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Learning by doing good in Latin America

Service learning opportunities allow students to experience real-life in Latin America
Jan 11, 2010
By Colleen Kiphart

This is part one of a four-part series on service learning opportunities for OHIO students.

For many Ohio University students community service is a given part of their education. They spend nights or weekends doing a multitude of tasks to help the Athens community. Service learning is when the instructor includes an element of community service and reflection into their curriculum.

Lisa Kamody, the director of student and community engagement, the office that assists professors in setting up service learning opportunities, said, "I definitely think that students can get more out of courses that include service learning. It has been shown that you learn best by doing. This gives them a chance to put their lessons to use."

Part One: Latin America

Students can find numerous chances to participate in service learning at home in Athens and abroad. Latin America has always been a popular study abroad destination for Ohio University students; Mexico is another popular location for study. Service learning in Latin America offers students time to work intensively on their Spanish while gaining a better cultural understanding through immersion and participation. Knowledge of Spanish is recommended for these trips, but none require it.

El Salvador
When Eddith Dashiell, assistant dean of undergraduate services and programs at the Scripps College of Communication, first went to El Salvador with the Center for the Complete Development for Children and their Families (CEDEINFA) in 2005 she felt an immediate connection with the Salvadorian people.

"It was so sad when we left. Many of us promised to go back, and I did. I felt like I was home," Dashiell said.

CEDEINFA is a grassroots group that works within the existing infrastructure in some of the poorest neighborhoods in El Salvador to provide food, education and health care to the citizens. There is a heavy emphasis on respecting people?s autonomy and doing charitable work within the framework of the community.

The Ohio University program was conceived after Dashiell was invited to speak about her experiences in El Salvador at the College of Osteopathic Medicine. "After my talk Dr. (Gillian) Ice approached me and asked if CEDEINFA would do a partnership with them," Dashiell said.

Students spend most of their days assisting with free clinics. They participate in medical exams, doing basic tests and staffing a pharmacy -- all under the watchful eye of attending physicians. Though this program is through OU-COM, students from all majors and class ranks are encouraged to apply. Students in other disciplines can pursue independent studies while volunteering in some capacity.

The program has grown in leaps and bounds since its inception three years ago. Participation has grown from 13 people on the first trip, including supervisors, to an estimated 50 students participating in two trips this year.

"There is really a place for everyone?s skills and interests," Dashiell said. "There is such need."

Medical students have the option of joining a surgical brigade in El Salvador with David Drozek, assistant professor of surgery. Drozek also assists with the CEDEINFA trip. The brigade?s Web site says the program is open to "third and fourth year medical students, interns, residents, practicing physicians, other health care workers in practice or training, as well as nonmedical students and volunteers."

It is a two-week-long rotation in San Salvador in the government-run hospital in Soyapango. The rotation focuses on patients living in poverty. The first week participants operate on patients. The next week participants do follow-ups with patients and service in the community.

Peter Mather, associate professor of education, supervises the two-week Service Learning in Honduras expedition. The program "looks at how economics and education work together," Mather said, and it is suited for graduate students studying education, Latin American studies or development studies.

More than simply studying this interaction in the classroom, the students experience it for themselves. "We look at cross-cultural identities," Mather said. "Our students are challenged to learn about themselves and about others."

The first week students participate in a service project in Olancho, Honduras, a rural area five hours by bus from the capital. "We stay with a non-governmental organization that has a ranch that is equipped to host these service teams," Mather said. "Each day we are taken to a village and the group is divided up to do different tasks." Projects that the team has worked on include everything from painting walls to building community latrines.

In the second week, students stay in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, and have more traditional class meetings, studying the best practices in service learning, touring the capital city?s university and speaking with Honduran faculty, staff and students.

"It offers our students a unique chance to hear the faculty talking about their methods of teaching," Mather said. "The two groups really learn from each other."

For many students the lessons learned from the trip do not end once they have returned. "Participating in a research project keeps their time in Honduras alive when they get home," Mather said.

The program has been around for three years. Due to the political uncertainty in Honduras, this trip might take place in a different country or be delayed this year.

Mario Grijalva, associate professor of biological sciences, leads students in research with the Tropical Disease Institute in Ecuador. The focus of his study is Chagas disease, an infection that is spread by insect bites. Left untreated, Chagas disease can become chronic.

Participants have a number of service options that benefit the people of Ecuador and enhance the students? educations. The trip?s information page lists all of the possibilities. Applications are accepted from college students, staff, faculty and community members.



Published: Jan 11, 2010 8:00 AM


Yuki Nakama, a cultural studies graduate student, shares a smile with a girl in the village of Santa Rita, Honduras.


Katie Hendrickson (right), a cultural studies graduate student, helps to pour a concrete floor in that same village.

Photographer: Kevin Smith 

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