Students learn lessons from study abroad in Jamaica

Stephanie Beirne Leuer, Social Media Editor

Imagine a typical morning as a Madison College student. A full parking lot as you pull up to campus on a cold day. Your backpack is heavy with a laptop and textbooks as you trudge to class against the brisk wind.

Now imagine a morning where you wake to the sound of birds chirping in the open air as you drink a cup of fresh, locally grown coffee. Clouds hover over a mountaintop. The day ahead does not include lectures or a test, but rather a chance to use your skills to help the people of the Hagley Gap region in eastern Jamaica.

The last image is vastly different from a typical day on campus, but still remains the experience of a Madison College student.

In January, 13 students from Madison College, Moraine Park Technical College and Red Rocks Community College traveled to Jamaica as part of a 10-day service-learning trip associated with the Blue Mountain Project. The program provided an opportunity for renewable energy, nursing and education students to apply their technical college skills in a real-world environment.

According to the Blue Mountain Project, its mission is to empower and educate people in the five villages of Hagley Gap, Penlyne Castle, Carrick Hill, Grass Peace and Eping Farm. Clean water is difficult to come by and roadways are often difficult to navigate in this area. The organization’s future project goals include clean water, health, literacy and economic development for this region.

Renewable Energy Certificate and Civil Engineering Technology student Aaron Thomson had never traveled for a service-learning program before. He was drawn to the trip by a desire to see how people lived in other areas of the world. “It was opportunity to immerse myself into an unfamiliar culture and also apply technical skills,” said Thomson.

His team was responsible for the installation of solar electric panels on two area clinics, which also serve as community centers. This is an area where people count on community centers as not only a place to gather, but also a place to charge cell phones and other electronics in times when the electrical grid goes down.

Community centers are vital to rural Jamaican communities during hurricane season. Roads easily wash out and isolate communities. The closest large city is nearly 30 miles away.

Biotech and Stem Cell Technology program student Scott Donovan recalls installing a solar panel on one of the clinics. Local people often came to watch the installation. He remembers three locals who stayed the entire day watching and wanting to help with the project.

“They were happy to see something going up,” said Donovan.

The local people expressed interest and excitement for the projects the students completed while in Jamaica.  “There is no greater joy that I have experienced than the appreciation and the gratitude from the people for the work that we did,” said Thomson.

Nursing student Ashley Raanes volunteered her knowledge for a different aspect of the trip. She used her nursing skills she acquired at Madison College in a clinic and tended to patients during home visits. Raanes duties included taking blood pressure, blood sugar readings, and wound care. While in Jamaica, the nursing group also provided health education for local people.

Raanes enjoyed her interactions with children. “They are so full of love and very accepting of the volunteers,” she recalled. Thomson also carries a fondness for the Jamaican children he encountered as well. He remembers how excited the children were when the group visited a local school.

One child in particular left a big impression on him. Thomson keeps a photograph on the desktop of his computer of a smiling boy who struck a pose for the camera. “It just goes to show you how good it is to be happy,” he said.

According to the Center for International Education, students were immersed into the local culture with placements with host families. Each student lived with a local family and became familiar with the daily routines of life in rural Jamaica. The hosts prepared meals and accepted the students into their homes as part of the family.

Participants in the trip came away with lessons they may not have acquired in a standard classroom. The students learned the importance of teamwork, building strong communities and the importance of helping others.

“Probably one of the best things I have done with my life,” said Donovan.

All of the students expressed their gratitude for this opportunity to volunteer their skills to help the people of Jamaica improve their communities.

“At the end of the day most all of us as people are really very similar,” concluded Thomson. “When people are involved in their communities, they are stronger.”