A learning journey

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Lancaster University campus in late summer

The experience of having travelled to South Africa will undoubtedly remain an important milestone in my life, because beyond how exciting any of us might be to visit an unknown place, this experience brought together many elements that make it a unique and growing experience both personal and academic.

As a first background, I can point out that the African continent is an absolutely unknown territory from my reality as a Chilean and Latin American citizen: we do not have visitors from those latitudes, we do not usually travel to that destination, and in our history classes for the Africa, school curriculum it is absolutely invisible. At most we relate it, from the television programming offer, with a territory full of wild and exotic animals. Nothing about its people, its social reality (of course, out of personal interest, I have explored documentaries and news for a long time, but the feeling of distance and strangeness is still there).

Given that initial ignorance, traveling to the doctoral week and to the conference organized by the Rhodes University graduate program meant a tremendous opportunity that I was very grateful for, and continue to be very humbled by, both the Department of Educational Research and Jan, my supervisor. Fully aware that I was experiencing a privileged opportunity, I set out to learn as much as possible from the experience: meet and learn from my peers, doctoral students in education from other latitudes.

What I didn't know was how much I was going to learn about myself: A permanent challenge of the trip was being away from my family, and not having the end of the day to share my impressions and emotions with them. Emotionally it was very demanding and I discovered that I have to put more emphasis on my strengths than on my weaknesses to stay on my feet, to believe that my uniqueness as a person, academic and researcher are enough -beyond the language difficulties- to feel that my presence makes a contribution.

Once we got to the doctoral week, and with the constant linguistic challenge of being able to communicate with the South African participants and other guests from other African countries, given that English is not the first language, I was filled with questions while receiving a lot of information regarding their interests and research topics. Having had the opportunity to share our academic concerns, while we shared informally about our most personal realities, made the shared time one of permanent growth.

Additionally, all the time that I shared with the people who attended the doctoral week and the conference, I asked myself questions that did not just appear the more I internalized their realities. I wanted to understand how it is possible for a group of people to feel part of the same country having so many official languages; how the history of domination is lived together and processed when so many ethnic differences continue to be lived within the same country; how to live with the contrasting poverty of the town that houses the university; how could I access, if it was possible, their sensitivities and concerns being so different.

Perhaps the most important experience for me was constantly confronting the feeling that in our differences it is very difficult to access the perception that those others are having of reality, because our realities are too different: other spaces, other dimensions, another aesthetic, other sounds... Although the experience is always non-transferable, here the difference became more evident, it is as if it was necessary to know more background of the reality of each one to understand from where they spoke, from where their concerns and worries...

An important learning that I was able to build from this was that Latin America and Africa are very similar. Not only because the sun shines and warms in the same way -a beautiful detail that made me feel at home-, but also because our concerns are very similar, from our histories as countries that were colonized and whose natural resources have been usurped, which makes us rich territories but with an impoverished population.

Another very important learning was to feel how large and diverse the community of researchers with whom it is possible to network can become. Listening, in the two days of conferences, to exhibitions with interests so coincident with mine, it was of great fascination: how is it possible that being so far away, in such distant territories, we can coincide in such similar interests? It's like acknowledging an invisible bond, with which you begin to feel less alone and more hopeful.

All considered, I can say that all this experience marked me as a researcher confirming that the personal and the academic are inseparable dimensions of ourselves. I had the opportunity to share with great people researching great things, and in every case, I could see that one and the other were intimately connected, as if who you are as a person permeates who you are as researcher. In our community of researchers of education, your sensitivity, what causes you indignation, what matters to you, is finally what mobilizes you to make a contribution to make things better.

If I had to draw a conclusion from this wonderful experience, I would say that it allowed me to reaffirm that, even though there are many differences, in the end the world is the same everywhere: there are people who want a better world, more equitable, fairer, with more opportunities and with less suffering, and fortunately there are research communities in different latitudes to respond to concerns that continue to emerge. Being a part of it fills me with joy, hope and pride.

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