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Puerto Rico: Vacation or Service Trip?

By: Ella Howard

The first ever out-of-state intersession was in Puerto Rico. But was it a service trip or an excuse to relax?

The Puerto Rico group. Photo provided by Matthew Silverman

On Wednesday, January 24th, during week two of the January intersession, a group of 12 students, as well as teachers and chaperones, returned from a trip to Puerto Rico where they taught fellow high school students the design thinking principles. After a week on the small island in the north Caribbean Sea, they were welcomed home by eager friends wanting to know how their trip went. As things began settling back to normal, controversy arose.

Was it really a service trip? How much work did they actually do? Many, including me, thought they were going for hurricane relief!I It shouldn’t be called a service trip (thought some) they didn’t do any work!

While many d.tech students were proud of their peers for the design thinking they taught, others of the student body had mixed feelings or even got upset about the trip. Several students have claimed that it shouldn’t be allowed to be called a service trip, because although they were teaching the design thinking principles to high school students in Puerto Rico, they weren’t actually performing a “service”.

Puerto Rico was hit with a category five major hurricane back in September, resulting in 112 confirmed fatalities.  Junior Maggie Frank, like some other students, was under the impression that the reason for the student trip to Puerto Rico was Hurricane Relief. “Since they were going to a country that had recently been devastated by a hurricane, calling it a service trip sounds like they should’ve been helping rebuild infrastructure, or helping pass out food and water,” Frank stated. It was news to Frank when she found out that rather than travelling there for Hurricane Relief, the students were going to teach design thinking principles to students at Escuela Francisco Manrique Cabrera. “When I first heard about the trip and that they would be visiting a school, I thought that it was a school that had been affected and had no electricity, and that they would be teaching the students design thinking to help solve some problems they were facing caused by the hurricane,” Frank elaborated. “Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to be the case, and while they did teach design thinking, I heard it was only for a day, and it wasn’t about real world problems that they could easily apply to their lives.’’

Frank wasn’t on the trip, so therefore she cannot say for sure whether they were teaching design thinking through applicable real world problems or not, but she thinks it would have made more sense and been very beneficial to these teenagers if… “I understand that they did work on their trip, and I don’t want to undermine that, but based on what those who didn’t go on the trip saw, it seems like the trip was mostly a vacation, paid for by one of our staff members.”

Granted, students who remained at d.tech only had information about the trip from their peers on Snapchat and the daily vlogs that junior Matthew Silverman produced. Therefore, their view of the trip, and idea of what they were doing, might have been distorted. They did not have all the information.

Junior Maria McAllister-Young, who attended the trip, said, “The reason for going down there was to meet the students that we would be working with. We wanted to create a sister school kind of exchange program.” Their plan was never to go down there for manual  “service”, so the title ‘educational service trip’ would have fit better.

Apparently the Puerto Rico crew never identified their trip as a service trip, and this was simply a miscommunicated description that  spread throughout the student body.

Junior Riana Patel didn’t go on the trip, but had strong feelings about it. Patel said, “A lot of my friends have been on service trips to places such as Guatemala, Mexico, and other countries, and they built homes in as little as two weeks. I just feel like there was a lot more that could have been done, but wasn’t.” She said she felt as though their trip was just a sightseeing vacation, with a school visit thrown in.

Ross Fulkerson, a junior who participated in the Puerto Rico trip responded to Patel’s comment saying, “It’s hard for people who didn’t go to understand the preparation we did, and our mission while we were there. But while we were there, the time spent working with students way outnumbered the hours we spent doing non-academic things, and even when we were at the house we were practicing our workshop, preparing for the next day’s lesson, and things like that.”

Tyler McMahon, another junior who attended the trip, agreed with Fulkerson that  their Snapchat posts may have made it seem as though no work was actually being completed. McMahon explained,“It totally makes sense how they think that it was a vacation”

Fulkerson agreed “All of us have Snapchat.We all post things that we find that are fun about the trip.”

McMahon added, “We don’t really show the boring work and so that’s all people really see for now.”

The Puerto Rico trip raised many important questions about, not just how d.tech students work in foreign countries, but also how they present their work through social media. How will student travel change in the future as a result of this controversy? Or will it?

One thought on “Puerto Rico: Vacation or Service Trip?

  1. From what I have heard from people who were on the trip, and interviews from this article. It definitely sounds more like a vacation than a service trip. I don’t doubt that they did some good while the students were down there, but it sounds like what they did wasn’t really a service. I personally have gone on a service trip before, and we spent one whole week building chicken coops on an island in Vietnam. This may not sound like much, but compared to the six months it can take locals to build one, it was a huge help.

    I just wish that when this trip happens in the future, the kids really go all out in physically helping the community, not just teaching kids.

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