WOOSTER, Ohio – Before Chris Culbertson could figure out where he was going, he needed to find out where he had been. Adopted at six months of age, Culbertson spent a good portion of his early years confused and conflicted. As a young man, he carried a chip on his shoulder and a hole in his heart.
Despite growing up with a loving and supportive family in Ann Arbor, Mich., Culbertson experienced anxiety and resentment when the kids at school started to point out to him that he was “different” from his mother and father. “They told me that I didn’t look like my parents,” remembers Culbertson. “When I was 10, I finally asked my mother [a partner at an architectural firm] and father [a teacher of English and film at Huron High School in Ann Arbor] to tell me about it, and they agreed to share what they knew.”
Culbertson learned that he had been born in Santiago, Chile and given up for adoption by his single mother, who realized that because she lived in extreme poverty, she had no chance to adequately care for her son. Fortunately, she left a note explaining her rationale, which Culbertson’s adoptive parents showed him. “I can’t support you; you would die here,” she wrote in the letter. “I want you to go the U.S to have an American education and an American way of life.” Culbertson still has this card and looks at it often.
After reviewing his adoption papers, Culbertson’s sense of abandonment was somewhat placated, and he resolved to one day find his biological mother. But the next few years would be difficult. There were moments of great promise but also setbacks that would ensnare him. ”I went through periods of depression,” he says. “I was sad and angry. I felt unwanted and useless. I just didn’t understand, and I struggled to come to grips with the situation. Many of my friends and family tried to help me, but I didn’t listen to them.”
Culbertson’s foster family visited Chile in 2005, during winter break of his junior year in high school, and it helped Culbertson to develop something he never had — a sense of identity. “I realized, ‘hey, this is where I’m from,’” he says. “It was there that I began to understand how important it was for me to speak the language. I wanted to learn more about the Chilean culture, and I really wanted to meet my mother. After that trip, I was motivated to learn and speak Spanish, as it was part of being ‘Chilean’.”
But the learning process took time and was not without setbacks. “I got into trouble frequently and gained a bad reputation,” says Culbertson. “I became known as a ‘tough kid.’ I would get in fights and have outbursts in class. I was suspended a couple of times, and it was related to not knowing who I really was.”
Culbertson’s restlessness was still unresolved when it came time to further his education. A soccer player in high school, he had been recruited by College of Wooster coach Graham Ford, and when he visited campus, he felt an atmosphere of warmth and friendliness that was very appealing. “Everyone was so nice,” he says. “There was a real sense of community here.”
Unfortunately, Culbertson’s problems persisted in his first year at Wooster. “I got caught up in the partying scene,” he says. “I lost myself because I was looking for my identity in the wrong places.” His wanderings eventually caught up with him and he found himself on academic and behavioral probation.
If Culbertson had chosen to attend a larger school, he might have slipped through the cracks, but thanks to a steadfast support group at Wooster, which included Coach Ford and Ray Tucker, a counselor at the Wellness Center, as well as Professors of Spanish Diane Uber and John Gabriele and Professor of English Mazen Naous, Culbertson hung on.
“What the college did was to help me explore my own identity, to discover who I am,” says Culbertson, a double major in history and Spanish. “A lot of people helped me. I wouldn’t be here without them. They wouldn't let me fail. For the most part, they didn't know what I was going through and treated me like everyone else, which is why I respect them so much. My professors have demanded excellence from everyone, which they define as our very best and most authentic work. It drove me, and I became very serious about gaining knowledge through the way they engaged me in their class and encouraged me in my own work.”
After a tumultuous first year at Wooster, Culbertson’s adoptive mother discovered “English Opens Doors,” a program through which students could teach English as a Second Language in schools needing native English speakers in Chile. Culbertson applied and was accepted. “It was an eye-opening experience,” he says. “I saw wide-ranging poverty and a need for quality teachers. It really hit home.” While there, he learned about the Mapuche, an indigenous group in Chile, and that he was one of them.
As a sophomore, things began to turn around for Culbertson. He met Katie Holt, associate professor of history, who became his advisor and encouraged him to become more serious about his studies. He was taken off probation, and received a Kendall-Rives Latin American Research grant to work at the Chol-Chol Foundation, an NGO in Temuco, Chile, his biological mother’s home. While there, he worked with the Mapuche people. “They recognized me and said, ‘you’re Mapuche,” he says. “It was the first time anyone identified me for who I was. It was a huge moment for me.”
