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MCCC Service Learning Tour to Costa Rica Was ‘Week that Changed Lives’


Outside one of three Cartago elementary schools: Cristopher Mogrovejo (front); second row, from left, Kaitlin Radcliffe, Tiana Ristaino, Cassie Gyorffy, Kelsea Corvasce, and Rachel Fredrick; top row, from left, Toni Racioppo, Courtney DeLucia, Professor Linda Falkow, Shereen Pyle, Lindsey Pae, Tiffany Petito and Professor Sandra Kerr.

A lasting message for all three schools - "Don't forget your teeth!"

Enjoying Costa Rican coffee.

Shereen Pyle teaching about teeth.

Lindsey Pae, left, and Kelsea Corvasce working with the Costa Rican children.

Students spent an evening with Costa Rican college students enrolled in an immersive English language program.

West Windsor, N.J. – One week can change lives. That was the experience of a group of students from Mercer County Community College (MCCC) who spent June 2 to 9 in the mountainous town of Cartago, Costa Rica, about 16 miles east of the capital, San José.

Ten students, along with MCCC Professors Sandra Kerr (Radiography), Linda Falkow (Biology), and retired professor Toni Racioppo (Nursing), spent the week leading community service and educational activities focused on dental hygiene and nutrition for elementary school children. In the process they learned valuable lessons of their own.

The college’s first-ever service learning tour was organized by the college’s Center for Global Opportunities (GO!), under the direction of Professor Andrea Lynch, in partnership with Cross-Cultural Solutions Costa Rica.

The MCCC students -- six future nurses, two Radiography students, one Exercise Science student, and one student studying Business Administration -- found a welcoming rural community.

“Everyone was so nice. You would hear ‘hello,’ and ‘good morning’ from strangers,” said Lindsey Pae, a Nursing student.

Radiography student Tiffany Petito added that the schools greeted them with open arms. “They were so excited to have American visitors and the kids were excited to learn about taking care of their teeth,” she said.

The Mercer students were up at 5:30 a.m. each day. They spent their mornings at three elementary schools interacting with approximately 150 children from pre-school through sixth grade. They also painted dental health murals for each school. Later in the week, they assisted the dentist who was interviewing and documenting the children's dental hygiene habits.

Exercise Science student Shereen Pyle said she discovered leadership skills she did not know she possessed. When tasked with organizing the children for the dental evaluation, she took a leadership role. “It was good to be of help,” she said.

After school hours, the students had time to soak up a local culture where dogs and even cows roam freely, where rice and beans are served at every meal. They took a walking tour of the town, had Spanish lessons, participated in a Latin dance class, and took a cooking class. They visited the Irazu Volcano National Park and shopped for crafts in the town marketplace.

The students also learned about the differences between the Costa Rica and U.S. healthcare systems. They even had a chance to sit down with Costa Rican college students who are enrolled in an English-intensive language program.

During a wrap-up session on June 19, the travelers had much to share with each other. They reflected on the advantages of a culture that is less materialistic and competitive than that of the United States. They were struck by the Costa Rican college students they met who are so eager to learn English as a pathway to a successful career.

Nursing student Courtney DeLucia recalled the relative isolation of the community and its children. “Just seeing what their lives were like, what they knew and didn’t know, was fascinating. They live more simply. They were happy kids,” she said.

Petito’s observations of Costa Rican culture made her think that Americans take a lot for granted. “We work hard for what we want. They work hard for what they need to live,” she said.

With only three Mercer students who were able to speak Spanish, the group recognized the limitations of the language barrier. “We adapted through non-verbal communication,” Pae said. “But I realize that as a nurse, I will need to learn at least some Spanish words.”

That sentiment was echoed around the room, as all pledged to become more fluent in Spanish. Professor Lynch, who led the wrap-up session, encouraged students to take advantage of the Rosetta Stone language program available through MCCC’s Library database.

Petito’s experience of communicating despite language barriers came into play the day after she returned from Costa Rica. Back at the local hospital where she is doing her clinical rotation in Radiography, she was more aware of how many of her patients don’t speak English. “After this trip, I have learned to listen more and I am more willing to find alternative ways to communicate. This is something you don’t learn from a textbook,” she said.

The community service aspect of the tour is likely to resonate for a long time to come. Rachel Fredrick said, “After being there, I can’t just close the door. I have to use what I saw. I want to be more open to embracing cultures that are outside my own to continue to grow. As a nurse, I will need to advocate for other cultures.”

DeLucia noted that while Costa Rica has impoverished communities in need of help, so do places right in our own back yards. “We should not forget the people here who could use volunteer services,” she said.

Pae said she is going to try to fit community service into her already busy schedule and is even more certain of a career choice that will allow her to give back on a daily basis.

Fredrick agreed. “I want to put myself out there more to help people around me,” she said. Pyle, who already volunteers at the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, also pledged to do more.

Professor Kerr called the experience “humbling and rewarding” and praised the students for their dedication. “You didn’t really know each other at the start, but you bonded and cooperated. Everyone was on task. We were up at 5:30 a.m. and lights were out at 10 p.m. This was a valuable experience for the children you helped,” she said. 

Kerr herself came home with a new outlook. “Their culture moves at a slower pace. I hope to take more time to reflect. You learn what is important in life – family, friendships, and bonds with people,” she said.

Professor Falkow was impressed with students’ adaptability. “Our days did not always go as planned. Our schedule would suddenly change and everyone got on board,” she said, adding that the students adjusted quickly to the rustic, cabin-style lodging.

Cross-Cultural Solutions Costa Rica also recognized Mercer students for their contributions. In a letter to MCCC President Jianping Wang, the organization’s president, Jose Hernandez Ugalde, said, “This week, your students and faculty have shown great enthusiasm and ability to be in the field working with three different rural elementary schools that were eager and happy to have them…We want to thank you for your support and for the efforts and enthusiasm of students and faculty during this week of volunteering and learning.”

Lynch encouraged students to continue processing the trip. “You're better for this experience. Never stop pulling meaning from it. This is the college’s first experience with service learning and it sounds like it was profound,” she said.

The mission of the GO! Center is to foster an enthusiasm to address local, global, international, and intercultural issues.  The center sponsors short-term study tours led by faculty members, activities during International Education Week in November, and independent semester abroad experiences in partnership with the College Consortium for International Studies.

The study tours for 2019 will be announced in September.

Center for Global Opportunities at MCCC

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