Testimonial from a Putney School former student in Cuernavaca
I want to talk to you about something many of you are already doing. Among you are a bunch of students who have left their homes and cultures to come see what Putney has to offer. They have integrated themselves into this community and have brought bits of their home to mix in. This is exactly the environment that initially sparked my interest in language study and cultural exploration. I grew up about five minutes down the road from campus and, as we all know, Vermont is not known for its diversity. When I came to Putney as a student it was the first international community I had ever been a part of, and this had a great impact. I got interested in languages, beginning with my Spanish classes and then later with Chinese. This was before Putney offered Chinese classes so I found a Rosetta Stone language software program for Mandarin and worked with that on the side. During my sophomore year, Putney launched its first Cuernavaca program, at that time it was a ten day trip over spring break. You can imagine a girl form rural Vermont touching down in Mexico City…it was very different. That trip showed me just how difficult it is to take yourself out of a place where you feel completely comfortable and put yourself somewhere where you are totally disoriented. But it also showed me how important it is to do just that. Putney extended the program to a full trimester my senior year and I was able to go back. At the end of that trimester I noticed a transformation in my Spanish. I had gone in with an awkward, cautious, stuttering classroom level and came back with something akin to comfortable conversational Spanish.
I went on to college with the idea to look for more opportunities to study abroad. During the spring of my freshman year I took a class of about 160 people. On the first day the professor began by giving a little background about himself. He said that he ran an archaeological dig in Peru and that sometimes he takes students down, and then he moved on to other things. I don’t think I heard single thing he said after that and after class I elbowed my way through the group of students waiting to talk to him. I overly enthusiastically introduced myself and expressed interest in the project. Now, as a freshman at a big university I was expecting his response to be something like “Okay, take a few more of my classes and we’ll see where you are your senior year, maybe we can talk about you coming down then.” Instead, he said “great” and told me to come to his office to talk more about it. I showed up and he told me that he basically had two criteria for students who go to work on the project. One: that they do well in his class. And two: that they have a rudimentary level of Spanish, because the project is entirely in Spanish and they would need to keep up. Halfway through the conversation he switched and started speaking Spanish. Apparently he thought that I could in fact keep up, so after that I sold my soul to his class and ended up on a plane to Peru that summer.
We were working on the north coast of Peru, in the middle of the desert. The team consisted of almost entirely Peruvian archaeologists and the boss of my unit didn´t speak a word of English. I had no prior experience in archaeology and was at a language disadvantage because I was working with a bunch of native speakers. However the team discovered some surprising ways in which I was able to contribute. We first discovered this when we were working in a colonial area where we were not supposed to find any evidence that horses had been there, but we were finding some suspicious manure samples. We realized that almost everyone on the team was from the city of Lima, and that my background growing up in rural Vermont on a farm and my time at the Putney School gave me this intimate and unique knowledge of livestock manure.
After that I became the shit consultant on the project, every time someone found a piece of manure I would run over and help them differentiate between donkey shit and horse shit. Another situation similar to this occurred when we were classifying ceramic sherds in the lab. The group I was working with had an extensive knowledge of the time period we were looking at but I realized that none of them had ever actually worked with clay before. My time in the Putney ceramics studio gave me a whole different angle to look at the techniques, different types of clay, glazes, etc… and allowed me to contribute a unique perspective to the analysis. Both of these cases really crystalized the benefits of bringing a bunch of different backgrounds together to collaborate.
After three months of working in Peru I went back to college. My boss from the dig, after noting my enthusiasm for horse shit, invited me to start a separate research project on the role of horses in colonial Peru and he started emailing me resources. These were Spanish documents from the 1500`s. When I first started looking at them I felt overwhelmed and didn´t know how it was going to go. But after about two weeks I realized that I could actually read and use the material. This was the first time that I really saw just how far my Spanish had come since my freshman year at Putney in Spanish 1. I had gone to Mexico and developed a conversational level of Spanish. This had allowed me to go to Peru where I was able to build on that and develop a more specialized vocabulary in an academic and professional setting. Both of these combined allowed me to engage with this material that I would never have had access to if I hadn`t invested the time in this language or had the opportunities that I did.
Moving forward, it is pretty clear that I want language study and study abroad to be the focal point of my education right now, so I am heading off again. In a few days I am flying out to Spain to study for the semester, I will be studying in Argentina in the Fall, and will be finishing off studying in China for the following Spring. As I was designing this three semester abroad curriculum, it was not particularly conventional and I had to jump through a few hoops. After going through the equivalent of Putney’s EPC committee to get this approved I found that system was actually very flexible and that it was possible for me to make this work.