In April 2014, what has become known as “The Great Fire of Valparaíso” broke out in Chile. Almost 3,000 homes along the city’s hillsides were ravaged and more than 10,000 people became displaced over the course of a few days.
“School was canceled for a week following the incendio and almost every student in the city, high school and university, helped with relief efforts,” recalls Ellis. “It was beautiful to see the solidarity of the Chilean people.”
Throughout his time in Chile, Ellis volunteered with CEMIPRE, an organization dedicated to equipping the blind with skills and tools to be self-sufficient.
“I was originally volunteering with them in little areas that can be very difficult for people who have lost their sight, like debugging computer issues, or yard work,” said Ellis. “I also began to take a few Braille classes!”
However, when the great fire affected a number of CEMIPRE clients and their families, Ellis redirected the focus of his volunteer efforts.
“I developed a friendship with one of these families, and the most rewarding part was spending the majority of my weekends helping them rebuild their house,” said Ellis.
He became very familiar with the city of Valparaíso through volunteering, and eventually guided and translated for a United States-based construction relief team hosted by CEMIPRE.
“It was a great opportunity to serve but also taught me a lot about the need for linguistic and cultural fluency. While I was able to provide a lot of assistance to the U.S.-based team, who had almost no Spanish, I still felt fairly insufficient at navigating cultural and linguistic differences,” said Ellis.
As true for many study abroad participants, the immersion experience afforded Ellis abundant opportunities for self-discovery and a better informed worldview. For one, his time in Chile revealed a vibrant, thriving nation that stood in contrast to common conceptions of developing Latin American countries.
Ellis also came to realize that every moment of one’s time abroad need not be consumed with tourist activities and structured plans. He learned the value of a slower pace of life.
“I found that there was not an intensive preoccupation with what my host mother called ‘aprovechando el tiempo,’ or ‘taking advantage of the time,’” said Ellis. “I spent my first few weeks fretting about all the things to do and using my time well, and did not do as great a job of being present. I quickly adjusted, though, and spent loads of time just chatting and ‘conviviendo’ [lit. “live with” but means “hang out” or “pass time together”] with my host family, which is how I really ended up improving my Spanish, instead of doing lots of things and having an intensely regulated schedule.”
Eager to continue advancing his Spanish-language skills, Ellis considered adding Spanish as a third academic major. However, he has opted instead to achieve full fluency – and increased cultural understanding – through experiences outside the traditional classroom. This spring he will intern with StepUp Ministry, a nonprofit organization that provides job training, life skills, and stability to the Raleigh area’s homeless, low-income, jobless, and underemployed individuals and their families.
Similarly, Ellis has contemplated the possibility of spending one or more years in Costa Rica after graduation to work with giveDIGNITY, a ministry with which he’s acquainted that affords residents of San José’s La Carpio neighborhood job development and micro-enterprise training.
For now, though, Ellis will build on the framework he’s established through his studies to effectively understand poverty, right here in the Triangle.
“I wouldn’t be at NC State if it wasn’t for the Park Scholarships program, and I doubt I’d have come to North Carolina,” said Ellis, a Tennessee native. “Now, because of the relationships I’ve developed in my church and through Neighbor to Neighbor‘s Latino Outreach, which another Park Scholar introduced me to, I want to stay in Raleigh and work within the Hispanic community here doing some type of community development.”
Story by Lauren Vanderveen