Service learning in Puerto Rico packs lifelong lessons


In late March, thirty-one students led by seven faculty members traveled to Puerto Rico for a service learning trip, the third one since 2016. Previous trips were designed as agriculture tours that focused on tropical sustainability and food security—but this trip was different.

In the wake of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, a one-two punch that ravaged the island last fall, program organizers saw an opportunity to help affected communities, and in doing so, to deliver an unforgettable experience to OSU students who participated.

Katie Gaebel, lead organizer of the trip, teamed up with faculty members from the colleges of engineering, education, and science to maximize the relief effort and add an interdisciplinary scope to the students’ experience. Faculty and students worked with contacts in Puerto Rico to develop projects that would benefit the community.

Their destination was the Segunda Unidad Bernaldo Mendez Jimenez school in the town of San Sebastian, which sits in the foothills of La Cordillera Central mountains (the Central Range) and could be considered the edge of accessibility. Towns beyond that point are virtually unreachable because of storm damage.



By all accounts, descriptions of the aftermath paint a sobering image: Downed power lines draped across roads, trees toppled like matchsticks, entire hillsides crumbled into the river valley.

Water and electricity are still spotty on the island, and a mass exodus of residents leaves more areas abandoned every day. It is estimated that up to 25% of the population has fled the island.

But the residents who remain, do so with two words in mind: Se Levante. “Get up.” 

The spirit of the island had an enormous impact on OSU students who visited. “They experienced this huge tragedy, but everyone was still so optimistic. They didn’t dwell on the things they lost; they focused on the things they had, on rebuilding. And everyone we met was so welcoming,” said Taylor Betz, a sophomore in Agricultural Business Management.

Taylor, along with fellow Ag Business Management major Ashley Devery and Ag Sciences major Trinity Shodin, worked with Oregon Ag in the Classroom Foundation to develop agriculture curriculum kits for 7th and 8th grade students. The kits included gloves, tools, seeds, and ready-made lesson plans in both English and Spanish—and they couldn’t have come at a better time.

In K-12, agricultural education and FFA in Puerto Rico have zero funding and no standard curriculum, and the entire agricultural industry was decimated in the storm. The island currently relies on 100% imported agricultural commodities. Noellia Rivera Denizard, the teacher and primary contact at Jimenez School, helped OSU faculty and students gain an understanding of the school and community’s needs. The lessons focused on three key areas: beneficial insects, composting, and bees.

They created a “decay buffet” which asked the kids to separate various items like egg shells, coffee grounds, and potato skins into separate bags. The children made hypotheses about decomposition rates in their Ag Journals, and then recorded their observations, learning the nuances of natural decay while practicing the scientific method. Many of the materials were gathered from local restaurants, giving AgSci students a firsthand lesson in real-world resourcefulness.



 “I didn’t realize how tough education was there, and how that impacts families and communities,” said Trinity Shodin. “I learned that you have to utilize your resources and be flexible. You won’t always have everything you need.”

Many of the projects that were planned had to be adapted to meet the changing needs of the school. Flying pollinator populations were wiped out by the storms, so lessons were modified to focus more on bees. Wilco donated a bee box and OSU students helped set it up at the school. The other main issue was composting, so students and faculty refashioned concrete pig pens that were destroyed in the storm into a composting center.

Craig Arnold, an online Agricultural Sciences major and military veteran, traveled from Maine to meet the group in Puerto Rico. Craig brought a host of valuable skills, and helped transform the pig pens into compost stalls. He also took the initiative to fix the plumbing for irrigation hoses running to the garden, so that the children no longer have to carry buckets of water.

OSU students were placed into multidisciplinary groups for the projects, but there was a lot of crossover between groups and projects after work began. “Everybody helped everywhere. On the last day, we repaired the cistern—it was nobody’s initial project, but we had this attitude like ‘we have the bodies, let’s get it done’,” said Trinity Shodin.


Students were able to see problem-solving through different perspectives beyond their majors.

