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3 posts from October 2011


Identity and the idea of belonging

Reflecting on first two weeks of orientation allowed me to explore and become self-aware of not only the Dominican culture, but my culture and sense of belonging to a greater community.

 On our first day of orientation, we read a short yet powerful reflection piece, which argued that American student abroad cannot be ‘global citizens’. Her thesis states that, “American students who travel abroad cannot be expected to transcend historical, political, social, and global system of power in order to become cross-culturally immersed “global citizens””.

 This reflection piece brought up several interesting and powerful reactions of not only myself, but all my fellow CIEE-SL mates, all of which are American students. Some of these reactions and beliefs derived from issues of Culture and Identity in relation to the article, and our own experiences. Coincidently, our group is comprised of many students born outside and/or raised for a certain amount of years outside the US, and not to make an over generalized statement, yet a large number of us, not everyone, without a doubt resemble what may be your average Americans who are privilege to study abroad. These discussions and our own personal experience continued throughout the week as our orientation focused on Dominican race and identity, further putting into questions our own perceptions and understandings of what it means to belong and self-identify oneself.

 I take dear to heart this issue because at this very moment I am struggling with the idea of someone being able to immerse into different cultures and believe that they have transcended fully into that culture. I do believe people have the ability to travel abroad and learn from their experience, making them more internationally conscious, yet I do not believe one’s experiences may help them become fully immersed and integrated in to that culture.

 For many American students, specifically white-American students as Zemach-Bersin mentioned in her argument no matter how long they have lived in countries like Tibet or the Dominican Republic; they will always be treated as a foreigner. To be fully immersed into a culture, I believe, one must be seen as a member of the community in all parts of the country and not just someone who has lived in the area for x amount of years and knows the language. But this is not only an issue outside the US borders. For many non-white Americans, born and raised all their lives in the United States have for a long period of time never fully been consider Americans by the greater public because of their physical appearances, resulting in many forms of discriminations. Speaking from personal experiences, although raised nearly all my life in Boston, MA, I have gone through the process of being naturalized, registered to vote, attended school, and have been “Americanized” in nearly all aspects of thinking/being,  yet I am not seen as an American because of my appearance. Without a doubt the land we refer to as the Red White and Blue prides itself on the multi-culture influences it houses within its borders, yet when it comes time to speaking out and raising awareness of equality within its borders, we tend to erase the Red and Blue and only end up seeing the White. 

 When I get on a plane and visit Honduras, my birth land, I am not seen by members of my community there as a Hondureño, instead I am seen as an American. Although I lived up to the age of five in the same neighborhood as my neighbors there, speak the language as if I never left the land, and pride myself of the country, they see me as “different” resulting in “special” treatment, making me feel like an outsider and not a full member of the community. Very similar when I get on a plane back to the States, due to my appearance, I face many forms of discriminations and inequalities that many white-Americans do not experience.  

 This idea that American students are able to transcend themselves and fully immerse into a culture, especially after a semester abroad bothers me, especially when other individuals for a lifetime struggle to find an identity within their culture.

 Part of these two-weeks of orientation I gained an idea of self-identity and external-identity. How you see yourself will be different from how others see and identify you. I do believe that it’s important that people are able to identify themselves as part of a culture. However,  I do not believe it’s appropriate for one to say that one can belong to a different culture like the Dominican Republic, especially after coming from a privileged background and spending only a semester abroad with only limited exposure to the real lifestyle of a Dominican.

- Ellery Kirkconnell

Oberlin College


effective paradigms of development?

On our trip to Santo Domingo, paradigms of international development was the major theme of discussion.  We discussed international, grassroots, human, economic, and free trade development.  We visited the Altagracia Project, Peace Corps, Inter-American Development Bank, and Museo de la Resistencia, and later discussed them through the lens of these paradigms.  Our visit to the Peace Corps really touched me because, quite frankly, I felt like I belonged there!  The Executive Assistant and several Peace Corps volunteers explained to us what the Peace Corps is, what volunteers do, and the application process.  The volunteers introduced themselves and gave some examples of the types of projects they have been doing in the Dominican Republic.  The Peace Corps work through an international paradigm of development because, of course, it is an international agency.  In 1960, John F. Kennedy challenged college student to serve their country by volunteering abroad, and since then, volunteers from the U.S. have served in 139 different countries all around the world.  Currently, there are more than 200 volunteers in the Dominican Republic.  Within each of their individual projects, it is evident that the Peace Corps also practices grassroots development.  Volunteers arrive to the community they will be serving in, get to know the community, and produce a project based on that community's needs.  These projects can be anything from working in a school, to creating a youth program, to helping install new water systems.  Oftentimes, volunteers' specific skills are taken advantage of to undertake specific projects.  Upon returning from our trip to the capital, I kept thinking about the Peace Corps; it sounded so much like Service Learning!  So I began to do some research.

 Perusing the Peace Corps's website, I realized that while the work they do sounds like what we Service Learning students do, I did not even know what Service Learning meant.   

 When I applied to the Service Learning program in the Dominican Republic, I understood that it entailed learning about the community and having a volunteer internship for the good of the community, but I didn't understand that it is a different model from, say, volunteering or community service.  Unlike these models, in Service Learning, the student and those who receive the volunteer work are supposed to mutually benefit.  In the Peace Corps, an equal exchange is supposed to occur as well; the Peace Corps' mission includes providing a better understanding of Americans in host countries, and a better understanding for Americans of the people being served.  The following week in our Capstone class, I was not surprised to come across the Peace Corps in our curriculum.  Michael Wolfe describes some students' motivations to do Service Learning: it is "similar to that which drove the Peace Corps and to that which inspires young people around the world to volunteer to participate..."  María Nieves Tapia elaborates on their similarities: "'Pro-sociality' is an academic concept used both in English and Spanish to refer to engagement for the common good...  Peace Corps... may be studied using pro-social categories of analysis.  The same is true for Service Learning."   

