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6 posts from February 2013


Don't Pull my Hair!

The community school Arturuo Jimenez.

My first day in the small community school of Los Pérez was full of excitement and anticipation.  I went into my community placement open minded and unsure what to expect.  I felt nervous but excited to meet the kids and finally see the kindergarten class where I would be carrying out my project for the next 3 months.  Throughout the service-learning program we choose a research focus in our community which then is utilized to create a project which addresses the community’s needs.  During recess, I was surrounded by kids ages 4-5 who were trying to figure out who I was and why I was there.  They were eager to tell me their names, ask me questions, and make up games.  One of the girls from my class tried to hang around my neck with one arm, pulling my hair with the other.  Without thinking, I said “let go” in English and tried to set her on the ground.  When she just smiled back at me in response and yanked harder, I quickly scanned my brain for ways to say “stop pulling my hair” or “let go of my neck” in Spanish.  Realizing I could not say either of these expressions, I resorted to a simple “no, no!” and frantically tried to pull her off of me. 

After that first day I was surprised by the difficulties I discovered while interacting with the kids.  I had always assumed that talking to children in Spanish would be easier than talking to adults.  However, that first day made me realize that with my new language acquisition I would encounter a whole new set of challenges and phrases which I had never needed in the past.  The vocabulary I had acquired up to this point consisted of words and phrases that were helpful in a variety of situations with adults, or places such as grocery stores, universities, homes, and banks. I had studied how to get around town and tell someone what I wanted to eat, but I never learned the set of vocabulary that would be necessary to succeed in a disciplinary environment working with kids.  I went home that day with a list of phrases to translate which would come in handy for my next visit including “one at a time,” “don’t kick each other,” etc.  That day I learned a lot about adjusting previous expectations, and reconsidering language in the context of different settings. As I continue my time in the school, I will be learning alongside the children (as I work with them) and expanding my communication skills in order to more effectively interact with my new energetic friends. 

-Sara Hutchinson        

Clark University

The Happiest People in the World

Emily walking through the community with member of the youth.  

After learning in one of our first Capstone Project classes how the Happy Planet Index, conducted by the New Economics Foundation, consistently rates the Dominican Republic one of the happiest countries in the world, I became extremely curious how this could be true. The first question that popped into my head was how could they be so happy when the country lacks many of the comforts that I have in the United States? These thoughts were drastically altered after my first few weeks in my community of Cristo Rey in Santiago, Dominican Republic.

Before I started my job working with the health promoters of Centro de Atención Primeria Juan XXIII, a public health clinic, I expected to encounter situations where I would be frustrated with the lack of basic health knowledge, also presuming that these same people would be unhappy with their way of life. 

After researching the criteria for the happiest countries on Earth, I realized exactly why the Dominican Republic is so happy. While I had been focusing on health and living standards solely as a basis for happiness, Dominicans ace all of the other criteria in the happiness index, including community vitality, cultural diversity and resilience, and psychological well being. 

I am appreciative of the experience I have had so far, as it has opened my eyes to the fact that happiness is so much more than just having all the luxuries of life. Happiness here is about having a close-knit community that constantly supports one another and shares what little they do have, as I have seen again and again with each house I visit, receiving coffee, hugs, and sharing laughter as I go. This is exactly how to be the happiest people in the world. 

-Emily Stibbs

Vanderbilt University

Adjusting to the Time Change

DSCN5267 Emily's host nieces and nephews. 

The Dominican Republic does not participate in the daylight savings time change meaning the country runs an hour ahead of the U.S for about half of the year. While this doesn’t seem like a big deal, the hour time change continues to through me off, yet this may be due to the fact that I have not yet changed my watch. More interestingly, though less measurable, is the difference in the Dominican perception of time. The passing of days is not accounted for by how many tasks are crossed off a to-do list but rather by the quality of meals eaten and the number of relatives who came to visit. Calendars are not stuck to fridges or pinned to walls, hurried footsteps are rarely heard, and the tone of a neighbors’ voice never changes because they "have something to do." In contrast, friends stop their passing cars to chat with each other on the road, when a box of dominoes is brought out everyone plays, and there is no excuse for forgoing the opportunity to leisurely sit with your family on the back porch. This “Dominican time” can be frustrating for Americans in particular, since everyone from professors to cab drivers are frequently late with seemingly no regard to the inconvenience of the other party.  This is something American’s are not used to, since it is a part of our culture to be productive and punctual. For me personally, the relaxed lifestyle and appreciation of family and friends is a refreshing change from the fast-paced and stressful manipulation of time in the U.S. It makes me question the differences in the value systems of the two countries and wonder if the increased general happiness of the Dominican population is a reflection of the way they choose to spend their time. 

-Emily Neubig

Clark University

Chicana? Mexicana? Americana? in the Dominican Republic

CIEE-SL students in the capital, Santo Domingo.

The first time I walked around downtown Santiago on my own made me aware of my ethnic identity in ways I had never before considered. It’s made me reflect on the importance of social context and how it influences my identity.   

