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The Give and Receive of Service Learning

Dec 17, 2021
5 min Read
Students line the steps of a building in Santiago

Creighton business students experienced “a gracious and sharing culture” during a trip to the Dominican Republic as part of the Practicum in International Development course.  

The path to knowledge is many and varied. The more traditional avenue is classroom-centered, through reading and discussion, lectures and exams, research papers and projects. Internships and practicums are another option for augmenting formal education. 

This autumn, however, 18 Heider business students enrolled in the course Practicum in International Development took an even less-traveled route when they spent fall break in the Dominican Republic. 

Practicum in International Development is a service-learning class taught by Lance Frazier, PhD, associate professor of management; Charles Braymen, PhD, CFA, associate professor of economics; and Dustin Ormond, PhD, associate professor of business intelligence and analytics. Open to all majors within the Heider College of Business and all levels of study (though most are juniors and seniors who have completed their core business classes), it encompasses technology and business development and entrepreneurship. 

Santiago patients

In the eight weeks leading up to the DR trip, half of the class focused on learning the technology central to the BlueBox Program, a nonprofit educational program established by Braymen and Ormond. It centers on technology that houses inexpensive mini-computers capable of disseminating open-source materials to anyone with a cell phone. Students distributed this technology, along with tablets, to schools in the DR and trained teachers in their use. 

A trip highlight for Annie Trettel, a senior finance and international business double major and Spanish minor from Kearney, Nebraska, was delivering a BlueBox and tablets to a local school. The hospitality the group received was profound, she says. The mayor, parish priest and school leadership greeted the Creighton contingency, and the principal even teared up while making her acceptance speech. 

“I was really touched by how much this technology meant to the school and their students,” Trettel says.

In the weeks leading to the trip, the other nine Practicum in International Development students did a deep dive into the principles of business development in preparation for their work with Chronic Care International (CCI). Their goal was to help develop business plans for sustainable, revenue-generating ventures for the medical nonprofit. 

The lessons learned, though, far exceeded these tangible tasks.

For senior economics and management (social entrepreneurship track) double major and philosophy minor Taylr Bahr, these lessons included the importance of intentionality and living in the moment, the need to appreciate business viewpoints different from his own, that work and service is a form of prayer and that being humbled is actually a good thing. Perhaps most importantly, says the Burlington, Kansas, native, he discovered that the marginalized in our world are not simply recipients of our largesse but are often teachers and unselfish givers of profound gifts. 

“Prior to this trip, I think I mostly thought of the poor as not having much to give me. I always had the perspective of ‘what can I give them?’ It is good that I have always felt called to give to the poor, but failing to recognize all the wonderful things they are able to give me was very naïve,” Bahr says. “The Dominican people we met within the CCI campos gave us their hearts, minds and souls. They gave us their everything in that moment. They gave us hugs at the end of our discussions, and for all these things, I am eternally grateful.”

Founded in 2010 by Omaha physician and Creighton faculty member Chuck Filipi and his daughter-in-law Linda Filipi, Chronic Care International addresses such persistent conditions as diabetes and hypertension in developing countries. Creighton alumnus Hans Dethlefs, BS’87, a family medicine physician at One World Community Health Center, serves as president. 

Four times a year, Dethlefs leads teams to the DR to conduct clinics and work with CCI patient associations that educate fellow Dominicans on chronic health issues. During one of these trips, he met Frazier, who was teaching a section of the service-learning semester abroad program, Encuentro Dominicano. Dethlefs presented an idea he had been mulling over: engaging Heider students to work with CCI and its vibrant patient associations to develop business plans to help fund CCI’s life-saving programming. Frazier readily agreed. 

“It was great seeing ways that our work (through the BlueBox Program) would positively impact the educational experiences of Dominican students and provide resources for the teachers. At CCI, the patients were open to the student involvement and enjoyed the interactions that they had with the students,” says Frazier, who called the trip a “transformative experience for Creighton students.” 

Group photo with BlueBox Program

“I think the students appreciated knowing they could use their knowledge and skills to make a difference but also recognize that any one group can only do so much to address systemic issues like chronic poverty,” he adds.

Trettel believes her education is empowering. She says in the past she struggled with the guilt of her good fortune, and coming in close contact with such extreme poverty, uncommon in the U.S., can often make observers freeze up or block the situation from their minds. 

Guilt, however, is an unproductive emotion. She says she now feels something different — “energized” and “motivated.” 

“This experience in the Dominican Republic has taught me a new way to face this uncomfortable feeling,” Trettel says. “Instead of freezing, I walked away with a game plan, an idea to use my education and resources to make positive change. My Creighton education taught me I don’t need to be helpless in situations like these or embarrassed by the education I am able to receive. It’s a tool to better the lives of others, however I can.”

Bahr concurs. He admits that, at first, he was unsure of how to act in the batey populated by Haitian immigrants. He didn’t want to overstep boundaries or treat the children like “subjects of a ‘poverty vacation,’” he says. Then his initial guilt gave way to a feeling of responsibility. Helping to establish sustainable businesses in the DR and increasing educational opportunity in the bateys reaffirmed his desire “to work in public policy and advocate for poor and vulnerable populations” and join the Jesuit Volunteer Corps or serve as an Amate Fellow through the Archdiocese of Chicago after graduation.

Upon their return to campus, the students presented four potential venture ideas to CCI stakeholders: making cleaning supplies, creating a photocopy business, selling chickens and/or chicken eggs and selling water filters to the local communities. The photocopy and water filter businesses were chosen, and students spent the rest of the semester developing business plans for the two ventures. 

“Safe drinking and cooking water is an expensive commodity in the campos around Santiago, and water filters would provide a solution to a larger community issue, as well as bringing revenue to CCI clinics,” says Trettel, who, along with her classmates, conducted profitability analyses using data and research that CCI patient associations gathered to build a business proposal for the sale of water filters. 

“I can definitely say this is the best class I have ever taken at Creighton,” Trettel says.