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On Sunday, January 8, six Plymouth State students and their instructor, Jessica Dutille ’03, ’04G, boarded a plane bound for Jamaica, leaving the remnants of a snowstorm behind them in favor of a week of sun and 80-degree weather.
But this was no vacation. This was a service-learning trip in which Dutille, an instructor in elementary education and childhood studies, and students in her Mentoring and Empowering Youth course provided assistance to the small, rural community of Petersfield, located about 20 miles inland.
A developing country
For decades, Jamaica has struggled with slow growth and high debt, and it continues to deal with high unemployment and poverty rates. Over the last 30 years, the real per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) increased at an average of just one percent per year, making Jamaica one of the slowest-growing developing countries in the world.
Thanks to global service-learning organizations such as Amizade, a PSU partner that facilitated this trip, volunteers are omnipresent in Petersfield and in similar communities throughout Jamaica. The PSU group met other students from Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania and Stevenson University in Maryland who were also volunteering for the week.
From the outset, the PSU students were mindful of their purpose for the trip. “As the students and I were planning the trip, I asked them to reflect on why we were doing this,” says Dutille, who also serves as an advisor for PSU’s Center for Business and Community Partnerships.”We wanted to stand in solidarity with the residents of Petersfield, and engage and participate in community-identified projects.”
Over the course of their week-long stay, the students supported teachers, taught classes, and provided one-on-one tutoring to children in the local primary school, helping them build their confidence in areas such as reading and math. They also introduced the children to American culture through songs and games. And they worked with community volunteers to make the community park safer and cleaner.
What the students gained in return is a better understanding of the Jamaican culture, a greater sense of their abilities and passions, and the realization that they can make a difference in the world.
Service-learning trips in which both students and the communities they serve benefit are emblematic of the University’s new integrated clusters model that combines multidisciplinary learning and practical application to find solutions to real-world problems. “There’s a lot of power in coming together from different disciplines and pooling our experiences and viewpoints to tackle societal issues,” says Dutille.
Addressing real community needs
For the first three days of the trip, the group worked with students at the Williamsfield Primary School. While it can be intimidating for any college student to step into the role of teacher, the enthusiastic welcome the students received from the staff and children quickly put them at ease. “Soon all of the students were engaging in their disciplines, working with the teachers and guidance counselors, and planning recreational activities,” Dutille recalls. “It was incredible for me to watch that unfold and see them use their skills.”
Early childhood education major Nicole Lund ’17 drew on her own student experience at PSU to support students in her classroom. “I loved using strategies I learned at PSU to help a young girl with math—she was able to finish a problem by herself,” she says. “It was so rewarding to look up and see her mother smiling at me.”
When Taylor Fournier ’17, an interdisciplinary studies major, invited her students to ask her questions about life in the US, she was surprised to find that there was one topic they were all interested in. “Every question was about snow,” she laughs. “They were so curious, asking questions like ’Does it snow there?’ ‘Is it cold?’ ‘How do you get to school when it snows?’ And it was fun to see their reactions when I explained to them what a snow day was!”
After volunteering at Williamsfield Primary School, the group rolled up their sleeves to help Petersfield’s local park meet new safety guidelines put forth by the Early Childhood Commission in Jamaica by replacing the hard, dry earth on the playground with soft sand. Then they joined community volunteers in cleaning up the rest of the park. “It’s important to note that the students did not engage in activities that would otherwise be paid positions for community members–no community members would be paid for the work our students completed,” says Dutille. “In fact, the local economy actually benefits from this type of service learning and volunteer tourism.”
Throughout the week, Dutille encouraged her students to take time to reflect on what they were doing and why. While the students were gratified to know that they were addressing real needs, gaining invaluable hands-on experience teaching and collaborating with community members, and immersing themselves in a totally new environment and culture, she says it was the relationships they formed with their host families, and the children and teachers in the schools, that had the greatest impact on them. “We may look different, we may be from different cultures and environments, but we’re really all the same–we’re all citizens of the world,” Dutille says.
The schoolchildren had a similar realization. “In their minds, we have the greatest country in the world,” she continues. “The children have this perception that everyone’s rich and powerful in the US, but they learn that that’s not true when they get to know our students. The trip is not just about experiential learning; it’s about the cultural understanding and friendships that expand our hearts and minds.”
Fournier agrees, saying, “I’m positive that I gained much more from this experience than I gave.”
According to Dutille, who has led two previous service-learning trips to Petersfield, the interactions with the American college students have a lasting impact on the schoolchildren. “Some of the young adults gave presentations on the benefits of programs like this,” she says. What those presentations revealed is that the American students make them “feel worthy, noticed, and inspired to go to University themselves.”
For the six students involved, the trip, which concluded on Saturday, January 15, is a gift that keeps on giving. The spring semester will hold opportunities for them to share what they’ve learned with other PSU students as well as with students in schools throughout the community. And they’re eager to find opportunities to serve and support their own communities, as well as Plymouth.
In the fall, Dutille will begin planning the next trip to Jamaica, in January 2019. – Barbra Alan
All photos courtesy of Jessica Dutille.