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Studying in Lima as a Peruvian-American

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Alex, a fellow IFSA-Peru participant, is the daughter of Peruvian immigrants to the United States who spent several years in Lima as a young child. She chose study in Peru to fully assume her Peruvian identity and get to know her family’s origins. Two months in, she shared her reflections.   

Growing up Peruvian in the States 

Alex’s parents migrated when they were in their thirties, and Alex was born in the U.S. “They   wanted me and my sister to have opportunities. Because to them at the time English was the pathway to success, I grew up almost only with English,” Alex explained. “Despite their good intentions, they recognize now that this was a mistake. Growing up, I didn’t relate at all to my culture.”  

From ethnic food in the lunchroom to a different hair type, Alex’s Peruvian background conflicted with her attempts to fit in. She struggled so much that it affected her relationship with her family and led her to reject her family’s Peruvian habits, giveaways that separated her from her peers.  

Exploring my Peruvian identity 

At around age 12, Alex returned to Peru with her family for the first time since she was a preschooler. “I think my mom saw how we grew up alien to Peruvian culture and thought going back to Peru would change things. And it did. A lot.” 

Being with families that listened and danced to the same music as her family, appreciated the same food, and spoke the same way allowed Alex to feel comfortable with that part of her identity and enjoy it. “I cried my eyes out in the airport when it was time to go back to the U.S., because I didn’t want to go,” she recalls. 

Back in the States, Alex sought opportunities to learn about and participate in Peruvian culture. She began to formally study Spanish for the first time, took festejo and marinera dance lessons, and learned to prepare Peruvian foods with her grandmother by phone. 

Choosing to study in Peru 

Alex had always wanted to study abroad, but Peru wasn’t always the obvious destination. As she narrowed her career aspirations, her interest in environmental engineering intersected with her background in Latin America. “This led me to think about living in the region and contributing to this growing sector,” Alex explained.  

Alex also felt a personal obligation to choose Peru for her family and herself. “Putting myself in a place where my parents were makes me feel like I can get to know them and where they came from a lot better,” she noted.  

She debated announcing herself as Peruvian-American within IFSA, because she didn’t want other IFSA students to treat her differently. In the end she decided to be open about her identity. 

Once here in Peru, Alex began to have concerns. “I worry a lot about how people look at me because I am Peruvian-American,” she confessed. “That they might think, ‘Hey, she lives over there but she’s coming here by choice and still gets to go back.’ ” At the same time, she recognizes her privileges. “That’s exactly what my parents fought for,” she adds.  

Soaking in Peruvian culture 

Alex reports enjoying nearly every day in Peru, despite the pressure she feels to fit in. “I feel like a kid learning a subject I like in school, and I get tested on it all the time when I have to speak Spanish and fit in like a normal Peruvian.” Despite picking up on countless cultural quirks and customs, doesn’t see herself as a full “part of the culture” yet. “I’m more of a work in progress—and I think I’m happy with that.”  

“IFSA has noticeably tried to bring us into the culture,” Alex reports. “While some other programs just make arrangements for housing and studies, IFSA had a detailed orientation full of cultural crash-courses, emphasized the importance of living with a host family, and organized excursions and longer trips with sights, experiences, and interactions that go way beyond the usual tourist’s perspective. While trips do include typical touristy stuff, there is a good mix of less superficial interactions and deeper learning that better reflects Peruvian reality, thanks to great guides and great planning.” 
Chris H. (George Washington University), Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, IFSA Work-to-Study Program international correspondent.