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Professional Opinion

Service-learning trip to Haiti fulfills its promise

President witnesses first-hand an intense experience for students
University Business, July 2016
Lex O. McMillan III is president of Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.
Lex O. McMillan III is president of Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

Having just returned from my first trip to Haiti, I have been thinking a lot about the water crisis in Flint, Michigan. The situation is appalling to most Americans because we take for granted an abundance of fresh, clean water at every turn.

Indeed, one might argue that it is a triumph of Madison Avenue marketing that we are willing to pay for bottled water when clean water is virtually free elsewhere. No such assumptions are at work among most Haitians. More than 50 percent of those living in rural areas, and 35 percent of those in urban areas, have no reliable access to clean water.

Deep wells, deeper learning

A group of Albright College students decided to spend their spring break helping to improve these statistics. They would help a small Haitian community near rural Pignon complete a new drinking well, and I decided to join them.

I wasn’t sure what I was getting into, but after more than a decade as president, I was eager to join one of our Alternative Spring Break trips, which have previously gone to places such as New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina or Oklahoma City after the crippling tornado of 2013.

I wanted to see how these service-learning trips actually worked. The literature on such high-impact practices shows that they can be among the most profound educational experiences that college students have. Scores of our students have affirmed the same.

I also wanted to meet our alumnus Neil Van Dine, who has been working on economic and community development in Haiti for the past 27 years and is a cofounder of Haiti Outreach (http://UBmag.me/haiti), our host for the trip. Haiti Outreach is an impressive outfit that digs wells for Haitians but more importantly prepares them to take responsibility for managing these vital community resources.

Rutted roads & overloaded motorcycles

Although Haiti is our near-neighbor geographically, its distance from the United States culturally and economically is hard to exaggerate. Soon after my arrival, I was struck by the sheer strangeness of visiting a country that feels stuck in time.

Contributing to this sense of strangeness is the evidence everywhere of the modern world laid on top of the basic primitiveness of life for the Haitians who I met and worked with around Pignon.

On deeply rutted, dusty and mostly unpaved roads, small motorcycles—with multiple passengers on board—appear to be the vehicles of choice. Seeing these bikes followed by billows of blue smoke from their overtaxed engines—alongside the almost equally common sight of small donkeys loaded with five-gallon buckets of water, bundles of branches and other freight—is an emblem of the incongruities that define life there.

Seeing through the eyes of others

After spending just six days in this complex and troubled country, I don’t have great insights about Haiti. I did, however, come away convinced that our journey was a profound educational experience for the Albright students, professor and staff member I accompanied.

The students—three of whom are Haitians who now reside in the United States—jumped into the experience with unrestrained zeal, soaking up and savoring every moment. They embraced the Haitian people and performed eagerly the manual labor that was on our agenda.

Having arrived a day later than the group, my first sighting of the students came as they returned from a day at work on the well. The trip was a tortuous, 45-minute drive from our quarters. Standing in the bed of the large pick-up truck that was their daily transport, the students were covered in dust and cheerfully singing pop songs to the bemused stares of our Haitian hosts.

If the heart of a liberal (hence, liberating) education is learning to see through the eyes of others—both living and dead—I now see clearly how the bumpy roads of Haiti led us to new learning about others and about ourselves.

Surely none of us will ever again take for granted a cold, clear glass of water.

Lex O. McMillan III is president of Albright College in Reading, Pennsylvania.

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