A junior-year trip to the Dominican Republic helps feed a commitment to service.
My first timeby Shelley Facente '02 outside of the United States was as part of an IC sociology course -- Society and Culture: An International Perspective -- taught each spring by Professor Héctor Vélez-Guadalupe. The two-part course included a trip abroad. During the regular semester we met on Sunday nights, learning the history and culture of the Dominican Republic. But the real learning began when we boarded a plane at JFK on our way to a three-week stint in the sunny Caribbean.
In the DR we heard lectures, visited national points of interest, went to a children's hospital, and even met the president of the senate. But the most powerful learning I did was during the morning we spent in La Zurza, an impoverished barrio of Santo Domingo plagued by waste from the open-air market above and industrial dumping in the river below. I remember Dr. Vélez commenting that it was difficult for him to take students to La Zurza again and again, only to see their initial emotions about the experience fade with time and be forgotten.
My trip with that class was only three weeks long -- hardly enough time to really get to know a place. The next spring I spent the semester in Amsterdam. After graduating I returned to Europe to backpack and absorb different cultures for five weeks. Spring break during my first year as a graduate student in public health at the University of California, Berkeley, took me to Singapore to visit one of my former professors from IC and continue expanding my horizons.
Facente testing drinking water in LaAurea for contamination
These experiences abroad -- which may never have happened had I not caught the bug in the Dominican Republic -- taught me many things. But I kept remembering Dr. Vélez's comment those years ago about the fading impressions and forgotten passion of students visiting the destitute community of La Zurza. I decided to write a paper for a class at Berkeley on environmental justice, using La Zurza as a case study. I contacted Dr. Vélez, asking him for some specifics about the pollution in the river along the community, and he replied with news I found shocking: such research had never been conducted. Everyone knew there was pollution, but there were no numbers to back up their pleas for cleanup.
I wrote my paper on eating disorders instead. But something kept nagging at me, and I realized that this was a perfect opportunity to combine my penchant for activism with my privilege as a student at a university like Berkeley. I put together a team of graduate students with expertise in water quality, epidemiology, and environmental engineering. We wrote grant proposals and raised enough money to finance a trip. We coordinated our plans with community development and health program leaders in La Zurza. We convinced local chemical supply companies to donate equipment for water testing, and we asked friends for donations of small gifts -- baseballs, medical supplies, and school items -- that we could bring with us to break the ice with people who might be reluctant to cooperate.