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Story in the College of Arts & Sciences

K. Gonzales '09 photo

Alicia K. Gonzales '09

B.A. English
At a glance:

Studying abroad had a profound effect on Alicia Gonzales' undergraduate experience.

Alicia Gonzales says building houses in urban slums was the best part of her undergraduate experience at Santa Clara University.

She traveled to Mexico twice on immersion trips for home construction projects. As part of a group of students and faculty, she shoveled dirt, carried boards, and connected with the low-income area's residents. "I took part in every step of the process—from sifting dirt to sawing wood to tarring a roof," says Gonzales.

The tools used were basic, but the impact was lasting. "By forgoing power tools," she says, "we were able to integrate the spirit of simplicity and communal work throughout the construction process."

Putting it into Perspective 
Each trip revealed a world much different from Gonzales' own.

"The family that I served on my second trip called an old, cramped trailer on the edge of a dirt plot home." Gonzales and her team helped demolish the old trailer and, on the same plot of land, built a more durable home for a family of six.

Some families had to deconstruct their shacks first for Gonzales' team to construct new homes, making for some "cold and particularly dangerous nights."

These new homes were always much sturdier and more safe than the trailers. "A home could be potentially divided into three rooms, depending on the family's evolving needs," she says. Simple décor like sliding windows, curtains, and doormats were also added.

Inspiration for the Future
"The last day, we presented the new house to the family, along with gifts for the five children," reports Gonzales. "The oldest daughter cried as she watched her little siblings celebrate their good fortune. When our buses pulled away, she patted her heart over and over again, silently voicing her gratefulness and solidarity. I'll never forget her, and she inspired me to serve the poor."

An English major, the construction labor hadn't been part of her class curriculum. But being involved in these construction processes reshaped her plans for the future.

"Owning keys," she reveals, "even if they hold only symbolic value, can mean more to a family than anything else they receive throughout the rest of their lives."

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