Perspectives Online

Value-Added Vacation - Semester breaks become service breaks as N.C. State students use their time to assist those in need. By Terri Leith

ASB students in the Dominican Republic including Christina Cox (front, right) and Sara Marino (front, second right) gather at a clinic at the Banelino banana cooperative. Photo by Roger Winstead

In 1961, a newly elected U.S. president asked his constituents to ponder not what their country could do for them but what they could do for their country and for their fellow citizens of the world.

It was in that spirit that the Peace Corps program was founded soon after. More recently, a new generation heard a current presidential candidate tell a university graduating class, “At a time when our security and moral standing depend on winning hearts and minds in the forgotten corners of the world, we need more of you to serve abroad.”

Christina Cox helps carry supplies at the Banelino clinic.
Photo by Roger Winstead
At N.C. State University, it’s a message that hundreds of students – including many College of Agriculture and Life Sciences students — have already taken to heart: They have devoted their semester breaks to volunteer service both at home and abroad. In fact, student demand for the opportunity to serve has become so great that the Alternative Spring Break program has become Alternative Service Break, offering service-learning trips during fall, winter, spring and (soon) summer vacation times.

The ASB program is directed by the university’s Center for Student Leadership, Ethics and Public Service (CSLEPS), which seeks to provide unique learning experiences that embody the values of leadership, service, responsible citizenship and ethics. “CSLEPS is about trying to help students understand the responsibilities associated with being global citizens and civic leaders,” said Mike Giancola, CSLEPS director. “Our focus is working with campus and community partners to help learn about and address social justice issues at home and around the world.”

The ASB trip program is a unique service-learning experience in which students engage in direct service to a community, while being immersed in the culture and customs of that community. Teams are led by student team leaders and accompanied by faculty advisers along with others, such as medical professionals, who act as mentors as well as volunteers. Throughout the break time (typically a week), team members participate in a variety of cultural, educational, recreational and reflective activities to enhance their service experience.

This past March, as part of their ASB trip activities of building homes, supplying needed food, addressing gender and domestic-violence issues, teaching health-related lessons and assisting in medical care, NCSU students helped package and deliver more than $130,000 worth of medical supplies to Central America.

In the Dominican Republic, Jonathan Scott prepares to take a blood pressure reading.
Photo by Roger Winstead
Said Giancola, “Being in service to others is what it means to be an American and a global citizen. It is important that we give back and that we repair some of the damage in our world.”

Making their contributions through two of the spring 2008 ASB trips were CALS pre-health professions students Victor Saxena, Christina Cox and Sara Marino (all in the Dominican Republic), and Rebecca Carbonell (in Mexico).

‘Instead of studying for exams this spring break, I decided to go abroad to a foreign country and serve whomever I could through teaching about health. In reflection, however, I now see that it was I who was truly being served, by everyone,” said Saxena, a sophomore biological sciences major, who hopes to become a physician.

“Gandhi once said that in order to find yourself, you must first lose yourself in service to others,” Saxena said. “I never really understood this until now. My service has had a lasting impact on those I served and has more importantly taught me more about my potential and myself than I have ever known before. … My ASB experience has opened my eyes and helped me understand that nothing is impossible.”

Cox, a May graduate in biological sciences, with minors in genetics and biotechnology, describes ASB as “the experience of a lifetime.”

“Alternative Service Break provided me with the opportunity to serve, while getting experience in the medical field,” said Cox, who in July began her studies at Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta. “I would absolutely recommend ASB to other students.”

Rebecca Carbonell, who participated in the health services-related ASB trip to Reynosa, Mexico, graduated in May in biological sciences, with minors in Spanish and health, medicine and human values. “My first experience with Alternative Service Break was in 2006, when I went to the Dominican Republic with Habitat for Humanity,” she said.

After a morning of teaching general health lessons to Monte Cristi school children, Victor Saxena (top) turns a jump rope. In the afternoons, Saxena, Giancola (bottom, on right) and the team traveled by bus to Dominican farming communities to give health-related presentations.
Photos by Roger Winstead

“When I learned there was a medical trip to Mexico, I decided I wanted to participate again in 2008 for my senior spring break,” said Carbonell, who this fall begins Georgetown University’s accelerated bachelor of science in nursing program. “I have always had a desire to volunteer in free clinics once I receive my nursing degree. This experience further strengthened my desire to do so.”

Marino, a 1999 CALS zoology graduate and now a post-baccalaureate pre-med student, taught the muscular and skeletal system portion of the team’s general health module to school children in Monte Cristi, Dominican Republic. “It was such an amazing feeling to impact the lives of others the way we did,” Marino said. “And it wasn’t by administering vaccinations, giving physical exams, assisting in dental work or taking patient histories. It was by taking something that might be difficult to understand and teaching those who want to learn about it.

