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Mission to Restore the California Native Lands of San Diego

by Connie K. Ho | July 4th, 2011

It was her first time in San Diego. As Saori Shinozaki, fourth year international student, sat in the van, she felt a burst of anxiety and excitement. Other students chattered around her but Shinozaki sat gazing at the scenery – it was so beautiful, lush green trees passed in a blur on one side while the aquamarine ocean glistened on the other. The van soon came to a halt and she found herself completely surrounded by forest. There were no shops, no fancy houses, only a few turkeys running around. She had never been anywhere quite like this place in Japan.

Spurred on by another international friend’s experience in Alternative Winter Break, Shinozaki decided to apply for the Alternative Spring Break program. Like other applicants, she filled out a form but, afraid that her language skills were weak, Shinozaki asked friends to look over her application and correct any errors. Following the paper application, she also participated in a group interview – no easy feat for a student whose native language is not English.

Shinozaki was particularly interested in participating in the Alternative Break program titled “Restoring the Lands,” where students would be able to volunteer at the La Jolla Indian Reservation.

“I had studied about Native Americans at my home university and I was interested in learning about the culture and problems of the people,” said Shinozaki. “I also really wanted to do something about it while I was in the US.”

Having been accepted into the program, Shinozaki began to attend orientations that would prepare her for the trip. In one meeting, a guest speaker from a neighboring reservation visited the Center for Service and Action to speak about his experience. Projects the Alternative Break members completed included planting native plants like sage and assisting in environmental programs.

In working with members of the Luiseño Indians, Shinozaki came to respect their culture and traditions. Shinozaki was amazed by the Native Americans’ focus on the environment. They had programs to build parks for children and other ways of providing water for the community. She also learned how the community went to great strengths to preserve their heritage, even offering language classes to adults.

“The people were so nice, they welcomed us with open arms,” said Shinozaki. “They never hesitated to answer our questions and they had such an understanding of their own identity. They knew about their culture, who they are as a people.”

Despite the rewards of working with the Luiseño Indians, Shinozaki encountered some cultural challenges on the trip. In the program, she was the only international student and it was the first time in the year where she did not have the means to speak to Japanese friends or family members. By the end of the week, though, she felt more comfortable and developed a rapport with many new American friends.

Shinozaki believes that the Alternative Spring Break trip has been one of the highlights of her study abroad experience and hopes to apply her experience back home. She believes that the Japanese should learn more about their own ethnic groups.

“When I told my family I was going to a reservation, they thought that I was going to live in a tepee and wear bird feathers,” said Shiozaki. “I want to break stereotypes, to stimulate people’s interests in discussing these ethnic minorities.”

To other international students, she advises them to be open-minded and to take advantage of these opportunities.

“Remember to challenge yourself, just try and jump in. Don’t be afraid.”

Photos via Vinícius Praxedes

A native of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Vinícius Praxedes first realized his passion for studying and working abroad when he embarked to San Diego to study English. Since then, he has lived, worked and studied in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Hanover, New Hampshire, and Los Angeles, California. Vinícius enjoys rock climbing, photography and sharing homemade Brazilian delicacies with his friends.

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