“Now, every day as soon as I wake up, I am instantly aware that I am female. I never used to think about this.” – From a student completing a six-month internship in India
Learning to navigate involves a whole lot of relating and locating: relating a map to the actual landscape we are traversing, locating a GPS position to chart out a course across open waters; or orienting our mountain hike to the cardinal directions of a compass. We direct an international program that places students individually in six-month internships in marginalized communities of Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East.1 In doing so, we walk with students as they navigate unfamiliar cultural terrains, where they frequently experience epiphanies about women in professional, ecclesial, and social spaces. Living in homestays, involvement in neighborhood and church life, and significant professional experience afford many opportunities for students to reflect on the dynamics of gender and power in these spaces. Like many study abroad programs, the vast majority of our students (often around 90%) are women. In this post, we reflect on the learning process students have brought home from these periods of intentional learning.
As our students learn to navigate life in unfamiliar places and spaces, the people who accompany them are most often women, many being mothers who welcome students into their workplaces, churches, and homes. Among them are Peruvian attorneys and Timorese land rights activists, Zambian school principals and Filipino midwives, Indian doctors and Nicaraguan amas de casa. What sorts of “wisdom and strength” do they learn from these mothers along the way?2 And how does that learning shape how they navigate gendered expectations, life choices, and vocational aspirations back in their familiar professional, ecclesial, and social environments?
In a preparatory course we co-teach, we train students to be ethnographically attentive to their surroundings in intentional ways; assignments have the dual purpose of preparing them for individual projects and developing the skills and habits of observation and social field research. Once in their internship settings, frequent writing and action/reflection assignments prompt close observation of details in their new settings; the novelty of being in an unfamiliar setting makes students acutely aware of their own learning in ways that prompt more attention than what people ordinarily devote to their home settings. The phenomena students observe are present globally, perhaps to varying degrees, but they frequently express “noticing” elements in new ways by virtue of being specially attuned.
Upon return home from their various individual internships worldwide, students gather for a one-week retreat during which the main activity is a group discussion and structured presentation of each student’s learning with the larger cohort of program interns. Toward the end, students generate a list of common and recurrent themes raised in their group conversations. “Women” and “mothers”—often distinctively written by students in all caps or with exclamation points—are nearly always the earliest and most frequently mentioned among dozens of themes. One year, several students mentioned how during their time in South Asia, they were each surprised, and then became accustomed, to daily waking up and “being instantly aware that I am female” for the first time in their lives. They gained this new perspective by experiencing how being women differentially and distinctively affected so many aspects of life in ways new to them in their host families and social spaces.
Students often tether their new gendered insights to significant people and places they experienced on their internships. Being in professional spaces where women are prominent, or excluded, from roles and positions in ways different from students’ previous experiences provides important learning for many.
One student, Ana, interned with a small, locally led economic justice NGO in Southeast Asia. Her experience illustrated her learning from female colleagues who navigated the male-dominated organizational spaces and professional networks that comprise NGO work in the region. In her learning, Ana was accompanied by Maria, her host mother and work colleague, who not only explained and interpreted the challenges local women frequently faced in such environments. Maria also experienced complex work demands and confronted gendered expectations in real time and space. Typically, Ana was present to observe how she worked for the good of her neighbors even as she endured disrespect or indifference from her professional colleagues.
Ana recounted3 one powerful episode of accompanying Maria in life and work:
Last week, in an incredible moment, Maria stood up to [a high-ranking global governance official], and [she] broke down asking him how he could say that everything was good in her country now when the [citizens] still have not gotten justice for past crimes perpetrated against them. Hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed, tortured and raped at the hands of people who still live free in [the neighboring country]; I have never seen her cry before or since; and yet immediately after the meeting was over she got mocked by all of [her male colleagues] for being too emotional.
The fact that Maria, in Ana’s words, had “welcomed me into every minute of her waking life,” meant that she was present to receive wisdom and strength in moments where these same gifts were being relied upon and exercised. Such embodied and accompanied learning is deeply transformative. In this case, Ana saw how Maria, across an extended time, navigated gendered professional spaces.
Many students in Latin America have been accompanied by women who experience significant contradictions in carrying out their ecclesial and professional work. A female lawyer in a Christian human rights NGO where our students frequently intern recounted the many years she spent managing a heavy workload of legal cases of men imprisoned during her country’s decades-long civil war. Even as the men she represented welcomed the pastoral care she offered during her daily visits to the prison, leaders of the Christian denomination she worked for frequently reminded her that she was not representing the denomination as a pastor, but only as a lawyer.
Being mentored by these women-leaders prompts students to inquire critically about how gendered inequalities come about “over there,” in Latin America and elsewhere. However, it also cultivates a posture of attentiveness to the reasons given “here” —in their familiar cultural settings—for women’s presence (or absence) in professional and ecclesial spaces. The experience often prompts students to track down the global circulation of theologies found in media and social media and influential teaching. Consequently, students begin to recognize patterns of Christian publishing that often amplify and extend gendered rationales and discourse from wealthy resource-generating settings to distant communities worldwide.
Home life with a local family also serves as a site for pivotal learning on women’s realities, capacities, demands, and priorities. Over the course of their internships, nearly all students comment on the substantial domestic workloads borne by various women who are their host family mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and sisters. Students frequently comment on the time required for household chores carried out without mechanization or familiar shortcuts like prepared or purchased foods. Some students live in social settings where they see daughters deprioritized for education or protein at the dinner table. Still other students occupy spaces where parents live out their locally counter-cultural commitments by equitably educating and nourishing the women in their families.
One student regularly observed the leadership of his host mother, a widow who lost most of her family in a genocide and poured her life into loving the local community in an urban informal settlement. One Sunday, he sat with her while she cooked their afternoon meal. He wrote:
As the pot of soup came to a boil, I scooped rice into the bowls and assumed my position at the little kitchen table. But my host mom picked up the pot and started to walk out the door. This wasn’t all that unusual as she would often cook for people in the community who were sick or in need, but that day I paused to ask, ‘Where are you going?’ And without missing a step she said, ‘I am taking this to the Pastor’s family. They don’t have money to buy food today.’ Then it all hit me. I had patted myself on the back for giving a little extra in the offering that morning, but now I had just seen a poor widow walk out the door with her offering—her own lunch. My host mom has so often in her life not known what the next day was going to hold. But she has never put her faith in security and has lived the only way she knows how as a Christian.
In conclusion: We see how closely interacting with women-leaders’ lives in professional, ecclesial, and domestic spaces gives students a new vision for how people navigate gendered elements of each space. Learning ethnographic sensibilities and practicing deliberate attentiveness helps college students identify, navigate, and confront gendered realities that they experience in the array of institutional settings that they will encounter in higher education and beyond graduation—in the workplace, in their families, and as they find new adult roles in churches where they find their place.
- Nancy Wang Yuen and Deshonna Collier-Goubil, Power women: Stories of Motherhood, Faith & The Academy, (Intervarsity Press, 2021), 7.
- Student quotations are used with permission, and identifying details have been changed.