Kaitlyn, a professional communications major at Farmingdale State College, was in Jamaica for 11 days this past January as part of SUNY Potsdam's Jamaica Field Service Project. The study abroad program sends students to the island to do volunteer work in communities, schools and care centers. Kaitlyn was placed in Fullerswood Primary School in Saint Elizabeth. It was, as the saying goes, a match made in heaven.
"If I had to describe my Jamaica trip in just one word, the word I would use is 'unforgettable'. The entire trip was incredible," said Kaitlyn. "It was truly a humbling and profound experience. I will cherish everything I learned in Jamaica forever."
Kaitlyn had always wanted to study abroad, but never found the right match. It was after her older sister, Kimberly, told Kaitlyn about her life-altering experience in Brazil that Kaitlyn ratcheted up her search. She was hooked when she learned about the Jamaica program.
"I knew I wanted to do volunteer work at schools, and the location never really mattered to me. When I found this program, I was so excited and knew it was for me."
Strangely enough, Kaitlyn's career path is not teaching; she wants to work in human resources or public relations. But growing up in a tightly knit family that taught the value of helping others, Kaitlyn's desire to do just that was a natural choice.
"I was raised to always be kind and do well for others. I've always loved the idea of volunteering and giving back. It is something I really acted upon this past year, and I do wish I did more in the past. Volunteering just makes me feel good as a person, especially when you see the impact you've made on the lives you helped out. Even if it is as simple as holding the door for a stranger, or smiling at people you walk past, just these little things can go a long way."
Wanting to work with children was also birthed at home.
"I always had a passion for working with kids, and I definitely get that from my mom. My mom has been working with children for the past 27 years. I just have the patience and ability to really connect with children. It is almost like they are drawn to me and look up to me."
The children at Fullerswood certainly were. By the end of her 11-day assignment Kaitlyn found that she had not only become attached to the children she taught in Grades 1 through 6, but that they had fallen in love with her too.
"On the first day, I remember the kids being so confused, and looking at us like we had three heads. However, by the end of the week they were attached to each of us, and were so upset to see us leave."
Kaitlyn gave heart and soul to the children, during five 40-minute sessions a day that focused on reading and reading comprehension. But intimacy with her students really took place outside the classroom, during lunch hour.
"Lunch break for them is an hour and during this hour they play outside and eat. This is where we really got to bond with the students and get to know them outside the classroom setting."
Whether in the classroom or on the playground, Kaitlyn learned more than ever that helping others can be a rewarding two-way street. She also learned a little about herself.
"They taught me way more than I ever expected. Some of them come from absolutely nothing, yet they are the happiest kids I ever met. I used to get so upset when things didn't go my way, or as planned, and these kids have eliminated that part of me. I now always try to make the best of what is, and look for ways to make someone else's day a little better, rather than just focus on myself."
So it's true that Applied Learning – in this case study abroad – can change a life for the better. Kaitlyn is more than proof of that, and needless to say, she'd do it over and over again if she could.
"I believe what you learn abroad is more than you'll ever learn in class. Learning a new culture, putting yourself out there, meeting new people who become friends, is something I am so grateful for. I am so happy I had the opportunity to study abroad."