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6 posts from October 2013


"Morena" Disconnected

Darla with young community members and their painted trash can

Similar to the wide array of skin colors shared by those of African or Latin American descent, Dominicans come in many shades of brown. As a very brown skinned young lady, whose skin color falls just past the middle point on the wide spectrum in this country, I am frequently mistaken for Dominican here. In the United States, I often automatically feel a sense of comfort and familiarity whenever I see a person who shares my brown skin, regardless of a difference in shade. Having gone to predominately white and wealthy schools throughout the majority of my life, where I have not always felt I belong, I have a deep appreciation for being around people who resemble me and my family or share similarities in history. I chose to study with the CIEE Service-Learning program in the Dominican Republic because it would offer me a very special experience. Not only does this program give me the chance to build on my service learning experience, improve my Spanish, and challenge myself academically, professionally, and personally, but it also provides the uncommon opportunity to spend four months continuing my higher education in a place concentrated with people of color.

Here in the DR, I am a morena (a female with brown skin). While my white peers in the program stick out as gringos (white Americans), I stick out as the morena amongst the gringos, sometimes confusing Dominican observers. During the first weekend here, I was in a store with my friend Eve, a white American with blonde hair. She asked the sales clerk if they had any other sizes of this cute shirt she liked and instead of responding to her, he answered only to me, without bothering to look in her direction. This was the first of many similar occurrences; when I am out with my CIEE-Service Learning peers, often Dominicans will choose to speak exclusively to me, assuming I would understand Spanish the best, when really I am no better than anyone in my group. In fact, about two and a half weeks into my time here there were a few sequential days where the language barrier made me feel extremely frustrated and a bit discouraged, especially with the pressure of people assuming I was fluent. I had felt the strongest disconnect from people who look like me that I had ever felt. Those few days I even felt like I would be letting strangers down by not being able to fully understand their rapid dialect or express myself as eloquently as I would have liked.

Very recently, within the past few days; however, I have experienced a shift in attitude, choosing not to view myself as the morena disconnected. I realized it was silly to choose to feel disconnected just because I am not fluent in the language spoken here, when, everyday, I am in the best possible situation to improve my abilities. Whether it be in a concho (the popular form of public transportation cars in Santiago), a store, the University, or amongst the teachers with whom I work, I now look forward to talking instead of trying to avoid it.  I have learned I do not have to be embarrassed by making mistakes; messing up is okay as long as I am trying. In fact, when I tell strangers that I from the States and learning Spanish they are happy to continue talking with me to help! I realize that many Dominicans want to connect, regardless of my proficiency in the language. Perhaps our similar features and the probability of having shared ancestry provide a natural desire to connect, despite the differences in our recent backgrounds. While there was that brief moment that I felt more disconnected from people who look like me than I had ever felt, it has diminished rapidly. Similar to how I feel when I see people whom resemble me at home, I am able to feel connected to many Dominicans I see here; a refreshing comfort as the only student of color in the program. I am a proud morena.

-Darla Wynn

George Washington University

The Ride of Your Life


Concho and driver (Photo Credit:

A concho (public car transportation) is a form of transportation in the Dominican Republic.  It can cram up to six passengers at a time.  There are several different conchos that take you to different parts of town.  For example the N concho will take you to la Zona Sur (Subdivision of Santiago) and the K concho will take you to the university.  But they do not deviate from their routes so you may need to take more than one concho to get where you need to go.  Each concho only costs 20 pesos which is about 50 cents per use.  The cars are usually older four-door sedans, and have dents and scratches, with a lot of miles on them. You get to meet some nice, interesting people in them.  It is a cultural experience for sure in a way that shows how close, in the manner of personal space, the Dominican culture is and I would recommend everyone to try it out at least once. 

