The impending end of the long-running war with the FARC was a major reason I decided to go to Colombia over the summer rather than another country in the region. Although it has been an exceedingly difficult process, this is an exciting moment in the Colombian history. I wanted to be in Bogotá to get a better gauge of public opinion regarding Colombian politics and the peace negotiations. After two months, I left with a greater understanding and respect for the complexity and controversy surrounding the talks. I was there on the day that the FARC and the government signed an unprecedented bilateral ceasefire that ended combat after over 50 years of fighting. While the final deal has not yet been signed, there is a sense of guarded optimism amongst many Colombians and it was beneficial for me to be able to see it firsthand and discuss it with them. Though it’s a cliché, I appreciated seeing the Colombia that exists “beyond the headlines.”
By being in the country and speaking to actual Colombians about the conflict, I gained new perspectives on war and the effects that it has on a population that will serve as important lessons as I continue my studies. Yes, it is obvious that war greatly affects the people living around it. But still, while learning about conflict after conflict in a faraway classroom in the United States, it can become easy to forget the people and focus on security studies as a strictly intellectual pursuit. It is even necessary to be dispassionate at times in order to process these topics. But these insights regarding the human aspect of war and insecurity are necessary to add significance to what we study. In the end, the reason I study war is to lessen the effects of it on real people. I cannot adequately learn about the experiences and viewpoints of those people only from afar or only from a book.
Besides the current political situation, another factor that drew me to Bogotá specifically was the Spanish spoken there. I had long heard that the people of Bogotá spoke some of the best Spanish in Latin America, which turned out to be true. The city was a great place to study the language, and I was able to advance my speaking levels rapidly through complete immersion. I had class every day, plus I lived, worked, and hung out almost exclusively with Colombians. (I also lost my Spain Spanish accent, which has made my Latin American friends quite happy.)
There is no substitute for intensive, in-country study when it comes to learning languages and the summer grant provided me with exactly the experience I sought. My improved Spanish will definitely help me in my pursuit of a job related to Latin America. I also acquainted myself with the work environment in Colombia and connected with a new professional network that will serve me well going forward. Although I was working for IPSI, I worked in the Colombian think tank’s offices every day and operated as the link between our two organizations. This meant I was consistently exposed to some of the top researchers in the country and a wide range of their work regarding conflict analysis and post-conflict reconstruction. This exposure has been invaluable in shaping my path forward, and I left Colombia confident that a career working on these issues is right for me.