Biology Assistant Professor Sebastian Velez runs a lab course that offers our students hands-on learning in the extreme. In the span of 10 days, they immerse themselves in the culture and ecosystem of the Dominican Republic.
“It’s really intensive,” Velez says. “It’s not a trip in which we just do a little education on the side. When students arrive at the airport, I hand them a packet of reading material and the learning starts.”
That packet—and the ones Velez hands out every evening his group is in the Dominican Republic—covers a wide range of topics related to Velez’s specialization in systematics and biogeography.
The content of these packets provides students with the background information they should know to fully appreciate what Velez says is a “model for understanding the conflict between the need to preserve one of the planet’s most pristine and diverse ecosystems, the Haitian sharecroppers struggling to survive in conditions of near slavery under Dominican landlords, and the good intentions but failed practices of well-meaning NGOs trying to both protect the environment and alleviate human suffering in the area.”
From the moment students set foot in the Dominican Republic, they learn about the border region’s ecosystem, culture, history, and people. They spend the majority of each day hiking and inspecting the island’s biota, including species of plants and animals, based on a checklist provided by Velez.
“We also interact fully with the community,” Velez adds. “We do a lot of walking through farms. We visit an island full iguanas by boat in a salt lagoon.”
The group lives in the local community as well. “We stay in a local hotel and go eat meals at the house of an experienced cook hired for the program, Ms. Lilila,” Velez explains. “She cooks for us in the field, too. All the food Lilila cooks are local dishes. Seeing where the local food comes from really opens the students’ minds.”
Velez plans to run two of these trips a year—over spring break and the break between the second summer session and fall semester. To participate, students must enroll in either BI199 or BI401—cross-listed—and attend the course portion on the WSU campus. This ensures that biology majors and non-majors alike have the opportunity to go. “We had a mix of sociology, business, criminal justice, occupational therapy, and biology majors go on the spring break trip,” he says.
Velez has been working in the border region of the Dominican Republic for many years as part of Children of the Border, a nongovernmental organization based in Pedernales, Dominican Republic. Through its extensive work with Harvard University faculty and students, the NGO has experience hosting college students. The WSU program adds an educational component to their work.
On the first trip over the 2015 spring break, Velez says that he was surprised that many of the WSU students had never traveled abroad. “Many are sons and daughters of immigrants to the U.S. They’ve heard the stories, but never experienced the culture,” he notes.
“Strangely, they can be the ones experiencing the most culture shock in the group,” Velez recalls of their stay in the Dominican Republic. “As a professor, I always want to teach to people who haven’t had that experience. When they come home, they come home changed. They can grow the most, and that is very fulfilling for me.”
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