RIC students travel to Ecuador for a learning and serving experience

From left, Barry Thompson, Peterson Carto, Jessica Gomes, Waleska Santana, Paola Baldomar, Alyssa Barone, Vanessa Baldomar, Holly Robinson<br> and Jennifer Ferguson.

From left, Barry Thompson, Peterson Carto, Jessica Gomes, Waleska Santana, Paola Baldomar, Alyssa Barone, Vanessa Baldomar, Holly Robinson
and Jennifer Ferguson.

Nine RIC students from a variety of academic majors traveled to Quito, Ecuador, from Jan. 4 -16 to attend the Early Spring course, Comparative Criminology, taught by sociology professor Jill Harrison. It was one of several new courses offered at RIC during the winter break.

The class was held at FLACSO University and consisted of academic and service learning components, which allowed students to critically study crime through comparative approaches of the different systems, policies and efforts to address it, and also to see firsthand the issues relevant to Latin American society through their work with area service foundations.

Peterson Carto and Vanessa Baldomar at the Opción de Vida center.
After attending class every morning, students would spend five afternoons a week working with several non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including a foundation for street children, another for rape victims, a home for orphans, a school for disabled children and an abortion clinic.

The overall experience taught them profound lessons about the world from different perspectives.

Barry Thompson, a senior public relations major at RIC, signed up for the study abroad course to fulfill a three-week internship requirement for the International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOS) certificate program at RIC, for which he stayed an extra week to complete.

He mainly worked with a group of young boys from a foundation called “Centro Opción de Vida” (Option for Life Center), a home that keeps them off of the dangerous streets. Thompson developed a tremendous amount of respect and admiration for all the boys have gone through and for their efforts to turn their lives around.

“They are wise beyond their years,” he said. “Their attitudes are overwhelmingly positive, even though we did see some of the trials that they go through with getting out of the street mentality.”

Peterson Carto in the colonial
The time that Thompson spent with the young boys fostered within him a sense of gratitude for his life, as he said. Classmate Jennifer Ferguson couldn’t agree more. Centro Opción de Vida was a place that she said “captured her heart,” and she is happy that the organization is there for the children to turn to.

Ferguson, a senior political science major who is also in the INGOS program at RIC, created a Facebook page with her classmates to keep in touch with the boys from the center, and to help raise money for them. Meanwhile, they have remained in contact with the foundation’s “Madre,” or housemother, to whom they can pass along any clothing or essentials that the children may need.

Some of the students also worked with disabled children at a school called “Campamento Esperanza” (Camp Hope), which Ferguson said teaches first to fourth graders “who ranged from [having] complete mental and physical disability to minor conditions like ADHD.” She primarily worked with a group of paralyzed children, which she described as an eye-opening experience.

“They are very loving and sweet kids who are very intelligent and can communicate in a variety of ways,” she said.

RIC students in the FLACSO University
Similarly, Thompson found that learning basic Spanish quickly was not only possible with the help and patience from the natives, it was a necessity. “I learned more Spanish in three weeks there than in all the years that I took Spanish classes,” he added.

The service learning work also provided a foundation for the students to understand and witness the Latin American policies and systems at hand. Ferguson said that she and her classmates compared U.S. and South American prisons, and assessed the “pros and cons from each,” while learning much more along the way.

“I didn’t realize that the state doesn’t fund prisons [in Ecuador],” she said. “Even if people are incarcerated, they still need to find money to eat.” Ferguson also learned that the country doesn’t have a parole system, and that inmates could spend anywhere from weeks to years incarcerated without the chance of a reduced sentence.

Thompson recalled that when he and some of his classmate visited the women's prison with a missionary group, he was surprised to see that many inmates were English-speaking women from different countries that were there for trafficking.

He noted that the women are as much victims of crime as they are perpetrators, because though they made the choice to take part in crime, they are also without an education or job opportunities to turn to.

Above all, the course inspired students to take it upon themselves to help others as much as they are able to and to develop as well as strengthen their future aspirations to participate in service work abroad.

It was Vanessa Baldomar’s first time traveling outside of the United States and the experience moved her to do all that she could to make a lasting impact in the life of others, as it was done for her.

Baldomar and several of her classmates brought shoes for the young boys living in Centro Opción de Vida, a gesture that resulted from the ties that were formed during the two-week visit.

Ecuador provided students a learning experience inside and outside the classroom.
“I bonded and connected with each and every one of them, and this is what made my trip the most rewarding gift because I learned to value what I have here and also what they are missing there,” said Baldomar.

She would like to return to Ecuador in a year, and she emphasized just how much her study abroad experience changed her life and perspective.

Barry Thompson said that he is now considering teaching English in Ecuador after he graduates, while Jennifer Ferguson is more convinced than ever that she would like to do NGO work as a full-time career.

Instructor Jill Harrison, assistant professor of sociology at RIC, said, “The goal of the course was to get the students out there, as an experience that resonates at a more holistic and personal level.”

Harrison considers service learning to be an integral part of education and is glad that her students were able to take full advantage of it through the course.

She hopes that they now know about the wide range of possibilities when it comes to learning about other cultures, experiences, and ways of life. “Connecting with the world gives you the animo or motivation to make the world into a better place,” she said.

Harrison said the Comparative Criminology class would continue to be offered in January during the Early Spring period under different course topics.