Story by Leslie McCullough
Luck, chance, or fate? Maybe some combination of the three. During a summer 2002 undergraduate research trip to South America, Sarah South Parks ’03 suggested an exploratory side trip to La Plata, Argentina. The rest is history.
Sarah was finishing her junior year as a Hispanic Studies major and jumped at the chance to join her advisor, Professor Silvia Tandeciarz, and fellow student John Cipperly for a two-week research trip to Chile and Argentina, two nations emerging from brutal experiences with state terrorism. The students’ participation was made possible by a Borgenicht Foundation for Identity and Transformation Grant supporting faculty-directed student research projects.
In preparing for the trip, Professor Tandeciarz asked Sarah and John to read A Lexicon of Terror: Argentina and the Legacies of Torture by Marguerite Feitlowitz. Sarah recalls being particularly interested in a chapter about the alarming number of children, students, and faculty who “disappeared” from the university town of La Plata, Argentina, during its so-called “Dirty War” (1976-1983).
“It was a terrible and secretive time,” says Sarah. “Thousands of Argentineans were arrested, imprisoned, and declared missing. People involved with the university and education were seen as a threat by the dictatorship, and many disappeared.”
Together the group visited “memory sites” (e.g., museums, monuments, bookstores, schools, and memorials) to document and analyze the role of memory in the re-construction of Chilean and Argentinean national identities.
Sarah expressed interest in visiting the sites of memory in La Plata that she’d read about. Although only a half-hour drive from Buenos Aires, La Plata at that time represented uncharted territory.
There, while visiting a memory site at an elementary school, the group noticed a poster for the Comisión Provincial por la Memoria (Commission on Memory), a nongovernmental organization dedicated to the study and dissemination of human rights abuses committed during the Argentinean dictatorship. The commission was set up to do the very thing Tandeciarz’s team was researching. It was an incredible find.
Sarah’s research focused on the children of the disappeared in Argentina, some of whom were adopted by military families and are just coming to discover their biological identity. Working with the Commission offered access to many invaluable resources. Later, Sarah reported her research findings in an academic paper she presented at a Modern Languages and Literatures colloquium.
“When we engage in collaborative research with students, the rewards can be endless,” says Professor Tandeciarz. “It was Sarah’s leadership that got us to La Plata. If there had been no grant, there would have been no students on this trip, and we never would have made this wonderful connection.”
Since the initial connection, Tandeciarz has helped to develop a strong relationship between the Commission and the College. As a result, William and Mary students from many majors have participated in a semester study abroad program in La Plata, the only one of its kind available there to U.S. college students.
“This semester program is unique in that it offers students the opportunity to take university courses while collaborating on a variety of human rights initiatives through internships at the Comission, thus bringing William and Mary’s service learning tradition into global education,” says Professor Tandeciarz. The funding structure of the La Plata program also has made it possible for Argentinean students to come to the College for short research trips, usually conducted over spring break in collaboration with William and Mary undergraduate students.
“I never could have guessed what this trip would turn into,” says Sarah. “It is neat to think about how this program is benefiting the lives of so many other students. In my opinion, one of the College’s greatest assets is the ability to maintain an environment that allows for such strong collaborations between students and faculty.”
Since receiving her master’s degree in social work in 2006, Sarah South Parks has worked with international adoption programs and Hispanic immigrant children who had been separated and subsequently reunited with their families. She is currently working in Williamsburg with The Barker Foundation, a private adoption agency, to provide counseling to women or couples facing unplanned pregnancy.