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An educational work trip became an incredible family reunion for McKay School student Christopher Cardenas

“You speak Spanish? Your dad is from Peru? Your wife is from Peru?” These are the excited questions posed by Professor Richard West of the McKay School’s Instructional Psychology and Technology department that kicked off a trip of a lifetime for newly admitted graduate student Christopher Cardenas.

Arequipa, Peru
Arequipa, Peru. Courtesy of Richard West.

West was planning a trip to the University of St. Augustine in Peru (UNSA) with Ross Larsen from the McKay School and Ken Plummer from the BYU Center for Teaching and Learning when he decided to recruit Cardenas. “[UNSA] asked us to come and teach them about an innovative new teaching strategy that has been developed here at BYU called decision-based learning,” said West.

Although West’s mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Ecuador equipped him with Spanish speaking skills, he wanted to bring someone along who was a native speaker. That’s where Cardenas comes into the story—West discovered that not only does Cardenas speak Spanish, but he also has family roots in Peru.

Cardenas quickly realized that he was presented with a tremendous opportunity to visit his father’s homeland for the first time. “He literally started shaking,” said West.

Cardenas’ father is from Lima, which is where Cardenas ended up with an eight-hour layover before flying on to Arequipa. When he stepped off the plane he thought of this scripture from Malachi 4:6, “And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers. . . .”

“Wow, this is my dad’s motherland. This is where my roots are and this is basically my first time being here,” said Cardenas. “It was a pretty spiritual and emotional moment for me.”

During that layover Cardenas was able to meet some family members from his father’s side for the first time. “My cousin picked me up, and it was the first time I met her,” said Cardenas. In Lima he also met his grandfather’s brother. “My grandpa’s brother looks just like my grandpa who passed away 10 years ago, so it felt like I was talking to my grandpa again,” Cardenas reflected.

Cardenas and family
From left to right: Cardenas' aunt Flor de Maria Ramos Aquirre holding baby Lucero Ramos, cousin Zuleima Ramos, Cardenas, uncle Bernardino, Adriana Huamanchumo Cardenas, and Noemi Cardenas, her mother. Courtesy of Christopher Cardenas.

Arequipa, Peru, is the location of UNSA, the university where Cardenas and the team worked on the trip. UNSA is also where Cardenas’ wife went to school for one year. “So, I went to her hometown and we made plans so I could spend time with her family,” said Cardenas. “Every morning I spent my time with my brother-in-law.”

At one point, Cardenas and his brother-in-law, Brent, visited the site for the future temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Arequipa. “That was really neat because my dad served his mission in Arequipa,” said Cardenas. “My dad helped build the missionary work here.”

Cardenas’ father was not the only one to have served a mission for the Church in Arequipa. Ken Plummer—a key member of the BYU team—also served in the mission and was able to reunite with the generous sister who assisted the missionaries on preparation days. That woman happens to be Cardenas’ grandmother.

Cardenas and in-laws
From left to right: Brent's grandmother Rosa Mar Orellana, Cardenas, Brent's wife Stefani Bejar, and Cardenas' brother-in-law Brent Bejar. Courtesy of Christopher Cardenas.

It seemed that the connections to Cardenas’ family never ended as the past and present came to an incredible convergence on the trip.

The work the team was doing in Peru was also important and well-received. “UNSA is an official university, but I didn’t realize how much they are in need,” said Cardenas. “They didn’t even know how to use Google Docs, and barely knew how to use the internet.”

Cardenas and the team could see that the decision-based learning would be of great value to them. Cardenas noted that the university’s buildings were made of the same materials that Spanish settlers used anciently.

“It’s the ancient city; the white city, because it’s all preserved,” said Cardenas. “It’s kind of in the culture as well, and unfortunately in the academic culture. Purely lecture and not as much student-centered as it is teacher-centered.”

The team’s strategies and theories on teaching left the university faculty in Peru excited about implementing new methods and changing for the better. “I loved the interaction with the Peruvian faculty,” said West. “I came away wanting to be more like them in how they were willing to and wanting to try and grow with a new teaching strategy. That was very promising.”

BYU team and UNSA faculty
The BYU team and UNSA faculty. Courtesy of Richard West.

Some UNSA faculty remarked that there was “something different” about the team from BYU. UNSA has been hosting many workshops to try to improve, but BYU’s team carried something else with them. “I think that was the Spirit that they were feeling,” Cardenas reflected.

Before the trip to Peru, Cardenas discovered an innovative school called InnovaSchool that was created by the international design and consulting firm IDEO. Looking for ways to maximize time in Peru, Cardenas and West visited an InnovaSchool for a day.

“It was a really fantastic school that I think was maybe the best example I’ve ever seen of taking what we know about learning theory and actually putting it into practice,” said West. “We went around unannounced into five different classrooms and in only one of them were the kids actually sitting there in desks listening to the teacher lecture.”

At the end of the trip Cardenas was able to spend some more time in Lima with his father’s family. “I visited my dad’s old house that he grew up in; it’s just this messy ruin now,” said Cardenas. From inside that ruin, Cardenas imagined something greater coming forth.

“My dream is to make my own school and I want to start with my dad’s building,” declared Cardenas. He imagines that his school will be like the InnovaSchools—rooted in decision-based pedagogy and focused on the students. “When I saw my dad’s place just open there in the middle of Lima I thought that this could make a difference. It really opened my eyes.”

The extraordinary experiences of this trip truly capture President Worthen’s vision of Inspiring Learning. “How can you get more inspiring than this?” asked West. “Chris goes down there and he gets to teach workshops, do research, and meet his family. That is inspiring learning.”

The future looks bright as Cardenas begins his master’s degree at the McKay School. He has a vision that has been made clear by an unexpected journey to his roots, and capable professors to help him reach his goals.

Writer: Jake Gulisane
Contact: Cindy Glad (801) 422-1922