Student volunteers gain global perspective

University Housing gave students a spring break alternative. Seven students and two advisors from Temple spent their spring break in Gandoca, Costa Rica, serving the local community while gaining cultural awareness. The vision of the

University Housing gave students a spring break alternative.

Seven students and two advisors from Temple spent their spring break in Gandoca, Costa Rica, serving the local community while gaining cultural awareness.

The vision of the University Housing and Residential Life program, “Upper Class Experience Alternative Break 2011” was to actively engage upperclassmen residential students at Temple in experiences that would foster global and cultural awareness and understanding through learning, service and reflection.

Elizabeth Spohr, the assistant director of residential life, planned and proposed the new concept last summer because she wanted to bring the resident service program to “a different level.”

“The purpose is to develop students’ sense of self awareness, their role as an agent of change and their sense of connection to the world around them,” Spohr said. “When you go to a place that doesn’t even have a pipeline to bring water, you get a different understanding of how valuable energy is and how valuable our natural resources are.”

Once the department supported the idea, an application was issued for interested students. Students who applied in November were interviewed in December, with hopes of developing a team of people with experience for the Spring 2011 trip.

The trip was open to all students who have lived in residence halls for more than one year. The first group meeting took place right before winter break and weekly two-hour meetings to discuss trip preparations occurred when everyone returned to campus in January.

A minimum of $500 for each individual was raised through personal contributions and fundraising events set up to defray the costs of the program.

The program participants partnered with the nonprofit organization including the Association of Volunteers for Service at Protected Areas, which has been doing active conservation in protected areas, beaches and communities in Costa Rica for more than 20 years.

With ASVO, the team of Temple students and advisors planned sustainable work within the Gandoca-Manzanillo Wildlife Refuge, which was founded in 1985.

The refuge is located in the tiny, isolated village of Gandoca, which is home to a small community of families and individuals on the south Caribbean side of Costa Rica.

Resident life peer mentor Jen Siebert, a senior biological anthropology major, said the people of Gandoca were “amazing.” A good amount of them spoke English, so there was hardly any language barrier, according to Siebert.

“It was a lot of physical labor going in, but everything we had to go through was completely overshadowed by how generous these people were,” Siebert said.

Between March and July, Gandoca beach is an important nesting site for leatherback turtles, the largest sea turtles in the world.

The people of Gandoca have been working to protect the endangered leatherback nesting populations in this area from poachers, who practice illegal trading of turtle eggs, meat and shells for delicacy.

The sole service aspect of this alternative break program was to help collect the turtle eggs and conserve them for the purpose of sustainability.

“Being in Gandoca, in this very small community, we observed how this whole society has based its economy and structure off of sustainability,” Siebert said.

Whether it comes to hosting community helpers, cleaning the beaches or building hatcheries, everything revolves around the turtle season,” Siebert said.

She said that Gandoca has an “unparalleled community that puts all their differences aside to work for turtle conservation.”

“The most intense aspect of the trip was actually getting to participate in the nesting of a leatherback turtle,” Spohr said.

Early one morning, while patrolling the pitch-black beach, Spohr and her group watched a 5 foot long leatherback come onto the shore and nest more than 100 eggs. After nearly a two hour-long process, people in the project took the eggs to a hatchery, where they were safely monitored.

Besides patrolling the beach at night, the team of Temple students and advisors went sightseeing and hiking, to the national park, and helped clean the beach of debris, tree trunks, wood and driftwood from the nearby jungle.

Two families in Costa Rica hosted the Temple students and advisors, providing home-cooked, meals every day.

Sophomore marketing major Thomas Morales boasted about the great food his host family, who own a restaurant in Costa Rica, cooked. Rice and beans, chicken, pasta and other dishes were prepared, along with fresh juice every day.

Morales said he enjoyed the “good times, good food and wonderful people,” while on the alternative spring break trip.

During this trip, Siebert said her whole sense of community was re-defined.

“My goal is to go back there and establish some type of health care [center] for these very isolated people who don’t have access to [one],” Siebert said. “That’s something I never would have thought about if I wouldn’t have gone out on this experience.”

Spohr hopes to continue bringing students to this location in the future.

“These opportunities are just absolutely invaluable to our students,” she said.

Lauren Hertzler can be reached at

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