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Photo by Celia Mitchell (2015/16 Semester Photo Contest Entry), Indonesia Semester.

A New View on Service

Choosing to defer from college and take a gap year is a major abnormality from where I come from – I was the sole graduate from my high school who was not to immediately enroll in a university the coming September. Clearly, this situation was just asking for questions upon questions.

“What is a gap year?”
“What do you mean you are not going to college next year?”
“What will you be doing?”

Some questions, like the first, were easy to answer. Others, like the third, were more difficult. How do you even begin to explain a Dragons course to anyone – let alone to someone who in reality is very close minded to the idea of a gap year and is not willing to listen to any explanation that will last more than twenty seconds? I ended up telling these people that I would be living in home-stays in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Guatemala and learning Spanish. I would pause for a reaction only to see a disapproving look –

“Wouldn’t you be taking Spanish classes in college?”
“Well, yes, but I will also be volunteering.”

With that word, “volunteering,” the doubter’s face would light up with a more approving expression of understanding.

I was always hesitant to throw around that word (volunteering) because I deliberately did not choose a program that’s main focus was service – going to a place to construct houses for three months – no, thank you; yet it was as though because I was traveling to developing countries, everyone expected me to volunteer – like if I was not going to volunteer, I was doing something wrong, being selfish. I did not buy into such a belief though it prominently existed in conversations leading up to my departure date.

When I recall the past three months, I do not immediately think of volunteer work. Instead, I remember being welcomed with open arms into families’ homes; I remember studying Spanish in a thirty-six family town; I remember learning so much about local cultures and life in general from the many characters we met along this journey.

The past two weeks before this one, however, have had more of this legendary “service” element; yet this “volunteer work” has been vastly different from what the doubters imagined. We did not come into a town with the mentality that we were there to help and teach the “less fortunate” how to construct “superior” buildings or live in a “better” way.

For example, in our first “service” oriented week, we partnered with IMAP (the Meso-American Permaculture Institute), a Guatemalan founded and run organization, to learn how to construct a solar composting latrine. While our friends at IMAP led the construction of the latrine, we helped where we could – from mixing cement to carrying rocks – all while taking detailed notes. We were not imposing our building techniques on the locals. No, they were teaching us.

The reason why we spent that week learning was actually so we could later act as a bridge. Luis, a few weeks prior, had received a call from his friend, Pedro, the leader of a women’s weaving cooperative in Cotzal, Guatemala. Pedro inquired on how to get into contact with IMAP to learn how to build a solar composting latrine. Then it hit Luis – why not have our group learn to construct the latrine with IMAP then spend a week building one with the weaving co-op. And that is exactly what we did.

Though those two weeks ended up being focused on construction, or what many would label as “service,” in reality, we were working and learning side by side our Guatemalan friends doing what we could to act as a bridge – transmitting information from one local institute to another one that had asked for it.

These construction weeks contrasted our other weeks in the actual work we did, yet they were similar in the type of groups we partnered with – always locally grown organizations. In a way, I took these amazing groups for granted – they were the only type that I had interacted with during my time with Dragons.

Sometimes you do not truly appreciate something until you experience the opposite – at least that is what I found this past week.

The last ten days of a Dragons semester course is called Expedition phase – a time when the students are in charge of the plans. After countless group Expedition meetings, we finally agreed on partnering with an NGO in La Comalapa, Guatemala. The work this group, The Long Way Home, does seemed like the perfect culmination of our permaculture focused course in that it utilized natural building techniques in order to construct a school for local children. Perfect, right? Well, not exactly.

Once we arrived and dove into our first day of hard manual labor, we soon realized we did not truly know the organization. Yes, the fancy website and professionally made videos made it appear to be a gift from heaven, but the website most definitely did not mention the potential problems posed by the fact that the project is completely planned and run by foreigners. Though I am not arguing that The Long Way Home does not have positive intentions, I have come to realize that positive intentions do not automatically make something flawless – do community members even want The Long Way Home to impose its ideals on the town? A seemingly obvious question that, after a week working with The Long Way Home, I am not sure it has considered.

Our time with The Long Way Home flared many strong reactions within our group (me included). I was disappointed with myself for blindly agreeing to work with and send our Expedition money to a foreign based NGO instead of a more local project. Though I am not the biggest fan of the organization, in the end, I am thankful that we had this experience. It gave me the chance to truly appreciate the other organizations we have worked with, and it made me realize organizations are not all equivalent. It also made me start to think about how I am going to explain the past three months when I return home. I know if I take the easy route and boil the adventure down to being described simply as service work or volunteering, people will imagine me working with groups like The Long Way Home. Honestly, they would probably be impressed by me and admire what I did if I do give that easy explanation, but in reality the lessons I have learned and the relationships I have formed go so much deeper than a foreign construction group could ever provide. So no, these past three months have not revolved around service work, and I am not ashamed of it.