James Madison University

NEW COLLEGES FORMED A plan to reorganize the College of Integrated Science and Technology into two colleges took effect July 1, 2012. The new colleges are the College of Health and Behavioral Studies and the College of Integrated Science and Engineering.

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La Gonave Spring Break Trips Eye Opener for Students

By: Amanda Rivera
Posted: March 27, 2008

PHOTO: JMU students in La GonaveHaving visited La Gonave, a small island near Haiti, ten times in the past five years, Geographic Science Professor Dr. Mary Tacy has become a well-known celebrity in the eyes of the locals who often refer to her as “Mary, the Queen of La Gonave.”  As the Director of CISAT’s International Partnership for La Gonave (IPLG), Dr. Tacy has dedicated herself to improving the island and the lives of its residents.  After a trip there in 2003, she says, “One of the things that I noticed after that first trip was that there are different organizations working on that island, but they are not talking to one another.  So, we thought one of the things that we could do was create an organization…to get people talking.”  In response to this need, the IPLG was established and Dr. Tacy has since planted an interest in other members of the university.  Working with various departments on campus, students involved with the program insisted on a student trip to La Gonave; the first one since a failed attempt in 2003 due to political instability.  Setting the wheels in motion for Spring Break 2008, Dr. Tacy, Gina Kudrav from the Office of International Programs and seven JMU students boarded a small plane headed for a dirt runway located in the Western hemisphere’s poorest country.

Focusing their efforts on the needs of the island’s inhabitants, the students conducted research prior to the trip in order to hold a women’s conference that would boast several workshops.  “This was a totally unique idea for women to be getting together and talking about how they can take charge of their lives.  The women were so excited about the conference…at one point, I asked them if we could take a break for fifteen minutes and they asked if we could just take a ten minute break,” Dr. Tacy says.  Pulling from their individual skills, students offered various workshops ranging from nutrition and the Mangroves forest to bead-making for jewelry that the women could sell. The IPLG Director comments, “Some of the women had rarely held a pencil, but at the same time [the students] saw that these women had ideas, they were enthusiastic, they want to work to make their lives better, they just haven’t been given the resources.”

Other work included maintenance of environmentally-sustainable projects initiated during Dr. Tacy’s previous visits: solar house, cistern and a weather station.  Time was equally devoted to capturing more points on the island for the GIS system.  “We want to try to GPS all places on the island where people have access to water,” she says.  The students also repaired what is known throughout La Gonave as the “House of the Poor,” a home for the elderly.  These were not the only “poor” that benefitted from the JMU group’s hard work though.  With their leftover trip money, the students paid a year’s worth of rent for a woman with four children who had just lost her home.  The rest was allotted towards a doctor’s visit for a young child who had sustained an eye injury and could not afford medical attention. Discussing the students’ endeavors, Dr. Tacy says that they “learned a lot from it about life and about how others live…It was definitely a classroom experience.”

Assimilating with the La Gonave natives, the students did not return without experiencing some friendly culture clash.  Dr. Tacy recalls the group riding in the back of a pickup truck with goats and chickens.  Senior ISAT major Amanda Reinholtz continues the tale stating in the trip blog that, “Four of the five goats who shared the truck ride with us yesterday were slaughtered in the yard, and the cooks saved the honor of eating their testicles (apparently a delicacy) for us.”  However, other memories highlighting these cultural differences were not as fond.  “We visited the high school one afternoon and one of the things that shocked them…I was talking about what our dreams for the island were [and one of the JMU students] asked, ‘What are your dreams?’ and the student looked at her and said, ‘I have no dreams.’ It was definitely an eye-opener,” says Dr. Tacy. 

As a veteran of the trip, the JMU professor says, “For me, what it has done, is given me a greater sense of meaning in my life…The people are so appreciative of what we do.  In spite of all the hardships in their lives, they’re a lot of fun, so it has definitely changed my life.”  Experiencing the island with fresh eyes, the students were similarly captivated by the people of La Gonave.  Two participants who are graduating in May are hoping to return for a two-year stay to promote sustainable agriculture pending funding and lodging arrangements.  Amanda sums up the group’s final thoughts as they prepared to head home: “We have all fallen in love with the island, making our imminent departure a sad thought indeed. In contrast to its bad reputation, Haiti is stunningly beautiful in character. I believe we have all found more than we expected in this place.”