Will Hehemann | School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences
Two students of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff recently returned from a service-learning project in the north coastal region of the Dominican Republic (DR). In addition to assisting in volunteer work, Justin Burchett, a sophomore major of psychology from Chicago, Illinois, and Paris Patterson, a junior major of English education from East St. Louis, Illinois, learned about issues such as the complexities of poverty and development, food justice and community gardening and youth development.
The UAPB Office of International Programs and Studies (OIPS) supported the two UAPB students and Dr. Felicia Taylor-Waller, assistant professor of health, physical education and recreation at UAPB, who organized the study abroad project as part of an OIPS initiative that encourages UAPB faculty to develop study abroad opportunities for students and faculty.
“It was very important for me to develop my first faculty-led study abroad program as a service-learning experience,” Dr. Taylor-Waller said. “Giving back to others is a sentiment shared by my discipline in health education and the UAPB mission.”
The vendor for the trip, Education First Tours, offers the service-learning project in the Dominican Republic based on themes of urban migration, healthcare access and sustainable agriculture. The company provided transportation and logistics services, as well as a dedicated tour guide.
The program centered around the Mariposa DR Foundation, an organization based in Cabarete, DR, that focuses on the education and empowerment of women and young girls. The group was founded in 2009 in response to the area’s need for community-based solutions to high rates of poverty and teen pregnancy.
Working alongside college students from other states in the U.S., Burchett and Patterson were responsible for participating in and leading several educational sessions with the Mariposa Foundation’s residents, primarily Haitian and Dominican girls from impoverished families who come to the center to play sports and have access to libraries and computers, as well as receive academic tutoring, job and life skills training and health and wellness care. The students also interacted with the residents through social activities such as sports, dance and games.
“My favorite part of the program was seeing the impact we made in a short time as a group,” Burchett said. “The service was more interactive than most of the volunteer work I have been a part of in the past. In the DR, we were able to interact directly with the people we were helping and see how much it meant to them, which made the experience even more satisfying.”
Service activities focused on improvements and measures to expand the school. The UAPB students cleaned and took inventory in the classrooms, laid gravel around the school’s perimeter and helped create mosaic art pieces on the signs, benches and sidewalks. Upon the program’s conclusion, the students received a certificate from the Mariposa Foundation indicating their 35 hours of community service.
“It warms my heart to know my contribution to the mosaics at the beautiful Mariposa Foundation will always be there,” Patterson said.
During the program, the students had time to explore Cabarete and the local beaches. On an all-day excursion, the students traveled by boat through the mangrove-filled waters of Gri Gri Lagoon, a tropical bird sanctuary, and then visited the Cave of the Swallows. At local beaches, they went snorkeling, surfing and horseback riding.
“My takeaway from the Dominican Republic is that although it is an extremely beautiful country, there are many problems most people are unaware of because it is only seen as a tourist destination,” Burchett said. “I recommend studying abroad because reading or being knowledgeable about a place is an entirely different experience than being immersed firsthand in the culture. In my opinion, the experience can’t be replicated.”
From interacting with students and employees at the Mariposa Foundation, to enjoying the local beaches and taking in scenery on bus rides, Patterson said she appreciated the chance to observe and experience life in a developing country.
“It is still sometimes hard for me to believe that I actually went abroad to participate in a service project,” she said. “It was a new experience for me and I enjoyed every part of it.”
Dr. Taylor-Waller said the program was important because the UAPB group was able to help others, while also gleaning ideas for future service-learning opportunities abroad for students and faculty at UAPB.
“Justin and Paris worked hard alongside students from other colleges to fulfill their service tasks in the DR,” she said. “I am thankful to Dr. Pamela Moore, associate dean for global engagement at UAPB, and the others at OIPS and UAPB for their assistance with student recruitment, support and preparation for this program.”