June 13, 2013
The alternative break trip to Ecuador involved living and working the indigenous Shuar people.
While in Ecuador, the students cleaned hiking trails, did some organic farming, cleared fields with machetes, built a small house, taught English and interacted with eco-tourism students from Quito.
From right Becky Vaclav ’15, Matthew Lyon ’15, Ryan Cragun and Peter Kosiarski ’16 build a structure in Puerto Rico to assist with rain water management.
The alternative break trip to Puerto Rico involved learning about sustainability at Plenitud Iniciativas Eco-Educativas, as well as some relaxation and reflective time.
As soon as exams finished and the brick campus streets emptied to resemble a Western movie (minus the tumbleweeds), almost two dozen University of Tampa students packed their bags, but they weren’t headed for home.
Instead, they joined UT’s PEACE (People Exploring Active Community Experiences) Alternative Breaks Program on one of two international trips, to Puerto Rico and Ecuador, for about 10 days of service, camaraderie and sweat.
When the group of UT students arrived in Quito, Ecuador, they hopped on a bus for a six-hour bus ride into the Amazon. When they neared the host site around 3 a.m., they put on rain boots in the dark and trekked the rest of the way with their luggage into the jungle where they would be staying with the Shuars, the indigenous people of Ecuador and Peru.
“We cleaned hiking trails, did some organic farming, cleared fields with machetes, built a small house, taught English and interacted with eco-tourism students from Quito,” said Kristen Foltz, an instructor of speech, who along with Assistant Professor Chris Gurrie, was the faculty advisor on the trip. The trips are planned, organized and lead by PEACE students with UT faculty and staff there for support.
Foltz is a self-proclaimed travel junkie, and while she’s been to almost 40 countries, she said the trip to Ecuador was one of the most special.
“The UT group worked using machetes almost every day, and I never heard a negative word out of any of them,” Foltz said, describing the situation as extreme camping (an outhouse, no shower facility, sleeping on wooden planks/the floor, insects the size of small cats, etc.), hiking in the muddy jungle and then hard manual labor. Instead, the students thrived.
“PEACE students are no ordinary students. They are the most selfless and caring group,” Foltz said. “Everyone looked out for each other. There was a lot of singing and laughing until our sides hurt in the jungle, even when we were exhausted and covered in mud.”
Becky Vaclav ’13, a chemistry and environmental science major from Milwaukee, WI, said the evening reflection time among the students and the staff at Plenitud Iniciativas Eco-Educativas in Puerto Rico were the most touching.
“Activities like this that included commentary about what we did each day as well as the feelings our daily work conjured in us really helped to solidify the experience for everyone, and gave us a drive to continue volunteering for environmental causes back in Tampa,” said Vaclav, noting a couple students were inspired to apply for Plenitud’s intership program for later in the summer.
Plenitud is a nonprofit organization committed to sustainable development by providing training in organic farming, bio-construction and other sustainable practices. Ryan Cragun, an associate professor of sociology who was the faculty advisor on the trip, said the focus was on permaculture and sustainable agricultural practices.
“Helping on the many projects we did — planting and harvesting, building herb gardens, road maintenance for water and erosion control, and many others — not only provided the satisfaction that comes with volunteering, but also a hands-on education about how to more closely interact with nature in mutually beneficial ways,” Cragun said. “We learned how to work with nature to produce the food we eat, rather than simply think about nature as something to bend to our will and control.”
Vaclav said the experience made her grow as a citizen of the world, and feels PEACE is making an impact on UT and the world.
“Alternative breaks are working to really foster a community of members on our campus who put others first when making choices,” Vaclav said. “I think we are really making an influence on how inspired and involved this campus is.”
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