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6 posts from November 2013


I meant what I said and I said what I meant...

A month into my time in the Dominican Republic I was fed up with trying to explain why I wasn’t eating elephant-sized quantities of food. Every meal, Rafaela, my host mom, would fret over the amount of food on my plate and pout at me if I refused seconds or thirds. She could never believe that I was full. I didn’t understand how to make her feel better until I started seeing the same types of interactions in other people’s houses too. People offer visitors food multiple times, ensuring that visitors who are hungry but polite eventually accept bread and coffee, or some leftover habichuelas (beans). It seems like hosts assume that their guests won’t say what they actually want, so the hosts go out of their way to offer comfort in as many ways as possible. The offer of food serves as more of an emotional check-in or a symbol of appreciation than a measurement of hunger. In these day-to-day interactions, a huge part of what people mean is not what they say but how and when they say it. Below are a few of the most striking examples that came to mind when I started thinking more about this.


One day at the end of dinner, instead of leaving my food on my plate, I offered it to Rafaela. She happily took my leftovers instead of taking an extra serving from the bowl, and didn’t accuse me of barely eating. Our mealtime interactions have continued in a similar manner. I can’t say exactly what changed, but maybe our casual sharing of food is enough to show her that I am comfortable and happy in her home.

One of the artisans I work with shouted this to me as I was walking away from her house. After she had promised and neglected to call me two times in a row, this sentence clarified a lot for me. Calling my cell phone means she would have to pay to put minutes on her own phone, making her less likely to call me but also proportionally more excited when I call her. Rather than emerging from forgetfulness or disinterest, her lack of communication had more to do with a financial barrier.


The question of piropos, or cat calls, is complicated. During orientation we were told that they are expected here, and not to take them as attacks on female independence. That didn’t help me know how to respond when people whistled or commented at me in the street. I finally noticed that while ignoring comments would sometimes provoke more of them, and explaining that they made me feel disrespected was not a feasible cultural option, responding with a buenos días would frequently lead to a brief and pleasant exchange that was not at all sexually charged.  I could use the piropo as a jumping off point into a causal conversation, rather than taking its literal translation seriously.

It’s funny that in order to learn another language I focus so much on the meanings of the words that people are using when in fact the meanings of their words don’t always help me understand what they are saying. I have found that learning about Dominican culture has done a lot more to increase my language comprehension than memorizing new words.

-Jasmine Eshkar

Overcoming Language Barriers in the Classroom

Tries to be a positive presence
Eager to be understood
Appreciates attentive students
Curious about what is being said
Has a lack of appropriate, practical, important, and simple phrases
Excited by engagement
Ready to learn

The third and fourth graders of the Arturo Jimenez Community School love to call me “teacher” instead of profe (short for professor (a), teacher in Spanish), which they call all of their professors. Being the “teacher” is especially fulfilling when I can recognize little differences and contributions I am making in the classroom. In the states, I have had plenty of jobs working with children in summer camps and academic programs. Working with children is one of my favorite things to do; however, I have found that at the start of each experience I have to readjust to the particular group. This readjustment occurs so that I can figure out how to best be both respected as an authoritative figure and a fun friend. While this can be a challenge in English, it has been a huge challenge in Spanish simply due to a lack of appropriate vocabulary and command phrases!

I chose to create an acrostic poem, as it is a recommended form of poetry to exercise with elementary school children. Furthermore, I feel that the lack of sophistication presented in my poem mirrors how I come off at times when I struggle to say simple things such as “stop that,” get down from there,” “pay attention,” “hands to yourself,” and many more simple phrases that I never realized I did not know how to say, as teaching children has never been a theme thus far in my Spanish career. Having to think a lot before speaking or responding to issues in the classroom has been such a challenge, especially since I really care to be both a positive presence and a respected profe. For example, about two weeks into my working at the school, a boy nearly shoved his notebook in my face and in Spanish said, “eat this!” While this action was completely unacceptable, I instinctively responded in English and realized immediately after I did so that clearly I was unable to get my message across as necessary.

So far, this experience has really affirmed that often one does not know what knowledge will be useful to them until they are stuck in a real life situation without it. On a positive note, I have been forced to learn new ways to refocus children in less commanding ways, for example: if there is a student who is not paying attention I will ask them, “how do you do this problem?” or “can we do this one together?” Nevertheless, I have started copying down useful phrases to have as a teacher in the classroom, which has been helpful, but I continue to find myself needing something new every day!

-Darla Wynn

The Art of Small Talk

Art of small talk-1Students interact and play games with community members during their rural stay

The residents of the Dominican Republic have mastered the art of small talk. Every day, neighbors stop what they are doing to have a cup of coffee and chat about their week. Students sneak into class just before the school bell rings, after discussing with friends what they did the night before.  I have learned, especially in the community where I work, that small talk is a big part of what my supervisors and I do.

 I had my first ‘AH-HA’ moment when the Service Learning Intern Coordinator visited me in my community for an evaluation.  Before his visit, I had the hardest time connecting with the people of the community and I could not figure out why.  He made it look so easy.  He asked questions about their days and families before he asked questions we wanted to find out for my research. Afterwards, he told me that I need to ask more questions and initiate small talk before I can jump right into the information I need to collect for my investigation on a healthy lifestyle.  Since then, I have been able to connect, hold a conversation, and leave an impression on the people I meet.  Just the other day, a five minute walk from the center took me thirty minutes as I was stopped on several different occasions to talk with families. 