Essentially, Service Learning students are Peace Corps volunteers for a semester.  Yet, Service Learning takes us beyond the classroom and beyond the community: Unlike Peace Corps volunteers, we study the paradigms of development while simultaneously working in communities to apply them.  We take ideas from the classroom to the community, ideas from the community to the classroom, and use these experiences to development our frame of mind.  We have the benefit of both of these experiences simultaneously to enhance our understanding of what is happening around us here in the Dominican Republic, and how these experiences and realities relate to the whole international community. 

After my little revelation, I pondered whether service learning is an effective paradigm of development, and of course used the Peace Corps as an example that has been hard at work since the 1960s.  Reflecting on Peace Corps projects that I have read about, I cannot deny that these volunteers have made great strides in their specific communities.  Whether they touch the life of one child in a program they have or distribute mosquito nets to entire villages, they are certainly working for the good of the community.  Now, reflecting on the work I am doing in the Dominican Republic, I can safely say that I have already witnessed development here.  I am working with a group of artisans who are in the process of changing their groups classification, but until four years ago, they were not even organized.  A former CIEE student helped them to organize, and several after him helped them to further elaborate and solidify their association.  In some grassroots development initiatives, it is not so easy to see development or at least to see it immediately; but development does not necessarily mean building a bridge that everybody can point to something tangible as evidence of it.  Grassroots projects can have lasting effects on every person they touch, and can change the way they think, act, and feel.  For every artisan that takes part in their association, they can walk away from meetings with a sense of community.  For every child that participates in an after school program with a CIEE student or Peace Corp volunteer, that child will remember what they did and what they learned in that time.  They can grow up to apply these lessons in their future studies, careers, and personal lives.  Likewise, students that study in Service Learning can learn and exchange more in their walks to school or chats with community members than they could do from the comfort of their homes.  Service learning is an effective paradigm of development because it promotes mutual understanding between different cultures while sewing seedlings of development.  

 -Natalia Salazar

Clark University

International Forces


When I was told that my study abroad group would be having a meeting with representatives from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, my initial reaction was that of horror. The IDB is an international bank, founded in 1959 to “finance viable projects of economic, social, and institutional, development and promote commercial integration in Latin America and the Caribbean.” However, the organization has been criticised as working to preserve local oligarchies in the region, promoting economic growth at the expense of human development, and financing projects detrimental to the environment. Being a student at a New England liberal arts school, it was the latter opinion that I found more compelling.

Consequently, when I pictured the session, I expected to be lectured about how economic growth is more important than human lives by a man in a black suit with an eye patch accompanied by a hunchbacked assistant; or something of that nature. What I did not expect was an elementary school computer teacher named George, accompanied by his mother, offering us hot tamale’s and soda. During the presentation, and later answering questions, George, and his mother Julia Sanchez, who worked with the IDB for 30 years since it first came to the Dominican Republic in 1961 (now retired), presented the IDB essentially as a charitable organization interested only in the betterment of peoples’ lives. The criticism that the IDB receives for its hard-line tactics (close scrutiny of the books in perspective projects and a readiness to withhold funds at the slightest provocation) and active enforcement of neo-liberal economic policies (free trade, low taxes, business friendly, etc.) on Latin American governments hoping to receive loans were dismissed by George as short sighted. “You can’t imagine the corruption that exists in the Dominican Republic and other countries out here” said George,  “Unless the destination of the money is monitored every step of the way, it’s going to end up in the pocket of a corrupt civil servant and won’t benefit anyone.” 

Looking at the IDB from an impartial perspective, the organization deserves both criticism and praise.  Using the Dominican Republic as a case study, it is clear that much progress has been made. The Caribbean nation has seen 20 years of almost uninterrupted economic growth and boasts one of the most dynamic economies in Latin America. In addition the percent of the population living below the poverty line has fallen from 45%in the late 90’s to 37% today. (IDB official website).

However, the Dominican Republic’s almost single-minded adherence to the neo-liberal economic model espoused by the IDB has meant that their economic growth has been achieved at a considerable social cost. Almost all the development in the Dominican Republic has occurred in the tourist friendly regions around cities such as Puerta Plata and Santo Domingo leaving rural regions, especially along the Haitian border, virtually untouched. Predictably, the already gaping income inequalities between these regions are threatening to become a chasm (Poverty and Development: DR Case Study notes). Already, poverty rates are on average 25% lower in urban areas than in rural areas (35% and 60% respectively) and if current trends continue, this inequality will only become more pronounced. Even among the more developed urban regions of the nation, the new wealth tends to accumulate almost exclusively in the hands of a privileged few exacerbating the plight of the shrinking middle class.   

So, how can we view the IDB then? In my opinion, the IDB, much like neo-liberalism, is a necessary evil. The unequal accumulation of wealth and the pursuit of economic growth at the expense of social justice are always unpleasant phenomena. But wealth, after all, must be created before it can be redistributed. It is better for half a country to be rich and half of a country to be poor than for an entire nation to be poor. And, as George pointed out, the hard methods that the organization uses to oversee where its money is going are entirely justified as necessary to fight the rampant corruption found throughout Latin America. As George said, “There are no easy choices in this line of work. In the end we do what we can to bring the best quality of life to the greatest number of people.” In this goal, the IDB is ultimately succeeding, but at an immeasurable social cost.

 -Joe Strzempko

Clark University