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Immersion in South American culture proves full of surprises

September 11th, 2017

by Michelle Unruh

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – Sorpresa (surprise)! My trip over Bethel College’s January interterm to Panama, Colombia and Ecuador was full of them.

I traveled with 12 other Bethel students and business professor Bobby Lloyd. Two of Bobby's relatives, from Texas and Colombia, joined us to round off our number at 16.

As Bobby was planning the trip and creating the itinerary, he developed some surprises for us along the way.

Our first one came on the night before our international flight to Panama, when Bobby informed us we would be flying first class from Chicago to Miami to Panama City.

We all took advantage of this opportunity, but the real benefits did not come to me until we landed in Panama City.

Just after experiencing flying first class, we saw the effects of poverty in Panama. Being able to see both extremes that day was very powerful.

Our next surprise came halfway through the trip. We all gathered in the parlor of our colonial house in the old city of Cartagena, Colombia. Bobby told us we would each receive an envelope with something in it.

We were supposed to spread out throughout the five-story house, We had one hour to see what was inside our envelope and decide what it meant. I was a bit confused and skeptical, but Bobby said it would make sense when we saw it.

He had arranged for us all to receive letters from home. He had asked our parents to write and also to get letters from all our loved ones. He then compiled these and passed them out to us that night.

The last surprise Bobby had up his sleeve ended up falling through.

All our favorite breakfast cereals to be delivered to our host family in Guayllabamba, Ecuador, but, although the cereal physically made it to Ecuador, the postal service would not let our hosts pick it up.

Bobby planned these three surprises for us, but I found myself being surprised by so many other things as well.

I was surprised by the taxi drivers in Panama. I was surprised by the beauty of the sun setting beyond the ocean skyline in Cartagena.

I was surprised as I zip-lined through the cloud forest in Mindo, Ecuador. I was surprised as I ate cuy (guinea pig).

I was surprised by the relationships formed on this trip with students who I would not have otherwise interacted with.

But most of all, I was surprised by how much I changed over the course of three-and-a-half weeks.

I learned how to take advantage of every opportunity placed in front of me, and how to embrace uncomfortable situations brought on by language barriers and cultural differences.

For this opportunity for cross-cultural learning, I am so grateful to Bethel College.

Bethel College is the only private, liberal arts college in Kansas listed in the 2014-15 analysis of top colleges and universities in the United States, and is the highest-ranked Kansas college in the Washington Monthly annual college guide for 2014-15. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

Michelle Unruh is a senior from Goessel. Other members of the 2015 Bethel interterm class Cross-Cultural Learning Seminar: An Immersion into the Business and Culture of South America with Bobby Lloyd, assistant professor of business and economics, were Ben Carlson, Hurley, South Dakota, Ryan Ford, Canon City, Colorado, Lisa Goering, Lawrence, Hailey Heide, Wichita, Mikayla Hiebert, Peabody, Shelby Howard, Halstead, Dylan Jantz, Newton, Tyler Kaufman, Moundridge, Jacob Miller, Westmoreland, Rachel Shogren, Hesston, Drew Trollope, Kingman, and Jaime Tschetter, Freeman, South Dakota.

About Bethel

As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.