“I again realized why I want to be a doctor, why I want to serve others,” said Marino.

“Action trumps intention. Stop thinking. Take action.”

The ASB program began in 1999. “Our first partnership was with Habitat for Humanity after Hurricane Mitch in Honduras,” said Giancola. “The next three years we worked with Habitat in the Dominican Republic.”

However, Giancola’s group quickly realized there was a great demand from students for this type of service-learning opportunity, and they also knew there wasn’t a shortage of need in the world for their partnership. “So we started growing the program by selecting students to lead the teams,” Giancola said. From an initial team of about 35 during that first year, the program has grown to almost 250 participants this past year, with activities expanding to include all semester breaks to meet the demand for participation.

“We actually have more students that want to go than we can place,” said Giancola. And a great part of student demand, he said, “has come from our pre-health students interested in health-related service.”

ASB trip destinations range from domestic to international – from as nearby as Asheville to as far away as the tsunami-ravaged areas in Sri Lanka. The program partners with various agencies and organizations in creating service-learning teams to assist communities in need. “We have a goal of 20 service-learning partnerships by 2010, and we now have 18,” Giancola said.

This year’s partner organizations include agencies such as Habitat for Humanity; Orphanage Outreach, an Arizona-based non-profit that supports an orphanage and community in the Dominican Republic; and Faith Ministries, a ministry along the Mexico-Texas border. The NCSU Student Health Services is also a participating partner, as is the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.

The College has supported health-related partnerships in Guatemala and Mexico, as well as student participation in health-related activities in the Dominican Republic. “In fact,” Giancola says, “some of our best partnerships are with CALS right now. We’re always looking for scholarship money so all students can have this significant service-learning opportunity. We’ve worked with Dr. Ken Esbenshade [CALS assistant dean and director of Academic Programs] to help support CALS students’ participation in our work.”

Giancola is also currently working with Dr. Gerry Luginbuhl of CALS Academic Programs to create an academic credit option for students participating in health-related ASB trips.

In Reynosa, Mexico, ASB student Rebecca Carbonell (top, on right) and her group treated more than 700 patients. Nurse practitioner Wendy Bierwirth (bottom, on left) of NCSU Student Health Services was a mentor to the students in the Dominican Republic.
Top photo courtesy Rebecca Carbonell
Bottom Photo by Roger Winstead
How do students go about getting involved in this? Some are recruited, some hear about it from advisers, and some just come to CSLEPS seeking out service opportunities, according to Giancola. He also works with the NCSU PreHealth Club and the CALS Health Professionals Advising Center (HealthPAC), both devoted to developing pre-professional students for their careers.

The spring 2008 trips took ASB teams to Belize, Dominican Republic (one team for Habitat work, another for health-related programs and a third focused on teaching English), Guatemala (one team focused on gender issues and another on health issues), Ecuador, Italy and Mexico, as well as, in the United States, the Gulf Coast, Philadelphia, New Mexico and Alaska.

In the Dominican Republic, “we have a really strong partnership with Orphanage Outreach,” said Giancola. “Initially the partnership was to teach English at the orphanage and in the schools. It’s grown to now include a health-related trip this past March, focused on health education and diabetes screening.”

With the students in Dominican Republic were Wendy Bierwirth, a nurse practitioner with the university Student Health Services, and Lisa Waller Vance, an NCSU alumna who recently graduated from Duke as an R.N. They also worked with Dr. Miguel Garcia-Tatis (called “Dr. Garcia” below) of the Dominican Republic.

“There were 18 in the group: three advisers and 15 students, and just about all of them were pre-health students,” said Giancola.

During the Dominican Republic week in Monte Cristi, the ASB team taught approximately 180 children subjects such as anatomy, hygiene, dental hygiene and nutrition and worked with approximately 220 adults on first aid, blood pressure testing, diabetes, women’s health and nutrition. They taught children each morning in the schools and traveled in the afternoon to bateyes, migrant farming communities, to teach at three locations within each bateye a day, a total of about 50 presentations in 4 days.

“I taught a lesson about the digestive system to grade-school-aged children in the mornings,” Saxena said. “In the afternoons my group mates and I were bussed to the rural areas of Monte Cristi. In these rural areas I gave a presentation about adequate pre-natal nutrition to the women.”

Added Marino, “In the afternoons, we traveled 30 to 45 minutes to the bateyes, where produce workers lived at the center of the fields. My afternoon group [taught] first aid. Specifically, I … discussed what they targeted in regard to the workers’ needs … swelling, bruising, headaches, inflammation and injury. On our last day of teaching, I was taught by one of our nurses how to prick and measure blood glucose. Her group was diabetes, so we came armed with glucometers and the strips for them. I was able to conduct several tests after learning how to do it.”

