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‘Amazing people, incredible memories’ — students reflect on Dominican Republic trip

Paused in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Creighton University’s popular, immersive programs in the Dominican Republic are once again providing students opportunities to serve and learn in this Caribbean nation.

Gabby Dammkoehler probably didn’t expect to learn how to salsa when she signed up to study advertising, public relations and economics, but Creighton University can be full of surprises.

And Stephanie Janczewski surely did not anticipate building an aqueduct when she enrolled at the Creighton University College of Nursing, but there she was, shovel in hand.

The two women recently returned to campus, the newest veterans of Creighton University’s Institute for Latin American Concern (ILAC), which for the past 45 years enabled students to live in service and solidarity in the Dominican Republic while gaining knowledge of a culture and economy notably different from their own.

“I spent several weeks working as a teaching assistant at Red de Misericordia, an orphanage in the city of Santiago,” says Dammkoehler. “There I helped with check-point tests and math for grades kindergarten to third grade. The kids were all so sweet.

“We also helped work on an aqueduct that will bring clean water to the community, and I got really good at using a shovel. The people were amazingly kind and welcoming and even taught us to salsa.”

Janczewski joined Dammkoehler in the aqueduct project.

“I plan to use what I learned about public health as I work toward becoming a nurse,” she says. “I was able to see much more of this beautiful country and envelop myself in the culture much more than I could accomplish by traveling there on my own.”

Creighton’s service-learning trips to the Dominican Republic were disrupted in the fall of 2020 and the spring of 2021 by the COVID-19 pandemic. Encuentro Dominicano is normally a full-semester academic service-learning experience that blends academic instruction, practical experience and service projects.

Through a specially created, four-week “Verano Dominicano” program, students departed for the Dominican Republic on May 16 and return to the United States on June 13.

Catherine Slenker was among them. A native of St. Louis, Mo., Slenker, who is majoring in philosophy and public relations, says the Verano Dominicano program didn’t disappoint.

“Things I’d previously been taught were lifted out of the pages of textbooks and became real people, places, and situations before my very eyes.”

Students taking part in Verano Dominicano chose to focus on one of three themes — sustainability efforts; social determinants of health and public health; or business, economy and workers’ rights. Participants visited relevant sites and attended presentations by speakers. But the overriding impression left on the students was, as it has been for many prior generations of Encuentro Dominicano participants, the beauty and culture of America’s Caribbean neighbor.

“We learned about the culture of the Dominican Republic through excursions and trips where we learned about history and got to experience some of the beautiful nature the country has to offer,” says Dammkoehler. “They tell you that being in the Dominican Republic will change your life, and, as cheesy as it sounds, it really has.

“After months of isolation, being part of a community and working together has felt amazing, and I am so grateful to have been able to experience the Verano Dominicano and to have met so many amazing people and made such incredible memories.”

Dominican Republic Students 2021Participants in a special four-week Verano Dominicano program were, rear from left, Stephanie Janczewski, Catherine Slenker, Grace Cote, Emma Moran, Gabby Dammkoehler, staff member Jose Afonso Peralta, Micaela Clode, Ana Marfechuk and Dan Kooima. Foreground: Maggie Harens, left, and Anna Cloonan. Not pictured is Morgan Casetta.


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