Ten Mount Holyoke students traveled to the Dominican Republic over January Term, immersing themselves for two weeks in Spanish language. The students spent most of their time building housing for the underprivileged in Vallejuelo, a town in the southwestern part of the Dominican Republic, near the Haitian border. The trip, cosponsored by the Spanish department and CAUSE, a student-run community service organization, was not only a total immersion language course, but also immersion in a different way of life.
The trip grew out of a proposal to the College's Innovation Fund by Spanish instructor Thelma Belmonte-Alcántara and Anita Magovern, College chaplain, adviser to the Catholic community, and CAUSE adviser. Armed with more than $5,000 in seed money from the Innovation Fund, Alcántara and Magovern spent more than a year working out the details. They raised additional funds from a number of campus sources, including the Student Government Association, the Center for Global Initiatives, the Spanish department, and the Latin American studies program. Ultimately, each student was only required to pay $200, thanks to the generosity of donors and hard work of student fundraisers. "As a CAUSE program, we wanted it to be economically equal for everyone," Magovern explained.
Approximately 20 intermediate Spanish students applied for ten spaces. "Our idea was to create a diverse group of students to work with a common vision across different backgrounds," Magovern said. "We chose students based on why they wanted to go on the trip. Some had a burning desire for the experience, others wanted to surmount their fear of speaking a foreign language." The group included a mix of ages and nationalities: first-years through seniors, representing several countries including India, Singapore, and Ghana.
Magovern and Alcantara set up the work program with the assistance of the Catholic diocese of Orlando, Florida, which has 25 years of experience in medical, educational, and social projects in the Dominican Republic. Working alongside native Dominicans, the MHC crew--Belmonte-Alcántara and Magovern, too--learned construction skills under the guidance of six construction supervisors. Some of the Mount Holyoke women had no previous experience. But after two weeks they had mastered a variety of skills, from drilling and hammering to cutting metal and measuring. "I had never used a drill," Belmonte-Alcántara said. "We all learned that these are skills you can learn." Magovern added, "We worked hard. From 8:00 in the morning till 5:00 in the evening, with a short break for lunch. The sun was hot, especially in the afternoon."
The group was grateful to be housed in two cottages with comfortable beds, electricity, hot running water for showers, and delicious meals. "We had no idea what to expect in terms of housing, food, and other amenities," Magovern said, "so everything we found was a pleasant surprise."
Aside from having to speak Spanish, the MHC women faced the challenge of proving their mettle in a very different culture. Chaprece Henry '09, from Tucker, Georgia, said, "We had to prove that we were more than just tourists, or stuck-up Americans. As women we also had to prove that we could actually work hard. The women there do not work in construction. With all these things against us we had to work hard, harder than the men." The group quickly earned the respect of their Dominican hosts. "The guys could see that we were working hard," Magovern said. "Once they saw that, they shared their knowledge with us."
Learning the details of construction in a foreign language wasn't always easy. Allie Walsh '09 said the experience taught her "how to interact with people when you're dealing with language barriers." When students were truly stuck they sought help from Belmonte-Alcántara, but much of the time they worked it out on their own. "We were very proud of the students," Belmonte-Alcántara said. "It was a pleasure to see them working. That's when the language came. That was the beauty of it, seeing them all interacting in another language."
Experiencing life in a far less materialistic culture imparted a powerful lesson to the group. The trip "taught me not to take life for granted," Walsh said. Henry agreed: "The Dominicans in Vallejuelo cherished the simple things in life. And because they did not have cell phones, Internet etc; they had a sense of what life is truly about. So, I learned that simplicity is not a bad thing. In fact it's the simple things of life that stay with us."