Students Engage in Chilean Culture & Community Service

For the last three summers, university students have traveled to Chile to participate in the ­International Service-Learning Program. In 2011 (from left) Susanna Barron, Claire Schaeperkoetter, Britni Burkhardsmeier, Sarah Kramer and Kate Benedict, along with Alina Sigmond (not pictured), shared the experience. Here, the group is outside of Chilean Poet Pablo Neruda’s house at Isla Negra. (Courtesy Photo)

Students playing games with and listening to the stories of abuelitos (the local word for elderly adults) in Chile might not be the first image that comes to mind when thinking about a summer experience. But that’s exactly what students with the International Service-Learning Program in Chile did during their break.

Each summer since 2009, six undergraduate students have participated in the International Service-Learning Program in Chile, where they intern at nonprofit and non-governmental organizations. When they come back from the trip, they use the skills learned in Chile to engage with the St. Louis community.

“It’s an opportunity for students to engage in civic service in a global context and see how that connects back to their life here in the United States and in St. Louis,” says Jennifer Harpring, program manager at Washington University’s Gephardt Institute for Public Service.

The Gephardt Institute, the International & Area ­Studies program in Arts & Sciences and Overseas Programs sponsor the eight-week trip.

To Make A Positive Impact

Students take a one-credit course before embarking on the plane to Santiago. In the class, they learn about cooperation, international service, international development and cultural sensitivity. Once they arrive, the students take a Spanish language course to understand the unique aspects of the lingo there, and they also become involved with their nonprofit. They spend the duration of the trip in a Chilean family’s home.

“I wanted to do something that seemed like more of an immersion experience than just studying inside a classroom,” says Sarah Kramer, a participant in the program in 2011.

“I wanted to do something that seemed like more of an immersion experience than just studying inside a classroom,” says Sarah Kramer, a participant in the program in 2011. “I’ve always wanted to become fluent in Spanish and travel to Latin America, so this opportunity, combined with the fact that we would be doing service learning and living with families, seemed like the perfect fit.”

In Chile, Kramer and Kate Benedict, both Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, worked at Nuestra Casa, a transitional house for homeless men.

“Overall, the trip taught me so much about myself and my own prejudices about the homeless,” Kramer says. “I feel as if my views have matured and that I have become more understanding.”

Kramer, Benedict and the four other students on the trip also worked in a community development organization with older adults.

“The experience gave me a new appreciation for all of the opportunities that I have had,” Kramer says. “It also encouraged me to use these opportunities to help make a positive impact, even if small, on society.”

Gaining Insight Into the Nonprofit World

Students who participated in the program in other years were just as inspired as Kramer.

In summer 2010, Claire Pluard, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, worked with La Vecindad, a community organization in the underserved neighborhood of La Pincoya. The organization started as a non-permanent housing settlement that eventually became more established, working on a variety of issues in the community.

Pluard and other members of the group planned activities with children to keep them engaged after school. They also surveyed the neighborhood to see what other services its residents needed.

Pluard also worked with EPES (which translates into Popular Education and Health). For 25 years, EPES has promoted health in Chile through grassroots movements. In summer 2010, EPES launched a campaign against domestic violence.

Through her experiences with EPES, Pluard gained insight into how nonprofits function successfully.

“I learned the importance of endurance,” she says. “To accomplish something positive, you not only have to be involved with the organizing, policymaking and advocacy, but you must also know what the clients and people on the other side of the nonprofit world want.”

And the Gephardt Institute is trying to shape its programs to those ends.

The International Service-Learning Program in Chile, in particular, continues to grow and improve over the years, in part based on the feedback of the students and community partners, but also on Amanda Moore McBride’s research. McBride, PhD, is director of the Gephardt Institute and associate professor and associate dean for social work at the Brown School. A collaboration between the Brookings Institution and the Brown School’s Center for Social Development has produced the most rigorous research on the field of international service to date, which emphasizes the need to match community needs and assets to volunteer skills and interests.

When the program first began in 2009, it focused just on public health. But now the program also includes an emphasis on international development and poverty.

“This change broadened the types of opportunities we offer,” Harpring says.

After receiving feedback from that first summer, the Gephardt Institute added the one-credit preparation course.

“The course has been successful both in providing students with academic support and information about the program, as well as building the cohort as a group before they travel to Chile,” Harpring says.

“It prepares you for the culture shock of being in another country,” Pluard says.

A Desire To Make A Difference

The International Service-Learning Program in Chile, on the whole, prepares students for future service opportunities.

During her 2010 summer in Chile, Pluard developed a passion for the region and its people. She applied her lessons about grassroots organizing to her fall semester project, raising money for Sacred Valley Girls ­Dormitory, an orphanage in Peru that helps girls attend school beyond the eighth grade. Her $800 donation helped 24 girls staying in one dormitory.

Other program participants found new interests in Chile, according to Harpring. She says that in the past, students have discovered that they want to help the homeless. Or they found life difficult as a foreigner in another country, so they come home and help immigrants.

“Seeing how they’re able to draw the connections is really exciting,” Harpring says. “It’s also great seeing how their international experience impacts their plans for their professional lives.”

Pluard is certainly using her experiences to inform her professional life. She’s an intern at the Gephardt Institute during the academic year, and she interned at the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights over the summer.

Pluard says of her experience in Chile, “It’s definitely increased my desire to make a difference.”

Michelle Merlin, Arts & Sciences Class of ’12, was a summer writing intern in University Marketing & Design.

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