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A School Trip Turns Into a Life Changing Event

Students and faculty from Lone Star College-Kingwood encountered poverty and graciousness in equal doses on their first-ever international service learning trip to the Philippines.

The students went to engage in intercultural exploration and global development by helping to build sustainable communities for Filipinos affected by natural disasters and other challenges. 

Dr. Cherith Letargo, Geology Professor and Dr. Brian Shmaefsky, Biology Professor and Service Learning Coordinator, led the trip.  Last year Letargo and Shmaefsky traveled to the Philippines on a Faculty International Explorations Grant to investigate a science curriculum strategy that would provide international service learning opportunities for students.

"Service learning is a teaching strategy that enhances learning by involving students in meaningful service to their schools and communities.  Students learn to apply academic skills to solving real world issues that meet the needs of those they are serving," commented Shmaefsky.

The new curriculum was developed and piloted through LSC-Kingwood's Environmental Geology honors class.  The trip was the first international service learning initiative offered in the Lone Star College System and one of the first international service learning trips by a two-year college.

‘We're proud, as a two-year college, to stand with universities and be a model for activities like this.  Our students will serve as ambassadors for the U.S." said Shmaefsky.

Four students accompanied by two professors, a librarian and a videographer visited several Gawad Kalinga villages in the Philippines.  Gawad Kalinga (GK) translates to English as "to give care."  The Gawad Kalinga model is an integrated, sustainable, and holistic program that has built over thirty thousand homes in one thousand Philippine communities and is now being replicated in Cambodia, Indonesia, and Papua New Guinea.

"This will indeed be a life-changing experience for the students as they learn to become global citizens," said Letargo.  "I am glad we are able to do this.  This is what education is about."

Each student, with direction from their professors and based on their area of study, chose an aspect of Filipino life to study while abroad.  While they each went with different goals and expectations, they all came back with the desire to change and improve what they saw.

Brian Glazier, an economics major, went to study the community's economy.  Through his research he discovered that families were spending a large portion of their incomes on electricity and water.  He found himself involved in trying to help with the logistics of getting water to the homes.  He is looking into developing a cistern and water catchment system for the villagers to use to reduce that expense.

He said, "A lot of money is spent to bring in water to the villages.  On a per family basis, it's the most expensive item in their budget.  I'm familiar with cistern systems and gravity cistern systems that don't require any electricity.  So that seemed like a good way for me to help them relieve that big cost."

As an environmental architecture major, Bethany Jordan was interested in looking at the green materials that the villagers use.  She came back with the goal of designing homes that are more environmentally sound, sustainable, and with better airflow to reduce the need for air conditioning and fans.

She's also taken on the task of finding a business or donor to supply tools to GK. 

Jordan said, "We learned so much in a week in all different subjects: biology, sociology, psychology, architecture."

Lance Massey, geology major, was interested in waste disposal practices and wastewater management.  He spent much of his time testing the water and looking for ways to improve water conditions.

"What it has done for me so far is allow me to take what I'm learning in the classroom and lab and apply it in the field," he said.  "You could do this here in the US, but the need is not here.  You have government agencies and private companies that do what I did everyday here.  Doing this work here, I know that my work will make someone's life better."

He is now working on a mechanism for water testing that the villagers can use themselves.

Casey Lawson, an education major, was pleasantly surprised by the emphasis put on education.  She discovered that the schools' curriculums were equivalent with US schools and only lacked access to basic supplies like pencils and paper.

"What they really need is supplies, writing implements and paper," she said.  Back in the states she is working on ways to get needed supplies donated and shipped to the villages.

"One thing that really struck me from this whole activity was the creativity that the students showed, the critical thinking, the problem-solving skills that they showed after the trip," said Letargo.  "They came back with projects that are going to be usable to the Filipino people."

Shmaefsky said he saw a tremendous amount of growth and maturity in each student.  "Each of the students changed dramatically.  They did not realize people could live with so little and yet be so normal. "

The trip wouldn't have been possible without the support of the Lone Star College System International Program and Services, LSC-Kingwood, Gawad Kalinga, and the Humble Kingwood Fil-Am Foundation. 

The students and staff were impressed by the work of Gawad Kalinga, Massey said, "Offering people who live in such deplorable conditions the chance to better themselves - that says a lot about the organization.  They're not there for profit; they're there to help people."

Glazier said working with GK was a great experience.  "I felt they really wanted not just our help, but our input.  It's the only program I've found that builds sustainable development for the kind of people who don't have anything, for only $200 per house."

Eddie Brega, producer for LSC-Kingwood's cable station, went along to document the trip.  He says the experience was eye-opening. "The people there really made an impression on me.  They have so little and yet seem so happy.  Their faces would light up and they were always so hospitable.  It has helped me to appreciate all that I have."

Librarian Jimmi Rushing came back wondering, "What can I do to be a better neighbor?"

What each participant seems to remember more clearly than the visions of poverty are the smiles of the Filipino people. 

Glazier describes the Filipino people as friendly, outgoing, open, and always smiling.  He says, "It makes you appreciate what you've got.  I wanted to get down and dirty and help build them up."

Brega echoes those feelings, "Seeing people struggle like that really makes you want to help.  And when you realize the good that Gawad Kalinga does, it makes you wish we had something that effective here in our country."

"The people were so gracious and polite.  The things that strike you most about extreme poverty is not at first what you're seeing, how they're living and the scraps that they have built their houses with but actually how they're living, that they are living, they're going on, they're still very gracious and happy," Massey adds.

Again and again, the same sentiments are expressed by each of the participants and possibly best summed up by Lawson, when she said, "It was different than what I expected... It was life changing."  After all, that was the experience Letargo hoped for.

For general information about Lone Star College-Kingwood, call 281-312-1600 or visit Kingwood.LoneStar.edu.

Lone Star College System consists of five colleges, including Cy-Fair, Kingwood, Montgomery, North Harris, and Tomball, six centers and the Lone Star College-University Center. With 49,250 students, it is the largest college system in the Houston area, and third largest community college district in Texas. To learn more, visit LoneStar.edu.