Mercy Students Explore History, Culture and a Sustainable Future in Colombia

Mercy University students visit Medellin, Colombia

“The trip was an amazing deep dive into Colombia — its history, present and future,” said Mercy University student James Marcus ’24, who is majoring in international relations and diplomacy. “People in Medellín do not deny their city’s history, but they have done so much work since then to change its image. I learned how to travel with my heart and mind open to all the possibilities and potential a place might have.”

Marcus is one of the 13 Mercy students who traveled to Medellín, Colombia for a week in May 2023 with Thomas Culhane, Ph.D., senior lecturer in behavioral science, and Stuart Sidle, Ph.D., dean of Mercy’s School of Social and Behavioral Sciences, as part of the course “Contemporary Issues: The Psychology of Environmental Sustainability and Justice.” In this course, students learn about the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals and explore ways that communities like Medellín, Colombia are trying to achieve these goals.

Sidle first recognized the potential of taking Mercy students to Medellín, a city that markets itself as the sustainable city reinvented. Over the past 20 years, Medellín has transformed itself from one of the most dangerous cities in the world to one of the most innovative and “green” cities in South America.

Starting in 2004, the government built aerial cable car lines to connect the low-income neighborhoods on the mountainsides with the city center in the valley, creating economic opportunity. More recently, the city planted tens of thousands of trees and other native plants across the city. There are recycling and trash bins on many street corners along with posters reminding people to keep their city clean. Colorful murals and public art covered walls, staircases and entire buildings in every direction.

“It’s best that I go and see Colombia for myself rather than listen to what people say,” said Fabiola Thomas ’24, who is majoring in international relations and diplomacy. “The more I learn about other people and their backgrounds and cultures, the better prepared I’ll be for my career as a diplomat.”

Sidle and Culhane were able to secure grants to subsidize the trip’s cost for every student and even give one a full scholarship. Culhane invited students to decide how they wanted to document their learning, so students spent their free moments creating TikTok and Facebook Live videos, writing blog posts and texting updates to classmates who were not able to join the trip.

Some of the itinerary focused on seeing Medellín and exposing students to Colombia’s culture and history. Students toured a coffee plantation where they saw the whole process of producing coffee from planting the seeds to drying the beans. They went ziplining above the treetops of a cloud forest and visited El Peñón de Guatapé (Rock of Guatapé), a natural rock formation that provides an impressive view of the region. They took the aerial cable cars to visit the lowerincome neighborhoods that were the most affected by the violence and paramilitarism of the past. They visited the Museo Casa de la Memoria (House of Memory Museum), an open-air gallery of colorful murals that chronicle Medellín’s tumultuous history. All the while, their Colombian tour guide prompted deep discussions about race, gender and inequality.

Thomas recounted a memorable moment that occurred when the group got stuck in an intense thunderstorm while visiting a mountainside neighborhood: “A local saw us standing in the rain and invited us into her house to wait out the storm. We were 15 people in a small room, and she figured out where we could all sit. It really touched my heart.”

Other parts of the itinerary focused on exploring how Medellín has transformed into such an environmentally sustainable city and determining how to further support that transformation. While visiting a women’s cooperative, students spent the morning separating and weighing the garbage that provides the women with income. The women were very interested when Culhane explained that a biodigester could turn their food waste and toilet waste into fuel and fertilizer — expertise he developed after building biodigesters all around the world — so he plans to build one for them in 2024 with a group of Mercy students. Students also met with EAFIT University to discuss how to scale change at the municipal level.

Mercy University students in Medellin, Colombia

“When we take these trips and can have heart-to-heart talks about the challenges people face, we find our commonalities and start solving real problems,” said Culhane. “This is absolutely the way to teach and the whole point of education.”

Culhane has a long history at Mercy and a long history of leading service learning trips. His mother, Hind Rassam Culhane, associate professor emerita in behavioral science, was the head of Mercy’s social and behavioral sciences program starting in the 1970s; his father, John Culhane, was an adjunct professor who taught animation history at Mercy; and Culhane began teaching online courses at Mercy in the early 2000s. In 2012, he returned to Mercy to found a sustainability program and also started the Environmental Sustainability and Justice Club (Envisaj). After experimenting with building biodigesters on Mercy’s campus, he began taking students on short trips to build biodigesters in New York State and Pennsylvania. Soon, he was organizing service-learning trips for students to build biodigesters in Israel and Palestine. Once students realized the value of biodigesters, they planned a trip to bring biodigesters to their communities in the Dominican Republic and Haiti.

“Pretty soon, we realized that there’s not a skill that you can’t teach through a travel abroad program,” said Culhane. Since 2016, he has worked for the University of South Florida–Tampa, but he is still teaching four classes per year at Mercy as well as leading Envisaj.

Culhane and Sidle plan to return to Medellín with another group of students over spring break in 2024. With a goal of incorporating more service into the trip, that group will spend at least two days building biodigesters for local organizations.

By the end of the trip, the students spoke of each other as “family.” They recognized the depth of community in Medellín as well. “People came together to make a community in Medellín,” said Belinda Asare ’23, who graduated in the spring with a degree in biology. “In the end, that unity wins. If there’s unity among the people, there will always be victory, even if it comes late.”

This article is from the Maverick Magazine Fall 2023 issue. To read more, click here.