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New Programs Bring Students to Latin America

By Sally Jongsma

Honduras and Nicaragua are the sites for two new courses that Dordt College plans to offer this May. Dr. Socorro Woodbury will travel with students to her hometown of San Pedro Sula, Honduras, in the last half of May to offer a course for students who wish to fulfill their cross-cultural requirement by studying in another country. Dr. Duane Bajema will travel with students to Nicaragua to learn about history, culture, politics, and mission outreach in that country. This trip will also satisfy the cross-cultural requirement.

"We said when we adopted the cross-cultural requirement that the single best way for students to appreciate the diversity of the world and the people God created is to spend a semester studying in another country and culture," says Dr. Ken Bussema, the director of service learning and off-campus programs. But in reality only seventy students per year can spend a whole semester studying off-campus due to budget restraints. So, to meet the demand of students who wish to study off campus but not for the whole semester, Dordt College is offering two off-campus May courses.

San Pedro Sula is one of the Honduran cities students will visit.

San Pedro Sula is one of the Honduran cities students will visit.

Each of Woodbury's students will live with a family for the nearly three weeks spent in Honduras. They will study Spanish as well as economic, social, religious, and cultural issues of the country.

"We also want them to build relationships with people from the church," Woodbury says. The families will be from the Reformed community there, which also supports an elementary school where Dordt College will rent classroom space for the course Woodbury will teach.

"Students do not have to speak Spanish to enroll," says Woodbury. Language instruction is part of the program, and students will be paired up with native speakers to help them learn the language more easily.

"We want students to be able to see the diversity of God's creation, to get out of their comfort zone and relate to people from another culture," Woodbury says.

Although the Honduras program is open to any student, most of those who are considering enrolling this spring are Spanish majors or minors who want to expand their language skills. In some ways the course is a new version of one offered in Mexico in years past by retired professor Dallas Apol. Since the foreign language department requires Spanish majors to spend time in a Spanish-speaking country, this course provides a good opportunity for them to do so.

The Nicaragua course is also set in a Reformed community, one with which Dordt College has had a number of connections over the past several years. Several alums have taught at the Nicaraguan Christian Academy there. AMOR, a student service effort on campus, has sent work groups there for several years, and Christian Reformed World Missions and CRWRC (Christian Reformed World Relief Committee) have a strong presence there. But most important for Bajema, who will teach the course, is the strong interdenominational mission presence in the area-mission efforts that work out of very different philosophies.

Students will learn about the history, culture, and politics of the country, and they will visit and participate in the work of several agencies and community development organizations.

"Some operate only with local staff, some involve North American staff; some are word and deed ministries, some only deed. It should help students see the variety of approaches to mission work and see how organizations can work together," says Bajema.

Students will see the powerful influence the Catholic Church has on Latin American culture and in the process see how a worldview shapes a culture, Bajema adds. They'll visit places like the Farmer to Farmer Program and the Equal Exchange Fair Trade coffee organization. They'll stay at the Nehemiah Center, the headquarters for agencies associated with the Christian Reformed Church in Nicaragua.

"We believe that it works best for students to go to places where we are well connected," says Bussema. "If one of our goals is to have students connect with people, it's helpful to put them in places they can go back should they wish to," he adds.

Although many students have expressed interest in the two courses, enrollments are lower than the instructors hoped. That is largely due to cost. The three-week courses will cost students $2500, a reasonable amount for plane tickets, course credit, and all living expenses, but still a large chunk of money for students. Most similar programs at other colleges cost at least $3000.

Bussema realizes that the cost is a concern, but he says that it has not been as big a factor in other May programs. The Dutch program offered last summer, which costs about the same amount, was full and already has a list of people waiting to enroll for a year from this summer. And several Dordt College students enrolled in a program in Spain last summer. He acknowledges that many who do enroll will have to value it highly enough to sacrifice for it.

AMOR experiences and testimonies from other students are important motivators for students to consider such courses. Bussema commends Dordt College students for their heart for service. He believes that extended cultural experiences are very important. Having accompanied students to countries like Ukraine and Hungary, Bussema tells students that there is a significant difference between one-week service projects or on-campus courses and a three-week course or semester experience.

"It's hard to get students on campus far enough out of their comfort zone to have a teachable moment," he says. And service trips, while valuable, often do not accomplish this, he believes. A one-time trip spent primarily with people they're comfortable with, followed by a return to the safety of home after a few days often does not give enough opportunity for reflection and understanding about issues faced by other people in other cultures.

He hopes to continue to find ways to make the May courses accessible to even more students.