Rutgers students often spend summer in ways that extend their educational journey, whether it’s traveling in a foreign land, volunteering for a good cause, or simply taking courses and moving forward with their academic career.
The students who went on a study abroad program to Peru this summer accomplished all of the above in little more than a month.
The program, run by the Department of Spanish and Portuguese, in the School of Arts and Sciences, is renowned for providing students with a range of powerful experiences, mixing small-group language instruction with visits to ancient Inca ruins, and service learning opportunities in orphanages and clinics.
“I got more out of this program than I could have ever imagined,” said Cristina Alvarez, a junior, and one of 15 undergraduates to make the journey, which ran from July 12 through Aug. 17.
Students said they returned home feeling humbled by the exposure to a country where poverty is far more prevalent than in the United States. Indeed, the service learning activities provided face-to-face contact with vulnerable populations, such as the devleopmentally disabled.
“In general I learned how fortunate I am,” said senior Emily Gabriele. “I feel a lot of appreciation for the many things in my life.”
The program, led by Stephen Bishop, a veteran Spanish instructor, was centered in the city of Cusco. In the morning, students attended language and culture classes at the Academia Latinoamericana de Español and in the afternoon volunteered in various settings.
The location in southeastern Peru, near the Urubamba Valley of the Andes Mountain range, allowed the group to explore the Inca heritage, including the ruins of the ancient city of Machu Picchu - a mysterious and sacred place located 8,000 feet above sea level.
“It’s one of the most dramatic sites in the world,” Bishop said. “It’s really the center of the Inca Empire.”
But of all the sights and experiences, it’s invariably the community service that leaves an indelible mark on students, said Bishop, after reviewing the students’ writings about the program.
“They may go into the volunteerism primarily thinking about the academic credit or how it will look on their resume,” Bishop said. “But once they start interacting with people they realize it’s a life-changing experience.”
Gabriele served as a mentor at a home for disadvantaged girls.
“It was intimidating at first because of the language barrier,” she said. “But I would go there every day, practicing my personal Spanish, and that became the basis for getting to know one another and forming friendships.
“In the end I became close friends with two or three of the girls.”
Alvarez, a premed student, shadowed doctors in an emergency room clinic and lent a hand at an orphanage for children with developmental disabilities.
“The children didn’t really get that many visitors,” she said. “It was just an amazing experience being able to help them and to be there for them.“They appreciated unfamiliar faces giving them attention.”
Bishop, who has led the program for four years, said each year is different. “I love seeing it though the students’ eyes when they see things they never imagined existed,” he said.