Argentina Diary

July 29, 2011

Featured


Education major recounts the return to Argentina of Winona State’s “American Teachers”

By Megan Lund ’12

In May a group of Winona State University students, faculty, and staff travelled to Argentina to help celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, one of the country’s greatest presidents. Sarmiento developed Argentina’s public school system with the help of educators from Winona State Teachers College.

One of the first to arrive in 1877 was Mary O. Graham, who directed the normal school in San Juan and went on to establish a new normal school in La Plata, just south of Buenos Aires. Many other Winona State faculty and alumni taught in Argentina throughout the late 1800s and into the next century.

Megan Lund, an education major at the WSU-Rochester campus, was among the ten “American Teachers” who are keeping the ties alive between Winona State and schools in Argentina.

“We can’t let them down,” says Alicia Reed, one of the leaders of our trip, as we gathered at the bus station. “I don’t know what they have planned and I know that you’re tired from all the traveling,” she continues, “but I know that they’re expecting us.

In May, ten Winona State University students, including myself, were chosen to represent the first return of “The American Teachers” to Argentina since the late 1800s. Domingo Sarmiento, one of Argentina’s greatest presidents, traveled the world in search of a model education system. To accomplish his task, he sent out a call for the best teachers from around the globe. No institution responded in greater numbers than Winona State. Sixty-five Winona teachers helped establish his dream.

We shake off our yawns and dig out our light blue Mary O. Graham t-shirts. I grab a medium and tug it over my head. Here we are, standing on the same soil as Sarmiento, to celebrate the founding of Argentina’s educational system. I can’t help but smile as I look around and see that one-by-one, we’ve become “The American Teachers.”

We pull up to Mary O. Graham, San Juan’s elementary school. It’s named for one of the first Winona State teachers to arrive in Argentina, Mary O. Graham, Class of 1868. A banner tied to two trees, spans the road:

Welcome

Bienvenidos estudiantes de la Universidad de Winona!

Esc. Mary Oldstine Graham

I look out of the bus window and see a small crowd of parents. They’re smiling and frantically getting their cameras ready. I get a little flutter in my stomach thinking about all of the new faces we’ll meet. We step off the bus andare greeted with big smiles from the principal, Lus, and other faculty members. Although my Spanish is okay, I can’t understand everything that is being said so I follow my fellow peers and the hand gestures of the faculty guiding me.

It’s winter in Argentina and despite this the school is warm and the gallery doors stay wide open. Winnie-the-Pooh wallpaper lines the freshly painted baby blue hallways and gives me a sense of childhood. We’re greeted with music and beautiful décor as we step out to the outdoor gallery.

The gallery is Mary O. Graham’s recess area, with uneven cement grounds and a small area of grass lined with tall brick walls. All of the children are gathered in their white lab coat uniforms. Near the back of the building a choir is singing; their voices are young and refreshing.

We’re shown our seats, front-and-center and beautifully decorated in white cloths. Before we can sit, children from every direction greet us. Their hospitality and joy towards our group of strangers inspires a surge of gratitude. I feel the appreciation not only from the students who run up to give me a hug, but also from their parents. I look up and notice the perfection of the day:  blue skies, beautiful music, and humbling company. As I soak it in, I realize a tear was falling down my cheek. Who would have imagined that strangers could make such a quick and powerful impact?

As the week continues, we become very busy. Between the ten of us, we cover a wide range of lessons:  American culture, dental hygiene, art and colors, and animals. My partner and I teach science in a third grade classroom. The children dived into Bubble-ology and soared with excitement and learning. The materials we used were left with the school, as well as lesson plans, books, and miscellaneous supplies donated from back home.
There are two brothers from the school who become my little buddies. The older, Facu, is a fifth-grade student and his younger brother, Santi, is a third grader. Both have a patience to them that is rare in children. They wait for me to scramble my broken Spanish and do what they can to make dialogue with me instead of quitting and walking away.

Facu and Santi possess a passion for learning and intelligence for human contact that I find uncommon at such a young age. Both share a bracelet with me. “Por favor, Megan, usted puede tener,” Facu says as he takes his leather paz bracelet off his own wrist and hands it to me. “Are you sure?” “Claro,” he says.

Besides the two young boys at Mary O. Graham School, there is a man who stands out in particular. His name is Eduardo Bustelo. He is an older gentleman with white hair, soft skin, and eyes filled with wisdom. He stands tall and I can tell that he has years of experience by his calm and collected demeanor. He speaks Spanish and English fluently and is happy to share his thoughts, although he seems to listen more than he talks.

On our last day in San Juan, we visit a vineyard and enjoy traditional asodo meal. After we bask in the beauty of our surroundings and the company that fills the seats around us, we share our thoughts on the experience and our expressions of gratitude.

We’re getting ready to leave, and I find myself walking toward the Mr. Bustelo. As I say, “Thank-you for all of your hard work, hospitality, and generous gifts,” I begin feeling a lump in my throat growing.

He looks right into my eyes and said, “You are very welcome. We are so proud to have you in our country. The things your people have done here will never be forgotten. Our hearts and our doors are always open for you to return.”

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About Winona State University

Founded in 1858, Winona State University is a comprehensive public university with more than 8,500 students. The oldest member of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities System, Winona State offers 80 undergraduate, pre-professional, licensure, graduate, and doctorate programs on its three campuses: the original Main Campus in Winona, the West Campus in Winona, and Winona State University-Rochester.

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