Small talk is very hard for me, as well for many other Americans.  Many people from the United States tend to get straight to the point, ask the questions they need to ask, and then leave.  I believe his comes from the idea that they do not have enough time to do what they need to do in one day.  Rushing through conversation has been the hardest thing to change since my time in the Dominican Republic.  Personally, though, the transition from the hurried pace in the United States to the conversational, slowed down pace in the Dominican Republic has been a pleasant and welcoming change.  My time in the community and in this country has taught me that success is not only measured by the information that a person gathers.  It is measured by the relationships made, maintained, and strengthened through such a small act, small talk.

-Kenny Strauss

From Classroom to Reality


This piece represents my perspective shift from learning to doing, and from seeing bookwork and theory to seeing real life impacts and challenges in the community. The drawing portrays a moment I had in one of the classes I was working in. I asked if there were any final questions and one boy raised his hand and asked me,

“How many times do I have to brush my teeth again? And how do I tell my parents about this?” while my supervisor continued interacting with the class. This was the first time that a student had actually asked a question at the end and it made me realize that the work I am doing is not only a project or investigation, but also influences the lives of the people with whom I am interacting. While this encounter was not a challenge in and of itself, it did challenge my view of my work in the community.  Even though community work has both its difficulties and its benefits, I believe that the work done in the community can take the practices of the classroom and create a new form of interacting and learning between the community worker (student) and those the student is working with. This interaction allows for exchanges and challenges of ideas. The bottom part of the drawing shows my shift from this classroom only mindset to the community impacts mindset, where real life meets theoretical learning. Going forward I now hope to consciously remember that my actions in the community do affect others and that I can utilize my resources from the classroom to make this influence more effective and informed.

-April Hooper

An Unexpected Lesson

The other students in the program and I were planning to go dancing one Saturday night to practice merengue and bachata, two typical Dominican musical and dance styles.  We had done a similar thing the night before with one of our male local friends, Alex1.  Because we wanted to continue fostering our friendship with the local friends we were making, we invited him to join us on Saturday.  Having more than 100 pesos worth of minutes on my phone, I volunteered to text him to invite him out with us.

It was when Alex responded saying that he was unable to go with us because he was out of money that I realized what I had forgotten to take into account in this situation: privilege.  Having a steady job in a country with a comparatively high minimum wage, I had the good fortune of being able to go out with my friends and pay cover or buy a beer without such actions heavily impacting my financial situation.  Regardless of how many hours my friend may work in one week, though, he was unable to spend time with his new friend because he did not have the socioeconomic privileges I possess.  Although I do have to watch the amount of money I spend while abroad, I am lucky enough to say that a night out will not directly impact my ability to pay for transportation and food for the remainder of the week. 

I had already considered these social and cultural dynamics during our program’s orientation period; the in-depth discussions helped prepare me to successfully navigate Dominican and Dominican-American social interactions.  Due to the differences in gender roles and social and family situations of our peers at La Pontificia Universidad Católica Madre y Maestra (PUCMM), for example, I recognized that I would likely have to make plans with my female friends that did not involve going out at night.  Instead, we planned movie nights, walked around the Monument and went on a day trip to the beach.  While I had begun to work with the challenges of forming friendships with female peers in a cultural context, I had not yet extensively taken socioeconomic differences into account when making social plans.

Since that night, however, I have made a conscious effort to invite Alex to do things that do not necessarily require money.  We have plans to play music by the Monument and have done homework together with other friends.  This realization of my privilege and the importance of being cognizant of how my social interactions can have economic implications was an important life lesson that I have learned this semester.

 April, Jasmine and me on a Ferris wheel at a local festival.  This is an example of fun events we can go to with our friends for a nominal cost.

1 Name was changed.

-Kate Shafer

I Am The One in Charge Of My Success

Adulthood has always seemed to
Be a thing of my future.
Constantly chasing it, but I
Don’t ever actually reach that point in my life.
Except until now.
Forgetting how old 20 years once sounded.
Geriatric? Not quite.
However, now is when
I make the decisions.
Just like a grown up, I
Knock on doors to make things happen for myself. 
Lining up my day-to-day duties is on
No longer can I rely on being given
Orders what to do next. 
Planning my own schedule leaves me with    
Qualms about whether or not I can accomplish it all.
Responsibility is liberating and
Simultaneously terrifying. 
Taking the reigns, for me, means no more
Underestimating my abilities to succeed. A
Veces I am still in disbelief of
What I am accomplishing in my time in the DR.
Xmas is fast approaching which
Yields the end of my time here. Time
Zips by when you’re an adult.

*A veces is a Spanish word that means sometimes
*DR is short for the Dominican Republic

I have learned that at the primary education level and even at the college level, students’ hands are held through all the processes of schoolwork.  Providing us with step-by-step instructions of what to do and when it needs to be done.  One day at work at my community organization, Acción Callejera, something clicked in my brain.  I had been waiting for my supervisor to approach me to open up discussion about my research investigation.  Since she had yet to come to me, I decided I couldn’t wait any longer.  I waited so long to approach her because I thought she was busy with other things and would talk to me when she had time.  It turns out that she was happy to have a meeting with me. 
That is the moment when I realized, “Wow, I am actually an adult with adult responsibilities.”  It is my job to carry out the entire process of my investigation, and the end result is dependent on my performance.  I have to make things happen for myself.  My fear of taking control of what needs to be done has been deteriorating since I began my community work in Santiago.  My confidence has risen.  I keep thinking, if I can do all this work in Spanish, I will be unstoppable in English.  I know I am more of a go-getter, fearless to do what needs to be done.  I have never felt like an adult, I definitely still have the heart of a child; if there is a rain puddle somewhere, I’m going to jump in it.  Responsibility can be frightening, but I believe all good experiences scare us at first. 

-Eve Hansen