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On a quest to learn something more in the educational realm of 'global competency,' nine students found their way to the Dominican Republic in the first service trip sponsored by Waukesha West High School.

Nominated by school staff based on their leadership abilities, respectfulness and interest in a service trip, the students, along with school counselor Leslie Abruzzo and fine arts teacher Katie Acker, spent the majority of their time at the Villa Pajon, an ecolodge in the Central Mountain region of the Dominican Republic, which demonstrated the importance of global citizenship.

Abruzzo started the program this school year as a way for students to gain a better understanding of the global concepts they learn in class, as well as give them an advantage when looking at post-high school opportunities.

From an educational standpoint, the focus is lesson in global competency, defined by national educators as 'the acquisition of in-depth knowledge and understanding of international issues, an appreciation of and ability to learn and work with people from diverse linguistic and cultural backgrounds, proficiency in a foreign language, and skills to function.'

The Waukesha School District deems that as an important lesson in today's classrooms, Abruzzo said

'One of our district's goal is to educate students on global competency and try to implement that in classroom,' she said.

A to-do list with lessons

Abruzzo wanted to build on that by giving students a global experience tied to practical needs and their own education.

During the March 27-April 3 trip, the students did 20 hours of service work, which focused on environmental sustainability, benefiting a community in the city of Constanza.

'We planted blackberry bushes and pine trees, as well as planted something almost like bamboo shoots to prevent erosion and to replace what we took from the environment,' said Nick Portz, a West junior.

The small island nation of the Dominican Republic shares border with Haiti, a Third World country with little vegetation.

'It's one of the reasons they don't cut down a lot of their trees without replanting,' Abruzzo said, 'They replant 10 trees every time they cut one.'

The students also helped set up bird houses for the endangered Golden Swallow, as well as worked with a group of children ranging in ages from 4 to 12. They spent a few days with them in the one-room school house, occasionally playing soccer or football as well.

'They were much more confident and comfortable practicing Spanish with the kids,' Abruzzo said.

Portz had taken four years of Spanish in school. Other students didn't know Spanish as well or at all, but Abruzzo said that even some students who had taken French began to pick up on the language during the trip.

'Using Spanish there made the experience more personal and more worthwhile,' Portz said, 'My Spanish improved so much more than in a traditional classroom.'

Worthwhile comparisons

Students also got a chance to compare their own experiences against those of another culture.

'Experiencing the way they live when they got to the camp, compared to our own life in the U.S., the way they do things are much more conservative than here,' Portz said.

Abruzzo said many of their agricultural practices, including plowing with oxen, were more natural and traditional.

Portz added that while they were there, they had to stick to less than three minute showers, and there was no electricity during the day and no central heating.

'It makes one appreciate their life,' Portz said.

'It shifted our way of thinking,' Abruzzo said, 'Do we need all of this stuff? Is poverty really that bad if your needs are being met?'

The children in the village were happy, she said. All of their basic needs were met in regard to food, water, clothes, shelter and medication. But children in this village are only educated until age 12.

'I think it broadened my worldview, opened my eyes to things I didn't know were out there before,' Portz said.

Portz received a scholarship to study abroad for 20 days in Valencia, Spain this July. He was inspired to apply for the opportunity after returning from his trip to the Dominican.

'Trips like this provide opportunities to give students something unique in their applications,' Abruzzo said, 'and in their experience at high school that can change a person in a short period of time.'

'We went to the DR for the purpose of doing service work,' Abruzzo said. 'Our students here are so incredible and academically driven and are applying to really competeive universities and scholarships.'

Getting there

Most of the money the group raised was through generous donations by residents in the community or local businesses.

Each student was responsible for raising their own money for the trip, either by sending donation letters or emails. The students also put on zumba fundraisers that were fairly successful as well.

'(Those) students who were quick and confident ... received a lot in donations,' Abruzzo said. 'Katie and I spoke to some local charities and businesses, and because it was a service trip, we got some good money that way.'

Next year, Abruzzo and Acker are planning to take 22 students on a service trip to Ecuador, which was recently hit by a powerful earthquake.

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