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Soaring for Change

In Stokes Hall South 451, 25 Boston College students sit in a square. This small group meets every Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., doing icebreakers such as the human knot and listening to speakers centered on the Dominican Republic. During the week, they can be found in McElroy asking for donations. This week (Jan. 27) they can be found in McElroy and Lower for their point drive. On spring break, instead of going to Cancun or Punta Cana to party, these individuals will head to Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, and participate in the Learning to Learn Dominican Republic Service/Immersion Trip.

The Learning to Learn Dominican Republic Service/Immersion Trip was started in 2000 by two seniors, Maureen Jenkins and Elizabeth Nyitray. The objective of the trip is to familiarize the participants with the current socio-economic and educational situation of the Dominican Republic, paying particular attention to groups that have been previously excluded from the opportunity to get a fair education and access to a decent living, and comparing the public, private and orphanage systems of education and general well-being.

Joana Maynard, assistant director at the Office of AHANA Student Programs, is the faculty advisor of the group and facilitates the trip along with Niurka De Jésus '07, a BC alum and former trip participant, and three student leaders: Antonelli Mejia, A&S ’14, Steven Restrepo, CSON ’15, and Madison Aleksa, LSOE graduate student ‘14. “We want students to have an experience that opens their eyes to the reality of the world's poor,” says Maynard. “We want each person to feel that they have a responsibility and opportunity to make a contribution to the improvement of our world.”

The trip is a yearlong commitment, beginning in September and continuing until the final week of April. During the year, participants hold different fundraising events such as a dinner that they held first semester or a dance party that is set to occur on Feb. 21, right after the Organization of Latin American Affairs' culture show. “This service trip is unique compared to others because we fundraise as a group all year long and travel to different sites in the Dominican Republic,” says junior Steven Restrepo, who is one of the student leaders of the trip and participated in the trip in 2013. “We get a sense of the public education system in a developing country compared to the U.S.”

In the Dominican Republic, the group will not only participate in acts of service, but they will also immerse themselves into the Dominican culture. One day could consist of visiting the orphanage, Villa Bendecion, the main placement where the students serve, and having dinner at one of the most popular Dominican restaurants or having an instrument/music workshop taught by local artist, Dichens Salcedo. Another day could consist of visiting the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti or visiting the Pedro Martinez Foundation’s Center:  Hay Poder En Aprender Youth Development (HAPA), meaning "there is power in learning." While each day consists of immersion and service, the group also visits one school each day, ranging from the local public school, Batey Palave, to the private school, Mi Colegio, where co-founder Elizabeth Nyitray now teaches.

Each Monday from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., the participants congregate to develop fundraising ideas, but also to learn a little bit about the Dominican Republic before they depart. “I have learned that the USA and the Dominican Republic have similar problems, but these problems - education disparity, poverty, etc. - occur at more extreme degrees within the Dominican Republic,” says sophomore Jovani Hernadez, who is a participant of the trip. “People might question groups such as these as to why they are going to a foreign country to do service when there is so much work to be done in the USA, but just because these problems are occurring in another country does not mean they should go unattended.”

This is exactly the mission Maynard wants to see culminated in the participants. “I hope they learn about being servant-leaders; that they remain loving and giving human beings; that their dreams increase even as they struggle with life's difficult questions, situations and tragedies.” But running a service trip based on the fundraising efforts of the participants has its own problems.

“The most challenging component to the trip is fundraising,” says Hernandez. This is a shared sentiment amongst the participants. Each week they ask for donations from the BC community and it is always a relief when individuals are willing to support the cause. But others walk by as the participants yell, asking for just a dollar towards the trip. “Although it is difficult at times to stay focused on the goals of the trip, I always count it a blessing to be able to share and support each group on their journey of self-discovery,” says Maynard happily. “Our students are talented and very committed to making a difference, on the trip and after. It is the long-term change that I occasionally get to witness that keeps me coming back year after year.”

“Leading this trip is difficult,” says Restrepo. “But it is ultimately rewarding to me in some way, shape or form because I get to experience something for a second time and I am in a position where I am here to guide others to experience the Dominican Republic situation in their own capacity.”

While troubles inevitably arise, the group enjoys each other and is excited to embark on their trip during spring break. “Ultimately I want this group to become a family,” says Restrepo. “Some members will get closer to others and be able to keep that brotherly or sisterly bond like Antonelli and I have. I just want each member to learn something about social justice and realize how the love for humanity is so crucial for our and future generations to understand.”

They are serving the Dominican Republic, but the trip is also serving the participants in more ways than one. The group departs on Feb. 28.