Trip to Dominican Republic opens students’ eyes to Caribbean culture

Students worked with schoolchildren, built a sandbox and cooked plantains
Wednesday, April 9, 2014

None of the students of Caritas Arquidiocesana de Santiago, an alternative school in the Dominican Republic’s second largest city, can afford traditional schooling. Instead, sponsors support their education by paying the school, which consists of two classrooms and an office, about $30 a month. Every day its electricity shuts off randomly, leaving students without power for about three hours. In March, when a group of Rider University students visited Caritas Arquidiocesana, temperatures in Santiago hovered around 95 degrees. 

“This is their version of school,” says Kim Cameron, Rider’s assistant director in the Center for International Education, who led the group of 10 students on an eight-day Service Learning Trip to Santiago in March. 

The group engaged in two projects on the trip, teaching schoolchildren English and beautifying the school grounds by building a sandbox and repairing playground equipment. “These are simple things that don’t cost much,” says Cameron, who lead the trip with Angelica Benitez, associate director of the McNair Program. “It’s not much in our eyes but it was a lot to them. The children never had foreigners come to their school before so they were very excited.” 

In addition to the work, students were able to experience the country’s culture. Staying in a hotel in the city center, they received lessons in salsa dancing and cooking, preparing plantains three different ways. They also visited a museum and explored the city and the surrounding environment, eating rice and beans, grilled chicken, and fresh juices and smoothies. On the final day of the trip, the group visited 27 Charcos, a collection of 27 waterfalls nestled inside a mountain range, providing a final day of fun after a job well done. “They all loved it,” Cameron says. 

Angelica Velez ’16, who’s traveled to Colombia, where her family’s from, was eager to learn about Santiago’s culture. “Every Hispanic country is different, and I had never been to the Dominican Republic,” she says. “It was very beautiful and very welcoming.” But on the flipside, “I never saw the kind of poverty I saw in the Dominican Republic.” 

A sophomore majoring in psychology and minoring in Spanish and social work, Velez often volunteered during high school, visiting nursing homes and homeless shelters. “I really love doing community service,” she says. “I wasn’t really into other clubs, but I really liked helping people.” Now a full-time student, she also works two jobs, leaving little time for volunteer work. 

Students on the trip developed a strong connection with the community, and each of them bonded with a set of schoolchildren as they worked together in small groups. Most of the schoolchildren were around 10. “They’re so humble and so young,” Velez says. “We saw how unfortunate they are, how some kids have to act older than they are. They’re so smart but don’t have the resources to achieve more.” 

The experience revealed the circumstances of residents living in the second largest Caribbean nation. About 10 million people reside in the Dominican Republic, a popular destination for tourists that’s nonetheless marked by government corruption and high unemployment. “Most students were shocked by what they saw and now have a greater appreciation of what they have at home,” Cameron says. “Now they know how impactful small things can be. It’s important to see the world through a different lens.” 

Students attended six hours of orientation before departure to acclimate them to customs and prepare them for the work. It also gave them the chance to meet the students they’ll be traveling with. When she left for the trip, Velez didn’t know any of the other students, but she says they each got to know each other well. “It was great working with them,” she says. “We worked as a team even though we barely knew each other.” 

In addition to Velez, the other students who went on the trip were Chris Werner; Hannah Bass; Patrick Brennan; Allison Gensel; Micaela Munoz; Marion Menand; Melanie Hunter; Beth Welsh and Shelani Birmingham. 

Interest in Rider’s study abroad program has been growing significantly. “I’ve advised way more students on study abroad trips this semester than any other,” says Cameron, who assists international students in addition to advising students and leading trips. About 35 students traveled abroad this past fall semester, doubling the previous year’s number. Numbers tripled for students studying abroad in the summer. 

The University continues to add more places where students can study abroad. They can now go to Cuba, Russia and Sweden, among other places. While English-speaking destinations like England and Australia have traditionally drawn the most participants, Cameron sees a growing interest in Southeast Asia and China. Thailand is of particular interest, she says, adding, “I’m seeing more students willing to go out of their comfort zones. The experience in Thailand is going to be more rewarding than London, in my opinion, because everything — customs, food, culture — is different.” 

Cameron lived in Bangkok while teaching English for two years between 2006 and 2008. A graduate of Kutztown University, she said her alma mater did a poor job of promoting study abroad opportunities. After returning from Thailand, “I realized I wanted a job where I could help students go abroad like I did,” she says. She came to Rider in 2011 and hopes to lead a trip to Morocco next year. “Rider’s never gone to Africa,” Cameron says. 

Velez, who intends to become a military counselor upon graduation, says traveling to a different part of the world to volunteer creates a more meaningful experience than simply donating money. “To see the children in person and learn about their stories, you get closer to them and you acknowledge them more,” she says. “I encourage the students to attend these service trips because they’re great experiences and you really get to see the outside world. It’s important for people to do once in their lives so they know something more than what they’ve lived.”

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Students on the trip developed a strong connection with the community, and each of them bonded with a set of schoolchildren.