Global health in DR: Service-learning as relationship building

anda-welcomeReflections on CUSLAR-Cornell health exchange
with students from Dominican Republic 

by Julia Smith

For ten days in October, CUSLAR and the Cornell Global Health program welcomed 12 Dominican university students at Cornell University, completing the second half of a very successful and fulfilling cultural exchange.

The Dominican students stayed with Cornell student hosts and participated in many classes, cultural events, and learning opportunities. The main event of the exchange was a research symposium that showcased the projects that Cornell students created together with the Dominican students during an eight-week immersion experience in Santo Domingo. I was fortunate to be one of the eight Cornell students participating in this unique program.

From the moment we first arrived in Santo Domingo in May, we were greeted by a crowd of smiling Dominicans. Our mentor, Dr. Angel Pichardo Almonte, and students from the holistic medicine group RenaSer were ready to pick us up at the airport and immediately invite us into their world. From the moment we left the airport I knew our lives would be permanently entangled with these passionate and giving students.

As the summer progressed, so did our relationships with the students of RenaSer. These students were our tour guides, peers, mentors and friends. They taught us how to get around the bustling city of Santo Domingo and how to properly dance the bachata. They shared with us their passion for holistic medicine and social justice. They introduced us to their families, kept us safe, and made us feel completely at home. When we planned their visit to Cornell, I knew that we would somehow have to return this hospitality.

Receiving them in my home meant more to me than just providing a place to stay. Many of the students who came to Cornell in October had never before left the Dominican Republic. I felt compelled to show them the same generosity they had shared in Santo Doming and to give them a warm welcome to our school and our country.

Research symposium

On October 16 our mixed research teams participated in the first Global Health Symposium. This allowed us to showcase our work and speak about our experiences with faculty and peers. Through this symposium, my Dominican partners and I were able to reconvene on our community research topic of diabetes and share our findings with the Cornell community. Presenting our project with my research partners, Cornell student Anshu Gaur and Scarlett Constanza and Shaila Abreu from the Universidad Autonoma de Santo Domingo (UASD), at my side was a pivotal moment for us after two months of dedication to this topic.

These group research projects solidified our friendships with the RenaSer students during the summer, and it was an incredible experience to share this academic setting with them at Cornell as well.

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Sharing with New Roots Charter School

RenaSer students also shared an intercultural experience with New Roots Charter School students in Ithaca. Spanish teacher Maria Gimma brought about a dozen of her students from New Roots to Cornell for a morning of healthy eating and learning about holistic medicine. The high school students and Dominican students created juices and salads while discussing the medicinal properties of the food and practicing Spanish and English together.

The RenaSer students’ passion for sharing their knowledge about health and nutrition was evident. Seeing connections form between the high school students and our Dominican friends was remarkable.

Reciprocal learning

We also had important informal time together, hiking the Cascadilla Gorge trail, exploring the Ithaca Farmers Market and visiting landmark sites on Cornell’s campus. The students took in the view from the top of the clocktower, participated in Spanish classes and shared meals at the dining halls.

We listened to Dominican music, danced salsa, and prepared home-made empanadas. We spoke mostly Spanglish. Our friendships represent both our similarities and our differences. Here lies the beauty of the relationships we are building. There is a common growth among us all in sharing ourselves and in being receptive to learn from one another. This deep and committed relationship-building is what I see as the most significant aspect of our cultural exchange and our participation in this service-learning program.

Redefining service

In preparing for the program, we kept returning to the central theme of service. We read Joby Taylor’s article, “Metaphors we serve by,” during our pre-departure seminar led by CUSLAR Coordinator Tim Shenk.

Taylor shares several metaphorical narratives of how service is understood — as war, business or charity. He also says service can be seen as border crossing. He defines a border as a place of “political, cultural and ideological overlap.” This understanding of service allows participants to understand “otherness,” people with different backgrounds and worldviews, on their own terms. Service does not necessarily have to be a physical project or donation.

Although service as border crossing is the best of Taylor’s metaphors, this definition could reach further. Defining border crossing as understanding “otherness” assumes a barrier will be left between people. An additional metaphor could be service as unity.

Unity means more than appreciating and learning about another culture. It means building relationships and developing mutual respect. It goes further than border crossing. It requires openness, humility and nonjudgment. It means empathy is built and that people come to the table with open hearts.

This is what I see has happened between Dominican students and Cornell students on the CUSLAR-Global Health program. Through friendship, the “other” melts away. Understanding breaks down barriers between people while still acknowledging and respecting differences.

Implications for our program

These strong connections have far-reaching implications for our program.   These relationships continue to strengthen our goals in this partnership. I feel compelled to maintain my ties with these people and this amazingly warm and beautiful country. I am eager to see these students achieve all of their noble and ambitious dreams.

I am eager to continue sharing our worlds and experiences as we all grow in our parallel and entangled lives. In a way, we represent the future of U.S.-Latin American relations. Our impact may seem small right now but our strong relationships and deep mutual understanding is the beginning of a more united and empathetic world.

About the Global Health program in Dominican Rep.

In 2014, Cornell Global Health and CUSLAR launched an eight-week service-learning program for Cornell undergrads in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.

Students live with host families in the neighborhood of Simón Bolívar while learning about holistic medicine and creating research projects. Dominican students and Cornell students participate in a class on qualitative research methods at the Universidad Autónoma de Santo Domingo (UASD) led by Dr. Angel Pichardo Almonte.

About the student research

The student research projects were collaborations between undergraduate students from Cornell and students from the UASD. Pichardo taught students the basic methods of qualitative community research and emphasized the subjectivity that comes from it.

Qualitative research comes from people’s life stories. It is highly personal, and knowledge production is always filtered through the lenses of the researchers as well.

Students created research teams based on common interests. The topics ranged from biomedical to social, including: knowledge about diabetes, views on the relationship between cancer and nutrition, health practices of Haitians without citizenship, and beliefs associated with gender violence.

The student teams spent the summer developing the projects and collecting field data. They created focus groups and invited residents to participate in interviews. For the Cornell students, these interviews were both a valuable source of contextual knowledge about their topic and also an essential experience for practicing Spanish in a professional context.

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Dominican student reflections

“Nunca hubiera imaginado que la segunda parte de este proceso de intercambio e investigación sería una experiencia tan enriquecedora. Pude reencontrarme y conocer personas maravillosas en mi breve estadía en Cornell University, además de presentar junto a mis compañeros y compañeras los resultados de nuestras investigaciones realizadas en Santo Domingo. Aprendí mucho de cada encuentro y pienso que esto fue el inicio de una larga amistad y el inicio de un proceso de transformación a nivel personal y social.” – Sergio Valenzuela

“Mi visita a Cornell University fue sin duda una gran experiencia. Es maravilloso todo lo que pude aprender, poder debatir libremente sobre lo que pensamos de diversos temas, la oportunidad de conocer nuevas personas, nuevas culturas, nuevos lugares, poder llevar un mensaje a muchas personas de lo que somos como grupo y asimismo poder aprender de las demás personas con las que nos relacionamos. Me llevo los agradables momentos que pasé con mis compañeros y amigos miembros de RenaSer y mis compañeras del Programa Global Health que son únicos todos. Sin ustedes no estaríamos completos.”   – Stephany Baez

Julia Smith is a senior Biology and Society major at Cornell University.

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