Engaging El Salvador

Responding to the university's emphasis on global citizenship, Furman's Engaged Living organized a week-long study abroad experience in El Salvador that challenged students to grow as individuals while beginning to understand themselves as citizens of the world.

By Brian Neumann

Spring break–for weeks, the prospect of those two words gave strength to Furman students swamped with research papers and reading assignments. For many, those nine days are a time of freedom and relaxation. They are a chance to forget-if only briefly-about the work we should be doing and return to the people and places we truly love.

For 17 freshmen, however, there was no time for rest – their spring break was a challenging, self-reflective odyssey of personal growth.

Responding to the university’s emphasis on global citizenship, Furman’s Engaged Living organized a week-long study abroad experience in El Salvador that challenged students to grow as individuals while beginning to understand themselves as citizens of the world. Engaged Living is designed to bridge visually and physically the gap between in-class instruction and real-world human experience. Freshman participants take year-long courses with philosophy professor David Gandolfo and Latin American history professor Eric Ching, culminating in a trip to El Salvador over spring break.

Freshmen class president Matthew Morris was overwhelmed by what he saw abroad. At Furman, he and his classmates had learned about El Salvador’s turbulent recent history-its revolts and massacres, its twelve-year civil war and its struggle with poverty and crime.

“[On the trip,] I was actually seeing and interacting with the tragedies I’d read about in class,” said Morris. “I was seeing these people’s suffering and feeling it reach into my soul, and I didn’t know what to do to help them.”

For the first half of the trip, the students stayed at the Centro Arte para la Paz. There, Sister Peggy, an American nun, offers children a safe haven and builds a “culture of peace” in their war-torn nation. She provides healing through the arts — organizing photography workshops, art projects, music lessons and dance classes. Morris, himself a musician, was inspired by the idea.

“I grabbed a guitar one day and started to sing,” he said, “and for the first time in days I felt at peace, and all the suffering I’d been trying to make sense of just went away.”

After the break, engulfed again in the frenetic pace of Furman life, that memory stayed with him. He knew he could not overcome El Salvador’s history of violence or its entrenched inequality. Still, he was haunted by the question-What can I do to help? His time in the Engaged Living program gave him a sense of purpose. As professors Gandolfo and Ching extolled the importance of global citizenship, Morris and his fellow students came to understand their place on campus and in the world. His classmate Carrie Seigler said, “Knowing where we stand allows us to focus on what we can do and what we should do.”

Responding to that sense of purpose, Morris and Seigler are founding a non-profit organization called Engaging El Salvador. Its mission, like Sister Peggy’s, is to provide healing through the arts. Partnering directly with the Centro Arte para la Paz, they plan to work with the Furman community to send musical equipment, art supplies, and sports equipment to the children of El Salvador.

Morris and Seigler are speaking to the heads of the music and arts departments and are working to build relationships with the students and organizations on campus. They want to organize a May Experience course in which student-musicians and -artists travel to El Salvador to work with the children at the Centro Arte themselves. They don’t want only to throw money at the problems facing El Salvador. They want to build genuine, self-sustaining excitement within the Furman community and bring about real change. They want to inspire their fellow students to take the things that bring them joy and spread that joy internationally.

In the final weeks of school, Morris and Seigler will have a table in the University Center lobby to collect donations. They are accepting used and unwanted arts supplies (paint, brushes, paper), musical instruments (harmonicas, flutes, etc), sports equipment, and electronics. Their goal is to send one box of supplies to the children at the Centro Arte by the end of the school year.

To learn more, or to learn how you can help, contact Matthew Morris or Carrie Seigler.

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