Summer trip to Mexico a learning experience for leadership students

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Ronnie Sullivan, sophomore in international agribusiness, Rachel McAdam, senior in psychology and Emily Stolfus, sophomore in elementary education pose in the fields of Puebla, Mexico with Lupita, their first host mother.

This summer, three students decided to take time out of their break to teach English classes to children in Mexico as part of the School of Leadership Studies’ International Service Team project. Emily Stolfus, sophomore in elementary education, Ronnie Sullivan, sophomore in international agribusiness, and Rachel McAdam, senior in psychology, went to Puebla and La Preciosita, Mexico for 10 weeks with little in-class adult supervision.

“I wanted to go because of my background in Spanish,” McAdam said. “I wanted more practice and to go abroad and thought it would be better to do it with a volunteer option.”

The process for participation in the service projects began in the 2012 fall semester with a deadline for applications and letters of recommendation, as well as both individual and group interviews. Afterwards, the teams were decided by the International Service Team coordinators and were announced early December.

“We were given a scavenger hunt to do,” Sullivan said. “We were basically trying to find a place and whoever showed up there would be our teammates. We all ended up together, just in the wrong place.”

Once the teams met, members began fundraising for the $4,000 trip and took a class to prepare them for what their service projects would entail.

“The class really prepares you for almost anything for the trip,” Sullivan said.

In the classes, students learned teaching techniques that might be helpful to communicate with their students. In addition to their role as educators, the team was also instructed to come up with a plan that met community needs.

“Sometimes, people will meet and talk about the community needs and then go over [to the community],” Stolfus said. “But this class taught us that we should focus on the community, not yourself.”

Fundraising took up the majority of the spring semester, consisting mostly of bake sales. The amount needed to be raised depended on each person’s financial needs. Sullivan and McAdam both received scholarships that managed to pay for most of their expenses, but they also sent letters asking friends and family members for financial assistance.

Finally, summer arrived and the team members prepared to leave. They planned out their travel routes prior to their departure, and spent the first week taking classes at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, UPAEP, in Puebla. They spent a few days at the university learning more about the Mexican culture before moving onto their next destination, La Preciosita, a small town with a population of about 700 near Puebla. They taught five English classes a day to students aged from five to 70 years old.

“I was scared of my seventh-grade class,” Stolfus said. “I didn’t realize that we would be teaching without adult supervision and I haven’t had any teaching classes yet. I was so stressed because I didn’t know how I was going to do classroom management because of the language barrier.”

Both Stolfus and Sullivan had completed Spanish 3 before the service trip to Mexico and were able to have some communication with the native speakers during the first week, with McAdam acting as interpreter. McAdam studied Spanish for several years prior and was able to communicate fluently. However, by the end of their trip, Stolfus and Sullivan were more confident in their speaking abilities.

The language barrier was not the only difficulty on the trip. None of the students had received Educational Services Overseas Limited (ESOL) training on teaching English classes.

“We had a lot of people with different abilities,” Stolfus said. “We basically had to do trial and error because none of us knew what we were doing. The first week was hard but eventually we got it down.”

Despite these challenges, and the occasional sickness, the trio thought the trip was very gratifying.

“I was just so impressed with how much they learned,” McAdam said. “It’s a lot of those little moments that were the most rewarding.”

After spending eight weeks at La Preciosita, the group decided to spend a few extra days sightseeing in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas and Mexico City. They said the atmosphere in their travels was vastly different from La Preciosita.

“I almost had culture shock,” Sullivan said. “The culture there was so completely different from what we had experienced or expected.”

Finally, ten long weeks later, the group headed back home to the U.S. Stolfus said she hopes to return to La Preciosita next spring when she studies abroad in Chile. All three still remain in contact with their friends they made along the way via Facebook and email.

“It’s great to stay in contact with them, even though you can’t physically visit them,” Sullivan said.

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