For nine Cornell students and two mentors, memories of this winter break include two different kinds of lessons: English and math lessons they gave to 50 elementary school children in Honduras and a humbling lesson they received about what it really takes to be content.
The students visited the country Jan. 12-19 with the nonprofit group Mayor Potencial, founded by Nancy Bell ‘09, a Honduran native who is the undergraduate minor coordinator at the Dyson School in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and a graduate student in the College of Industrial and Labor Relations.
The mission of the organization is to provide funds and resources to improve access to education, expand school facilities, supplement curriculum and support teachers in rural areas of Honduras.
“I strongly believe that education can play a critical role in helping a family and community break the cycle of poverty,” Bell said. “Unfortunately, many children never get to make the choice for themselves and are removed from school before the true value of an education becomes evident.”
The trip was a partnership with the Cornell Commitment, an alumni-supported program that recognizes and rewards outstanding undergraduates through fellowship awards. The program also provides each student member with a support account they can use to fund trips like this one.
Kristin Hsieh ‘16, a biological sciences major in the College of Arts and Sciences, said she was awed to experience the sense of community in the town of El Rodeito, Honduras, population 200. “There was a strong bond between all of the members of the community and between the children,” she said.
During the week, students visited the local school, offering lessons in English and math, bringing donated school supplies and cooking meals for the children.
“By the third day we were there, kids were responding in part English and part Spanish,” said Olivia Tice ’17, a performing and media arts major focusing on film studies. “I took a picture of a girl with my camera, handed it to her and she said ‘smile.’“
The students also visited a local health center and heard stories of challenges locals faced with the nearest hospital two to three hours away. They learned how sugar cane is turned into juice, saw a loofah plant, tried tropical fruits they’d never had and visited the site of the previous elementary school.
Electricity for the new elementary building was installed using funds from Mayor Potencial and the group also hopes to help with plans to build a high school. The nearest one is more than two hours away, Bell said, so most children drop out after elementary school.
Despite challenges related to such basics as safe water or flushing toilets, Tice said she was amazed at “how fluidly everything runs when they don’t have all of the amenities that we have here,” she said. “I was surprised to see how simply you could live and it worked out fine.”
B.J. Siasoco ‘07, assistant director of the Cornell Commitment, who went on the trip, said that realization was one of the trip’s benefits.
“This trip was about helping the students experience another place, bringing that experience back to campus and bringing the voice of those people to the greater world,” he said. “You can only say so much in the classroom, but it’s a different experience to bring a person there.”
Tice said she always considered joining the Peace Corps after graduation, but now that desire is even stronger. And Hsieh said the trip made her think more deeply about what kind of medical career she might want to pursue.
“I don’t see myself as a doctor who will find a cure for cancer or HIV,” Hsieh said. “But I can be the doctor who can relate to my patients, know what their cultural values are and what they want. I can be the person to help them find what treatment will be better for them and what treatment they can afford.”
Bell and Siasoco are planning more trips for the summer and next year’s winter break.