By Diana Kimondo
Service trips: Students/teachers serving and reflecting within a community in order to understand the local culture, reduce negative effects of a social issue in order to empower the community to lead their own progress. Often times this is how we explain what service trips are to potentially interested candidates. This is the knowledge I carried with me as I made way to Treasure Beach, Jamaica, for my first service trip. I landed in Montego Bay a few days earlier than required to familiarize myself with the culture. It only made sense I arrive earlier. How can I provide my services to an island I know nothing about? I did not want my service to be “help centered”, I did not want to portray myself as a “savior”. I wanted to appreciate the culture and customs beforehand and spend my energy, time empowering the Islands’ youth.
George Mason’s SAIL department made sure that we as the service participants understood the impact and privilege we held abroad. I learned a lot about the white savior complex, redistribution of power, systematic inequalities, oppression, privilege, and social justice. I hate that these are things we learn about abroad, but I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity.
I learned about the white savior complex growing up in Kenya, and it is no surprise that there were other service groups at the same time who demonstrated this trait to a tee. I remember a group of elderly women who came to school to take pictures with the students and to drop off books and markers. This led to me understanding the meaning of privilege. By understanding privilege, I gained insight to systematic inequalities and the redistribution of power. By the end of the service trip, I was a social justice advocate. I grew a new set of eyes, all of a sudden I could see things that were blind to me back in Northern Virginia. Service trips took on a new purpose for me. I gained a lot more from my experience than I could ever contribute to the society. I gained awareness and I became WOKE.
By: Maggie Williams
On March 5, 2016 I flew to Guatemala City with several other members of my Alternative Break Program. The flight took about eight hours total overnight Saturday night into early Sunday morning, after having several connection flights from Dulles International to Mexico City, then landing Guatemala City. When we first took off, after having not traveled internationally annually since high school, I was freaking out on the plane, constantly asking”, what in the world did I get myself into.”
Everything became a blur after that because my plane ride to Guatemala City was so much better. We were able to walk on the plane from outside, so for a very brief moment, I got to luxury of walking in the beautiful country of Mexico. But, while I stressed out there was a relief that hit me the morning we landed in the Guatemala City Airport.
Seeing Guatemala for the first time was a culture shock from the United States. The pace was so much slower and I felt at peace. After landing (on Sunday morning), we sat down for a short coffee break and then headed out for Antigua, Guatemala! The traffic-eh, it was not any better than in Northern Virginia. But, the view, it was nothing compared to anywhere in the Estados Unidos.
We unpacked our bags in the hostels and headed out for a hiking tour on a mountain. I had no idea that we were going on the mountain, but I love nature so that was definitely fun to experience! I got to know my group a little better as we hiked, and realized how supportive everyone was, so it turned out to be a blast! We hiked at nightfall, which was scary, especially as we lost someone hiking back up, but it was also something that pushed me out of my comfort zone, so it was rewarding. Nevertheless, the highlight of this day was having dinner on the mountain cliff at a restaurant, playing soccer with the impeccable view, and lying down in some comfortable hammocks, and let me tell you getting up from those hammocks was not easy.
Monday, we were able to visit the beautiful site of Cerro de la Cruz, it was so beautiful being able to see all of Antigua from this one spot. After taking pictures and buying souvenirs, we traveled to Xela, Guatemala, about three hours away. We didn’t see it coming but after sitting in traffic, we ran into a politico manifesto! We were walked around to see what was going on by walking with Tomas our friend, who is a Guatemalan natives. It was amazing to see the difference in how people were protesting; after all they stopped all on going traffic to get the attention on what they wanted to change. But, to see that other people in world are also protesting their government was eye opening because we often never hear about the citizen side of protests in the news in other countries. We also hear from their government so this was a once in a lifetime opportunity!
After running back into our van— literally, we made our way to Xela, I noticed that the architecture of the buildings were different. In Antigua, the houses were different colors; it had a very baroque structure, so that was captivating. However, in Xela, the houses and buildings were often multistory concrete houses. Once, we arrived to our homestays, we went to our Kalmalbe school in Xela, which was only about a five minute away walk and was able to talk about our plan for the rest of the week; but also made our lesson plans for when we went into the schools. It turned out to be a very unexpected day as our ride took longer than expected. But, after walking around during the protest, I had a stronger understanding of the culture of Guatemala—but also the privilege of us in America, where we don’t have as strong of a problem with corrupt politicians, we can have a say with who we want. But, in Guatemala, that is not the case.
