Learning by doing in the Dominican Republic

Honors seminar provides study abroad opportunities to underrepresented students in the JMU community


by Sadie Aram ('23)


SUMMARY: Twenty-nine JMU students took part in a service-learning project in the Dominican Republic over spring break. Led by Felix Wang, the trip was part of an Honors course called Global Citizenship in a Service-Learning Context. The experience was made accessible to first-generation and otherwise underrepresented students, whose travel costs were covered.

For spring break, 29 JMU students flew to the sunny, tropical Dominican Republic. But instead of a vacation, the group, which included more than a dozen first-generation and underrepresented students, engaged in an intensive, weeklong service-learning project.

The trip, led by Felix Wang, assistant dean of the Honors College, was part of a spring seminar he teaches called Global Citizenship in a Service-Learning Context. The course takes a holistic learning approach, combining service, culture and education.

“The core purpose of this seminar is to allow students to have a global engagement experience that doesn’t have to alter their four-year progression here on campus,” Wang said. “It’s really important for students to have that understanding of who they are and how they connect with the world.”

The Honors College, Valley Scholars and Centennial Scholars sent 29 students to the Dominican Repblic March 11-18.

Wang has been leading the seminar for a decade, but he recently collaborated with the Centennial Scholars and Valley Scholars programs to offer the experience to students for whom studying abroad might not otherwise have been possible.

“It really just started with the concept of ‘How can we develop a study abroad experience that’s accessible?’” Wang said. “A lot of students cannot travel through the summer or long-term to have that experience.”

Fawn-Amber Montoya, who teaches an Honors seminar on LatinX voices, also brought her students on the trip. The course discusses Latinx history and how it influences culture and current issues. For Shukrana Shukrulla (‘24), Montoya’s seminar allowed her to explore a topic that she wanted to know more about.

Shukrulla, a Centennial Scholar, had studied abroad in South Korea and the United Kingdom, but she had never traveled to Central America before. As a first-generation student, she was excited to experience the trip with her peers.

“I've studied abroad, I've done conferences, but this was a very unique bond that I have with this group of individuals,” Shukrulla said. “We're stepping out of our comfort zone. It was really amazing to be with such a diverse group. It just felt so empowering.”

Students participated in service-learning projects that improved local infrastructure.

Shaun Mooney, executive director of the Reddix Center for First Generation Students, said making a study abroad trip accessible to underrepresented students is rare in higher education. “There are only probably a handful of institutions that even do a program like this or think in this way about their study abroad programs,” he said. “This is something that makes JMU unique.”

For Valley Scholars and Centennial Scholars, their scholarships paid for the course while Mooney’s office covered a large portion of the travel costs. Of the 29 students on the trip, around half had never traveled outside of the United States. Some had never been on an airplane.

“Traveling, seeing different cultures, meeting different people and having a new experience is an excellent learning modality,” Mooney said. “It’s the way you learn about yourself. It’s the way you learn about others, and it’s transformative for students.”

Students also took a boat ride around Isla Saona.

Shukrulla was able to see life from a new angle. “I have a new perspective on poverty and what that can look like, in different parts of the world, and even in different regions of the country,” she said. “We take a lot of things for granted, thinking that everybody in the world has these basic needs.”

Many professors who lead study abroad trips have only basic proficiency in the country where they teach. But because Wang spent a portion of his life in the Dominican Republic, he knows the language and the culture and was able to use his many connections to create an authentic learning environment.

Wang’s lectures were supplemented with volunteering, visiting historic sites and taking excursions outside the city.

“No matter how much you learn or try to read or watch videos about a location,” Wang said, “there’s no comparison when you’re there in person. It’s not only seeing it, but it’s smelling it. It’s feeling it. It’s hearing the noise.”

Students began the trip in the capital, Santo Domingo, where they spent time engaging with the local community. They also volunteered with 7 Elements, a nonprofit focused on ethics and sustainable housing. Shukrulla said this was students’ favorite part of the trip because they worked together to build something important for the community. She described it as the “magic of collaboration.”

Hank Heath (’82), a first-generation JMU student, hosted the group at his home in Las Terrenas.

JMU students met with Dominican peers at Universidad Iberoamericana (UNIBE) in-person after collaborating virtually throughout the semester.

Because the trip was an extension of a semester-long course, students interacted with Dominican university students and completed a project virtually prior to departure, then united with their Dominican classmates during spring break.

With the rise of volunteer tourism, Wang believes these connections bring authenticity to the experience. “Part of the service that we do here, more than the actual building or service itself, is how we are learning about the Dominican culture of the people in society through this process,” Wang said.

For Shukrulla, it was a week of pushing boundaries. “It's so incredible that you get to see what you are capable of,” she said. “We get so caught up in our lives, and studying abroad forces you to live in the moment. It's a great chance to feel grounded again.”

Mooney and Wang treasure the enjoyment and self-discovery that students gained from the trip.

“It’s great to see students excited. That’s fun,” Mooney said. “That’s why I’m doing what we do.” 

Photographer/videographer Steve Aderton (’19) poses with students and faculty members who participated in the Dominican Republic trip.

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Published: Monday, May 1, 2023

Last Updated: Wednesday, November 1, 2023

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