CSUN Students Make a Difference Abroad

Kat Russell

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A CSUN student works with children in the Dominican Republic's El Castillo village as they color fruits and vegetables as part of a lesson on food portion sizes. When finished coloring, the children attached their fruits and vegetables to paper plates in correct portion sizes. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Jenna Jackson

It was the opportunity of a lifetime and CSUN senior Jenna Jackson jumped at it.

It started with a simple question – “How come we don’t get the opportunity to travel?” Jackson said. “We learn about cultural eating but we don’t really experience it.”

Little did she know the impact that simple question would have on her life and the lives of many others.

This past summer, Jackson and 11 other nutrition and dietetics students and graduates embarked on an adventure to the villages of El Castillo and Rio Grande in the Dominican Republic. The goal was to use creative techniques to teach the villagers about food safety, nutritional needs and healthy eating.

Jackson, who has always been passionate about nutrition and healthy living, planned and coordinated the program with the help of International Student Volunteers Inc. (ISV), a non-profit organization that coordinates student volunteer trips.

The organization provided Jenna with an on-site coordinator, David DeMinico, who Jackson said was able to give her “every ounce of information” she needed about the villages, the people and their needs. Jackson laughed as she recalled the whirlwind emails, phone calls, applications and fund raising efforts she was faced with while planning the excursion.

The program was simple in design – the 12 students were divided into four groups and each group was assigned an area of focus: gardening, hygiene and food safety, meal planning and nutrient deficiencies. With those topics in mind, each group created lesson plans and workshops while planning activities, games, and sing-along-songs which were both educational and fun.

The aim for all of their lessons was to create something that was both entertaining for the children and educational for adults. The students also helped to plant gardens in both of the villages, specifically produce that addressed the nutrient deficiencies of the villagers.

These students were “nothing short of amazing,” said David DeMinico. “They were so dedicated, organized and prepared yet flexible, receptive, and respectful of their position as guests in the community. I am proud of the work that they did.”

The effect the program had on the groups of students was profound, changing the perception of developing countries many of them previously had. “It’s really made me think about where I may want to go with my nutrition background and who really needs our help,” said participant Virginia Ortiz.

Many of the students had never been exposed to the poverty and lack of resources in which these villagers lived. The dirt road villages were small, marked by structures pieced together with whatever materials were at hand – plastic sheets, plywood, metal sheeting – and populated by wandering chickens and dogs.

Despite their circumstances, the students remember the villagers as warm, full of life, eager to learn, and excited to welcome them into their homes and lives.

“The people were amazing,” recalled participant Holly Erdogan. “We fell in love with the children immediately.”

Jackson, who became quite attached to the children, was saddened by their circumstances.

“A lot of the boys were working in the fields with the men,” Jackson said. “They don’t get to go to school, so they can’t read or write because they have to work. That was hard for me to see.”

Jackson’s experience in the Dominican Republic has left her more motivated than ever to continue to do community work.

Both she and ISV plan to continue the project in the years to come and are already planning the trip for summer 2012.  The venture is also being further developed to facilitate research on cultural eating and nutritional deficiencies.

After her experiences with the villagers, Jackson feels that she has discovered her purpose in life.

“This experience changed my career goals,” Jackson said. “I felt like I was more in touch with myself. I wasn’t surrounded by things to influence me, it was just me reflecting on the situation and the experience. I would love it if one day I could have my own non-profit organization that runs trips like this and does work specifically in nutrition in other countries.”