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Heidi Graf

What drew you to apply for this educational tour?

When I received the email from the Practicum office about the opportunity to visit Panama and Costa Rica, my first thought was “Wow!” You see, I really wished I could be chosen to leave Canada during February on an all-expenses-paid adventure to go somewhere warm. I didn’t see it as something that was within my reach until I mentioned it to my husband. He told me not to be worried about him and the kids, that I should at least apply and if I was chosen we would figure everything out.

What were your expectations going into this experience?

When I found out I was chosen, I was over-the-moon excited, but I was also pretty nervous. This would be the first time I would be away from six- and seven-year-old children, who both have pretty severe medical challenges, but I also knew in my heart that with the proper planning, I would be able to put my anxiety at ease and have the adventure of a lifetime.

How did your experience compare to your expectations?

With respect to my family situation, going on this trip was a little different than I expected. I expected to miss them tremendously, but with the help of technology and Wi-Fi, I was able to include them in my daily adventures. About my expectations of this being ‘the adventure of a lifetime’: it certainly was exactly what I imagined it to be.

Do you have a moment that stands out for you? Why has it stuck with you?

I had quite a few ‘aha’ moments while I was visiting and learning about different cultures and communities. Really, I could go on for days telling you about them, but something I can’t stop thinking about was our 1 km hike down the side of a mountain. On our second day visiting with the Negobe-Bugle Indigenous people of Panama, we had the opportunity to go to a sacred waterfall, one that served as a rite of passage for young boys in their community. Although it was a very windy, scary day on the side of a mountain, it was also a day of wonder, clarity and thankfulness for me. This is something that stuck with me, because it really made me think about the beauty this world has to offer us, despite the many hardships of its people.

Now that you’ve been back home, what can you say is the biggest takeaway from this experience?

I think about my time with the Negobe-Bugle often as I ponder how people with so little can have so much. They have very little food, very few belongings, but a lot of pride in their abilities and the beauty that surrounds them. This is something that holds a valuable lesson for me when I compared it to life is here in Canada. I think the best way to communicate it is that we need to try harder to look on the sunny side of the street and enjoy the sun as it shines on our faces. Oftentimes our focus is so honed in on what is going wrong in our lives and in the world, that we forget to appreciate and be grateful for all the things that are going right.

How do you think this experience will affect you in your future career endeavours?

This experience really brought to life what advocacy should be in order to respect the dignity and worth of people and their communities. I have learned through my undergraduate studies that advocating for social justice is a process. It's a process where advocates work to improve outcomes for people who are vulnerable, displaced, marginalized, oppressed, or in some way suffering and in need of a voice. But it was this educational tour that taught me by way of example that advocacy is also about meeting these people at the place where they are in their lives—not subjecting them to our own values and principles—as well as listening to them in order to learn and understand what they want and need help with. It is about supporting them to do things for themselves.

What would you say to future students who are thinking of taking part in this sort of experience?

Don’t give it a second thought; if the opportunity arises, apply to do it!

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