Lessons, Big and Small

by Iris, Ella, Jacob & Zhiyi, Civic Semester Participants

In honor of our last few days in Peru, here are four lessons we’ve learned in the last 3 months with some bonus footnote lessons from the group.


The biggest gift that this semester has given me is constant discomfort. Every day, I learn that I am capable of so much more than I ever imagined. At home, I thought of myself as someone contained. Careful. Introverted and always needing more time to recharge, never quite ready to take a risk. From home, the world felt so small. My school, and my friends, and my house. Now, the world feels almost unbearably large. There is so much to see and do, and I’m ready to embrace it all with open arms. Here, I am someone who says yes to a walk even when I’ve just been at the gym, who stays up just a little later to talk, who makes a plan past exhaustion. And in the wake of this, I have realized that I need so much less comfort than I thought. I’m sleeping less and doing more, but instead of feeling depleted or numb, I feel more awake than I ever have. I am invigorated by everything, excited by anything.

Somehow, being in Peru has unlocked more hours in the day. I no longer need to waste precious time hiding from discomfort and making sure I’m 100% “ready.” Instead, I trust that I can face any challenge head-on and without warning. And more than being able to face it, I know that I’ll enjoy it.

The discomfort and the newness create room for constant, inescapable awe. Nothing is regular, and I’m never used to it, and that means that every day I am blown away by sheer beauty, love, and joy. I’ve learned over and over that if everything is easy then nothing is special, and pushing through is what makes life satisfying.

I am learning to embrace every new challenge instead of shying away from them. I am learning to answer every question with yes. I am learning that there is almost nothing I can’t do.

We’ve all been sick here, and we’ve all pushed through. Last month, I felt quite sick at an org visit. Nauseous enough that I had to sit down at the end, and got special front-seat privileges on the van ride back. That night we had salsa classes, which I love. But I couldn’t help but hesitate. Really, I’m going to go to salsa, where we spin each other around in circles and take quick steps with loud music and strangers? Is that really the best decision in my current state? I went anyway, and had one of my best nights yet. I called my parents afterward and started the story of the day with being sick. Halfway through, my mom interrupted me – “Where is this story going? You sound happy, so there’s no way it ends here.” That is what Peru has taught me – the story doesn’t end with discomfort. That’s where it starts.


When I reflect on the last three months of my life and why they feel so genuine, I realize that I’ve spent so much of my time connecting (primarily by accident) with my younger self. This has taught me how deeply important it is to embrace my childhood self, and sometimes allow myself to be childish.

One reason I think I’ve been so able to connect with younger me is because of the unstructured free time that we’ve had access to. Iris and I often joke that it’s time for “play time” when we don’t have an activity planned for our afternoon. Play time has been laying on a blanket in the sun with watercolors and a potted plant to interpret. It’s been running to the stadium and seeing who can hold a handstand the longest, falling into the mud when you inevitably can’t hold it any longer. It’s been hours of war or Uno at the coffee table. It’s been deciding that we’re going to be able to do a split by the end of the semester, and stretching for minutes every day (with three days left, still no one can do a split…). It’s even been reading aloud articles or papers to each other—which may not seem very childish, but I can’t remember the last time I was read aloud to before being here. This time with nothing to entertain us but each other has truly regressed me, in every positive way, to elementary school me. I have disconnected from fake entertainment that I relied on like social media and reconnected with “play time,” and it has been so freeing. To be childish is to be free.

Another reason I feel I’ve connected with my childhood has been less of an active decision… language (or lack thereof). While I now consider my Spanish passable and can communicate whatever I want to, at the beginning of the semester relying on a language that wasn’t yet mine often regressed me to communicate in a child-like manner. I was describing a certain vegetable that I was looking for at the market with everything but its name, or using as few words as possible to make a stranger smile. I feel like as I’ve grown more confident in my Spanish, I have grown up for a second time. Before this aging happened, though, my friends and I found ourselves on a rainy, unfamiliar street near Machu Picchu. We were jumping in puddles as we walked, and a small family got caught in one of my splashes as they passed by. The dad made eye contact with me with a smirk, and said “mírame.” He walked a few feet down the road and jumped directly into the biggest puddle, splashing all my friends and I. The entire street burst out into laughter, and suddenly more and more people were jumping along with us. Maybe four words were said the entire time, and yet we were able to so quickly connect with so many people. Being able to communicate fully now brings a sense of pride and accomplishment for my language accomplishments, but I have security in knowing that I can communicate, connect, and love without access to the language I’ve always taken for granted—much like children learn to do.

I think that, at its core, being a child reminds me over and over that I am a human. To be dirty yet happy, bored yet entertained, restricted yet connected. I am so thankful for the humanity that the Civic Semester has reminded me of.


