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Jamaica service trip caps CCAC program

Tuesday, Dec. 27, 2011

A small group of Community College of Allegheny County students recently traveled to Jamaica on a trip that was transformative.

"It changed my whole perspective," says Hannah Purkey, 20, of Peters, a student at CCAC's Allegheny campus. "I got a new appreciation for things I take for granted most days -- like hot water."

The eight students and Barbara Evans, associate dean of academic affairs at CCAC's South campus, were part of the first service-learning experience for CCAC students. The trip was part of an eight-week course, Ethnic Relations: Service Learning in Jamaica that Evans taught. It comprised six weeks of classes at CCAC; a week serving the community of Petersfield, Jamaica, about an hour from Montego Bay; several classes after the trip; and a project consisting of photographs the students took during the trip.

The eight students came from three CCAC campuses.

The Petersfield, Jamaica, area is an old sugar-producing community, says Brandon Blache-Cohen, executive director of Amizade, the Pittsburgh-based nonprofit group that coordinated the trip. After the Jamaican sugar industry collapsed, jobs disappeared, and "the community had to reinvent themselves" - much as Pittsburgh had to do in the wake of the collapse of the steel industry, Blache-Cohen says.

Part of reinventing the community was partnering with Amizade, which has coordinated several student trips to the area since 2003. Blache-Cohen says community members decide how the volunteers will spend their time there.

Working with a local group, the Association of Clubs, the students worked each day in a local park pulling weeds, hauling wood and rocks, planting flowers and trees and cleaning and painting a huge shipping container that will become a park concession stand.

The students stayed with families who fed them what Evans described as "the scrumptious local cuisine" of tropical fruits, fish and other dishes.

After lunch each day, the students toured local sites or visited primary-school classrooms. One of the sites was a cave with a bottomless mineral pool that the late reggae musician Bob Marley reportedly used for meditation.

For several evenings, the students went back to the AOC center to help adults with a computer course they were taking.

"We got to see them graduate," Purkey says. Members of the Jamaican Parliament attended the graduation ceremony, Evans notes. "People were tearing up because it was so emotional to see them succeed," Purkey says.

But though the people were poor economically, Purkey appreciated the positive aspects of the Petersfield community.

"The community is very together: They eat together; they dance together," Purkey says. "In some ways, I'm kind of jealous. Even though they're poor, they have other things" that are intangible, she says.

"This opportunity is education in action," Evans says. "The students get invested in learning. This kind of experience goes way beyond the classroom" because students learn about diversity and a different culture while immersed in it.

"I feel as pedagogy that service learning is the ultimate in getting students to get involved in learning outcomes. It promotes leadership," Evans says. She says service learning often helps students solidify possible career paths.

It did for Purkey, who plans to finish her academic work at CCAC and complete a four-year degree at the University of Pittsburgh, possibly in anthropology and international development. She would like to work someday for a nonprofit organization like Amizade.

"These are incredibly transformative trips for the students," Blache-Cohen says. Amizade, which Blache-Cohen calls "the best-kept nonprofit secret" in the city, works in 11 countries to empower individuals and students through service and learning. Its name means "friendship" in Portuguese and was chosen because it coordinated its first service learning trips to Brazil. Amizade works with many universities, including West Virginia University, Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Arizona State.

Evans became familiar with Amizade's work as a member of its board. She and Blache-Cohen say it is unusual for community colleges to send students on service-learning trips abroad.

The students and Evans helped to raise funds for the trip through a car wash, pizza and hoagie sales and a benefit dinner. One student made and sold jewelry, and the dean spoke to groups of administrators and staff, who also made contributions.

"When they get back (what they do) is more important than what they did in-country," Blache-Cohen says. "It's what you do for the rest of your life that matters more."




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