While working in Temuco, Culbertson was invited to appear on a radio program to promote the Chol-Chol Foundation. As he told his life story, he was asked if he had ever met his family. He said, “no,” and they asked, “Do you want to?” Another radio station heard the interview as did a regional newspaper, and together they made Culbertson somewhat of a media darling because of his desire to trace his Mapuche roots and be reunited with his family.
The day after a second radio interview, three women showed up in the office where he was working in Temuco. “I thought one of them might be my mother, but they were actually her sisters – my aunts,” he says. “Just to be sure, I asked them my mother’s name and birthday, and her identification number [everyone in Chile has an identification number]. They got all three right. I had just found my family. I felt the whole world beneath me change.”
Arrangements were made to reunite Culbertson with his mother. He was taken on foot to a small house in the remote countryside where he met other aunts as well as uncles and grandparents. “They took me there in the middle of the night,” he remembers. “I was walking with family members that I did not know. When we got to the house, everyone cried. It was very emotional. I found out that my biological mother was not there, and that she did not know I was coming, but they made arrangements for her to meet me.”
Early in the morning, one of Culbertson’s aunts shook him awake. “Your mother is coming, and she knows something is up,” she said. They hid Culbertson in another room as a car pulled up to the house. When his mother came inside, she said, ‘is he here?’
“She was afraid I had forgotten her and that I wouldn’t want to meet her,” says Culbertson. “I paused for a moment in the doorway because I knew the second I went through that door everything would change. And there she was. She looked exactly like me. I said ‘thank you.’ Then I felt it. We embraced and cried for about two hours. We talked, and she explained why she gave me up for adoption. She also told me that my name was Marcos Curiqueo Huenulaf and that her husband was the son of a Lonko [community leader]. Over several days, I met my two half-sisters and was introduced to more than 50 members of my family living in and around the communities of Chol-Chol and Paillao Mapu [indigenous reservations]. I felt humbled to be accepted by my entire biological family. My mother’s husband even allowed me to take his last name as my own.”
Culbertson returned to Wooster for his junior year a new man. “I finally had an Idea of who I was,” he says. “I’ve grown up in a lot of ways, and none of this would have been possible without the college. The people of Wooster have done so much for me, and I am very grateful.“
Culbertson’s life has since been transformed. He won the Ricardo Valencia Award for Academic Excellence in Spanish, and his grades have improved dramatically. His Independent Study, titled “Cultural Identity in Chile: A study of Mapuche Poetry," has helped him to understand his hybrid existence.
Culbertson’s two mothers met in early January while he conducted field research, in what he described as an “incredible experience.” During that moment, he realized how fortunate he was. Looking at them he understood everything. “One gave me life, the other taught me how to live.”
After graduation, Culbertson plans to reunite with his biological family and live in Chile. “I will end my days in Chile,” he says. “The next step is to get Chilean citizenship and get certified to teach abroad. Initially, I will be living in poverty, but I have discovered who I am and where I belong. I am very grateful to my adoptive family, and I hope that one day my efforts will bring my people out of poverty."
Culbertson would like to begin an initiative aimed at empowering the Mapuche people, and has dubbed it "Project Odakniwa." (The reverse of the word Awinkado, which is used as a derogatory term toward Mapuche people who have lost their roots. Odakniwa then means to regain one’s roots.) Culbertson hopes that one day this initiative of bringing education, sustainable development, and renewable energy to his community will not only help the people escape poverty and improve their standard of living, but also incorporate volunteer opportunities for future Wooster students. In addition, he hopes to develop an international cooperative to promote cross-cultural education and awareness.
“The reason I chose Wooster was the community, and the reason I can look back and never regret that decision is because of the community,” he says. “Wooster will never do anything for you, as my advisers, professors, counselors, coaches, and even my friends have told me countless times. What Wooster does though, is empower its students with the tools they need to be successful in life and graduates individuals who have the potential to make a significant difference in the world. But it won’t come without hard work or setbacks. You can’t be afraid to fail, or afraid to ask for help when you do. The college has helped me find my path and now I’m off to walk it.”
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