Island students and teacher learn summer lessons in El Salvador

The American group, along with the students' host families during the final dinner of the trip. — Photo by Gerardo Rivera

Five Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) students and Spanish teacher Cindy West left the Island on June 27 to spend three weeks in El Salvador as part of a U.S. Department of State ambassador program. Now, comfortably settled back into daily life on Martha’s Vineyard, they fondly recounted their experiences in Central America.

“It was an extraordinary trip,” Ms. West told The Times. “What the students learned about immigration, culture, and history was very impactful.”

The group participated in the El Salvador American Youth Leadership Program (AYLP), a project run in collaboration with the Amherst Institute for Training and Development (ITD), that brought together 18 Massachusetts high school students, three teachers, and an ITD staff member in order to “gain firsthand knowledge about life in El Salvador, and focus particularly on the challenges to food security and good nutrition,” according to an MVRHS newsletter.

Food insecurity has become a major issue in El Salvador as a result of high population density, deforestation, industrialization, landlessness, poverty, natural disasters, a culture of youth gangs, and a history of civil conflict, ITD’s website stated.

In El Salvador, the students met with a variety of academic experts and community leaders in order to become more exposed to the issue of food security, the newsletter said. Cultural immersion was also an emphasis of the trip, and the program sought to accomplish this by having the students interact with San Salvadoran youth, participate in homestays, travel to rural and urban communities, and attend various leadership sessions and presentations.

The U.S. Department of State selected each of the students, which included MVRHS students Nina Harris, Sarah Thomas, Sarah Felix, Lucy Ulyatt, and Danielle Hopkins. The selected applicants were sophomores or juniors, Spanish language students, dedicated to doing a follow-up project in their home communities upon the completion of the program, and, preferably, who had previously not traveled extensively outside the United States.

Two worlds

The Islanders arrived in the capital city of San Salvador on June 27 after a grueling series of flights, the first of which departed at 3:30 am. The following morning, on their way to the popular San Blas beach, the students drove by lavish housing developments on the outskirts of San Salvador and humble one-room homes in the Salvadoran countryside.

“Everyone was impressed by the extreme contrasts,” ITD Director Mark Protti, who also traveled to El Salvador, wrote on the blog.

Ms. West was equally taken aback by the economic disparities the group witnessed. “I was shocked,” she said. “The first thing we did there was go to a mall, and we could stand inside of it and see people living in tin shacks outside. There is a lot of poverty in El Salvador, and few social safety nets.”

She added that while she was concerned by the lack of social programs in the El Salvador, she was impressed by the number of NGOs in the country.

“The poverty we saw was despairing, but the NGOs are really thriving,” she said.

After arriving at the beach, students met with leaders from Surf Strong, a local organization that aids underserved youth by encouraging them to stay in school through surfing.

“There were two girls at Surf Strong that I became really close to,” Ms. Hopkins, a rising junior at MVRHS from Oak Bluffs, said in an email to The Times. “One of them gave me her earrings. These two girls were probably living in what we would consider awful conditions, and it just reflected how gracious the country was, and foreshadowed all the amazing and generous people we would meet on the trip.”

New perspectives

Over the next several days, the students rolled up their sleeves and got their hands dirty. One of the projects involved dyeing shirts with indigo in an effort to learn about the dye’s role in El Salvador’s history, and another consisted of the students planting fruit trees and vegetables at the National Agricultural School in order to experience firsthand what farming is like in El Salvador, the blog stated.

“They grow nearly anything you can imagine,” Ms. West said.

Students made multiple visits to Oportunidades, an NGO which supports education for at-risk youth. The Islanders interacted with local Salvadoran students by participating in games, discussions, and theater.

“It changed my point of view,” Ms. Felix wrote in the blog about her experiences at Oportunidades. “It changed the stereotypes I had. It made me want to come back and be part of an organization like Oportunidades.”

Ms. Thomas had similar praise for the organization. “Working at Oportunidades was an experience that I will never forget. It was amazing to be able to see how, despite our differences, we also had a lot in common, and we were all able to work together and create lasting relationships.”

Equally poignant for the students was a visit to a migrant center. There, the group learned about the thousands of families from the country who attempt to travel to the United States due to violence and poverty in El Salvador. They also encountered children who were captured traveling through Mexico and sent back to El Salvador.

“The migrant center really affected me, and I actually cried when we walked out,” Ms. Hopkins said. “Just seeing the kids that had been deported, not knowing that their parents spent so much time and effort to get to the United States just so they could have a better future, and then to have all of that work taken away from them before they even reached the border or when they did, broke my heart.”

Ms. West was impressed by the students’ reaction after they visited the migrant center. “After we went to the migrant center, we had an afternoon scheduled to go and see different things,” she said. “The students were so impacted that they asked if they could stay back after lunch and do research on immigration. They spent three to four hours after lunch researching the issue.”

What’s to come

The students’ civic engagement will continue back home in the United States. As part of the program, the students are expected to create a follow-up project in their communities.

Ms. West said that she and the five Island students have yet to decide on a project, but have agreed that they want to have an ongoing exchange with students from El Salvador. She said that they are interested in developing a Model U.N. program for some of the students they met, and are hoping that the Salvadoran students can be ready to participate in the Model U.N. Conference in New York City as soon as 2017.

Ms. West also expects changes in the AYLP program in the future. She said that this year’s program did not focus as much on food security as she anticipated, but added that the cultural experiences and education on the country’s history more than made up for the shortcomings.

“Next year, I am sure they will put more emphasis on food security,” she said.