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BU Abroad: Peru’s Culture Comes Alive

History and politics firsthand and hands-on


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In the video above, students talk about BU’s study abroad program in Peru.

In many ways, the journey Andrea Atehortua, Bruna Maia, and 16 classmates took last summer through BU’s study abroad program in Peru was magical. The students spent their first three weeks on the coast, in Lima, followed by three weeks in the mountains of Ayacucho. The trip culminated in an idyllic, almost spiritual trek in Cuzco through the Inca Trail to the city in the clouds, Machu Picchu.

But there were also stark reminders everywhere of the violent political upheaval that has marked modern-day Peru and continues today to have tragic repercussions for many of its residents.

In Lima, the students either studied Peruvian literature or took a course in intensive Spanish composition and conversation. Traveling to Ayacucho, a small Andean city in the highlands, afforded another perspective. There, the differences between the country’s urban and indigenous cultures were immediately apparent. Many of Ayacucho’s 150,000 residents speak Quechua, a native American language spoken primarily in the Andes, and the province’s industry remains primarily agricultural.

Once the site of a battle that helped to seal the independence of Peru and South America from the Spanish Empire, Ayacucho was also the birthplace of the Sendero Luminoso (the Shining Path), a Maoist terrorist movement that used brutality to advance what it called a “new democracy.” The Sendero Luminoso’s violence resulted in the death or disappearance of 69,000 people between 1980 and 2000. 

“It wasn’t until after I left that I fully understood the importance of being in Ayacucho,” says Atehortua (CAS’10). “It was just incredible and so saddening talking to my host family and coworkers who were affected by the violence.”  

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In the video above, see how BU students worked with nongovernmental organization FINCA Peru to help better the lives of local businesswomen in Ayacucho, Peru. 

In addition to taking a class  on Peruvian politics during and after the Sendero Luminoso, the students worked with government agencies and nongovernmental organizations in Ayacucho. These groups provide aid to a community still feeling the impacts of the Sendero Luminoso. Atehortua and three of her classmates were placed with FINCA Peru, a microfinance organization that provides small loans to local business owners, predominantly women.

“Many people were unable to tell their stories because they had been through so much,” the international relations major says. “Ayacucho still bears the scars of the conflict, and it was important for me, and the other students studying the conflict, to see that.”

Maia (CAS’10) worked with El Batan, a Red Cross organization that helps to educate women in running and marketing their own businesses. Her brief volunteer stint gave her a new understanding for how much the local population suffered. “When I listened to all the personal stories of those citizens, I felt a sense of empathy,” says Maia. “No politics or cultural anthropology textbook could replace that firsthand experience.”

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In the video above, students talk about living with host families as part of their education in Peru.

Another major component of the students’ immersion in Peru is the home-stay experience. Living with host families in both Lima and Ayacucho gave Atehortua, Maia, and their classmates the opportunity to enjoy home-cooked Peruvian dishes and improve their conversational Spanish. 

The program also exposed them to a culture vastly different in many ways from their own. “I remember thinking how absurd it was that people in America had so much,” Atehortua says. “It wasn’t that I was gone for very long, but seeing how people live in poverty really highlighted how fortunate most Americans are.”

That experience proved transformative for Atehortua. After graduation, she applied for an internship with Innovations for Poverty Action, which offers global opportunities to research poverty. “I got an interview and happened to be placed in Peru,” she says. She returned to Cuzco for study in August and September.

“That internship changed my life and is the greatest decision I ever made,” she says. “I got to see a different side of Peru by living in Cuzco, as well as rural areas. Had it not been for BU’s study abroad program in Peru and my affiliation with FINCA Peru, this never would have happened.”

Now teaching English in Seville, Spain, and studying for her GREs, Atehortua looks forward to revisiting her adventures abroad with Maia, who currently lives in New York City and works for marketing agency Jack Morton Worldwide. The two made a pact to backpack together through Atehortua’s home country, Colombia, and Maia’s home country, Brazil.

“Peru has transformed us into passionate Latin American travelers!” Maia says.

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In the video above, Bruna Maia (CAS’10) talks about her experience abroad in Peru, and her work with the Red Cross.

Alan Wong can be reached at alanwong@bu.edu. Chris Palmer can be reached at palmerc@bu.edu. Phil Zekos can be reached at pzekos@bu.edu.

Additional editing by Anna Horowitz-Gelb. Translation by Julián Arévalo.

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2 Comments on BU Abroad: Peru’s Culture Comes Alive

  • Manasi Raveendran on 11.03.2011 at 5:01 pm

    I studied abroad in Peru through this program as well and it was one of the best experiences of my life!

  • DG on 11.29.2011 at 3:22 pm

    Wow…I’m sure that was some adventure for the class. The home-study part of the trip is a good thing….my only concern would be their safety. I’m glad that had a chance to see how fortunate we are as Americans and hope they remember that for a lifetime. Sounds like they had a great trip….

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