The first time I ever used a concho was a little nerve wracking.  I got into a car that I thought was full (it had 2 other people and myself in the back, one in the front and a driver) then the driver pulled over and picked up two more people.  I was basically sitting in a stranger’s lap and had a stranger sitting in mine.  It was different and I did not like it one bit.  My thoughts about conchos have slowly started to change as I have to take one to my community twice a week.  I don’t have a problem riding in a car with more people than it is designed for because I do it all the time back at school.  I think the part that most bothered me was that I didn’t know a single one of the people I was riding with.  One could almost look at it as a metaphor for my time in the Dominican Republic.  I started off uncomfortable and not knowing what to do but with time, I have started to get the hang of it and find my path. Just like I’ve learned which conchos I need to take and where to get off, to get where I need to go, I have learned how to navigate this unfamiliar culture. I have honestly learned a lot from riding in a concho; from different parts of the city to Dominicanismos (local slang terms) I feel that this transportation experience has helped me learn the most about the city and culture.

-Kenny Strauss

University of Missouri


El Intercambio de Cultura (The Exchange of Culture)


     Kate's collage on cultural exchange

While I’ve spent a few weeks in France, Italy and Costa Rica, traveling around a country is nothing like residing in, attending school, working and doing research while abroad.  I have had an amazing experience learning about Dominican culture from both personal observations and from friends, peers, professors, my host family and the community I’m working with as a part of the CIEE Service-Learning Program in Santiago, Dominican Republic (DR).  Some of the best conversations I’ve had thus far in the DR have involved my host family and me learning about one another’s cultures. 
What I didn’t expect, though, was the incredible influence that American culture has had on Dominican pop culture.  As seen in the collage, this influence extends to everything ranging from movies and Hollywood to English phrases and New York fads.  With American celebrities, television programs and a plethora of references to New York, Miami and LA culture, the various American influences on Dominican culture are exceedingly evident. 

This collage represents these effects of the exchange of cultures that has occurred since the early 1900s, when the United States first invaded the Dominican Republic from 1916 to 1924 and again in 1965.  This influence, however, obviously continued to widen as trade between the two countries grew.  As immigration increased over the past few decades, the exchange of culture likely evolved as well.  With remittances from the United States being one of the country’s largest sources of revenue, it is safe to infer that with the exchange of people and money, cultural influences were also exchanged. 

This exchange works both ways; with many Dominicans now residing in New York and other parts of the United States, the Dominican Republic has had a strong impact on American culture.  In the collage, there are photos of Dominican celebrities and television programs, famous Dominican resorts frequented by Americans, an ad encouraging students to study abroad and many references to the characterizing traits of Dominican culture.  Simply perusing Dominican magazines makes it clear that both cultures have a strong impact on one another.

This collage, made solely from Dominican magazines, represents both the American/New York influence on Dominican popular culture and the strength, integrity and pride of Dominican culture that exists in this country.  The unique culture, for all of its external influences, remains incredibly loyal to its customs, traditions and values.  Even the country’s historical Spanish, Haitian and indigenous influences are still very visible and strong.  With this opportunity to experience everyday life abroad, I have been able to observe the specific ways in which another country’s culture and my own interact overseas. 

Through my experiences in the CIEE Service-Learning program, I have been able to more thoroughly delve into the true meaning of cultural exchange.  Working in my community has allowed me to see many examples of how American culture influences the Dominican Republic.  I’ve seen a student dance and sing daily to at least two Michael Jackson songs (without knowing the meaning of the words), discovered that another student knew the English spelling of her name and learned that American children’s books (translated into Spanish) are many students’ literature of choice.  Additionally, the life lessons, cultural and linguistic hints and friendships that I have gained as a result of my work with MANIDI have taught me intangible things as a result of my cultural immersion through the program.  The employees, students and I have had the opportunity to teach one another about our cultures and we’ve had a wonderful time learning countless new and exciting things.  I am absolutely fascinated by this “intercambio” of culture and ideas and cannot wait to continue exploring both Dominican culture and its various historical and current influences!

