September 2014, Volume 18, Number 3



The Long and Winding Road

Armed with shovels and determination, seven MDC students recently traveled to Panama to help construct a road in the impoverished community of Altos de Howard. Their service-learning project emerged from a partnership between the nonprofit organization TECHO and MDC’s Alternative Breaks Program, coordinated by the College’s Institute for Civic Engagement and Democracy.

It’s easy to take roads for granted, but they’re a lifeline in mountain areas with heavy rainfall.

“The tropical downpours in Panama turn dirt roads into dangerous mudslides,” said North Campus Professor Carola S. Pedreschi, who organized the project. “We heard stories about people breaking bones and mothers falling while carrying their babies.”

Exploring New Paths

Pedreschi and her students helped lay concrete and rebar to allow residents to travel safely. They also built connections of a different kind in their role as MDC ambassadors.

“I was so impressed by how the students interacted with the situations and viewpoints they encountered,” said Pedreschi. “They used this experience as an opportunity for self-growth.”

These interactions included a live radio interview, conversations with several dozen Panamanian students, an evening with renowned human rights attorney Dr. Miguel Antonio Bernal and a life-changing encounter with the indigenous Emberá people.

“It was fascinating to talk to the Emberá about their traditions, social norms and way of life,” said MDC student María C. Couyutas. “I respect how they’ve been able to keep their traditions and values alive.”

To reach the Emberá, students braved a boat ride through Panama’s intricate river system. The Emberá’s sustainable way of life made a lasting impression. “Their main sources of food are the river and the plants they grow,” said Couyutas. “They get all they need from the land.”

Beauty From Within

The camaraderie among the Emberá women caught the attention of MDC student Nicole Reyes-Palma: “The women were not busy caring about their appearance. There was no competition. They felt beautiful in their own skin.”

These experiences prompted students to reflect on their own values and what’s important.

“A true education involves crossing cultural barriers and having the courage to see things from different perspectives,” said Pedreschi. “MDC supports this mission by inspiring students and professors to make the world their classroom.” 

— CG

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