When Buffalo State College junior Alex Bianchi applied to go on a service-learning trip to Puerto Rico through SUNY last spring, he didn’t think he’d be picked. After all, thousands of students had applied to go.
“I didn’t really expect a whole lot,” Bianchi, a Childhood Education with English extension major, said. “I knew there would be a lot of people applying for it. I didn’t have my hopes too high.”
After being waitlisted for the first trip, Bianchi got an e-mail in mid-June, saying he’d been accepted to participate in the program, and would be leaving just over two weeks later.
“I was about halfway up my stairs when I got the e-mail, going up to my bedroom, and I just stopped right there,” he said. “I ran and I told my dad that I had gotten it, and I texted my mom. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t expect to be able to do something like that.”
SUNY partnered with Governor Andrew Cuomo’s NY Stands with Puerto Rico Recovery and Rebuilding Initiative in providing the opportunity for students. Through the program, SUNY and CUNY students are working with non-profit organizations in aiding in the reconstruction and revitalization efforts of communities across Puerto Rico damaged by hurricanes Irma and Maria.
After an online orientation and a webinar on how to prepare and what to bring, Bianchi was on his way. He was nervous.
“I was most nervous because I didn’t know what type of work we’d be doing,” he said. “I was also nervous because it was a group of 30 people going who I had never met before and we were all going to be thrown into this together.”
Once in Puerto Rico, Bianchi noticed the disparity between some of the resorts on the island, and the homes that had been destroyed and abandoned in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
“You can tell there are a lot of differences going on between the different groups on the island,” he said.
The specific job assigned to Bianchi’s group of students involved repairing concrete roofs that had been damaged during the hurricane. Most of the work was with poor people, the elderly, or mothers with children who were on their own and unable to do the work themselves.
The work involved cleaning the roofs of debris, Bianchi said, and looking for cracks to fill in. Once that was done, the group would put down a layer of primer, followed by two layers of sealant.
“One roof took about three days to do, from start to finish,” he said.
The most manual-labor experience Bianchi had before the trip was doing “light yard work.”
“I was totally thrown into something new,” he said.
While the work was tough, Bianchi said it was important to drink water and be wary of how his body was reacting to the sun and heat.
“The toughest part was the heat itself, and knowing your limits and when you needed to step away for a moment to get a drink or just take a break,” he said. “It wasn’t back-breaking. It wasn’t as bad as I expected it might be, but it was intense at the same time.”
The residents were thankful of the work the students were doing, Bianchi said. They’d often bring the group food and beverages.
“Some of them would point out when their electricity went back on, or when they got their water back,” he said. “They knew that things were really bad, and they were thankful that we were there.”
The nearly two weeks Bianchi spent in Puerto Rico wasn’t all work. On the group’s off days, they explored the island, checking out the beach and touring the area.
“It was nice to see the other side of things,” he said. “We’re there to help out, but you get to see the beauty of the island as well, instead of only seeing what was broken and destroyed.”
The scale of the destruction from the hurricanes, nearly 10 months later, surprised Bianchi. In some places, his group was the first contact residents had with people there to help.
“It was really eye-opening,” he said. “It’s sad to see because you can tell there isn’t enough being done to help. It was a lot to take in at some points.”
Laura Hill Rao, director of Civic and Community Engagement, said that despite the application process for the program only being open for a week, dozens of Buffalo State students applied to participate.
“Buffalo State is proud to have Alex participate in the SUNY Stands with Puerto Rico program,” she said. “Hundreds of SUNY students are participating in critical reconstruction efforts throughout the summer, and the important support from UNICEF has allowed students to receive a stipend and tuition, as well as participate at next to no cost.”
Students at Buffalo State “are deeply committed to addressing issues of social justice, and leaving a lasting impact on our world,” Rao said.
Bianchi said he made friends on the trip that he will continue to stay in contact with, and would like to go back. Going forward, he wants to be an advocate for the island and the help that is still so badly needed.
“There’s just really not enough being done,” he said. “There’s not enough support being given to these people that are American citizens but don’t get the same benefits from it.”
On a personal level, Bianchi said he learned a lot about his own capabilities.
“I would have never thought that I could get up on a roof and do construction work like that because that’s not something I’ve ever done,” he said. “I learned that I have it in me to do something like that.”
Buffalo State Making a Difference
Over 2,300 students took part in 143 “community-engaged” learning courses during the 2017–2018 academic year, Rao said. Courses were taught by 70 faculty members, in collaboration with 151 community partners. That’s a 25 percent increase in students, a 27 percent increase in the number of courses, and a 20 percent increase in the number of faculty members over the previous year.
Additionally, Rao said, co-curricular community engagement expanded significantly as well, with more than 2,500 students (a 25 percent increase) participating in one of many college-organized activities including Bengals Dare to Care Day, Alternative Break, and a new student orientation community service project.
Currently, John Cabra, associate professor of creativity, is in Myanmar with a group of students, while the International PDS program has numerous experiences to Zambia, Dominican Republic, Chile, and other places, and the Anne Frank project facilitates a long-standing program for students to travel and study peace and reconciliation in Rwanda.
For more information on service-learning opportunities at Buffalo State, check out Civic and Community Engagement.
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