Fall of 2008 I entered as a freshman student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Though technically “undeclared” for the first year, in my mind I was embarking on my academic journey into Latin America. I graduated four years later having studied abroad two times: my sophomore year was spent in Valencia, Spain, and the fall semester of my senior year was spent in Lima, Peru. My degree with LACIS was not simply the solid foundation for my adventures that followed, but also the spark that opened my mind to the beauties and mysteries of life in a different culture.
After graduation, I uprooted my already shallow ties to Wisconsin and planted them in Northern California. Working as an AmeriCorps VISTA with United Way of the Wine Country. With United Way of the Wine Country I worked with a lot of the Spanish-speaking population, helping to set up literacy programs in the community and tutoring programs in 19 local elementary schools. After serving a year in California, I decided to take my Spanish to higher level by making the move to Costa Rica.
Starting in the Central Valley in a town called Palmares, I began what would soon become a 5 month volunteering trip around Costa Rica. Spending between 2 and 3 weeks in each spot, I either volunteered or offered a work exchange while traveling through the tropical country. On this trip I volunteered at a nature reserve where I was the dueña del mariposario (the head of the butterfly laboratory), I worked as an interpreter for a University of Minnesota study abroad program, I volunteered on a permaculture farm and learned to milk a goat (checked that off my bucket list!), I taught yoga to an economically challenged elementary school (and taught nutrition to the community around it), and I taught private English lessons to a family of three spritely children.
Of the many positions I accepted while vagabonding through Costa Rica, painting murals ended up being the most organic, and most fulfilling, of them all. I named the project Painting Outside the Lines to portray the idea of not following the “rules” when it comes to travel, art and helping those in need. The project began in an enchanting lodge called The Living Forest. In exchange for lodging, I painted a mural of a butterfly and another of some monkeys to reflect the surrounding rainforest and add some color to her guest rooms. This opportunity connected me with a volunteer ranch in the Nicoya Peninsula, where I painted a small mural in the entrance way, and a large mural for volunteers to leave their handprints. I later got a call from The Living Forest, requesting more murals; this time I would be painting a small frog, and a 10’ by 15’ jaguar scene! This position provided me with the hosting needed to volunteer with a local elementary school by painting (and helping the kids paint) a small play house that had been added to the kindergarten room. I found that through volunteering and connecting with people on a human level, the important things are in abundance. A dream world emerged where funding was provided, food was fresh and homegrown, transportation was never lacking, and opportunities were abundant. After Costa Rica, I took the “chicken bus” throughout Nicaragua and then ended with a week in Honduras.
Upon my return to Wisconsin, I felt inspired to continue fostering community-building through art, and secured two sponsored community art projects in Houghton, MI. A large mural served to showcase the northern lights that occasionally bless the Upper Peninsula in the winter months and was paid in full by the City of Houghton, MI. The Love Wall, an interactive mural that involved the community members in the creation, was sponsored by the local 5th and Elm coffee shop. The Love Wall caught on much more quickly than I imagined, and soon the site was filled with helpers spanning different social spheres coming to write “love” in their language. When the 25’ by 12’ wall was finally filled with the names of loved ones, quotes, and stories in more than 20 different languages, what was left was a beautiful wall, co-created by residents and visitors in the area.
I am now pursuing a dual Masters in Development Management and Public Policy offered through Georgetown University in partnership with the National University of San Martin in Buenos Aires, Argentina. One day I would love to work with the United Nations and their refugee program (UNHCR), but for now, I spend my time studying, volunteering, and exploring the cobblestone streets of Buenos Aires, mate in hand.
I am very grateful to the LACIS department for the education and inspiration that has lead me to these incredible adventures throughout Central and South America. My hope is that future UW- Madison students will similarly inspired to make a positive impact in the world and increase their cultural awareness and appreciation.
For more on Nicole’s Painting Outside the Lines project in Costa Rica, please visit her blog at: www.nicoleweyandt.com/nicolechristine.