Tisch Scholars Learn Through Service in Puerto Rico
This past winter break, 12 students in Tisch College’s flagship Scholars program experienced civic engagement in a different context as they visited and performed service in several Puerto Rican communities.
To many in the United States and around the world, Puerto Rico calls to mind warm weather, sandy beaches, and luxurious relaxation in the heart of the Caribbean. While it certainly does not lack that idyllic charm, Puerto Rico is also a nation grappling with many of the serious social, political, and economic challenges faced by countries around the world, and home to a hard-working, hospitable people who are fiercely proud of their nation.
This past winter break, 12 students in Tisch College’s flagship Scholars Program had the opportunity to see that other, lesser-known side of Puerto Rico during the program’s annual senior trip. From January 4-13, the Scholars and three Tisch College staff members visited several communities; met with local organizers, students, and professors; participated in traditional celebrations; and got a small taste of Puerto Rican society and culture.
“The Tisch Scholars spend a lot of time learning about the Boston area and then, as seniors, this is an opportunity to learn about and engage in a community that’s new to them,” says Sara Allred, Scholars program administrator. “The senior Tisch Scholars were able to use the skills and knowledge they have acquired through the three years they have been in the program, and apply them to new communities in Puerto Rico.”
One of the first things that Tisch Scholars learn is how to enter a new community: working with local partners, understanding community-identified needs, and appreciating community assets.
In that spirit, the trip was organized in conjunction with the University Institute for Community Development (UICD) at the University of Puerto Rico’s Mayagüez campus. The UICD’s director, Luisa Seijo, helped plan and pave the way for service activities and educational opportunities that proved productive and compelling. “We were very lucky to connect with Luisa,” says Allred.
Learning from Communities
The week began with visits to several communities in the region that allowed the Scholars to get acquainted with local leaders and gain insight into some of the struggles, challenges, and hard-fought victories of several Puerto Rican communities.
In La Vía, in the town of Aguadilla, the students saw how decades of eminent domain had turned a picturesque coastal community into a decaying slum, with seemingly half its buildings abandoned. Still, residents remained hopeful and strong: cleaning the narrow, winding streets; organizing to prevent further expropriations; and displaying their resourcefulness in surprising ways, like building a small basketball court on the ruins of an old home. They students would later tour La Perla, a seaside shantytown in historic Old San Juan, which struggles with many of the same issues even as it has become a hotbed for local artists.
The Tisch Scholars also visited Corozo, a community in the southwestern town of Cabo Rojo, just a few miles from one of the most lively attractive beach destinations on the Island. There, a newly formed community council is trying to tackle pressing issues like unemployment and a lack of opportunities and recreational activities for young people. More immediately, though, local leaders were hoping to encourage unity with a Three Kings Day festival, the first in the community’s history. The Tufts students were able to contribute by donating candy, stuffing over 500 goody bags for local children, and distributing flyers throughout the community to advertise the event.
By contrast, the Corcovada community in the mountains of Añasco served as a shining example of a strong, organized community whose residents are deeply committed to civic engagement. The Tisch Scholars celebrated Three Kings Day in Corcovada, where they have had a yearly festival to mark the holiday for more than three decades. They later toured the small community that has banded together and enjoys its own water systems, a community gym and computer lab, and other valuable facilities acquired through the unwavering hard work of unofficial mayor César Irizarry and other local leaders.
One of the week’s most meaningful experiences took place in a struggling community just minutes away from University of Puerto Rico’s campus.
“We went to La Quinta, a barrio of Mayagüez, and were given a tour by Iris Trinidad, a community leader who talked about various challenges the community faces such as deteriorating homes, an increasing elderly population, and a lack of aid by the government,” recalls Scholar Najeia Mention, A14. While the issues facing La Quinta were severe, equally great was the resolve shown by Trinidad in the face of those problems—a quality that the students recognized in many other community leaders throughout Puerto Rico.
“She demonstrated her determination to see change by discussing various projects they’re working on, such as building a new community center and starting more programs for youth,” says Mention.
Trinidad also identified some projects that the Tufts students could help with in their limited time. One of the main roads and sidewalks in the community was covered in weeds and trash, and in dire need of a cleanup. A central wall was covered in dirt and bits of paint and paper from old advertisements. The Scholars, along with several University of Puerto Rico students, spent the next several days doing a roadside cleanup and painting a mural with the message La Quinta vive y resucita, or “La Quinta Lives and Revives.”
“Seeing the smiling faces on community members, as well as hearing them say ‘thank you’ and ‘gracias’ left a strong impression on me,” says Scholar Jasmine Robinson, A14, of her service in La Quinta.
“While painting a mural isn’t the typical type of service the scholars promote, it felt good to perform a concrete action,” says Bianca Blakesley, A14. “I think Iris and the other community leaders appreciated it; she planned to continue the work by getting people in La Quinta to paint the other side of the wall.” Indeed, as they worked to paint and clean, the Scholars seemed to galvanize the community to action, as neighbors began to spontaneously stop by to lend a hand with the arduous work.
Another compelling moment in the trip was a dialogue with Siempre Vivas, a domestic violence support group that helps women throughout western Puerto Rico.
“Hearing the presentation from Siempre Vivas was a highlight of the trip for me—I was really humbled and flattered that these women were willing to share their experiences with a group of strangers,” says Jordan Dashow, A14. Along with hearing from the domestic violence survivors who have overcome tragic circumstances and great adversity, the Scholars also interacted with many of the support group’s facilitators—some of them students, themselves—who shared their experiences with feminist and LGBT advocacy.
Reflecting on Active Citizenship
As they explored the differences and similarities between the community work they do at Tufts and what they experienced in Puerto Rico, the Tisch Scholars gained valuable perspective about civic engagement.
“It allowed us to expand on our experiences in a different context, and seeing a place where people are doing similar work, with similar values but in different ways, had a way of shedding light on my experience with the Scholars program,” says Ramzi Babouder-Matta, A14.
“I felt a strong connection between my experience as a Scholar as the experience in Puerto Rico,” adds fellow senior Fiona Weeks, A14. “I felt that the trip made me think critically about active citizenship and, especially, community partnerships.”
The Tufts students also enjoyed some of Puerto Rico’s majestic, one-of-a-kind natural attractions, like El Yunque Rainforest, the bioluminescent bay in Fajardo, and the Camuy Cave Park—home to the third-largest underground river in the world. For many of the Scholars, these recreational activities and the camaraderie they fostered were also an essential component of the trip.
“Every time our Tisch Scholars cohort gets a chance to spend a significant amount of time together, I am blown away by the amount of talent, passion, and knowledge that my peers possess,” says Molly Weinstein, A14. “I find the discussions and reflections we have both challenging and inspiring.”
For Allred, those individual interactions and relationships with students, faculty, community leaders and others throughout the Island are also one of the most crucial takeaways.
“Beyond the programmatic and educational value of the trip, we built strong personal connections and friendships with the people we met in Puerto Rico that we will continue to nurture and grow in the future.”