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Breaking Boundaries

Inspired by experiences in Canada, SDSU alumnus Jacob Alvarado wants more Native American students to study abroad.

By Michael Klitzing

The San Pasqual Reservation covers nearly 1,400 acres in rural San Diego County, some 40 miles north of San Diego State University’s main campus. It’s a place of rugged beauty that can exert a strong pull on its inhabitants, as SDSU alumnus Jacob Alvarado can attest.

“Being on the reservation born and raised, you don’t ever want to leave,” said Alvarado, a member of the San Pasqual Band of the Kumeyaay Nation. “When you get off the reservation and go into town, you feel uncomfortable, because it doesn’t feel right; because it’s not where you grew up.

“You can feel very sheltered.”

But Alvarado, a 2014 SDSU grad currently pursuing a joint University of California, San Diego and California State University San Marcos doctoral program in educational leadership, has never been one to be confined by boundaries. At age 18, his adventurous streak spurred him to leave his mountain home and head to Los Angeles to pursue a career as a hip hop dancer. 

Years later, as an SDSU student, Alvarado’s daring nature led him to step through the doors of the SDSU Study Abroad Office to find out more about a program flyer that caught his eye. That led to an international experience in Vancouver, Canada in 2013, which would impact his life greatly. Alvarado now hopes his personal experience will inspire other Native American students at SDSU to study abroad.

It’s an important message. According to recent numbers from NAFSA, Native American students make up 0.8 percent of university students, but only 0.5 percent of study abroad participants.

“Native people need to go abroad to experience life,” Alvarado said. “We should be able to walk around the world and feel just as comfortable as anyone else.”

A personal journey

Jacob Alvarado in Canada

Alvarado didn’t initially go abroad looking to experience the unfamiliar. He went to Canada in search of greater understanding of his own roots.

“For me it was a spiritual thing,” he said. “I wanted to go meet our people from the north.”

His acceptance through SDSU’s Study Abroad Office into the First Nations Studies Exchange Program at the University of British Columbia allowed him to do just that. In Vancouver he took rigorous courses, with topics including indigenous feminism, critical indigenous theory, indigenous social movements and arts of the Northwest Coast Peoples. The curriculum, which he compared to graduate level work, challenged him and gave him a sense of accomplishment.

In the process, he even experienced some unexpected culture shock from Canada’s First Nations community.

“It made me stronger and I got humbled,” Alvarado said. “All my classes were full of very strong indigenous women, which is how it is up there. I had to learn to be very careful with what I said, especially when it came to issues like wearing dresses at ceremonies. Women do that down here, but up there they see wearing dresses differently.

“I respected it. I learned a lot from it.”

The program also happened to coincide with a cathartic event for the native people in British Columbia. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission — set up to investigate decades of abuses perpetrated on indigenous children by the residential school system — held public hearings in Vancouver in September, 2013. Alvarado was able to attend.

“It made my heart really sad,” he said. “It’s hard to see elders cry like that as they told those horror stories. You don’t think it’s real but it actually happened to these individuals and it affected them for the rest of their lives as they’ve held it in. That impacted me a lot.”

International flavor

Alvarado and international friends

While Alvarado arrived in Vancouver seeking to learn more about his own heritage, international influences were still all around him. He lived in a townhouse in Fairview, a popular neighborhood with striking views of the Vancouver skyline, with UBC international students from China, Sweden and Ireland. His roommates were so welcoming, they accompanied Alvarado to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings — on the very first day they met him.

“They were like, ‘We’re going with you — we’re going to support you,’” he said. 

“We came from different parts of the world, but we all came together.”

Alvarado came to love Vancouver’s international dining scene, particularly the butter chicken from a local mom and pop Indian (Asian Indian, for the record) establishment in his neighborhood. He found Canada to be a generally more accepting environment than he had experienced in the U.S.

“That’s what was really cool about Canada: everyone has a lot of love for you,” Alvarado said. “They take care of each other up there. There’s no hate.”

Sharing his story

Alvarado’s journey abroad led him back to SDSU earlier this semester, where he said he hopes to one day return to teach and help encourage more Kumayaay students to attend the university. He was invited to speak to Native students taking part in Elymash Yuuchaap, SDSU’s indigenous scholars and leaders program. Alvarado showed up in red and black (the colors of his people, he explained), shared his study abroad story and answered students’ questions.

Educational Opportunity Programs Outreach Specialist and Elymash Yuuchaap Program Coordinator Chris Medellin said it was the first time study abroad has been integrated into the curriculum. 

“I brought in Jacob because I want them to be able to visualize themselves as the person doing it,” Medellin said. “Maybe study abroad is something they’ve thought about previously, but they don’t know anybody who has done it. It’s the same idea with being the first person in your family to go to college; you don’t know what that experience is like.”

Alvarado, meanwhile, was hoping to get an ever deeper message across: That Native Americans can and should feel at home, whether on the reservation or travelling halfway around the world.

“On a rez, we can walk around and feel like, ‘This is mine — I can do what I want and nobody is going to say anything,’” he said. “But once we step off that reservation, we don’t feel like that anymore. That privilege, I would say, isn’t there. Native privilege is the reservation. White privilege is the whole world.”

Learn more about study abroad program options by visiting SDSU’s online database or read about the experiences of your classmates on the SDSU Be International blog.

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