March 24, 2010

A Sociologist on the Move: Fourteen Months, Four Countries, and Three Kids

On May 27, 2009, I began a long trip with my family. Over the next 14 months, we would be living in four countries, beginning with nearly three months in Kingston, Jamaica.

Our journey has not been easy all of the time, but it has never been dull, with one adventure after another. Thankfully, we have had the good fortune of meeting many people whose good will has made these fourteen months abroad much easier and more productive.

In Kingston, a Jamaican colleague, Prof. Sonjah Stanley, recommended I put my eight-year old twin daughters and my five year old daughter in Edna Manley School of the Arts Summer Camp. That turned out to be a fantastic suggestion, as it is a marvelous summer camp. My husband, Fernando, got involved in the Trenchtown Culture Yard, and I began my research with deportees. I also started a blog, that chronicles this amazing year abroad with my family.

I was able to take this trip as I had been awarded a Fulbright-Hays Faculty Research Abroad Award to conduct research on the re-integration experiences of deportees in Jamaica, Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, and Brazil. My Fulbright-Hays Award didn’t officially start until August 14, 2009, but I got a head start with internal funding from the University of Kansas to do some pilot research in Kingston, Jamaica. In each country, my research consisted in interviewing 30 deportees, government officials responsible for deportees, and researching the migration histories of each country.

The summer in Kingston went fairly well, with only the occasional break-down where Tatiana, one of my 8-year old twins, would cry and fuss that she wanted to go back to Kansas. My pilot research was more successful than I expected. A colleague in Kingston – Prof. Bernard Headley – introduced me to a couple of key informants, who greatly facilitated my research. Fernando completed a project teaching the folks at Trenchtown Culture Yard how to make pan flutes out of bamboo. Before we knew it, it was time to pack up and go to Guatemala City.

Before traveling to Guatemala City, I contacted Prof. Miguel Ugalde and introduced myself via email. He helped me find a furnished apartment in Guatemala City for our three month stay, and invited the family over for a churrasco our first Sunday in the city. My first week in Guatemala City, Miguel took me to the airport where deportees arrive and I was able to witness the processing of over 100 deportees into Guatemala. I couldn’t believe my luck and how quickly I was able to get my research underway. Finding 30 deportees to interview turned out to be a bit tricky. However, with a few creative strategies, I found them and left Guatemala with 35 interviews completed. My research in Guatemala was remarkably successful, even though we never were able to get the children in school. The school year had begun in January, and the schools were finishing up as we arrived. There are “American” schools that begin in September, but the $6,000 enrollment fee per child was prohibitively expensive. That’s when we decided to home school.

Fortunately, our school district has a virtual school where you can enroll your children in a highly structured program. Admittedly, it is a tremendous amount of work to home school three children. At first, we contracted an English-speaking teacher. But, that did not work out, as the children were not advancing in terms of their lessons. Eventually, I had to take over, as Fernando’s limited English skills prevented him from being in charge of home schooling. Things got a bit hectic when I had to home school in the mornings, write after lunch, and conduct interviews in the evenings. But, we managed, especially knowing that the situation was temporary.

In the Dominican Republic, our next stop, the schools are on the same calendar as those in the US, so we were able to enroll the children in a local Catholic school. I was relieved to have the children in school again. The curriculum looked similar to their curriculum in Kansas, so I kept up the home schooling, part time. In the afternoons and on weekends, I gave the children key lessons from the Kansas curriculum.

Settling into Santo Domingo and getting my research off the ground was a lot easier than I anticipated – largely because of the help of a couple of generous individuals. Mari, the sister of the friend of a friend was an angel with us, despite our weak ties to her. When she heard we were coming, she offered to pick us up from the airport, lent us an apartment while we got settled, and found a school for us! We could not believe her generosity. Once we found our own apartment, also with Mari’s help, I got started with my research. I called a few contacts in the US, one of whom gave me the contact information for Rene Vicioso, who works with deportees in the Dominican Republic. When I spoke with Rene, he was very accommodating and agreed to meet with me the next day.

When we met, Rene assured me there would be no problem finding 30 deportees. He also introduced me to several key government officials, and my research project was soon up and running. In Santo Domingo, I had no problem finding deportees to interview, and ended up completing 50 interviews. Soon enough, however, our three months were up, and it was time to travel to Brazil.

In Brazil, my research was focused on Goiás – the state that receives the most deportees. Luckily, I have a wonderful colleague in Goiania, the capital of Goiás, Izabel Missagia. Izabel picked us up at the airport, and took us to her house, where we stayed until we were able to find a place of our own. As of this writing, I am in Cidade Goiás, a lovely town that Izabel recommended to us, especially because of a fantastic, alternative school in Cidade Goiás. The children are in a school called Vila Esperança that focuses on music, dance, and capoeira. After three months in Catholic school in the DR, this is a very welcome change. The school calendar year just began, so the twins are starting the third grade again here, and my youngest is starting the first grade early. However, we decided that, in Brazil, their primary goal will be to learn Portuguese, and I will finish up the home schooling over the summer. My children already speak English and Spanish, so learning Portuguese should not be too challenging for them.

As of this writing, we are in Brazil. Like in Guatemala, it has not been easy finding interviewees here, and I have already begun using creative strategies to locate deportees to interview. This past weekend, I traveled to a small town in Goiás where I was able to find three deportees by asking around.

I feel very lucky to be in a profession that allows my family to have such amazing experiences. I traveled extensively before becoming a sociologist, but knew that, eventually, I wanted to settle down and have a career and a family. Who knew that traveling the world would become part of my career and still possible with a family! Admittedly, dragging our three children from one country to the next has its challenges. However, for me, it would be even more challenging not only to be apart from them, but also to deny them this fantastic experience that they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.

Written for “World on the Move” – the Newsletter of the International Migration Section of the American Sociological Association.


  1. André dos Anjos CardosoMarch 24, 2010 at 8:01 AM

    Hy, Tanya
    I've been following your and your family's adventures in Brazil for some days (didn't get to the other countries yet), and I think that it's good for you that you've traveled a lot, because common north americans wouldn't adapt well as you're doing. I'm Izabel's husband, and am looking forward to meet you five in person. Have a nice stay!

  2. Hi Andre! Nice to "meet" you, now that I have had the pleasure of meeting Izabel and Felipe.

    Our adaptation has been facilitated by wonderful and generous people like Izabel. I only hope that when people travel to the US they are as well-received as we have been. This trip has taught me a lesson on the importance of lending a hand!