Friday 26 Jul, 2013

Service Learning in the Dominican Republic: Exploration and Introspection – Part 1

“I want to explore the world, and this is my first step,” said Xandrea, one of many first time international travelers who came with the Tarleton State University group from Texas to participate in EF’s service learning program in the central mountain range of the Dominican Republic. EF’s service learning programs are designed to provide travelers with the opportunity to make a substantial positive impact in the communities visited, to work and learn alongside locals, and to participate in guided reflection with their peers about how to mobilize their experiences into action back home. The Tarleton State University group lived the program to its full potential. All went home having gotten a step closer to exploring the world and, for most, it meant much more than simply a stamp in the passport.

Service Learning in the Dominican RepublicSANTO DOMINGO was the first city founded in the New World. For any student traveling from the U.S. first impressions of the sun-bleached and partially decayed colonial city evoke two waves of awe. The first is visceral, stemming from contact with a foreign city – the Caribbean sun, street vendors throwing Dominican slang and hot empanadas, a rainbow of skin tones, monuments to unknown heroes and the wind-swept Caribbean sea splashing against the boardwalk. The second is more an intellectual connection with a much older colonial history than can be found stateside.

This dynamic – an exploration of the exotic, serving as a bridge to introspection – was a pattern throughout the trip. Even seemingly simple cultural differences were sparks for new understanding. For instance, our first stop on a walking tour of the Colonial Zone of Santo Domingo was a Dominican fast food restaurant. All of the travelers were hungry after their flight, and the restaurant provided convenient shelter from a sudden rain shower. As the travelers stood in line, somewhat befuddled, we worked to find parallels in the menu with foods they were familiar with; ripe fried plantains, we decided, were analogous to sweet potato fries, whereas unripe fried plantains were like normal fries. Some of the visiting students smiled and laughed as a Dominican toddler danced free spirited in the middle of the restaurant as his parents ate.

Service Learning ProjectsAfter our first day of exploration in Santo Domingo we set off for Jarabacoa, a small town in a valley of the Dominican Republic’s highest mountain range, where our service learning projects would be focused. I lived and worked in Jarabacoa for two years while serving with the U.S. Peace Corps. Most of the projects that the student group was set to work on were extensions of projects that I had helped to build while serving as a volunteer, so, needless to say, as we drove from the coast into the mountains I was looking forward to seeing how a student group would contribute to the projects at hand.

The students’ projects were designed to support the initiatives of three local organizations: the Dominican Republic’s National Environmental School, a youth environmental club called the Green Brigade and a local women’s association that is working to develop an ecotourism project. All three organizations support nature conservation and community development to varying degrees. Despite not having had much hands-on experience with the tasks at hand, the visiting students from Tarleton persevered, and left a number of tangible positive impacts in the project sites. More substantial still were the less tangible impacts that the visiting students had on the Dominican community members working alongside them, on each other, and within themselves.

Check back Tuesday, June 30th for Part 2.