Luis Cordero Mangual, founder of the Cordero Dairy in Puerto Rico, assists Angel Torres, a Crop Science major from Oregon State University, in 2016. (contributed photo)

In spring of 2016, a group of Oregon State University students traveled to Puerto Rico for a service learning trip. A second trip was held in December of that year, with a focus on creating curriculum for K-12 school agriculture programs in the region.

Program organizers intended to return to Puerto Rico, but in 2017, a devastating hurricane rocked the island, destroying infrastructure and driving many out of their homes. The natural disaster shifted priorities for trip organizers, but also galvanized their desire to return and focus their work on areas that would directly benefit those living under difficult conditions in Puerto Rico.

During the last week of March, 32 students from eight different OSU colleges will fly to Puerto Rico for Spring Break to do a variety of projects in conjunction with Puerto Rico’s land grant university, University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez. They will work in the town of San Sebastián, in the northwest part of the island. That’s where the Segunda Unidad Bernaldo Mendez Jimenez school is located, and OSU representatives and Mayaguez officials have been working closely with school administrators to create a service learning plan that will benefit students there.

San Sebastian is also the hometown of Ingrid Arocho, an Oregon State University assistant professor in the School of Civil & Construction Engineering. Arocho and her husband will accompany the group on the trip, and have already assisted with translation help and other preparation for the journey.

“It fills my heart to be able to help the town where I grew up,” Arocho said. “We are particularly happy for having found a school where we can help and with such potential to grow their agricultural education program.  Besides, I am looking forward to showing the students all the beauty of my island.”

She traveled to San Sebastian over winter break to check on relatives and to make sure the site was safe for students. Luckily most services have already been restored to the town and she was able to ensure visiting students would make an impact without getting in the way of restoration work.

This is Arocho’s first time helping co-lead a service learning activity. She is excited to witness what kind of learning takes place outside the classroom.

At the Guanica Rice Plantation in Puerto Rico in 2016, OSU students (from left) Abigail Findley, Angel Torres and Auna Godinez talk to the farm manager of the plantation, which was later destroyed by Hurricane Maria. (contributed photo)

“I am certain they will be able to apply much of the technical knowledge they acquire from classes.  But I also know that much of their learning will be related to getting out of their comfort zones,” she said. “They will be interacting with a different community, culture and even the weather.  The students will also be exposed to how their specific industries differ in Puerto Rico from what they learn in Oregon, both for the agriculture and construction industries.  I know that they will reinforce the knowledge they have while learning new useful things for the rest of their lives.”

Katie Gaebel, director of Strategic Initiatives at the Career Development Center, has been organizing the Puerto Rico trips since 2016. She said the focus is not to drop in, do a few projects and leave, but deepen relationships already built on previous trips and focus on projects that can be expanded on in the future.

“We want to see this as a long-term relationship,” she said. “We’re here to help in any capacity they need for years to come. We can help create these roots back to other communities as well and deepen those relationships.”

The OSU students participating in this spring’s trip have a variety of different backgrounds and interests, but all share a focus on providing aid to the island. Six of the participants are BioResource research students and USDA multicultural scholars, who are expected to participate in service learning activities as part of their grant. Wanda Crannell, who is the academic program coordinator and advisor for the students, along with principle investigator Kate Field, Shawn Rowe and Susan Rowe, will be joining them on the trip.

“The driving force behind this trip has been the fun and enthusiasm and real heart of the students,” Crannell said. And 85 percent of the students come from underrepresented backgrounds, including ethnic minorities, first generation students and even a veteran.

Because the students will be from a variety of backgrounds, they’re being assigned to multidisciplinary teams focused on six different projects, which include testing drinking water to creating raised beds on the school grounds for students with disabilities to use, planting native plants on the school property, and building a roof on a portion of the school. Additionally, they’ll be crafting curriculum for local classrooms, and distributing donations they’ve gathered for nearby schools.

“The interdisciplinary aspect of the work will help students see things from a different perspective,” said Gaebel. “This work will also help inform what we decide to do when we return in December 2018. Our goal is to spend 10 to 12 days in the area in December working on longer term projects.”

Johannah Hamilton is a Ph.D student in public policy, with a focus on rural agricultural policy. She is also a participant in the OSU MANRRS (Minorities in Agriculture, Natural Resources and Related Sciences) chapter. She has done many service trips in the Caribbean in the past but is excited to visit Puerto Rico, which as a U.S. territory is easier to access for American students.

She said service learning has been an important component of her college experience.

“It brings the learning around full circle,” she said. “It brings a new perspective. You learn things in class but you don’t really see the real-world applications. With service learning, you can see how the people affected by these polices are living first hand. And in Puerto Rico, we’re going ‘abroad’ but we’re really not because it’s a part of the U.S. So we can see how Puerto Rican citizens are disproportionately affected by policy decisions.”

Funding for the trip has come from a variety of sources, including the USDA grant, college and program donations, and private donations, including a large donation from the ER Jackman Internships program. Engineering and agriculture industry donors are also participating, and some are providing materials and food to donate as well.

~ Theresa Hogue