Tuesday, I was nervous but so excited to see the little ones at El Tigre—the community elementary school. When we opened the doors, all the kids were so excited, so I was pumped to teach them about everything we knew about nutricion and hygiene. We taught first grade and then moved into third grade. Since I was learning Spanish, I assisted the head teachers in our group who were fluent, by walking around and asking children what they drew. Their pictures, imagination and passion inspired me that day., as they all had so much energy. I loved seeing how happy and energetic the students were despite the fact that were coming from backgrounds where they had to walk a long way to get to school, had to work and help their families. It was there and then when I became thankful for all that I had growing up, where school was never inaccessible. For me, it was right down the street, so just seeing my privilege challenged me to think about who I was and who I want to be as a prospective educator. \
Wednesday, I went to the El Oratorio School to assist with creating the lesson plan, which was only about five minutes away from El Tigre. We broke our lesson plan into three groups: What is healthy, what are healthy foods, and how to take care of yourself. Despite the fact that we were breaking a sweat the whole morning, the children had such a blast, so I am glad that we were there. After dinner, we went to a jazz festival, which was interesting as the solo violinist was from Europe! I was able to relax with the music after a long day at the schools! Even better, we stopped to get pizza on our way back to the homestays and proceeded to go home and come back out to a nearby restaurant for group reflection. Oh the disaster—we walked around Xela for an hour, officially lost, and I ended up keeping water bottle out for defense just in case. Once we got to the restaurant group reflection I had brownie on the side and suddenly the fact that we got lost slipped my mind.
Thursday, I went to El Oratorio in the morning to help with the lessons, this time we were in fourth and fifth grade instead of first and second grade, which was exciting! But we had to leave a little early, as we were on our way to get frutas y venduras in a local mercado. It was amazing to see all of the different products venders had to offer! I had yogurt and it hit the spot! It was even better to be able to spend some time with my trip leaders along the way. After lunch, we made our way back to Xela and walked around a factory to how they made scarves and even saw the Iglesia de San Jacinto, the first Catholic Church in Latin America.
It was interesting to hear how effective assimilation affects a culture. It made me wonder how colonialization affected my own family ancestors in Trinidad and Venezuela. While I may think that what religion I believe in is normal, I now question, what is my religion, what was it before colonial settlers enforced cultural assimilation? Maybe I the world isn’t as clear as I think.
Friday was the saddest day of the week, as our journey across the beautiful country of Guatemala was coming to an end. I went to El Tigre in the morning to get a head start on the mural, but I couldn’t resist the enthusiasm of the munchkins who wanted to play tag, dance and do tricks on the monkey bars.
As we approached midafternoon we started to teach the kids how the fruit is good for their heart, head, and overall health.
Fun fact of the day—after I gave out all of the fruit, I realized the 100+ papers with the information about nutrition something went missing! I scurried back into the classrooms to ask the kids where they went and turned out the class played a mini prank on me by hiding them in their backpacks. It turned out to the most stressful, epic, but absolutely hilarious moment of the week, even better than when I knocked down the paint can on Thursday in the middle of our painting session. But we don’t have to remember that—whoops! When we were finishing up our murals on schools, I ran into two kids, Ezmeralda and her hermano, Pedro.
I ended up teaching them English and they taught me Spanish. The enthusiasm they had for learning English changed me forever as an educator, because I just realized how privileged America was to be able to have different languages available in schools. We were behind schedule a little that day, and didn’t make it to hot springs, but I didn’t care after meeting Ezmeralda and Pedro. After leaving, I was heartbroken from leaving the them behind, but confident knowing that the information we left them behind with is going to impact them more than we know it, even if we weren’t going to be there to see it.
Friday night, I had the experience of going to a Guatemala club—hey, no judging, the salsa club was closed! Likewise, we danced with the locals and listened to some of the music as there was a LIVE band playing in the middle of the club. It was a great way to end the trip. Saturday morning, we concluded the trip and made our way to different paths.
