Eleven students from Stevens Institute of Technology returned home after spending an impactful week (May 30 – June 6) in the Caribbean, not on vacation, but having participated in the inaugural Stevens Global Service Initiative trip to Jamaica.
Andrew Robert Falcone ’17, Evan Grant Forman ’18, Glenn Elise Paulsen ’17, Olivia Rose Schreiber ’18, Julia Maria Stika ’17, Morgan Diana Urie ’17, Jane Danielle Cruz ’17, Allison Jennifer Waters ’18, John Joseph Howarth ’16, Kevin Michael Baccaro ’19 and Megan Patricia Kohr ’17 all signed on for what would become a “watershed” experience that would impact their worldview and possibly help shape the course of their lives.
Organized by Delta Upsilon, Project Jamaica is part of the fraternity’s international philanthropy Global Service Initiative. Kaye Schendel, director of global initiatives for the fraternity, says the goal of GSI is that students leave the experience with a greater understanding of global issues, a commitment to be community servants/philanthropists, and generally be more self-aware of themselves and the world around them.
Associate Director of Student Life Thea Rachel Zunick adds that Project Jamaica was a unique opportunity open to all Stevens undergraduate students, both Greek and non-Greek, to experience community service on a global scale.
“Many of the students on the trip have had opportunities to serve in Hoboken and in the surrounding areas in New Jersey. But this trip broadened that perspective with a once-in-a-lifetime experience to serve the people and children of Jamaica.”
From the moment of their arrival, the students experienced a Jamaica that was a far cry from the vacation destination most visitors experience as tourists.
Upon leaving the airport, they traveled to Negril to what appeared to be a construction site. They were surprised to learn it was the New Life Tabernacle United Pentecostal Church.
“I couldn't imagine that this place was safe enough for people to be in, let alone pray in. However, a completed room that served as the church stood atop the concrete, and it was a full house that morning,” recalled Olivia Rose Schreiber.
They walked in during Sunday service and were immediately embraced by church members who encouraged the students to join them in the dancing, singing and clapping that took place throughout the service.
“This kind of church setting was new to me because I grew up attending mass at a Catholic church where our prayers are structured and sometimes silent. The energy throughout this Pentecostal church radiated through me and compelled me to dance and clap along,” added Julia Maria Stika.
In Jamaica, the students’ primary mission was to serve two primary schools – Gordon’s Early Childhood Institution in Negril and Pedro Plains Primary and Basic Schools near YS Falls – on a number of projects to help improve conditions at those schools including repairing a swing set, painting and construction work.
When tasked to rebuild a wall, which included demolition, masonry and making concrete, they discovered quickly how precious resources were.
“Having had some previous experience on work sites I was amazed at how ‘homemade’ everything was there. Reusing what we already had to avoid waste was a large part of our process, whether it was removing nails from the old pieces of wood or shoveling dirt and sand to make concrete mixes, every material held such value,” explained Megan Patricia Kohr.
The students undertook a “learn-as-you-go” approach while guided by local laborers, who they say demonstrated endless patience and a nurturing sensibility.
“When concrete filler leaked through poorly mortared layers of block, there were no snide comments, only guidance. When blocks were set unevenly, there wasn't a snicker, or a grabbing of tools, only a continuing pursuit of the goal – a better school for the kids,” recalled John Joseph Howarth.
That attitude and example of never losing sight of the ultimate objective, says Howarth, is something he would like to bring back home in improving his own community.
“I saw their sense of the greater good. The elementary school children we built the school for were always the end goal,” he says.
A last-minute project at the end of the day proved especially rewarding for Andrew Robert Falcone. When informed of a broken handle on a see-saw, Falcone immediately began repair and succeeded in putting the see-saw back together in minutes.
The kids at the school took notice just as he was hammering in the final nail, and soon a crowd of eight students ran over to the now fixed see-saw and jumped right on.
As he stood back watching them laugh and having fun as they enjoyed their ride, Falcone said he was overwhelmed with emotion.
“The fact that just a few minutes of my work on such a simple task could make a group of kids that happy rendered me speechless. All I could do was smile as more and more ecstatic children ran up to get a turn.”
Moments like these, according to Schendel, can have a profound impact on participants in ways that can be “life changing.”
“Students that participate in a service immersion trip have the capacity to change the world in significant ways,” says Schendel. “Project Jamaica creates a unique learning opportunity that empowers students to become dynamic social change agents, cultural ambassadors and innovative leaders.”
For one participant, witnessing the day-to-day challenges of ordinary Jamaicans shattered preconceived notions she held about inequity.
“Growing up in a capitalist society, I had an underlying assumption that poverty was caused by not working hard enough to achieve success,” explained Stika. “Being in Jamaica and seeing the poverty firsthand has challenged me to delve further into the causes of poverty and what I can do in my own life to make a difference, no matter how small. This trip and the discussions within our group have educated me enough to understand that I was not sufficiently educated about global issues.”
Similarly, Schreiber describes her Project Jamaica experience as an important step in her evolution towards becoming a "global citizen." She has returned home more curious and concerned about the root causes of poverty around the world, she says.
“I think I've grown over this past week, and I want to continue to nurture this maturation throughout my time here at Stevens and throughout my adult life.”