the importance of a broad world view

By Jan Gillis ('07)

Michelle Amaya and young Bolivian girl with doctor.
Michelle Amaya says her trip to Bolivia showed her the value of educating children about the world. Here, she shares a moment with a young patient.

JMU honors student Michelle Amaya ('14)  came to a full realization of the value of an expansive worldview in an unlikely place—a Bolivian orphanage.

"Since I was a child, I've dreamed of becoming a doctor who helps others abroad," she says; and her academic career has strengthened her passion for the medical field. Supported by a JMU Hillcrest Scholarship, Amaya traveled to La Paz, Bolivia, to work through Child Family Health International helping impoverished and at-risk children and adolescents.

Amaya put her fluency in Spanish to good use during her busy days in Bolivia and found herself drawn to the unreserved, outgoing nature of Bolivians. Mornings were spent accompanying doctors on their rotations. "All were very kind and willing to teach us about what they were doing. I served as a translator for other students who did not know the language." Patients were equally open, ready to share their personal lives with visitors.

Afternoons and early evenings were spent at the orphanage Hogar Jose Soria Para Los Ninos, working with orphaned children. Amaya and other student workers hailing from various places around the globe worked together to teach the children about their home countries and customs.

Educate children about the world
And the children were at the root of Amaya's epiphany. "If I had not had this experience in Bolivia, I never would have realized the importance of educating children about other countries at an early age," she says.

Amaya's father frequently traveled abroad during her childhood and shared his experiences with his family, giving her a broad worldview; but she was surprised to see children in the orphanage with a similar mindset. "They had gotten familiar with other countries and ways of living through the multicultural volunteers that came to work there."

"They know there's a world out there. They think, 'Maybe I can be a pilot and fly to that country, or maybe I can be a doctor and travel to that country.'"

In contrast, Amaya noticed that children at the hospital in La Paz, while having the advantages of living with parents, were not as familiar with the world beyond Bolivia's borders. "When I told them I got my Spanish accent from El Salvador where I came from, they did not recognize the country's name. They thought perhaps I was referring to another city in Bolivia." Yet, in similar conversations at the orphanage, kids would run to the map and show Amaya where El Salvador was located.

Knowing about the world expands goals and aspirations
The real importance of seeing beyond borders was not simply mastering geography lessons. Amaya discerned that children with a worldview beyond the boundaries of their locale could have equally expansive goals and aspirations.

Learning about other cultures allowed disadvantaged and orphaned children to have aspirations far beyond their circumstances. "They know there's a world out there. They think, 'Maybe I can be a pilot and fly to that country, or maybe I can be a doctor and travel to that country.'"

Knowledge fuels a person's dreams. "I saw the importance of teaching kids about the world," Amaya says. "Because my dad taught me about the world at an early age, I was able to develop a passion early on to be a doctor abroad. And I can see the kids in the orphanage doing the same."

Her trip to Bolivia affirmed Amaya's passion for global health. She returned to JMU determined to pursue further studies at a medical school.

And, perhaps, thanks to Amaya, a Bolivian youngster now dreams of following in the footsteps of a JMU student, donning a white coat and stethoscope, stepping beyond the confines of La Paz, and pursuing a dream far beyond the here and now.