The cistern she’s referring to is ten feet deep. OSU students climbed inside and scrubbed the concrete walls until it was clean, and then helped construct a new cover for it.

Kate Field, professor of microbiology and director of AgSci’s BioResource Research program, led a water testing project in which OSU students taught the kids to test water using sampling kits. They also brought along 50 water filters purchased from Waves for Water, a total cost of $2000, which were donated to the community after the trip. 

Wanda Crannell, academic program coordinator and advisor for the BioResource Research program, led an effort to remove debris from land clearings and plant twelve native trees. After leaving, local residents picked up where the OSU group left off, clearing more land, tilling the soil, and planting seeds.

Shawn and Susan Rowe joined the trip from the College of Education to create recycling cirriculum, and together they led the effort to create the composting bins, as well as raised garden beds. This effort was crucial, considering that only 5 of Puerto Rico's 75 landfills are currently operational, deepening the garbage crisis on the island.    

Another major project was a mural on the side of the school building. OSU students and the kids painted a “Grown in Puerto Rico” map, which displays crop regions on the island and was inspired the by the "Grown in Oregon" map produced by Oregon Ag in the Classroom Foundation (pictured below).

Funding for the trip came from various sources, including college and program donations and a USDA Multicultural Scholars Grant. Many students with AgSci majors and minors received generous funding from ER Jackman Friends & Alumni and the Global Experiences Fund.

The interdisciplinary approach to the trip enhanced the resourcefulness aspect, and the community aspect as well. “Students were able to see problem-solving through different perspectives beyond their majors. Also, on previous trips we travelled the island, but for this trip, we mostly stayed in one area, which gave the students a deep sense of family and community,” said Gaebel, who is the Director of Strategic Initiatives at the Career Development Center. 


Much of that sense of community came from close local ties. Ingrid Arocho, a professor in the School of Civil & Construction Engineering, and her husband Alexis Adames are both from San Sebastian. Ingrid led several projects at the school, including building a sidewalk, repairing a roof, and creating a cover for the cistern out of materials found on site. Alexis was instrumental in gathering materials for the projects, and they both helped facilitate communications and logistics. On the final day of the trip, Alexis’ parents invited the entire OSU group to their house for dinner.

The group also visited the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez and an experiment station, where students found that years-long experiments and research had been destroyed. "The labs at the station were missing ceiling tiles, and mudlines marked the walls," said Johannah Hamilton, a PhD student in public policy with a focus on rural agricultural policy. 

Johannah is fluent in Spanish and was one of several student translators on the trip. Undergraduate students Jasmin Huila, Cecilia Morales Barajas, and Metzin Rodriguez Cardoso also translated, and helped the OSU group work through the language barrier.  Johannah was amazed by the spirit of the Puerto Rican people, but reported that many of her University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez student counterparts felt marginalized by the leftover destruction. "No where else in the U.S. would things be left this way," she said. 

After the OSU group returned home, they learned that 300 schools will be closing across the island. The Jimenez school will remain open, but will absorb 30-40% more students on a budget that is already grossly underfunded. 

“I’m hoping our presence shows the importance of ag programs to policymakers. I really learned the importance of agricultural education that responds to the needs of the community,” said Ashley Devery, echoing the core mission of land grant universities.  

The agriculture curriculum from the OSU group had a farther reaching impact than the Jimenez school. Edly Santiago, who runs the Ag Ed program at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez, led an effort to distribute the kits across the island—including to schools in unreachable areas. Word quickly spread about the work being done.

“Other teachers in the area caught wind of what we were doing and invited OSU to visit their schools in the future,” said Katie Gaebel.

Some of those schools may be closing, but Gaebel is returning in August to continue efforts toward building relationships. She is working with the Ag Ed Teacher's Association to develop continuing education credits for ag teachers, and hopes to keep the connection between agriculture and engineering moving forward. 

Another interdisciplinary trip is being planned for December, which will aim curriculum and projects at poultry and organic planting. They hope to build chicken coups that will withstand hurricanes, and develop lessons that teach the basics of organics and small garden farming.


- Ben Davis

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