(Still) Living the DReam
In Retrospect: From the Director’s Desk
by Elaine Acacio
In the CIEE SL office, we have a quote wall. One in particular is a Haitian proverb “piti, piti, wazo fé nich li” (little by little a bird builds his nest). This is fitting in many ways. Development and change take time. Learning to balance process and efficiency takes time. But it is also symbolic of dedication and determination.
In these last five years of directing the CIEE Service Learning program, I have taken away three major lessons. One, expectations on students and their academic rigor can be high if and always there is ample support and follow up. The second lesson may sound cliché, but it is the conclusion that you have to love what you do. Community development, collaborative work, and the constant reminders of the harsh realities of unequal distribution of wealth, power, access, and options—independently is challenging to digest, and collectively it can be downright discouraging. But what gets you through these challenges is not idealism, nor altruism, it is passion, drive, and love for what you do and the people you work with. The third lesson I often share with students during their first days in the Dominican Republic while dissecting the words of ‘service’ and social change, is the fact that you can change the world, but you don’t have to be the main (or only) protagonist.
As any educator will say, there is nothing more gratifying than witnessing the ‘click’ in your students: knowing that they are learning to balance task oriented priorities with that of process, that they aren’t romanticizing their experience and yet at the same time, they no longer see the community from a needs-based lens. We have had five years of constant reflection, evaluation and dreaming of how to do things differently to improve the experience for all our constituents—students, community partners, host and sending universities, and for CIEE staff. In study abroad time, we are still in our sophomore year, and while I don’t profess that we have finally conjured up the perfect combinations, the program is now at the point where we are oiling it rather than fixing parts. I am very proud of the loyalty of our community partners. I still remember doing exploratory meetings back in 2006 and explaining the term service learning and our participatory approach with community based research and often getting the response of, “lo que ustedes quieren hacer” (what you guys want to do) and now, fast forwarding 5 years, our community partners tell us what they want in terms of work and ideal student profile they need to get the work done.
Being a small niche program, we’ve had our share of challenges. From low student numbers, to trying to debunk misconceptions that service learning is “fluffy” and not academic enough, to constantly critiquing our footprints in terms of responsible development within communities we work with. Sometimes though, these challenges are what make this program a diamond in the rough. Students are able to get a unique experience of collaborative work and where the true junction of service and learning is fused and responsibility and commitment to the community supersedes the incentive of just making the grade. At the end of four months, students are sometimes in shock of the work they are able to accomplish. For us however, we consider the four months as a training period of sorts for students.
“One of the biggest things I took away from my experience was that community development has parallels in places throughout the world, those in the DR with those in the US, and everywhere else… and what I found was that the best work and most success came from strength and determination within the community. That every place has leaders they just need a platform to lead on.”
“That sustainable development is a process and that you should not become frustrated or disillusioned by what may appear to be very slow progress; the process is what matters and it is essentially what makes development sustainable. You must involve and train the community, and realize and be open to learning from the community and from the process, and not enter the process thinking that you have all the answers, because you never do.”
“Many great lessons - but most importantly the idea that every community, no matter how poor or how rich, no matter the language or race, has an incredible richness of knowledge and experiences that we can use to enrich our own understanding of the world we live in.”
“The program really helped me to clarify my life path and how I would like to make a difference in the world.”
“I learned that success comes from the heart. When we just care about each other because we are all human and in need of love and support, that is when amazing things start to happen.”
“After leaving the experience, I was prepared to do a wide range of things. It has helped me learn a certain level of cultural competency with Latino Caribbean culture, which helped me attain my current job in the US. It has helped me think critically about development, and particularly the role that privilege and culture play in development. It has given me a perspective on poverty that I could not have attained anywhere in the US."
“We have become a hasty society, driven to see results immediately, which has led us to focus on short-term solutions to long-term problems. What I learned that we, as human beings, need to take patience in everything that we do. We need to slow down, figure out long-term solutions, and implement them step-by-step. What we can do immediately, however, is learn. We can constantly be in a state of learning and understanding in order to really, truly, be able to implement change where change is needed.”
“I was inspired to devote my life to community organizing, or at least making the world a better place in a sustainable, tangible way.”
Over the past five years, 52 students have participated in the CIEE Service-Learning Program in Santiago, DR. Where are they now? What are they doing? We put out a survey this past fall semester to gauge the level of impact the program has had on our alumni and to find out more about the bright futures that are in store for them. For the 32 students who replied, the results- described in the rest of this newsletter- demonstrate that our students are very socially aware and remain civically engaged.
When asked, “Did your study abroad experience with SL Santiago play a role in your specific field of employment/ study?”
94% of our alumni said yes. Whether focusing on chemistry, business or international development, it is clear our program has had a large impact on our students’ areas of study and employment after graduation (see right). Our students choose to live with a heightened sense of social responsibility.
Below is a list of a number of organizations and employers of our CIEE SL alumni.
Communities for Change
Marketing for Good
Teach for America
Pontificia Universidad Catolica Madre y Maestra
The French Government Education National
Elder Services of Worcester
Northwestern High School
CIEE Santiago, Service Learning
Sabin World School
Orange County Congregation Community Organization
Horizons for Homeless Children
One Respe Massage Therapy for Wellness Center
Below is a list of academic focuses.
Chemistry, BS Spanish, BA
International Studies: World Politics and Diplomacy - Major Geography - Major, concentration in Geographic Information Systems
Sociology, Bachelor's Degree
BSB International Business, Nonprofit Management BA Spanish Studies
Art and Psychology courses as prerequisites for M.A. in Art Therapy.
International Development and Social Change
Sociology and Spanish
MD, specializing in either family medicine or OB/Gyn
Masters in Community Development and Planning.
Psychology Community and Non Profit Leadership
Post grad program for teaching certification in the state of Texas for grades 4-8 generalist.
Psychology and Spanish, B.A.
B.A. in International Development and Social Change Planned: M.A. in International Development and Social Change
BA in Criminology, Law, and Justice
Master of Public Policy
World Traveler Check-in
Our students have been active travelers since their experience in the CIEE SL program.
Pa’ la República!
Almost half (44%) of our alumni have returned to the Dominican Republic, whether to visit host families, community organizations or friends, to continue traveling or to work in the country. Half of those who returned visited on more than one occasion! It is clear that our students’ engagement has drawn them back to continue fostering relationships created abroad.
Even if alumni did not return to the Dominican Republic, 53% have traveled outside of the United States.
¡Mi casa es su casa!
Though the majority of our alumni live in the United States, 22% are residing internationally. All of these alumni are living in Latin America or the Caribbean. Here are new their homes:
Buenos Aires, Argentina
La Paz, Bolivia
Riviére Salée, Martinique
Santo Domingo, DR
“After returning from the DR through CIEE’s Service Learning program, my friends and I all got together to share pictures and catch up on what we all did while abroad. I always knew that my experience wasn’t the ordinary study abroad experience, but it was then when I realized just how unique my program was. We were completely immersed in our host culture, were provided with the knowledge, skills, and modesty to actually help in a country other than our own, and we came back with new understandings of the world and the meanings of culture and service. We were not just tourists or students who experienced just the surface of Dominican life; we became a part of it.”
The relationships formed between the students and the communities are developed not only as a working relationship but often times into a long-lasting friendship. Alumni have shown that they will go out of their way to stay in contact and for those that do, they often times return to the DR to personally check-in with the organization.
- Nara Baker