After my experience in Guatemala, I couldn’t be more thankful for being able to go and meet so many different people, try different foods, dance with los ninos, and speak Espanol. There’s no doubt that this trip changed me, especially as an educator. I know now the barriers students face when performing in the classroom internationally as I saw them on a first hand experience (long walking distance, limited school supplies, etc.), so I hope to make sure that none of my future students are left out of the classroom, because I like to think that every child should have access to education regardless of where they come from. I learned so much about social justice from my trip family, hearing what they had to say challenged me to have an open mind when walking into new situations and letting myself be vulnerable. As a future educator, I hope to change the world one student at a time by helping dismantle those barriers students have wherever I decide to teach. I know that it won’t be easy but it will be worth it in the long run for the students that I empower, as I hope to inspire and guide the next generation!
While the trip may be over, the memories I made with the locals, and my beloved trip members will always stay in my heart! I hope to be able to come back next year!
By Caroline Kittle, Alternative Break Florida Participant
A year ago, I didn’t like the outdoors. I didn’t like tall grass or being hot or even the threat of a buzz going past my ear. Don’t get me wrong, I readily called myself an environmentalist, I just… didn’t like the outdoors.
Since last spring, that had slowly changed; I embraced the Environmental Science student within and had long since stopped flinching every time I heard a pollinator whip past. But beyond being an avid gardener and having camped one time in middle school, I couldn’t really peg myself as an outdoor lover.
Somehow, my heart still called me to Alternative Break and spending a Spring Break away in Martin County, Florida. Imagine: fifteen of us, camping and busting a sweat daily together with some real conservation work… not exactly what college students typically do on Spring Break in Florida. And bust a sweat we did.
We built an oyster reef on the Indian River Lagoon, the most biologically diverse estuary in North America. The lagoon has been struck, as of late, by pollution, algal blooms, and some of the worst fish kills in memorable history. So, we lugged bags of shells upon shells onto the shore and into the water for perfect placement of a constructed reef meant to help mitigate the problems the lagoon is currently suffering from and revive oyster populations.
We teamed up with Boston University’s Alternative Break for an invasive species removal. Led far off-trail with the company of two fearless dogs and various professionals, we found ourselves in a backwoods grove of Strawberry Guava, an extremely prolific species from Brazil that pushes native plants out as it spread like wildfire. Armed with industrial clippers, saws, and a whole lot of heart, our groups spent the morning clearing the hardy plants together. And when we had the option to quit after lunch or go back in? We went back in.
After a day off exploring secret beaches, our group was split between building a footbridge, which about every year had contributed to, and planting at a park site meant to be restored. When both projects were completed, our incredible community partner, Mike, had arranged a round-robin with environmental experts. We scoped gopher tortoise burrows, delineated wetlands, and learned about the benefits and processes of performing controlled burns on an area.
And on our last day, we returned to the site of our first project, able to feel a sense of coming full circle in our trip. Despite the devastation the lagoon is currently experiencing, we were able to take a few seconds to quietly witness a large pod of river dolphins just off shore. This sense of calm served as the perfect treat to kick off seven hours spent hauling and planting nearly 700 plants just a few feet away from the beautiful mangroves we had waded among days earlier.
“This changed my life” was the most repeated phrase I used during my alternative break. At one point, someone on my trip commented that I was probably using the phrase too much, but I couldn’t help it; to think that I had been afraid of the outdoors just a year earlier, but was now fearlessly climbing through razor palms or willingly holding a snake. Impossible. Life changing.
Because of Alternative Break, I feel like a new person. Case in point: I’m no longer an Environmental Science major. I have started the process of changing to Applied Global Conservation because my trip helped me learn that I take in a lot more knowledge in the field than I do trying to memorize classroom facts to spill on a testing page. I never would have learned this about myself without seven days spent cultivating a long-lost love for the outdoors. And I never would have had the courage to switch without the life changing experiences I shared with fourteen other incredible people (who deserve so much of the credit for how much my life changed).
Warning: Alternative Break will change your life, and your first most definitely will not be your last.