Meanwhile, during the more clinically focused week in Reynosa, Mexico, the ASB team included 11 students (including a dental assistant, an optometric technician and an ophthalmic technician), a Spanish translator, a pediatrician, two nurse practitioners, a dentist, an optometrist and a pharmacist. The group saw about 400 patients in the medical area, 225 in optometry, and 75 in dentistry and filled about 700 prescriptions, not including vitamins.

Saxena (top) says, ‘The experience has motivated me to become more involved in my local community.’ Student Veera Motashaw (bottom) hugs one of the more than 180 children taught during the spring 2008 ASB trip to Dominican Republic.
Photos by Roger Winstead
“Over the week, we saw more than 700 patients and provided free health care and medicine to the people of Reynosa,” said Carbonell. “I spent a lot of time shadowing the nurse practitioners and doctors that joined us on the trip. There was a gynecology room, a pediatrician room and a general care room. I worked with patients from such a wide age range, from 6 months to 84 years old. I was able to sit in on appointments and learn how to interact with patients. I saw how the nurse practitioners diagnosed and treated the patients, while also teaching preventative medicine.”

Carbonell also did a lot of translating throughout the facility. “I found that my Spanish abilities were extremely useful on the trip,” she said. “Language barriers can be a huge obstacle in providing medical care.”

On the health-related trips, Giancola said, “We work with our partners to provide access to healthcare to communities that wouldn’t otherwise receive care and to give students practical experience. Because we’ve recruited doctors, dentists, pharmacists and optometrists to join us, the students are receiving professional development and mentoring while they’re helping underserved populations.

“Interestingly enough, our medical professionals, when asked about their highlights of the trip, have said providing health care to those who don’t have access, but also for many of them it was to be able to be a mentor, to have some influence on the next generation of medical professionals,” said Giancola.

The participants contribute more than their time. Giancola said that the cost range for an individual making an international trip could vary from about $1,200 to $1,700 and from $400 to $1,000 for a domestic trip. “That includes everything,” he said, “except for the passport and any shots that are required for international trips.” Of that international trip figure, he said, a large part goes to cover airfare. “Once you get in the country, the costs are sometimes $30 a day for food, lodging, transportation and insurance. It’s the getting there that’s the biggest part.” In many cases, participants also make a donation to the project partner to help support its mission.

Participants may pay their way through fund-raising and scholarships to cover costs, Giancola said. “Our goal is to make sure ASB is not just a program for the students who can afford the cost. Through our partnerships with campus and civic organizations and individual and corporate donors, we are able to ensure many more students can have a transformational service-learning experience while serving those in need.”

The rewards, of course, are not measured in dollar signs.

Carbonell was gratified by the responses of her patients in Mexico. “While at the clinic, the patients were so thankful,” she said. “We were able to see their immediate reactions to treatment, whether it be a new pair of glasses, a dental filling or medicine to help with their ailments. The people of Reynosa struggle with poverty, but the satisfaction of knowing that we made their lives just a little easier was so rewarding. … The trip also made me realize the importance of good medical care and that everyone should have access to this care, despite their financial abilities.”

Said Saxena, “The biggest reward of this experience, though, has truly been the inspiration I have obtained through seeing Dr. Garcia work in the Dominican Republic. …This experience has motivated me to become more involved in my local community, whether at the local area hospitals or other programs that serve those in need of health care (such as the Open Door Clinic). In brief, the largest reward from my ASB experience must be the motivation I have found within myself to do things that I had always thought to be above my ability. The lessons I learned in the Dominican Republic will impact me forever.”

Cox also cites the rewards of working with Garcia. “I was able to meet a great role model for my future medical career in Dr. Garcia,” she said. “He worked with the area hospital, rehabilitation centers, the American Red Cross and provided health workshops in addition to his work with the Banelino banana cooperative. ASB provided me with the opportunity to meet a man who is the epitome of a medical servant.”

Marino found a reward in the fact that “we all put aside the ‘me’ and lived that week by the ‘we.’ Each of us was touched in similar and different ways by our time serving in the Dominican Republic together,” she said.

“The opportunity to serve those of the international community, no matter where it may be, is a great honor. I never met a single child who wasn’t excited to be sitting in the classroom — dressed in clean, pressed uniforms, staring at whoever was in front of them to share knowledge,” Marino said. “They have excitement for being at school like we have excitement for a snow day.

“The chance to share information with them, to serve their needs by teaching them something new, was amazing and life-altering."