Many students at Stuyvesant have a causethey champion, or are always looking for ways to better the world. While some do this from home, others go abroad to learn about foreign culture, often roughing it with rudimentary toilets and sharing space with animals other than their pet dogs. When their trips end, they return home with a sense of satisfaction, funny stories, and an altered perspective on their lives.
Last summer, junior Rachel Kim went on a short-term mission to the Dominican Republic with the New York Cho Dae Church. “I learned that a huge portion of the DR is poverty stricken, so I wanted to go out and help the people in any way that I could, whether by providing them with clothing, or helping out at relief centers,” Kim said.
Kim and her fellow missionaries had three priorities while in the Dominican Republic: to provide relief to the children in the churches they went to, to teach them English, and to spread Christianity. For five days they ran a day care where parents sent their children for an English class, an activities class, a Bible study, and an arts and crafts class, while they went to work. This service was so necessary for local families that by the end of the week 300 children would come for each shift.
To Kim, the most rewarding part of the trip was the two days she spent as an English teacher to a class of Dominican children. The relationship she built with her students was the highlight of her experience. “They were the sweetest children ever,” Kim said. “The day that we had to say goodbye, they all ran up to me and basically gave me a mob hug screaming, ‘Adios Rachelle!’ The smiles on their faces and their loving embraces really made the trip worth it.”
As Kim experienced a new level of poverty in the Dominican Republic, she became aware of how much she appreciated her life in New York City. “I had never felt the sting of poverty before in the U.S.” Kim said. “It was strange to actually live in a non-air-conditioned room in 90 degree weather.” While altruism was Kim’s original motivation for signing up for the trip, she found that she gained almost as much as she contributed on her mission.
Like Kim, Senior Debajan Roychoudhury faced formidable temperatures in Nicaragua while building a school in a village and learning about local culture through the Build On organization. His volunteering work was also based on spreading education as a means of solving problems like widespread hunger, disease, and conflict, which was something that made the organization stand out to him. “It’s not just a one-step solution where America goes and gives aid or drops off shoes or water or stuff like that,” Roychoudhury said. “It’s an on-going process. [Once those rural areas receive education] one of the local villagers there with that education will go out and uplift the whole community.” This was an important aspect for Roychoudhury largely because his parents had immigrated to the United States for better educational prospects.
On a daily basis, the volunteers spent half of their day doing tasks like making bricks to build the school, and spent the other half of their day involved in cultural activities, which were where a lot of the fun moments were, in Roychoudhury’s opinion. “We would be milking cows and making funny noises and we had dancing workshops where we learned the cultural dances of the area,” Roychoudhury said.
They also had more serious workshops where they met with the adults of the community and learned about the strife the locals experienced. “For some of them, their kids were learning to work a machete instead of learning to read a textbook,” Roychoudhury said. These stories helped the volunteers understand the importance of their job building the school.
Roychoudhury also had a great time with his host family, whom he described as warm and from whom he was sad to part because of the strong bond they had built during his time there. “The whole time [my host father] had this little camera that he’d go around taking pictures of me with, as if I was a part of his family,” Roychoudhury said. He loved playing soccer with his host brothers, and enjoyed learning how to cook plantains (a local staple) from his host mother.
Junior Jessica Chen’s international volunteering experience was an opportunity to do something meaningful for kids who have shared a similar childhood as hers. Before she immigrated to the United States from China, she went to a public elementary school in Guangzhou. Years down the line, she called her school up and asked if she could come back, this time with both her invaluable command of English and many books for students to read.
“When I went there, their library was really bad. They didn’t really have any books,” said Chen. “A lot of people here have all these books that they don’t use after they grow out of them.” Realizing this, Chen asked people she knew to give her the books they did not want anymore and brought them with her to children back in her hometown.
Chen also taught a class of students English and informed them about life in the United States compared to life in China. “They completely understood me and even answered me in English. I was expecting that they’d speak maybe a little broken English here and there and that I’d need somebody to translate for me,” Chen said.
Reflecting on her trip, Chen recalls a funny experience. “When I first met all the teachers they thought I was an elementary school student who got lost. They knew I was coming, too. I don’t think I look that young but they did,” she said. “I stood there for a good 30 minutes having to explain [who I was] to every teacher who passed by.” She also remembers that some of her students were pretty interesting characters. “There was one boy who knew more about politics than I did, and he was in fourth grade. He knew all about Gaddafi,” Chen said. “[In the end] we exchanged emails and some of them still contact me and ask me questions about being a high school student.”
Volunteering internationally gives students the opportunity to make a difference in the world while having a fun new experience. It broadens their cultural horizons by exposing them to different cultures and forcing them to adapt to other ways of life. Students return with a new perspective on their lives and a better understanding of other cultures.