In the US, I define myself as Chicana which is typically used as a synonym for Mexican-American. Chicana, especially in California, is much more than just an ethnic identity, it is also a political one. The term was used by political activists during the American civil rights movement to express Brown pride and demand equal treatment. For members of the Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano/a de Aztlán (MEChA), a politically charged student organization formed during the 1960s, being Chicano/a consists not necessarily of ethnic identity but of a commitment of knowing Chicano/a history and defending the rights of the Chicano community.  

When asked about my ethnicity in the Dominican Republic, I am conflicted with how to identify myself. Having learned about the negative stereotypes of American woman makes me hesitant to take on an American identity, but assuming solely a Mexican identity is denying a big part of who I am. Faced with this identity crisis has made me curious and aware about the difference in treatment depending on which ethnic identity I am assumed to be. When I am amongst Americans, the attention I receive through piropos (catcalls) and stares is aggressive. For instance, men may follow you and they say things like “Que dios te bendiga preciosa” (may God bless you precious/beautiful). In contrast, when I am mistaken for a Dominican I receive minimal attention and when I do, the comments are typically not vulgar or aggressive. When distinguished as Mexican I am greeted like an old friend. I am received warmly, and eagerly asked many questions. Often, Dominicans tell me anecdotes of past interactions they have had with Mexicans which helps establish a bond.  The stories always bring up differences and similarities between the two Latino cultures which spur enlightening conversations.   

Every time I walk down Calle del Sol, I continue to see how stereotypes about different ethnic groups play a role in the interactions with Dominicans (and Haitians). It makes me ponder how I want to identify myself because my decision will greatly shape my experience abroad. But which do I choose when I am partly both but neither? 

-Jacky Ayala

Occidental College

Dancing through Life

NCUE Day 039a (1)
Kalle with the children in the programs at Niños con una Esperanza. 

Most street corners in the Dominican Republic are filled with music playing, ranging from exciting and fast paced merengue tunes all the way to the slow, steady, and suave bachata (both are types of music native to this country).  People here seem to be born with rhythm and a natural ability to dance.  Dancing is like a conversation between two people, which can be difficult if you don’t speak the same language.

I have found it difficult when I myself try to dance bachata or merengue. I just don’t look the same and bump hips when I am not supposed to. This is a lot like how I feel trying to fit into the “rhythm” of the Dominican lifestyle as an American student.

In the United States, I am able to blend in when I go to the grocery store or run around the block, but walking anywhere in Santiago, I am quickly met with many stares and commentary, whether in the form of piropos (cat calls) or chats about the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Americana/gringa walking down the street. When I am trying to buy something small on the street I find I am given the “American price” which is much higher than the Dominican price.

However, the more I develop relationships within Cienfuegos, the community in which I will be working for the next three months, the less I am referred to as “Americana.” The kids I am blessed to work with at the community organization Niños con una Esperanza no longer refer to me as “Americana” but instead by my own name. Each day when I walk through Cienfuegos, I feel like I am becoming more and more a part of this community because I am invested in their lives.

Dominican rhythm is not something an American is born with, and definitely not something you can hope to achieve without going beyond surface level. On the outside, yes, I look like I am from the United States because I am, but the more time I spend building relationships with Dominicans the easier it is to be noticed not because I look different but because I have a place in their lives. You can definitely dance through life, but you can’t dance the merengue or bachata without a partner; I am grateful to have Niños con Una Esperanza as my community partner to help teach me the rhythm of the Dominican way of life!

-Kalle Davis

Wofford College

Moral Clock

Holly and community youth member painting a trashcan. 

International development can often be a paradox: although the motives are considered altruistic, the reality is riddled with moral ambiguity. The last weekend in January the CIEE Service Learning students went to Agua de Luis, a small rural community about three hours northwest of Santiago. We stayed the weekend to help paint environmental messages and images on large trashcans with some of the local youth. Local families opened their doors and shared their meals with us while we were there. By Sunday morning my host mom was asking when we were coming back. I couldn’t help feeling guilty that I might not be able to. As our bus departed Agua de Luis I felt conflicted about our efforts in the community. In just three days could we justify our project as having more positive impact on the community than self-gratification for ourselves?

Some people tend to see volunteer international service programs as self-righteous and formulaic: privileged kids clocking in their time. I admit that I give more time to this critique than it probably deserves, but how do you measure morality in hours? Some people tend to perceive long-term commitments as morally superior because they require a greater personal sacrifice. Yet, greater personal sacrifice doesn’t inherently produce greater results. The concept of collaborative community development, the theory we operate on in the program, is that the work isn’t just about you and your capacity; it’s first and foremost about the capacity of your community. Only considering your own hours given to a project is presuming that your contribution is the most important factor in the project’s success.

Our efforts during that weekend in Agua de Luis are not the only efforts going into the project there. Painting the trashcans was, in fact, just the initiation of a long-term project to ensure that the community has regular trash service and, therefore, minimizing the need to burn waste outside their homes. CIEE Service-Learning will continue to bring students to Agua de Luis and maintain contact with the Peace Corps volunteer that is managing the project within the community. 

 Whether we’re spending three days or a whole semester, in community development, the quality of relationship is a much better indication of moral work. I sometimes forget that many of these projects are much bigger than just one person or one instance. They’re a constant process kept alive by human relationships, people passing on ideas and building off of others’ work. In a way, it’s actually reassuring, knowing that it’s not all up to you. 

-Holly Johnsen

Portland State University