One week isn’t enough. That’s what I thought when I heard about Alternative Break, which is offered through the SAIL office, where students go on a service trip to work with a community for a week. At first, I heard about Alternative Break, and thought, yeah, that’s great…but one week is a ridiculously short time to learn anything. Yet my friends convinced me, where I applied, and got in. And decided to go.
Not knowing what I had signed up for, our El Salvadorian group as whole, through our meetings before the trip, decided to set a rule: to have no expectations. I think our only expectation was that we would learn something. Within our gatherings before the trip, our group leaders worked effortlessly, where we learnt about the history of El Salvador, bonded with one another, and of course, chose what we wanted to focus on. As a group, it was decided that we would go to El Salvador to learn about women’s rights.
The redundant saying, ‘words can’t describe’ applies to our time in El Salvador. Hence, I’ll give you a short run down of what we did. In fact, we didn’t do anything, we listened to the community. And if anyone knows, listening is an invaluable skill.
We went to a protest for women’s rights, which included the LGBT (they don’t use the “Q”) community. We spoke with the abuelas, who taught us that their rights do matter, even though the Salvadorian government wanted the indigenous community slaughtered. We heard from sex workers, who want equal rights. We heard from youth who aren’t influenced by the gangs. Rather, they’re influenced by the hope they have for their country, where they’re creating positive outlets for their community. By meeting these changemakers, they gave me that extra ‘kick’ to follow my passions, and I’m honored to have met them.
While my words may not resonate to how amazing the experience was, we were meeting with people every minute of the day it seemed like, and at the end of the day, we had reflection with our group. In addition, we met awesome people; Rachel (partner leading us in El Salvador), Mariellos (interpreter), Katy Perry (student who will intern with Foundation Cristosal in summer), and Miguel (student who will intern with Foundation Cristosal in summer). That’s right, we met Katy Perry. She’s kinda cool.
Simply put, our ‘vibes’ with the group were magical, and having Rachel and Mariellos was the cherry on the top. Rachel said, when you do stuff like this, it just makes a better version of yourself. Not different, but you become more full.
For someone who didn’t want to go to El Salvador, I was 100% proven wrong. Like other Alternative Break trips, we come away invigorated to make social change possible—because it is. Change is the hardest thing, but when you know other people want to create it, you reach another level, which you couldn’t have before. Tabatha, one of the trip leaders, highlighted how solidarity was a cornerstone she noticed in El Salvador. I too, agree. When people come together, things happen. The Beatles were right.
Blogger: Leah Chatterji
This past spring break, I was given the opportunity to travel down to the beautiful country of El Salvador with eight other amazing Mason students. Through Foundation Cristosal, we mostly focused on women’s rights and a bit of gang violence. We arrived late Saturday night and got to enjoy a delicious Pupusa, which is a traditional Salvadoran dish made of corn tortilla filled with cheese, beans, and ground meat. The next day we woke up bright and early for International Women’s Day manifestation at what I believed to be in downtown San Salvador. The manifestation included several women’s rights organizations with acts ranging from speeches to poetry, drum performances and other forms of demonstrations. Unfortunately, I was unable to fully understand most of the speeches and poetry. Nonetheless, I felt the positive energy and the feeling of unity among the activists. Marielos, a powerful, captivating poet and an amazing translator, recited her poems at the manifestation. Although the poems were in Spanish, I could feel the intensity and passion behind the tone in her voice. In fact, later in the week we were blessed with hearing more of her vivid and breathtaking poems dealing with the 17 mujeres (17 women jailed for 30 years for having miscarriages), LGBT rights, love, and many other issues and ideas.
Strong, beautiful, and positive. These three words aren’t enough to describe the lovely abuelas (group of women) of Nahuizalco, who have experienced heavy exploitations of their community and witnessed the massacring of their loved ones by the Salvadorian government. Even through years of discrimination, manipulation, and abuse these ladies stand firm on the ground to share their experiences and wisdom. In addition to the 1932 massacre and the Salvadoran Civil War in the 1980s, we talked about the story and history behind the petates (handcrafted floor mats) and the refajo (feminine article of clothing and a symbol of identity). We also talked about silly things such as pranks we’ve done in our earlier days. I felt honored to be in the presence of such wonderful women and enjoyed every minute of the various conversations that took place in their homes. Although having a translator was awesome, I wish I knew enough Spanish to have a deep one-to-one discussion with the abuelas in order to feel the connection. Still, our brief hours with maybe the last generation of the Nahuizalco community is something that will stay dear in my heart.
