Over the course of three days, the Tarleton State University group built anti-erosion stairs into a hiking trail using local materials such as bamboo, constructed three wooden “Adirondack” chairs and a small table as part of a growing outdoor learning area at the environmental school, removed invasive species alongside Dominican women from the ecotourism association, planted trees, prepared tree-saplings for reforestation efforts across the DR, and helped the local environmental youth club build raised vegetable beds for their garden. During the entirety of these projects, the visiting students and local community participants both had to work on cross-cultural communication. Some improved their foreign language immersion skills; others relied on body language, humor and patience. Visiting and local participants alike gained a new appreciation for the people they were working alongside. The American students praised the local participants’ ingenuity with local materials and tenacity despite lack of access to better resources. The Dominican participants were impressed with how friendly the American students were, and how they were willing to get their hands dirty.
On top of the actual projects, the visiting students and local participants had a number of other occasions to learn more about each other’s culture, create bonds, overcome challenges and have fun. One evening the visiting students were invited to a live merengue concert along with the youth environmental club and staff from the environmental school. For most of the night the American students had a blast learning how to dance merengue and bachatta, two tradition Dominican dance forms. But before the night was over the Americans switched it up, passed the DJ an iPod with a few songs queued up and taught the locals how to “wiggle with it,” and dance 2 step. Other notable activities were white-water rafting, horse-back riding, many games of volleyball, nightly reflection activities and snorkeling on a coral reef on a small ephemeral island on the DR’s north coast. In all of these activities the American students and local participants had to come together and find each other’s complementary strengths to overcome challenges and fears.
As someone who has been working intimately with the previously mentioned service learning projects for the past two years, I can say with confidence that the visiting group made a meaningful impact in the community where they served. They physically added to the ecotourism potential of the area, which will benefit both conservation efforts and local economic development. They contributed to biodiversity conservation and local environmental awareness. It’s important to note that the funds that allowed the American students to learn and practice conservation measures also allowed local community members to learn and practice conservation. On top of all of these great impacts, I saw the Tarleton State University group grow together as school colleagues, open their minds – and the minds of the local participants – to a new culture, and nurture their desires to be agents of positive change in their home towns. To me these tangible and intangible impacts are equally as important. Both work towards making the world a better place for everyone.
The last morning of the Tarleton State University trip, the environmental school hosted a breakfast for the visiting students to say goodbye to the school staff and the young women of the environmental club. There were hugs, tears and lots of laughter as the group reflected on the varied landscape of the week past. Before departing, the visiting students were asked if they had any words that they wanted to share with their new found friends. The same woman who shared her aspirations of world exploration that first day in Santo Domingo walked to the front of the cafeteria. The tour director stood beside her to translate. She had come to explore the world, but her final remarks about the trip weren’t about the exotic landscape or her first experiences within a new culture with new challenges. Her departing words were a re-affirmation of her own potential to make positive change in the town where she comes from. They were words of motivation, urging her fellow students to join her.