Last December I returned to La Zurza with my fellow graduate students. While most travelers to the Caribbean spend their time at beaches, we traipsed through raw sewage and tried to fend off the mosquitoes. My connections at IC served me well on my return trip. Two IC alumni, Elizabeth Conklin '00 and Marissa Moreau-Garcia '00, were both living in Santo Domingo at the time and helped with Spanish translation and logistics. Lisa Taylor '00, whose trip to the city coincided with mine, brought school supplies and came with us on one of our first days in La Zurza.
Facente with colleagues and locals
We collected samples of drinking water, testing for contamination by fecal coliform, which could carry diseases such as E. coli, hepatitis, and even typhoid to families. We tested water in the three river inlets, where children swim and adults bathe, wash clothes, and gather water for cleaning homes.
Most importantly, we worked closely with members of the community to discover what would be most helpful to them and ensure that our efforts were supporting the great work they were already doing daily. We trained them to take their own water samples and left them with enough user-friendly chemicals and bottles to conduct tests well into the future. We shared our results and together developed strategies to prevent further water contamination and minimize the risk of health problems from what was already there. My colleagues and I are still in touch with the people of La Zurza, providing support however we can.
My work in La Zurza will take me to Washington, D.C., in November to share our efforts with public health professionals from around the country. My experiences in La Zurza have fed what will likely be a lifelong commitment to activism, whether in helping to advocate for environmental cleanup there or simply in encouraging other students to take advantage of the wealth of resources and opportunities that surround them.
Taking time to learn about other cultures, especially in developing nations or in less-developed regions of the United States, is something students owe to themselves. Such life-altering experiences are indescribably valuable. I urge all students to seize the opportunity while at Ithaca to study abroad for one semester or more; such experience will alter your perspective forever, and even make you more valuable as an employee after graduation. Start planning as soon as you start college. Don't miss the chance to stretch beyond the classroom and learn valuable lessons in the field, while giving back to those who lack our privilege. This is our chance to make a difference.
Shelley Facente earned a master of public health degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in May. She is living in San Francisco and working as the program coordinator for rapid HIV testing in the city. This fall she will present her La Zurza research at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association.