Lessons learned in the class Reconciliation and Conflict in Central America really hit home for a group of Suffolk students when they traveled to El Salvador and met people who had had lived through that Central American nation’s civil war.

“It’s hard to connect with the events surrounding the conflict without immersing yourself in the Salvadoran culture and learning from the people who lived through it,” said senior Thay Thao.

“Listening to what some of these people had to do was pretty sad and graphic, but it showed how resilient they were in order to survive. It was amazing to see how powerful the human spirit is when faced with extreme violence and suffering.”

Students help to build a home in El SalvadorThe students’ Alternative Winter Break service-learning experience—which also entailed a Habitat for Humanity home-building project—gave them a comprehensive understanding of Salvadoran history and culture.

Meeting survivors of war

While their semester-long Government Department class had provided the students with an understanding of the politics behind the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), they said they did not fully comprehend the events until they actually visited the places where it occurred.

They also met with people involved in the conflict and listened as they recalled the struggle between the military-led government of El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front.

Constructing a family home

When they weren't deepening their understanding of Salvadoran history, the students dug trenches, laid bricks and transported dirt as part of their home-building efforts.

“Living and working in a different culture allows you to reflect on your home culture,” said senior Morgan Byrnes. “I came away from this experience with a new level of understanding of how privileged I am as an American.

“At first I felt guilty, but by the end of the trip I realized that I should use my privilege as a tool to improve the situation surrounding various social justice issues.”

Senior Ruby Lorenzo said that the trip “was an out-of-class, life-changing experience for me because helping other people actually helped me emotionally. I left there a lot happier person after working on a project that helped somebody else.”

Commitment to service

Lorenzo and Thao, both environmental studies majors, and Byrnes, an international affairs major, plan to continue their service efforts after graduation. Thao and Byrnes aim to teach abroad, while Lorenzo plans to work in community development in an impoverished country.

“This trip brought to life the University’s commitment to community engagement and service,” said Carolina Garcia, director of the Center for Community Engagement, who was a facilitator, along with Traci Doherty, nurse practitioner in the Health & Wellness Center. “Students were able to connect with each other and experience the world through the lens of a different culture.”

This, the eighth Alternative Winter Break trip to El Salvador, was sponsored by the Center for Community Engagement, the Moakley Archive and Institute and the Government Department.