Up until now I actually haven’t mentioned much about the study abroad program I took part in. A bit silly huh? Well now is time to explain a bit about the program.
For six weeks I participated in Central College Abroad’s Studies in Global Health program in Merida, Mexico. For the first four weeks I took two classes (“Health in the Yucatan” and “Spanish for Health Professionals”) and visited various hospital, clinic, and health program sites. During the last two weeks I was able to live in a home-stay with a local Señora and I shadowed various healthcare professionals throughout their daily tasks.
So it was during the shadowing part of the study abroad experience that I was able to work with UNASSE (Unidad de Atención Sicológica, Sexólogica y Educativa para el Crecimiento Personal) for one amazing week. (In English this translates to something close to Attention Unit for Psychology, Sexology, and Education for Personal Growth.
Throughout the week I shadowed UNASSE, the organization visited a primary school called Pedro Pablo Echeverria to teach the fifth and sixth grade classes about self-image and self-esteem. The students already knew the organization because the UNASSE members had visited the school to provide sexual education to these same classes the previous fall. For the sixth graders this was even review, since UNASSE had had the opportunity to work with these students as fifth graders the year before. From an outsiders perspective, it seemed like a good idea to have set up a foundation of trust like this, between the UNASSE members and the students, because the students seemed more comfortable in sharing their opinions and viewpoints when discussing these difficult topics.
Each day the schedule was the same. First the students and UNASSE members introduced themselves and named a celebrity that they liked. Then the UNASSE members would discuss the importance of responsible internet usage, using the recent trend in internet challenges as an example of potentially dangerous usage. (This was a particularly interesting aspect of the lesson because it was never something that my generation was taught. It just goes to show how the technology influences lesson plans, and I am happy to report that Mexico’s education seems to be keeping up!) Next the teacher would explain the various roles that self-esteem and self-image play in people’s daily lives, which would lead into our activity.
In the activity we split the class between boys and girls, making two groups from each side. One group of girls was given the task of drawing an ideal girl and the other group of girls was given the task of drawing a typical girl. The same was done with the two boy groups: one group drew an ideal boy and the other drew a typical boy.
Although this task was interesting to help the students with, it was difficult to watch as an adult. Assisting with this activity, however, was a valuable experience because I had the opportunity to listen to the students plan their drawings and I had the chance to try to understand their thought process. Many of the drawings of the ideal people were drawn with pale skin, blue eyes, and blonde hair — an appearance almost completely opposite of what most of the students in the classroom looked like themselves.
Along with drawing, the students also had to come up with a life story for their made-up people. Oftentimes the characters were born in foreign places, such as Spain or the United States and they always spoke English. In fact, the U.S. culture was revered so much that many of the students would rather talk to my fellow College Central Abroad peer and I than focus on their work. On the second day, the class even applauded my peer and I for being from the United States — something that made me feel a bit guilty because I felt as if they appreciated my origins more than their own simply on face-value.
After the activity, the UNASSE members talked to the students about their drawings and asked why none of their ideal drawings (and sometimes not even the typical drawings) represented themselves. On the second day one student gave a very insightful reply. She said that the things they rarely saw in their own community were seen as beautiful because they were so uncommon. The UNASSE members recognized that this is oftentimes the case, but they did explain to the children that every culture has its own beauty ideals and that they should see themselves as beautiful because they too are unique.
A week with UNASSE really helped me grow as an adult. I realized perhaps for the first time how strong of an influence the U.S. media and beauty standards have internationally. It made me realize that because of our media’s strength the United States has a responsibility to provide more representation in the media in order to provide a broader perspective of beauty standards.
Another thing that really impacted me was when some of the students told me that colored contacts were better than brown eyes because they saw their teacher use them. This made me realize how sometimes adults don’t realize what kind of impact our own actions are having on the children around us. This experience with UNASSE makes me want to be more consciously aware of my actions and ensure that I am helping the younger generations feel more comfortable in their own bodies instead of hurting their self-esteem and self-image unconsciously.
I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to work with UNASSE during my fifth week in Merida, and I am very inspired by the work they are conducting with students in the community. I truly believe their work is helping to empower the next generation, which is something that is so desperately needed at a time where media has such an impact and influence on these impressionable minds. I hope that more organizations will follow in their footsteps, both in Mexico and elsewhere internationally.
If you’re interested in learning more about UNASSE and the services they provide, like them on Facebook: UNASSE on FB (Username UNASSE A.C.).