-Kate Shafer

Elon University

One Empanada Please, and Wrap it in Guilt


Students with an empanada vendor, Photo Credit: Kate Shafer

When walking home from my very first day of classes at La Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM), my university in Santiago, a street vender approached me. He was a young child working with his family, and I was in a group of six foreign students, immediately identifiable by our backpacks, race, and dress. We had just had an orientation discussion where we weighed the short and long-term effects of giving money to the many street vendors around Santiago versus putting all of our efforts into the larger-scale community amelioration programs that we would be working with all semester. The discussions were inconclusive, but I was left weighing the idea that giving someone one-time assistance does nothing to fight institutional poverty against the idea that it is more logically justifiable to support a street vendor than a street beggar, who is not contributing to the economic exchange of the country. Pitted against both of these thoughts was also the idea that in the long term, community work and structural change will do more to help street vendors than any singular purchase, combined with the knowledge that living in a country for four months does not exactly provide ample opportunity for enacting large-scale change. In addition to these conceptual dilemmas, I was also remembering that my host mom had recently warned me about the dangers of street food, which sometimes uses old oil and can be harmful to our delicate tourist stomachs.

As the child assertively advertised the contents of his family’s cart, I remained on the opposite side of the street, telling myself that I would be helping plenty of other people his age, as many of CIEE’s service-learning partner organizations try to move working children off the street and into educational settings. As soon as it became clear that we were not going to stop at the fruit and empanada (traditional cheese-stuffed deep-fried snack) stand, the previously sweet and inviting boy started cursing angrily in our general direction and followed us a few hundred feet down the block to continue his tirade. This emphasized to me the importance that had been placed on our potential business, and made me feel like I had made the wrong choice. First of all, the boy was trying to sell us a product, rather than engaging in the act of pidiendo dinero (begging for money). Additionally, I soon learned that almost every educational program in the Dominican Republic is a half-day program, and it is therefore very possible that this same boy is involved in one of the community organizations that pairs up with our Service-Learning program. We had just been advised that once we started our community partnership work, we would be recognized as we walked around the city, and I recalled this interconnectedness with shame and unease.    

The question of whether to give or not to give in short-term interactions like this one is still prevalent in my mind. In part because of this first interaction, I am now constantly conscious of my body language, words, and decisions as people ask me for money or food. I have not reached any comfortable conclusions about what to do in these situations; I believe in our goal of helping our communities through reciprocal and larger-scale service-learning work, but still do not feel right passing people by on a daily basis just because I am doing other good work. I am aware that it would be a financial drain to support every person on the street who asked me for money, and am also aware that many children are manipulated and controlled by adults to extract money from people like me. On the other hand, I worry that my enforced aloof-ness enhances cultural stereotypes of unfriendly, self-serving United States visitors and that I end up distancing myself too strictly from the people who approach me on the street in order to avoid the onslaught of my emotions. I do not believe that feeling guilty every time I decide to keep walking is the solution to my dilemma, as it does nothing to change my behavior and does nothing to help the people whose requests activate the strange feeling in the pit of my stomach. But if that is the case, what is my alternative? If I am uncomfortable passing people by, how can I better interact with them? How can I give them what they need without undermining my own ability to work in social reconstruction on a larger scale? Explaining my long-term community goals does not make my neighbor less hungry, but giving him an empanada every day does not seem realistic and does not help him feel empowered or in control of his life. This is a very confusing but important theme for me, and I will definitely be weighing it throughout the rest of my semester.

-Jasmine Eshkar

Oberlin College

Methods of Communication


Eve with students from the baseball league at her community organization, Accion Callejera

“Psst, psst, hey rubia (blondie).  Hola (hello) Americana (a female American).”  I am called a rubia or an Americana daily from people on the streets.  My blonde hair highlights the fact that I am not Dominican.  It emphasizes my feeling like an outsider. When one studies abroad in a country that is foreign to her, she can expect to experience a lot of “firsts”, especially when studying in a country that does not speak her native language.  For the first time ever I feel like a helpless outsider, unable to participate in conversations, unable to joke around and unable to feel comfortable.  Though my Spanish language skills are steadily improving with each passing day, I experience communication barriers daily. 

