Taste of Peace Corps experience brings perspective

Students explore Dominican Republic in one of ASU's new spring-break study abroad trips

April 4, 2016

For ASU senior Jack O’Brien, the words of baseball great Jackie Robinson have always been a guiding principle: “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” 

The quote by his favorite player, O’Brien said, also perfectly describes his feelings about his recent mid-semester ASU study abroad trip to the Dominican Republic.   ASU spring break global experience in the Dominican Republic Seventeen ASU students seized the opportunity to spend their spring break exploring what Peace Corps work might be like, participating in the inaugural "Taste of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic" global intensive experience. From left, front row: Jack O'Brien, Samantha Spadaro, Brianna Celaya, Mary Flora, Elissa Latta, Meghan Scollard, Lesile Amaya, Gabrielle Blanchette, Rachel Prickett, Mary Casas, Silvia Acuna. Second row: faculty director for the trip Jessica Hirshorn, Kristin Jones, Morgan Plowman, Phylicia Grant, Chad James, Seannah Franklin, Clariece Marlowe Bayne. Download Full Image

“After returning to the States from spending a week in the Dominican Republic, the biggest thing I walked away with is perspective,” O’Brien said. “Witnessing extreme poverty, incalculable amounts of trash and waste, a serious lack of fresh water, and low standard of living made me realize what is important in humanity. Despite the harsh living environment, the people in the DR (Domincan Republic) were the most genuine, caring, passionate, helpful and overall loving people. Their sense of community involvement and ‘take the shirt off your back and give it to someone who needs it’ type of attitude changed my perspective on life.”

O’Brien is one of 17 ASU students who participated in the “Taste of Peace Corps in the Dominican Republic” global intensive experience over spring break. Organized by the College of Letters and Sciences and ASU Career Services, the program was facilitated by Discover Corps, an affiliate of the National Peace Corps Association.

Students visited active or recent Peace Corps volunteer sites, including a chocolate factory run by a women's cooperative where a business volunteer is currently serving, a site where a past volunteer implemented a stove project, and a site where a past volunteer helped build an aqueduct. Additionally, they lent their muscle to help build a school and a home — using plastic bottle-construction — and a vertical garden.

A few leisure activities were also built into the itinerary: a visit to an ecological park, a mangrove, and snorkeling. 

“The program was an excellent way for students to experience what it would be like to serve as a Peace Corps volunteer, prior to making a two-year commitment,” said College of Letters and Sciences senior lecturer Jessica Hirshorn, faculty director for the trip and a former Peace Corps volunteer in the Federated States of Micronesia. “In the end this experience was a success, solidifying for some students that they wanted to join the Peace Corps and for others that the Peace Corps may not be for them.”  

At ASU, Hirshorn has served as a past faculty director for the College of Letters and Sciences’ London and Dublin summer internship programs and, in addition to leading this inaugural Dominican Republic spring break experience, is the faculty director of ASU's new summer internship program in Beijing.

Samantha Spadaro, who graduates in May with interdisciplinary studies concentrations in sociology and communication, chose the Dominican Republic opportunity to complete her internship credits.

“I chose this program because I knew that my time and energy would be valued by the people I was helping and that it was a bone fide program,” said Spadaro.

An unexpected consequence of the trip was the enormous sense of community she experienced.

“I’m incredibly happy that ASU offered this program! I found it very interesting how humble and grateful the people that we helped were. Their warmness was to be unmatched by any experience I have had working with many non-profits in the States,” she observed. “As Americans we often find ourselves out of touch with what it truly means to have a sense of community, and that was one of my favorite parts of this trip. Not only did we get to be a part of the Dominican communities but also created our own.” 

O’Brien will also graduate in May with interdisciplinary studies concentrations in business and communications and a history minor. He is taking a job with a St. Louis-based contracting company Altman Charter. “But I’ll probably be living in San Antonio, Texas, working as a project engineer managing a commercial-grade construction project,” he explained.  

He recommends that all students aim for an experience that lets them look at life in the United States from a fresh perspective.

“As Americans we often fabricate and create our problems. We often hate instead of love,” O’Brien reflected. “I would encourage future students to invest some time in traveling to a developing country as I think it would bring about a life-changing experience to all.”

