For a group of five students at Western New Mexico University, this year’s spring break did not include late night movies with friends, or homemade meals during family visits.
Instead, for these students, the 2017 spring break vacation was a week of volunteer work and life changing experiences in remote Panama villages. Termed, Alternative Spring Break, the international venture was a trip of a lifetime for the handful of WNMU students who participated in the first annual event.
Partnering with SCORE International, an organization that coordinates short-term mission trips, Panama was the choice country for WNMU because of the university’s designation as a Hispanic Serving Institution, and the country’s official language of Spanish.
“I first envisioned visiting a big city and the beach,” said LeShauntai Adams, an 18-year-old freshman from Shiprock, New Mexico. After her arrival, Adams quickly realized that the trip would have a bigger impact than the typical spring break experience.
“We first went to a village, and I felt warm because the kids were very friendly,” said Adams. The students visited schools with limited resources in impoverished villages. They delivered new toys, played games with the school kids, and witnessed what life was like for a child living in a Central American village.
“Over there, no one expected anything,” said Osvaldo Arzate, 28-year-old senior from Michoacan, Mexico. “Just giving them a simple paper and crayon was like giving them a new phone.”
Arzate, a Spanish speaker, was able to relate to some of the cultural similarities of his native country; societal traits he beliefs are in stark contrast to the materialist tendencies of the United States.
“Here people reject things,” said Arzate. “Over there, people took everything with open arms.”
The students helped build a school, visited a church, and experienced local cuisine. Activities meant to provide an academic experience outside the college classroom.
“This was an opportunity for our students to be immersed in a new culture,” said Katherine Warren, WNMU Coordinator of Multicultural Affairs and Student Activities. Warren has participated in Alternative Spring Break trips as a student at Indiana State University. She made it a goal to bring the program to WNMU when she was hired in 2016.
“Students had reflections each night on their day’s activities were many common themes emerged including their feeling of gratefulness for their current lifestyle and education,” said Warren. “They were really opened as they shared with each other.”
Social issues from crime to gender roles offered a new perspective for the five students who had never visited a Central American country.
“The trip is making the WNMU student body more culturally aware of what is outside Silver City,” said Gloria Umotoni, an 18-year-old freshman. “I learned a lot about myself, and now I want to do community service in other areas.”