When 15 Southampton High School students agreed to participate in a student exchange program with a school in the Dominican Republic, they weren’t sure of what they were getting themselves into. Now, a month after their counterparts left Southampton, the students agree it was an invaluable, life-changing experience.
Ten Southampton students spent 11 days in the Dominican Republic in February, taking in the culture and environment—they explored caves and jumped off a 60-foot waterfall—and experiencing life as Dominican students. Then, a little more than a month after they returned to Southampton, they and five other students returned the favor by hosting young Dominicans in their homes and sharing eastern Long Island and New York City with them.
On May 1, when the Southampton students met to recount their experiences, they all had the same thing to say: It changed their perspective and their priorities.
“We got to see their life through their eyes,” said Lindsay Giugliano, a 14-year-old ninth-grader.
“Automatically you can see that family comes first, rather than money and friends and jobs,” added Michelle McGay, 18, a senior.
Molly Hauben, 17, said that the exchange made her realize that many people in the United States are rigid and selfish. “You can change that with a smile and a ‘hello,’” the junior suggested.
In fact, Morgan Mayer, 16, said he looks at people much differently than before the trip, and now he makes a point of being friendly and nice to complete strangers, even when it’s not required.
Morgan, a junior, also pointed out that teaching methods in the Dominican Republic are much different than what he is accustomed to. There is less focus on speaking and writing and more emphasis placed on career-oriented study, he said.
“It was a lot less organized,” junior Samantha Steck, 16, added. At Colegio Fernando Arturo de Meriño, the Dominican private school they visited, the students stay in the same classroom all day, she said, and it’s the teachers who have to shuffle around instead.
The classrooms were chaotic, with everyone talking at once, Michelle said.
The students also admitted that they were shocked by the poverty in the Dominican Republic.
“It was definitely an eye-opener and it made us grateful for what we have,” said junior Sam Malone, 17.
The Southampton students met children who didn’t even have shoes as they walked on the muddy coral floors in a Dominican national park, she said. “They were just happy to spend the day with you and happy to be in the sun.”
Hernan Cordoba, an 11th-grader, remembered hiking in the park, and carrying one of the children who opted to follow the Southampton students through the forest. Hernan, 18, said he wanted to help the impoverished children in a way other than doling out money. Money is only valuable because people make it valuable, and it’s really not, he said. What’s important is family—the family one is born into and the family one accumulates through one’s lifetime, he said.
Hernan said in addition to bonding on the trip with his fellow students, he also bonded with his teachers.
Southampton High School teachers Victor Cordova and Yolanda Johnson led the students on the trip abroad.
Besides the chance to enjoy the coffee—one of her great loves—the most enjoyable aspect of her time in the Dominican Republic was seeing her students create bonds with one another, Ms. Johnson said.
She’s taken Southampton students all over the United States, and to China as well, but she said she’s never had such a great group as the teens she took to the Dominican Republic. “These kids are exceptional. I’m almost afraid to go again,” she quipped. “My good luck might run out.”
Mr. Cordova, who also chaperoned a Southampton trip to Spain last year, said he was impressed by the parents who opened up their homes to exchange students.
Thirteen Dominican students stayed for 11 days at the beginning of April.
Samantha’s mother, Jeanne Steck, said the mixing of the cultures was phenomenal, although she also found the Southampton and Dominican students were rather similar.
The only thing she noticed was that the Dominicans were loud, but they readily admit that, she said.
The home stay went so well that the Stecks are planning to visit their guest’s family in the Dominican Republic in December, Ms. Steck added.
Jenna Halsey, a junior, hosted a 15-year-old Dominican girl named Rosalba. After participating in a home stay herself a year earlier in Spain, Jenna, 16, said she remembered how welcome the host family made her feel, so she made a point of treating Rosalba just like a sister.
Barbara and Ed Gaias said their guest, Omayra, 15, fit in with their family immediately, even calling them “Mom and Dad.”
The students and parents took their guests into Manhattan to sightsee, and, closer to home, they visited an ice skating rink and the Watermill Center, an avant-garde arts laboratory.
“We got a chance to explore part of our town that we didn’t even realize was there,” said junior Leanna Pascual, who also hosted a Dominican student.
Leanna, 16, added that hosting was a reality check for her, giving as an example an occasion when her guest asked why the lights didn’t flicker or turn off at a certain time of night. She said it made her realize that not everyone has the luxuries she is accustomed to, such as having electricity when they want it.