It is frustrating when I want to communicate what I am thinking into Spanish but I just do not know how to adequately express my thoughts.  I have learned through my Spanish studies  that it’s necessary to be able to rework my English thoughts so I can effectively translate them into Spanish.  Despite this challenging language barrier that I am still (but will not always be) experiencing, I have been able to connect and form relationships with my Dominican family and friends. 

Baseball is like a religion in the Dominican Republic.  If there is a game on, I can bet money that my host dad is watching it.  Because I grew up playing baseball right alongside the boys, I can appreciate a good game.  Although my host dad is one of the people here who I have the most trouble understanding and communicating with, we have bonded over celebrating David Ortiz’s homerun against the Yankees.  Together we celebrate a line drive, a steal of a base or an amazing jump-off-the-wall catch, all with a smile and a couple of cheers.  Sometimes the baseball games are broadcasted in English and my dad will ask me what the announcers are saying, so I become a translator.  When I sit down on the couch to watch baseball with my dad, I think it shows him that I am trying.  I am trying to spend time with him and that I am trying to get to know him a little better. 

The young boys who attend, Acción Callejera, the organization where I work, talk faster than I have ever heard anyone talk, and with the thickest Dominican accent I have ever heard.  I struggle to communicate with them.  From my experience thus far, flashing a smile, a fist bump, or a handshake shows that I’m giving them attention; I’making time to greet them and ask how they’re doing.  Despite the language barrier I have been able to create friendships with the boys by playing games with them and having daily conversations about what they’re up to.  I owe them a huge thank you for being patient and understanding that Spanish is not my first language because their acceptance welcomes me and gives me the reassurance that I need to keep working at mastering Spanish.

Studying abroad can be challenging.  At times, I feel isolated from my lack of language skills.  However, I am finding new ways to overcome my language barriers, thanks to my baseball bonding moments with my dad and spending time with the youth I work with.  We heavily rely on language to create relationships because it seems as though it’s the easiest way to communicate.  False.  For the past month and a half, I have been not only been communicating with words, but also with my actions. 

-Eve Hansen

University of Washington    

Chinola: From a New Juice to A New Outlook

My second morning in Santiago, I was served a pancake the size of my plate (typical pancake size in the Dominican Republic), a plate of fruit, and a tall glass of freshly made chinola juice. Having no idea what on earth chinola juice was, but being unable to understand my host mother’s description, I cautiously tried some. It was wonderful, even though I still had no idea what it was. I later learned chinola juice is passion fruit juice, and have since consumed it with breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

 So, how does my obsessive love of chinola relate to my time in the Dominican Republic on a Service-Learning program? My first time trying chinola juice is a reminder to try new things. As the first of many different types of drinks, food, dances, and music I have experienced so far, it was evident that being open to new experiences was worth it. Even with something as simple as chinola juice I saw my horizons expanding and an opportunity to change in preferences, beliefs, and motivations while in the Dominican Republic. 

More specifically I have learned that just because something is different from my home culture does not mean it is “bad”. While I may have feared chinola juice would be literally bad in taste, other experiences could be “bad” in the eyes of an American. I frequently encounter situations which American cultural norms would contradict, such as having 7 people in a public car built for 5, meaning a lack of personal space at which many Americans would scoff. I feel difference cannot be judged until it is experienced completely, and that rejecting an experience based on difference can mean a loss of an eye-opening or belief-challenging opportunity.

Openness is required to have the full service-learning experience. Without openness, one cannot involve the host culture’s practices in the process of reflection, analysis, and preparation.   Without accounting for cultural belief, these tasks are biased. Additionally, service-learning is about both learning and serving, and neither one can fully happen with a closed mind. Rejecting culture out of hand will minimize the ability to learn from it, as many people do not wish to teach someone who does not respect their cultural background. Additionally, I believe service is not truly service unless it is being conducted with the community to improve the topic they desire.  A refusal to see the practices of the community as legitimate can cause friction between the closed-minded person and those they are working with, especially if the project works with certain cultural ideas which they do not see as valid.

-April Hooper

Clark University