I believe that if you fully commit yourself to a new endeavor, then it is difficult to come away without feeling changed in some way. This is the power of international experiences and I am proud to declare the cliché that my time abroad has opened my eyes and taught me lessons I never would have learned in the classroom.

I came to Lima, Peru for a summer internship with an environmental nonprofit named Ania. I chose this particular organization because I was assured that I would be working ‘al campo’ or in the field rather than at a computer all summer. I also liked how Ania focused exclusively on the role of youth in environmental sustainability. I was working on the TiNi project, which stands for ‘Tierra de Niñas, Niños, y Jóvenes' or ‘Land for Youth’. TiNis are small gardens in schools, homes, and communities that serve as both environmental education tools and safe spaces for kids.

These small gardens—some only a few square meters—are the only green spaces in some of the communities we were working in. Lima is the second driest capital in the world after Cairo, Egypt, so any vegetation is scarce in the shanty towns built on the sand dunes of the city’s sprawling outskirts. Although it literally never rains (it mists a total of 0.6 millimeters a year), Lima also boasts constant 100% humidity, so vegetation can still thrive when cared for properly. 

In one community I worked in, the residents had previously lived in the jungle. I am not sure how long ago they had moved to the city, but half of their classes were taught in their indigenous language (the other half in Spanish) and several posters around the small school referenced the community’s pride for their heritage. This was one of the most impoverished areas I have ever been to, and while talking with a young student, she confessed that the only animals she had ever seen in real life were some gray and black birds, creepy crawlers and ants, and street dogs and cats. Once I finished my internship at the end of July, I went to the jungle for a week. It was incredible, and I have never felt so connected to nature or seen so much biodiversity. I wish more than anything that the children in this community could experience this part of their heritage by having the opportunity to visit the jungle for themselves.

Once I finished my internship at the end of July, I went to the jungle for a week. It was incredible, and I have never felt so connected to nature or seen so much biodiversity.

During my second visit to this particular community, I noticed a foul smell and pools of brown water in the TiNi. It turns out that because there was no running water and the TiNi was at the lowest elevation point in the community, the residents had run their sewage water into the TiNi.

This was not the first time we had arrived at a contaminated TiNi. In Callao, a dangerous port city bordering Lima, we arrived to find the TiNi littered with garbage. Initially I was angry and thought “how dare they disrespect this space I have worked hard to create. And what would the students learn about protecting the environment if a foreign volunteer came and cleaned up after them weekly?”

However, I learned the litter was part of a more complex issue. The only option for lunch inside the school was a hut that sold processed and packaged chips, candy, and soda. Many students had parents who were in jail for drug trafficking so were unlikely to have the same homemade lunches I was privileged to have growing up. And without clean drinking water, their only options were bottled beverages. Garbage bins around the campus were scarce to avoid attracting too many stray dogs and cats. I worried about both the students’ health and how normalized it had become to throw lunch remains into the garden.

But picking up the garbage also led to one of my most rewarding teaching moments. Callao is by no means a tourist hotspot so the students are not accustomed to seeing many foreigners. They were absolute enthralled that I was from the faraway and exotic US (I was asked about Disney World—a.k.a. every child’s dream—regularly). As I cleaned the TiNi, I was swarmed by kids asking for photos or for me to translate their favorite phrases into English.

I asked the swarm of kids, in Spanish, why there was so much trash. They fell silent and looked anxiously at each other. Then one boy said “All the other kids throw their wrappers on the ground after lunch.” I then talked with the kids about the importance of being leaders and ambassadors for the small garden and talking with their peers if they saw them littering. They then helped me pick up the garbage and we talked about what could be recycled and why. Not only did dozens of small hands make the work go by much faster, but it was also rewarding to see them take ownership over the garden. In general, I hated that I was treated differently in Peru because of where I came from, but I was proud when I could use the attention to talk about important issues.    

I then talked with the kids about the importance of being leaders and ambassadors for the small garden and talking with their peers if they saw them littering. They then helped me pick up the garbage and we talked about what could be recycled and why.

Even if a student wanted to recycle, none of the schools we worked at had recycling programs. Recycling anywhere in the country was rare. From what I can understand after talking with numerous people and a few google searches, there is no city-wide, and certainly no national, recycling program. A few of the wealthier municipalities have systems, but not in the areas where I was working or living. There were a few private companies that turned old plastic bottles into new products, but they required minimum amounts of plastic weekly in order to come pick it up. I realized if it is difficult for me, a tremendously passionate environmentalist, to recycle, then the average Peruvian is certainly unlikely to do so. Ania therefore had admirable goals, but these goals were difficult to achieve given the country’s regulatory and physical infrastructure. Ania addressed an important niche by concentrating exclusively on youth, but it was difficult for me to have the same narrow focus when I was overwhelmed by how many environmental concerns I saw on a daily basis. I wanted to change so much, but had to learn to appreciate the baby steps.

Not only did dozens of small hands make the work go by much faster, but it was also rewarding to see them take ownership over the garden. 

During my experience, I also reflected on how the TiNis portray nature. They are often surrounded by small wood fences that the kids can then paint. These fences are visually appealing and help define the small garden as a unique space just for kids. But it also puts a barrier between the natural world and the outside world and the kids did not always make the connection about how their daily lives related to nature on a more global scale. There is no way to avoid the fact that a garden in the middle of a city will portray nature as a tameable object under control by humans.

In general, I hated that I was treated differently in Peru because of where I came from, but I was proud when I could use the attention to talk about important issues.    

I wish I could say my entire summer was jam-packed with teaching moments, but that would be dishonest. I wanted to work more directly with the kids, but I realized how deeply unprepared I was when I was granted the opportunity to do so. Controlling a classroom full of second graders is difficult. Doing so in a second language is incredibly challenging.

I instead spent several weeks of my internship renovating a school’s old storage room into a library. The other volunteer I worked with, a German guy who was in Peru for an entire year, had identified this as a possible project several months earlier. I had previously worked on several other projects at this school and was excited about the opportunity to leave a tangible impact. The final library is beautiful with a large mural of a young boy reading under a tree and old fruit crates as book shelves. The renovation included many hours of scraping paint and sanding—neither of which had direct environmental benefits—and it is difficult to measure whether a painting of flowers and rainbows actually affects the kids’ environmental appreciation. But I hope the room is, at the very least, a welcoming place for the students to read.

My internship was not what I had expected, but it was an excellent lens through which to learn about a new country and think critically about environmental issues from a different perspective. More than anything, I could not be more thankful for my amazing co-workers at Ania. They were young, welcoming, and patient with my ever-improving Spanish. I will miss seeing their bright faces daily. I also learned so much from the other Harvard students I spent time with in Lima. The Harvard campus is one of the most demographically diverse places in the world, but as much as students resist, they tend to form smaller groups with people from similar backgrounds. There were only six other Harvard students in Lima so I became great friends with people I otherwise might never have met. I cannot wait to use this summer’s experiences as reflective tools during this upcoming year at Harvard and whatever may lie beyond.

My internship was not what I had expected, but it was an excellent lens through which to learn about a new country and think critically about environmental issues from a different perspective.