“When I first began field work in South America during my Master’s Degree, I ran across a quote from an academic that said something like, ‘Never let books interfere with your education.’ At the time, I thought that was a funny thing for a social scientist to write. But as I became more involved in working with street children in Bogotá, Colombia, I appreciated its meaning more and more: leaping into field work experience, particularly with impoverished groups in so much need, created a passion in me for my discipline and made me a life-long student, eager to learn and ready for the next adventure. By my field experiences, I wanted to learn more, read more, and do more with the groups I was privileged to work with. It was this motivation that inspired me to pursue a Ph.D. and focus on applied research and teaching. Now this focus allows me to offer service learning experiences to Rhode Island College students in Ecuador.
Over the past four years, twenty-two students have accompanied me to Ecuador where they have worked with refugees, street children, orphans, women and children of domestic violence, and spent time visiting with incarcerated women. RIC nursing students have also assisted with an HIV prevention conference held at a local university. Students from a variety of disciplines at the College have made this investment in their education: sociology, justice studies, social work, psychology, political science, education, nursing, and philosophy. Although there is now an academic component that links their on the ground experience with contemporary readings in a wide array of academic literature, clearly what penetrates students’ minds and hearts is their interaction with the target population and the perspective their experiences brings to their own lives. With permission from the students, here are some highlights from our 2014 service learning class in which students spent ten days working with disadvantaged youth in a small town in the Amazon jungle and in two non-profit foundations in Quito, Ecuador’s capital city:
Jarret, Justice Studies Major: “Overall, this was one of the most meaningful experiences of my life. Studying the culture hands on as well as through the readings and videos provided for a full view of what Ecuador holds. Especially upon re-turning home, it seemed as though I saw my life through a new perspective… The biggest thing I took from the trip had to deal with the poverty there and the lifestyles of the locals. For the majority, the people I met and encountered were overall happy and generous people. For people who have so little, yet are so generous and grateful, it opened my eyes to how well we have it here and how much we take for granted…”
Jen, Social Work Major: “On the way to the Amazon town of Huaticocha, I got to see the amazing Los Andes Mountains and a lot of rivers… I saw a part of the mountains that has waterfalls coming out of it. This sight was absolutely breath-taking. I would have never imagined viewing something so beautiful in person. Once we got to the town, I really took my time to observe their culture. It humbled me a lot… I am sad that today I will be leaving the innocent children behind. I really wish there were more I could to help out in this com-munity… I realize I am happiest when I am giving back to others…”
Katie, Social Work Major: “We all ran around with the kids for 2 hours. I was touched by how genuinely happy and excited the kids were to play with us. They all hugged us and wanted to be held. The language barrier was not as bad as I expected and I tried to practice more of my Spanish with the kids. Their smiles really made my day and spending time with them was the best part of the trip thus far. The kids were so happy with so little. We played hopscotch, tag, duck duck goose, and carried them around on our backs. Seeing kids so happy for us to be around in turn made me very happy.”
Emily, Social Work Major: “The lack of American culture and traditional responsibilities was so freeing. I loved waking up in the morning and not having to worry about the traditional beauty standards of doing my hair and makeup. I also loved not checking my phone or using the internet… It really changed my view on our culture, and I am able to put value in a much more simple way of life. I’m sad as I go to sleep tonight knowing that I have to leave the jungle in the morning. I am already thinking about how badly I want to come back and spend much more time here. I can hear the mon-keys in the trees as I try to fall asleep and think about how amazing this experience has been…”
John, Justice Studies/Philosophy Major: “I had the time of my life on this trip and the highlights weren’t zip-lining, swimming in the waterfall (although it’s close), or the view from the top of the volcano. As cliché as it may sound, it was actually meeting the people…and the group I went down with. We all became really close and I hope to maintain con-tact with the people from Ecuador and maintain friendships with the group of people I went down there with…”
Toby, Political Science Major: “Today was a great day! After waking to another delicious breakfast, a group of us went to Opcion de Vida, a foundation that works with children from troubled households. We played soccer and introduced ourselves… Afterward we all went to the green house to weed and trench the rowdy tomato beds. We sang and danced and enjoyed every bit…”
Neph, Sociology Major: “Today has been an overwhelming and humbling day. I got the chance to get acquainted once again with the founder of Opcion de Vida. Today was the last day. I refused to pack my luggage. I did not want to go back to the States…”
Meaghan, Psychology Major: “I appreciate the focus of life down here… That it isn’t based on superficial tangible objects, but on sustaining life and having a loving community. There are obvious downfalls to the lifestyle – malnutrition, dental and health care needs that these children lack. It makes me want to be more involved… [At the orphanage:] All that the kids want is affection and to play…and they treat each other like family. It took a little while for the reality of why they were there to hit me, which I am grateful for. They all seem so happy and excited to play and they giggle nonstop. It is hard to picture what the circumstances were that put them here (incarcerated parents, physical and sexual abuse in the home). It seems like every group of people I meet show me the definition of resiliency… When we were told that the orphanage needs psychologists, nurses, and educators, I immediately started to think of ways that RIC could help…”
Kellie, Social Work Major: “This amazing experience in Ecuador is coming to an end. The last ten days have been life changing. Being able to help those who are of the most need in such a beautiful place has made me appreciate all that I have even more… Definitely leaving part of my heart here!”
Emma, Social Work Major: “Leaving the jungle to head back to Quito. Literally had the most amazing time and met amazing people! I had too much fun with the kids! Am missing the jungle already, wish I could stay there forever…”
Meaghan, Psychology Major: “Tickling and piggyback rides are universal! These kids’ happiness in such obvious poverty was humbling and inspiring. We all felt some kind of bitter-sweet magic… I’d rather not go home. I’ve met three tarantulas so far and it’s still the greatest…”
Providing students the opportunity to have these experiences continues to inspire me as a sociologist and teacher; but more than that, it is the students’ responses to whatever comes their way that truly amazes me. Ever present is a kinship for adventure, and my enthusiasm builds as I see these students take advantage of the opportunities presented to them. They teach me by their willingness to engage, often despite their discomfort at using a foreign language; their lack of familiarity with the target population’s culture; and being situated thousands of miles away from home and family. They just open their hearts and minds and do it!
Making international service learning programs available in the curriculum is certainly a step toward enticing the intellectually curious in the pursuit of life-long learning, but it is the students who joyfully leap into these academic adventures who are the real heroes here and need our support. From this latest exploration of poverty in rain forest towns, playing with orphans, to working with inner city street kids, the students embrace the day’s work with inquisitiveness, humor, and tremendous generosity. From these vignettes, just maybe other teachers and students will recognize, as we do, that books do not always interfere with education! To the contrary, these experiences are ripe with acquiring knowledge that surrounds us with every breath. Tarantulas, orphans, volcanoes, and street children: the magic is still in our eyes as we recount the time spent away from home. Through these programs, we say that international service learning opens up more doors than any classroom ever could. Let’s figure out how we can create and sustain these opportunities for our students in the future.”
To hear more from Jill’s international service-learners, watch their story here: