Learning to Grow

Shani Strader is from Colorado Springs, Colorado. She recently graduated from Spelman College in May 2015 and currently lives and works in Los Angeles, California as a City Year AmeriCorps Member.

It has been nearly two years since I boarded the plane to Ezeiza International Airport for Buenos Aires, Argentina. On February 25, 2014 I waved goodbye to my parents in Denver. I was determined not to cry and - surprisingly - held it together as I traveled to Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport to see my friends one more time.When I arrived in Buenos Aires, I took a taxi to my Argentine home. I was so relieved that I had made it to a foreign country all by myself and hadn’t (yet) freaked out.

I had the opportunity to stay with an incredible host family. I have one older brother, so the experience of having two little brothers and loving and supportive host parents made me feel right at home. I suddenly dove into true Argentine culture, including everything from eating way too much pizza and empanadas to yelling at the TV if Argentina’s national soccer team let their rivals score a goal. As the months went by I was able to visit a lot of amazing cities within Argentina. My favorite visit was Mendoza, where I celebrated my 21st birthday. I rode a beautiful horse to a view of the Andes Mountains, and tasted authentic wine crafted from the grape to the barrel to the bottle.

Unfortunately, not every day was this easy. Though, I expected certain setbacks due to my status as a U.S. citizen, I had no idea how different I would be treated for being a black woman in a fairly homogeneous space. Black Argentinians are typically from northern provinces. Many other individuals immigrate from Central America and other countries in South America. They often work in lower paying jobs, therefore, people assumed I was a maid, a doorkeeper, or a nanny. I was quickly faced with stares and locals questioning as to whether or not I was from countries like Brazil, France, or Angola. They were shocked to hear that I was a student from the United States. Unfortunately, I didn’t have the confidence or maturity to deal with this negativity in a positive way at the time. I chose to stay at home, rather than explore the beautiful country I was in. Just as easily as I came out of my U.S. bubble, I quickly went into a different mode of loneliness.

When I initially returned from Argentina, I was so relieved to be in a familiar area. However, I quickly realized that I wasted so much of my time abroad in my room when I could have been out exploring and learning. In that moment, I knew that I had to stop letting things affect me to the point of self-inflicted isolation. That being said, moving to Los Angeles was always a dream of mine but I never thought I could actually make my way there. When I learned about City Year I knew I had found a program that fit my needs for my gap year. I applied to the Los Angeles site, and the rest is history. I came to LA knowing that I would be in a neighborhood that wasn’t as developed as the one I grew up in. I also knew students I would work with would be faced with numerous limitations. I am now able to understand that the diversity and differences I am exposed to shouldn’t lead me to become isolated rather, I should use these things as tools to learn and grow.

When I look back on my time in Argentina I can smile and share stories about the various expeditions, food, people I was able to experience while there. With a major in Comparative Women’s Studies and a minor in Spanish, I was able to broaden my knowledge of how feminism affects the communities of Latin America while also learning Castellano, the Buenos Aires form of Spanish. Now I can share how my experience led me to where I am today – including the good, the bad and the ugly.