Traveling to Understand

Georgia Southern TRIO Students Gain Lifelong Lessons In Puerto Rico

group photo of TRIO students
Georgia Southern TRIO students from the Armstrong Campus in Savannah traveled to Puerto Rico for a community service and research trip. (Top row, L to R) Evelyn Sorto, Wanda Lyons, Kaii Joseph-Maloney, Thomas Bullock. (Bottom row, L to R) Nadou Lawson, Michelle Villanueva, Latoria Jamerson, Chamori Robinson, Johnny Sumner, Adalis Ball, Demetrius Hurst and Monica Nguyen

A student-focused volunteer trip to Puerto Rico over the summer took Georgia Southern’s top honor as Outstanding Community Service Project. It also changed the lives of the 12 TRIO scholars who participated in the weeklong program.

“The trip was more than just volunteering,” said Johnny Sumner, a radiologic science major. “It helped me overall grow into a better person. I learned that to really understand the world, I need to travel.”

Twelve TRIO scholars were selected following a rigorous application process to participate in a community service and research trip on the Caribbean island that was decimated by back-to-back Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017.

The trip, hosted by Georgia Southern’s Armstrong and Liberty campuses’ Office of TRIO Student Support Services (SSS), which helps transition, retain and graduate first-generation and low-income students, as well as students with disabilities, also earned support from the Office of Student Affairs and the U.S. Department of Education. 

“In providing a community service, cultural and research experience for TRIO participants in Puerto Rico, the objectives of the experience were to advance academic proficiency, expand financial literacy and increase career awareness through community service activities and research projects that respond to severe social problems,” stated TRIO Retention Specialist Thomas Bullock, Ed.D.

Group of TRIO students on the streets of Puerto Rico

As the students, many of whom had never boarded a plane before, arrived to the country’s capital, San Juan, and rode into town by bus, they were mesmerized.

“We traveled from the airport, through the cobblestone streets of San Juan with very little talking; all eyes were captivated by the many sights,” said Bullock. “A lot of abandoned buildings littered our route. It was obvious that the island was still devastated by the effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.” 

Hosted by the Interdisciplinary and Multicultural Institute at the University of Puerto Rico, Río Piedras Campus, a guide introduced the students to the city, founded in 1509. They explored San Juan Gate, centuries-old forts, the Bautista cathedral and the governor’s house, as iguanas scurried among the cobblestone streets.

trio students painting the external wal of a building

The TRIO scholars then participated in community service activities over the next several days. Their first stop was in the town of Cataño, located just across the bay from San Juan, as the area’s mangrove trees, which naturally protect the island from severe weather, were destroyed. TRIO scholars volunteered with Corredor del Yaguazo, which partners with the local government and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to preserve the wetlands habitat of the Las Cucharillas Ciénaga Natural Reserve, to clear fallen trees and boulders with rakes and machetes.

Time was also spent with 7quillas, a nonprofit dedicated to the protection of the Tinglar, an endangered species also known as the leatherback sea turtle. Students built a sand embankment around the turtles’ nests to act as an egg incubator, and conducted an extensive beach clean-up. 

“It was amazing how much trash and debris we picked up on what seemed to be a pristine beach,” said Bullock. “Everyone gained an appreciation for the elimination of plastic straws from the Georgia Southern University Galley.”

TRIO student in a classroom surrounded by three children

However, volunteering with Casa Educativa de Cantera, a small school located in one of Puerto Rico’s poorest communities, was one of the more touching experiences for the TRIO students, who painted the two-story school building, picked limes and enjoyed barbecue and fresh fruit smoothies made by their hosts. When the children arrived, they played with them, took turns practicing Spanish and English and handed out Georgia Southern pencils as tokens of gratitude. 

TRIO students also learned about the importance of the 17th-century, Afro-Puerto Rican musical traditions of bomba and plena music, which arrived with enslaved Africans, and alternated lessons with traditional drums and a fruit skin banjo with dancing.

Throughout the trip, interactions with local residents, who shared stories about how the hurricanes personally affected them, left an indelible mark on all of the TRIO students.

“The seven days of community service in Puerto Rico not only changed my perspective of this beautiful and fearless country, but also opened my eyes to the conflicts in politics, health and environmental issues in Puerto Rico,” stated biology and pre-dentistry major Michelle Villanueva.

Biology major Monica Nguyen agreed.

“It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” she said. “The trip exceeded our expectations and provided Georgia Southern’s TRIO program participants the opportunity to learn as well as to give back to those in need.” 

Corine Ackerson-Jones, director of the TRIO SSS program, is especially proud of the students.

“They were told from the beginning that this wouldn’t be a vacation yet they still welcomed the challenge,” she said. “I knew this would be good for them but I just didn’t realize the full impact until they came back and discussed their experiences. It will be something they’ll never forget and I am honored to have had a role in making it happen.”

— Melanie Simón