Towards the end of the week, we listened to an amazing band called Las Musas, which is an all female band consisting of 5 members. It may not seem like a big deal in America, but for the women of El Salvador this is a huge step in fighting patriarchy. Before they performed, we had the opportunity to speak with the musicians about how they got to where they are now and why they choose this path. I was amazed by their hard work and passion, but most importantly as to why they, as women, felt the need to pursue music as a means of transforming El Salvador’s patriarchal society. And oh maaaan are they doing a fantastic job! Every song was like honey to my ears. I was getting goose bumps on the back of my neck and I just couldn’t get enough of their talent. I remember hearing Mariiita and was really digging it, but when the bridge came in…ouufff I was digging it even more. What was also really impressive was their ability to play multiple instruments. I swear almost every song they were switching from guitar to piano, drums, vocals, flute, saxophone, etc. I’m getting a bit off track, but I highly recommend checking them out: https://www.facebook.com/lasmusasbatucada
There is A LOT more I can write about…and I barely touched the surface of what I learned, experienced, and felt during my stay in El Salvador. But if you are a George Mason student then you too can have these transformative opportunities which are accessible through SAIL Alternative Break!
Thank you for reading my post and I hope it wasn’t too much of a struggle to read. I hope I have somewhat sparked an interest in you to look into these programs!
Blogger: Abraham Kadi
ATTENTION STUDENTS! If you aren’t familiar with Alternative Break offered by the Center for Leadership and Community Engagement, I hope I can persuade you to become acquainted with it! My name is James Green and I am a freshman student at George Mason University. Throughout the beginning of the year I noticed a plethora of pamphlets around campus regarding study abroad trips to many exciting places, but never looked too deeply into them. I’ve always wanted to travel the world, but I brushed the idea of traveling abroad off because I feared the expenses.
Alternative Break trips offer the opportunity for international and domestic service at relatively low costs (compared to traditional study abroad trips), less duration of time from home (average of a week), as well as scholarship availability to help offset the costs! I researched more into the programs offered and found that they span from cultural emersion trips in Israel, to sustainability awareness trips in Florida. The trip I found fitting to my service interests was a trip to Jamaica focusing on elementary education.
After arriving in Jamaica, our group of twelve Mason students dove right into our educational mission. When we went to the school for the first time, I immediately took notice to how tarnished the buildings were. The school contained two small structures, totaling four classrooms, and around sixty students –only staffed by two teachers. We decided to find some ways to help around the school other than solely assisting with teaching.Our group decided that half of us could aid the teachers with their curriculum in the classroom, and the other half could stay outside to repaint the faded pink walls of the school. We also agreed that it’d be nice to switch the jobs of the groups halfway through the day, allowing everyone the opportunity to impact the students in the classroom. I enjoyed both painting and teaching because I knew that we were having a large impact on the school physically as well as with the students. Inside the classroom we read books, played games, and talked about our lives. The kids loved us, and we loved them!
Leaving them on the final day was the most difficult part. In a week’s time I had grown close to many of the students, and I didn’t want to go so soon. They all walked out of the class and into their vans to go home, hugging each of us at the door. It was a sad moment, but a moment that allowed me to feel as if I did truly have a positive impact on their lives –it felt great!
Our last two days were our “fun” days (even though the entire trip was a blast), where we were able to explore the area surrounding Treasure Beach. We went on a boat tour in the serene blue ocean where we were greeted by dolphins, we traveled through Black River –greeted by sunbathing crocodiles, and visited the most amazing set of waterfalls I’ve ever seen! The Jamaican people were kind and accepting, and taught us a lot about their culture! Last but not least, the food was spectacular! Jamaican food seems to be simple, but it tastes like you’re eating food from the finest of restaurants!
These priceless memories and experiences are not available to anyone and everyone, but as a George Mason student, they are accessible to you! I encourage everyone to look into the programs, as you will find life changing experiences in each and every alternative break trip offered! Your life is an adventure, you just have to choose how interesting you want that adventure to be!
Blogger: James Green