Quality time and just simply being together is very important. This was especially the case during my homestay because two of my siblings are studying at University in Cusco. This makes it so the only time the entire family is together is lunch and dinner on the weekends. And while conversation at the table is never dull, it only feels complete when everyone is together. It was amazing to see how close everyone was and to become a part of that during my time living with them was amazing. There was never a meal together where there wasn’t teasing, or a time where there wasn’t wrestling before or after eating. Whenever this happens, I cannot stop smiling.

Another time that my brothers and I bonded was during soccer. We play Saturday night from around 10:30 to 11:30 since this is the only time everyone is free from work and all available. Even though I am the worst one playing, I have so much fun just being able to play soccer again. When my brothers and I aren’t playing – since we play first to two goals or eight minutes due to three teams wanting to play – I have fun watching how everyone interacts with each other. All the teams are well oiled machines, and watching how my brothers (and sometimes our cousin) play so in tune with each other just reinforced how close they all are and how important quality time is. I was always so excited to play soccer with them, that I passed up going to a nightclub with the rest of my group not once, but twice. And I was so down and a little disappointed when soccer was canceled (though it was due to a giant storm with constant lightning and thunder so it makes sense.) It was always my highlight and the thing I was most looking forward to every week so it was horrible when a storm robbed us of playing.

It was amazing to see how close I grew to my new family in the one month I was with them. I learned so much about myself and what I loved, and I am devastated that our time together is up. I am now back living with the group in Roca Fuerte and hopefully will be able to visit them again some time in the future (hopefully with the rest of my family).


At the end of the semester, I am amazed by how many connections I’ve made during the three months, both inside my cohort, and also with the Peruvians.

I, an international student, don’t know as much about the popular songs and games as others from the US. But we played so well together. I kept learning different trendy dances and game rules, soaking American pop culture. At the same time, I also share my culture with my cohort, or say, my family here in Urubamba. I introduced and celebrated the Mid-Autumn Festival with them. At that moment, I felt our program house, where all these people live together with me, is my home. I feel appreciated, wanted and loved.

In Wayquecha, during the break without wifi, we learned a card game from Nica, who’s from Moldova. This Russian card game is what she always plays at home. We learnt the rules and also how to say the names in Russian. We sat there and played for hours. Nica laughed every time we said Russian words in weird accents. It’s such an interesting scene. Americans, a Moldovan, and a  Chinese sat together and played a game in Russian. Through the game, I felt I’m more connected to Nica’s life back at home.

Outside our group, I had most interactions with the kids in the organization I volunteered and my host family. All of them only spoke Spanish, but my Spanish was quite limited. However, surprisingly, we still built close friendships with the language barrier. I spent a lot of time with the kids in Hogar Semillas de Jesus. I pushed the swing for them, I did art with them, I played chess with them, I played hide and seek with them, I helped them with their homework, I celebrated Halloween with them. We understood our feelings from not only the language, but also our facial expressions and our behaviors. On the last org placement day, I got so many hugs from the kids. We didn’t talk that much but I felt strong connections with them.

There are three kids in my host family. They are 14, 10 and 4. I have different ways of getting along with each of them. With Lusiana, the oldest one, we often walked around to buy stuff at night or went hiking together. She liked to introduce the city to me and told me about her life and her family. For most of the time I just listened and tried to understand every word but sometimes I asked questions as well. I stayed with Alondra at home for most of the time. I helped her to complete her art work and played just dance with her. About Liham, the youngest boy, he switched between laughing and crying ten times a day. He yelled my name frequently because he wanted to ask me questions or show me something. I tried my best to answer his infinite questions and sometimes asked for help from Alondra. Language barrier limited my understanding and expression but it never stopped me from making more and more, deeper and deeper connections with all the cute and lovable people here.

Footnote lessons:

  • Appreciate the in between moments
  • Creative time is just as (if not more) important than “productive” time!
  • It’s ok to be dirty (muddy clothes, days without showers…). It means you had a good time!
  • Outside time is so important
  • Be open to sharing feelings (others are probably feeling the same thing)
  • Room space equality! Learning how to share rooms, a kitchen, etc. is hard but necessary.
  • Quality time and just being together is needed… parallel play!
  • Routine is important; breaking routine is important.
  • There’s never quite enough space in your bag, and there’s never quite enough time to pack
  • Time really does fly (no one quite believed it before)
  • ALWAYS keep the windows open (especially one in the triple)
  • You can always survive without the things you thought you needed! (something will always be forgotten)
  • Write everything down, take every photo
  • Eat together whenever possible; communal meals are so valuable
  • Sickness is much more normal and survivable than we all thought: you’re going to be sick, it’s going to be fine.
  • You can learn so much from young kids.
  • Celebration is SO important! Everything is worth celebrating!!
  • Say yes more than no
  • There are so many people in the world to love! 🙂