Maureen Roen

Director of Communications, College of Integrative Sciences and Arts


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ASU expands its study abroad resume — into spring break

ASU offers a new way to spend spring break: Studying in Cuba.
New spring break study abroad programs at ASU offer affordable experience.
March 3, 2016

New program allows students to use spring break as a chance to study outside the U.S., including Cuba

Arizona State University is exploring new territory with its study-abroad offerings: spring break.

For the first time, students will be able to participate in a shorter, more affordable program, aimed at making international learning accessible to more students during the annual spring rite of passage.

“The premise … is to make studying abroad more economical for students who may not be able to afford a full semester of such a program,” said Carrie Herrera Niesen, communications and marketing specialist at ASU’s Study Abroad Office.

The inaugural destinations are Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and Cuba. That’s right, Cuba.

While spending time in the island nation that's just recently reestablished relations with the U.S., students will study areas such as business, education, global studies, health and social sciences. The program requires its participants to have a 2.5 GPA and is labeled as a Global Intensive Experience.

Some might assume setting up a study abroad program in Cuba would be difficult considering its history of tenuous relations with the United States, but Raymond Van der Riet, professor of Lake Havasu City programs and faculty director of the Cuba program, said the process is surprisingly streamlined.

“It’s probably fairly simple as opposed to most other ASU study abroad programs because we work with Cuban-sanctioned agents to set up our itinerary,” he said. “We were able to tell them more or less what we wanted. In some ways the process is simplified because they have some limitations as to what we can see and when we can see it.”

Of the three pilot programs being offered by ASU this spring break, Van der Riet says most of the applications were for visiting Cuba.

“We had about 44 applicants for 20 spots,” he said. “This is the first ASU class to go to Cuba, so it’s historic in that respect. It’s a groundbreaking, pioneering group of students that have seized the opportunity to be a part of the window opening back up between the U.S. and Cuba.”  

Rebekka Goodman, faculty director of the Guatemala program and a lecturer in the School of Community Resources and Development, said she was drawn to Guatemala because of her previous travels there.      

“I had done my first study abroad experience when I was 17 in Guatemala and felt it was a perfect country because of its location,” said Goodman. “It will demonstrate good international development and Guatemala’s positive relationship with the U.S.”

While in Guatemala, students will be studying sustainability and tourism. Goodman said creating a new study abroad program at ASU wasn’t exactly an overnight operation. It took a bit of doing and more than a little time. But she said she had no problem getting students interested in the new program, and that it has opened the study abroad door to a whole new crop of students.

“I think the closer proximity of Guatemala and the shorter time frame of the trip makes it easier for students to afford,” Goodman said. “More than anything I think the topic of the program (sustainability and tourism) is what attracted the students.”   

Jessica Hirshorn, lecturer for the College of Letters Sciences, is helming ASU’s new Dominican Republic program, which focuses on the Peace Corps experience. The inspiration stemmed from her work at ASU.

“I started teaching a Peace Corps seminar this semester, and the original idea was that this program would complement that,” she said. “The trip itself was Career Counseling’s idea. They had these trips to the Dominican Republic that were for Peace Corps volunteers, and it was from there that we got the idea to start a study-abroad program there.”

Although the spring break program is not officially affiliated with the Peace Corps, ASU has contracted with the National Peace Corps Association (which is the Peace Corps alumni association) and "Next Step Travel" to facilitate the program

The Dominican Republic program will show students what life in the corps is like to help better inform their decision whether to join it after college.  

“The reason we chose the Dominican Republic is because the National Peace Corps Association only has [college study abroad] programs in five countries, and this seemed like the most doable for our timeframe of nine days,” said Hirshorn. “We have a number of ASU alumni already serving in the Peace Corps, and one of [ASU President Michael] Crow’s initiatives is to increase that number.”  

Each of the three programs bill their fee directly to the ASU student’s school account, so the student pays for it, essentially, as part of their tuition. However, the program fee only covers things like housing, food, cultural events, in-country transportation, international health insurance and ASU faculty support. Everything else like airfare, passport and visa fees, personal expenses and miscellaneous items are paid for by the student separately.

A complete list of details regarding what costs are covered for which program can be found here.

Top photo: "Cuba Libre," courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. 

Trevor Fay

reporter , Media Relations and Strategic Communicatons