This semester, I have had the amazing opportunity to live abroad at Creighton University’s campus in the Dominican Republic. Since my childhood, I had always wanted to study abroad so I could see other countries and cultures. When I was introduced to the service and volunteer based Encuentro Dominicano program at my college, I knew that I wanted to spend my time abroad doing more than just touring.
As a service-based study program, every week we volunteer to teach English at the underdeveloped and overcrowded schools, work with the homeless population and build greenhouses or aqueducts for the very poor outer-city areas. We also take three separate courses that investigate why developing countries are in the situations they are and what we can do in order to try and better the lives of others.
As amazing as this opportunity is, there is one thing that I have struggled with throughout my time here. I am often asked why. Why did I feel the need to do service more than 2,000 miles away in a totally different country when people who live right next-door, need help too?
This question was, and still is, very difficult for me to answer. At first, I had no idea what to say when people asked me this. It made me feel immensely guilty because I knew that there were people suffering back home. I had gone to school with people who didn’t know where their next meal was coming from, couldn’t afford basic necessities and were constantly moving from place to place because they couldn’t afford rent.
I didn’t know how to tell people why I made the decision to go away until last month when I spent 10 days in the Dominican campo or countryside. The campo is a very poor and very underdeveloped place. Many locations have no electricity, no water, no roads and a limited source of income. During my time there, I lived with host parents and two host brothers, who took me in and showed me the beauty of their community.
Within the campo communities, everyone is considered family. If someone next door is struggling, the community as a whole takes care of the family. It was something I have never experienced before in my life.
I feel like I finally witnessed what it really meant to love thy neighbor and I realized that the United States has a very different interpretation of what that means. When I told my host mother that I didn’t know everyone who lived in my neighborhood back in the United States, she was shocked. She couldn’t understand how it was possible. She told me it was very sad that I didn’t know or love the people who were closest to me. When I agreed that it was very sad, she told me, “Well, it is good that you are here to tell our stories and show people back home what community really is.”
It was when my host mother said this, that I truly understood why I hadn’t made a mistake in deciding to go abroad and do service outside of my own community.
Every place in the world has a unique and different situation for us to learn from. Whether you are down the street or across the world, you will learn and experience from people you serve, and their stories will make you a better advocate and their lives will teach you what is truly important. As sad as it was, I had to travel to a different country to learn what it meant to love the people right next door to me. That was something that I didn’t learn in my 19 years back in the states and probably never would have it were not for this experience.
The only reason I have had this chance to grow is because of the Dominican people around me. They have taught me more about service, justice and love than I could imagine.
What I am learning while I am totally immersed in a new culture with a different language, with different surroundings and different people is something that I cannot experience in the United States. I am able to learn from a country with totally foreign ideas and I can share the stories and experiences with people back home.
It is the time spent here, in a new community, that will help me understand what I need to do in my own community to make it better.
Ardyn Townzen is a sophomore at Creighton University in Omaha. St. Stephen Church in Bentonville is her home parish.
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