John Giannantonio and Ekow Edzie have spent the last two years building a new and innovative model for service learning at EF. They’ve worked directly with local grassroots organizations in the Dominican Republic, resulting in a growing collection of service programs that are diversified and—more importantly—as effective and sustainable as possible. We interviewed them to find out exactly how they became involved with service in the first place, and what makes them the best team in this budding industry.
How would you describe what you do now that the local partnerships have started to take off?
JG: Lately I’ve been working to make sure the schools and the local organizations we work with understand what each other is doing. I do a lot of speaking, presenting at conferences—just trying to get the word out on service. Ekow here does a lot of work with our new partnerships.
EE: I work on the ground with EF’s local partner organizations to decide on appropriate service projects based on whatever the American students are studying. If there’s a particular interest that a teacher has, for example, I’ll work with the local organization to explore the concept as best we can. Once they arrive, I’ll be on the ground to implement it—even if the reality ends up being a little more complicated than we’d thought.
What makes the programs you’ve both been developing different from other service learning opportunities?
JG: I used to work as the manager of global finance for a major service learning provider. I’d work with program managers from around the world to create different itineraries, so I got to see all the different sides of the business. I noticed that they didn’t always partner with nonprofits or local contacts. A big
differentiator for us is that we always have a community partner, so the work that gets done is exactly what the community wants our help with. They also didn’t have any kind of curriculum preparation with schools before the trip, very little global connection exercises, and there was nothing post-program,
which are all very important to us.
Is there anything that makes the DR a particularly good place to do service work?
EE: The DR is very connected to the United States, both politically and culturally. Part of that history has been tenuous at times, mostly the US occupation in the mid-’60s, which was unfortunate. But today, most Dominican families have at least one family member who is living in the US. People in the DR want to get to know you—they want to speak English, they want to know what’s going on in the US.
JG: It’s also very topographically and culturally diverse. I mean, you’ve got the absolute lowest and highest points in the Caribbean on the same island. You’ve got Lago Enriquillo, a big salt lake with crocodiles and diverse species, and then you’ve got Pico Duarte, which is over 10,000 feet. That’s actually the highest peak east of the Mississippi in our hemisphere. Because of the starkly different topography, you’ve got very different cultures that form. Different accents, types of food, and customs. It’s a welcoming place that provides the opportunity to do good work.
EE: It’s definitely a welcoming and loving place, which I think has a lot to do with the nature of Latin culture in general. If you show up unannounced to someone’s house in the DR, they’re happy to see you. Everyone keeps coffee and biscuits in the cabinets just in case, they’ll try to get you to stay for lunch,
then afterwards a game of dominoes, and some coffee, and then rum—and the next thing you know you’re sleeping over! On the other hand, lots of places in the Caribbean are well-known for being
more laid back, but it’s actually less like that in the DR. Everyone is very focused and a little conservative, and it shows in their work ethic, culture and language.
Can you tell us about a time where you saw a noticeable change in someone who went on a service program?
JG I visited a group in Ohio that I’d never met before to talk about their upcoming trip. So I’m going through the logistics of the trip, and I noticed they’re all wearing the same T-shirts. On the back it read, “Be a traveler, not a tourist.” And I thought, “Well that’s funny … I talk about that all the time in the DR.” I asked about it, and apparently a group from California who had already traveled with us gave a presentation at a conference this group from Ohio had attended. During the presentation they said that quote was one of the most important takeaways for them.