SRU group to practice fair-trade learning during service trip to Bolivia


Boliva Inline Image

Ten students from Slippery Rock University will travel to Cochabamba, Bolivia, Jan. 3-18, as part of an alternative break where they will learn about communities in the region and perform service-learning activities that they will apply in Bolivia and in their approach to serving other communities when they return.

Jan. 2, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - While it may seem like a group of Slippery Rock University travelers departing Jan. 3 for Bolivia are taking part in an episode of "The Amazing Race" - knowing only at their point of departure that they are venturing to South America - the lack of a detailed itinerary has done little to discourage their sense of adventure.



"That's the beauty of it," said Marshall Tuten, a junior dual major in modern languages and cultures and economics from Slippery Rock. "During the program, we will engage in lots of different ideas of what it means to do service. We give up knowing exactly what we are going to be doing and saying, 'We're going to do this for you,' to learn about what the community needs and how they are addressing that and how we can be a part of assisting while we are there."

The group of 13, including 10 students, are visiting Bolivia as a part of an alternative break under the principles of fair-trade learning. The bulk of their service activities and objectives will be decided after they arrive in country.

Organized through the University's Office of Community-Engaged Learning, the Jan. 3-18 trip is part of an intercultural experience where volunteers will learn about civic identity, leadership, engagement and issues affecting communities. They will discuss issues with representatives from the community and nongovernmental organizations and engage with hands-on, service activities based on what they learn.

"The motivation for students is to have an intercultural experience and have it based around issues that matter; that can be applied in their future careers as professionals; and in their communities," said Tuten, one of four student leaders in the traveling party, which will also include Jeffrey Rathlef, SRU director of service learning and community service, and Bradley Wilson, SRU associate provost of transformational experiences.

SRU is partnering with Amizade, a nonprofit organization that facilitates international service-learning experiences that apply the practice of fair-trade learning, which is an ethics-based concept defined by Amizade as "explicitly engaging the global civil society role of educational exchange in fostering a more just, equitable and sustainable world." Since 1996, Amizade has partnered with several community-based organizations, each working specifically to improve the well-being of people in the region visited.

"We aren't going in with the mindset of 'You have a problem; we're here to help you fix it,'" Tuten said. "We're going in asking, 'These are complex issues and how can we learn about the connections, efforts and values that are important to building a community and improving a community for the long term?'"

The volunteers will split their time in Bolivia between two sites: Cochabamba, Bolivia's third-largest city, which is located within the Andes Mountains with a population of 400,000; and Vinto, a rural community where volunteers will help build classrooms and explore the culture through recreational activities and community events. Despite the beautiful scenery and ideal climate - featuring no humidity and a daytime seasonal average of 72 degrees - Bolivia is one of the least developed countries in all of the Americas and faces a variety of social and economic challenges.

SRU students will immerse themselves with the community, staying with families in guest houses and homestays, and will write daily reflections based on their experiences and principles surrounding community engagement.

"The goal is to engage students about building a community and civic responsibility, and how needs can drive service and growth," Tuten said. "There's a lot of different things we want to come away with but I would hope that when we return the students would feel more competent in addressing complex situations that the world faces."

The OCEL has provided the group $1,000 that they can use to apply to address a need they see in the Bolivian communities they visit or in and around Slippery Rock.

"By the end of the trip, we'll have something that we as a group can come to a consensus that this is what we want to do with these funds," Tuten said. "There's no reason that we should feel we have authority to go somewhere else and tell people how to solve their problems. There's poverty in Cochabamba and there's poverty in Butler County. There's difficulty starting up a small business or struggling to feed a single-mother family in Bolivia; that happens in Pittsburgh, too. You can't just go and help people. After engaging those things, we'll have a better idea how we can apply the money to make a difference and an impact."

SRU previously partnered with Pittsburgh-based Amizade for trips to Bolivia in 2014 and 2016 and there are plans to develop future trips to some of Amizade's other service locations, including Puerto Rico. While students cover their own travel costs, some of the expenses are subsidized through the University and through small grants.

"Just caring isn't enough," Tuten said. "Just because I care about a community in Bolivia doesn't mean that me going over there to help them is actually going to help them. It's learning to serve and being open to issue-based learning."

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