URI student Hamid Akinfolarin with students in Ghana

Sure, some students dream of a winter break on the beach, basking in the warmth and comfort of the sun. But not everyone. Many are motivated by something more meaningful. Like psychology major Yewande Mohammed, who journeyed to Africa in January with 19 fellow Africana Studies students to teach children, experience the culture and learn another language.

No, you’re not in America anymore. For many of the students who take our alternative winter break trips – which can be from one to four weeks long – it’s a first opportunity to see the world.

“Everything in Ghana is amazing, as is the experience as a whole,” Yewande said. “It really takes you out of your comfort zone. You think, ‘I’m not in America anymore.’”

No, you’re not in America anymore. For many of the students who take our alternative winter break trips – which can be from one to four weeks long – it’s a first opportunity to see the world. And it changes their point of view, said Kelly Watts, who coordinates the program for our International Education Office. “They come back a different person. Rarely is there a student who isn’t changed by the experience.”

In fact, nursing major Alexa Wilson joined her fellow nursing students on her second trip to the Dominican Republic this year, because her first visit was so inspiring. The Franklin, Mass. native volunteered at hospitals and at a school in the Haitian border town of Las Matas de Farfan where children ran shoeless in the dirt and climbed on rusted fences. While shocked by the conditions, Alexa loved helping the people. 

“You would walk down the street and it was like you were a celebrity,” she recalled for National Public Radio. “Everybody’s yelling, ‘Americanas! Americanas!’ and they were so appreciative of us . . . They felt like we cared and that was the biggest part for them.”

The service learning aspect is often the most meaningful part of the trips for students, according to Political Science Professor Maureen Moakley. Two years ago, she was leading students through Santo Domingo to learn about the Dominican Republic’s cultural and political institutions when an earthquake rocked Haiti. The itinerary she’d planned took a backseat.

“We joined the Catholic Relief effort and that was the favorite part for the students,” Professor Moakley said. As a result, all subsequent trips for this program have included community service. This year, students tutored people in a literacy program at a Haitian batey, a camp for sugarcane workers from Haiti.

Whether it’s Ghana to work with children, Dominican Republic to teach literacy, Mexico for anthropology research or Belize to practice filmography and documentary skills, students spend weeks in advance learning about their destination. As important as the community service is, experiencing a new culture and language are also big draws.

Accounting major Leyanne Oliveira speaks Portuguese and Creole in addition to English, and wanted to learn Twi. While in Ghana, she took language courses at the University of Cape Coast, where her group stayed, and was conversing with locals in Twi by then end of their 10-day stay. “It was an experience I couldn’t get from a classroom,” she said with a wide smile. “It was something that I thought would motivate me.” 

Director of Africana Studies Vanessa Quainoo led the Ghana trip along with Adjunct Professor Rev. Joseoph Quainoo, who attended the University of Cape Coast and delighted in sharing his personal knowledge of the country. In the rain forest of Kumasi, students were welcomed with dancing and a concert by Koo Nimo, a leading folk musician. Many of his songs tell traditional stories and are sung in Twi. Students explored the Cape Coast, visited traditional African marketplaces, and toured the Elmina Slave Castle, walking the grounds of one of the most important stops on the Atlantic slave trade route.

“This was a magnificent experience for me because what excites me is the broadening of our students,” Professor Quainoo said. “It happened right before my eyes and that’s what makes it so special.”

Photo above: Civil engineering major Hamid Akinfolarin greeting students at Promised Land Elementary School in Ghana

Banner photo: Education major Britanny Alejo with young learners at the literacy center in Batey Libertad, Dominican Republic.