Last fall, four students had a vision to create opportunities for students from diverse academic disciplines to serve others while gaining cross-cultural experience. That vision turned into Oilers Serving Abroad (OSA), and the program’s inaugural trip to Barahona, Dominican Republic, in May laid the groundwork for a lasting partnership.
Jenise Berning, Duncan Brown, Claire Rolli (who was unable to travel with the group) and Dallas Smith – all of whom have different majors – had the collective desire to volunteer abroad together, while learning from each other and the people they were helping.
After approaching Chris Sippel, director of international education, with the idea, planning for the first trip began. Sippel brought Almar Walter, director of intercultural student services, and Crystal Weitz, director of the Campus Compact Center for Service and Learning, into the process, as well.
“One of the challenges was finding a destination where we could establish contacts and return repeatedly,” explained Sippel. “We settled on the Dominican Republic because it’s fairly easy to get to, not terribly expensive when compared to other countries, and students are more likely to have a Spanish-speaking background than another language.”
Smith, a pharmacy major, had been to the Dominican Republic during high school with Kevin Keifer, who has traveled to the area many times and had established many contacts there. Keifer agreed to help UF’s group begin the OSA program and traveled with them in May to make some introductions and offer guidance.
The group was exploring potential service sites and housing options, and also establishing relationships with people and organizations that they could rely on for things such as transportation, meals and coordinating service projects. They also met with leaders of two universities to discuss the possibility of student exchanges and collaboration.
One of the sites the group visited included the Batey Central School, which was founded for Haitian refugees who are not citizens of the Dominican Republic; because they are not citizens, they are not permitted to attend many of the schools there. While there, the UF group delivered some donated supplies and books and built some bookshelves.
“For me, the most rewarding experience was when we were at the school,” said Smith, who worked in the extreme heat alongside a 14-year-old boy and a 40-year-old man to lay a foundation for a clinic beside the school. “I found out that he had never owned a pair of shoes, so I gave him some socks, and Jenise took the shoes right off of her feet for him … I believe God had us meet for a great purpose, and I’ll never forget the hard work he did for his community at such a young age. He was an inspiration.”
“We want these trips to be silo breakers on our campus,” said Sippel. “The goal is to send students from different majors to serve and learn and build friendships, then come back to campus with those cross-major relationships.”
The vision for OSA includes sending diverse groups of students back to the same community in the Dominican Republic several times each year. Because the contacts will already be established, and projects will be ongoing, groups will accomplish a significant amount of work during the time they are there.
“This trip helped me expand my cultural awareness and desire to serve,” said Berning, an occupational therapy major who had never before traveled abroad. “I hope to see many more Oilers have the same experiences I did. I hope this program can build a relationship between Findlay and a community in the Dominican to bring students back year after year and provide support to that community.”