Spring Break: Broadening Horizons

During spring break, Williams students scatter to the four winds. Some train with their teams or tour with performance groups. Others pursue academic research. But for a large number of students, spring break is a time to learn about and serve in communities as diverse as New Orleans, Nicaragua, and even a Navajo reservation.

From el campo…

Williams students spent spring break working in clinics in Nicaragua.

Fifteen Williams students spent six days working directly with medical patients in clinics all over Nicaragua.

Tre’dez Colbert and Patrick Joslin, both Class of ’14, say their spring break experience will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The pair led a group of pre-med students from Williams, Smith, and Mt. Holyoke Colleges to Nicaragua, where they spent six days working directly with patients in medical clinics all over the country.

Each day the group drove to a different temporary clinic set up in a church or a school by Global Medical Training (GMT), a humanitarian organization that gives undergraduates the opportunity for hands-on medical training in the developing world. Colbert and Joslin also traveled with GMT to the Dominican Republic during spring break 2012.

Working together in small teams and with an interpreter, students met with one patient at a time, using body language as well as the spoken word to determine what was wrong. Then the students consulted with a doctor, who would agree (or disagree) with their diagnosis and help determine the best treatment.

“We saw a lot of high blood pressure,” Colbert says. “Cowboys working in el campo all day, drinking a lot of coffee, probably not drinking enough water, would come in complaining of fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath. We knew that probably meant hypertension.”

Joslin recalls a woman who came in with flu-like symptoms, her healthy daughter in tow. The team of students gave the mother a prescription and smiled at the little girl. That’s when the mother told the students that her daughter’s heart is on the right side of her body. Joslin knew situs inversus to be a condition a doctor might see once in a career, and asked if he could listen to her heartbeat. “It was incredible,” he says, “to see that her body works just fine this way.”

Both Joslin and Colbert say they are committed to working in developing nations or with patients living in poverty in the U.S. after they graduate. Adds Colbert: “It solidified my resolve to work in communities that don’t have enough resources.”

…To a reservation

Nine Williams students helped out on a Navajo reservation during spring break.

Eight students helped out in the classroom and community center on a Navajo reservation.

This was the fifth spring break Williams students spent on the Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Ariz., but the first time they volunteered at the local public schools there. Seth Tobolsky ’13 and Amanda Washington ’14—who have both spent each of their spring breaks on the reservation—led a group of nine Ephs to the region this year.

“In the past, the Williams group has gone to one of two private schools in the area,” explains Tobolsky. “In the public school system, I learned a great deal about the government’s relationship with the Navajo Nation and how underfunded schools truly suffer under legislation such as the sequester.”

The group helped out in classrooms, dug garden plots at the community center, and made connections they hope last a lifetime.

Washington—who plans to lead the trip again next year—spent mornings in a fifth-grade class at the public elementary school, helping out as a teacher’s assistant. She spent afternoons at the community center, which is open from 4 to 9:30 p.m.—“and later,” she says, “if the kids don’t have anywhere to go. There’s not much to do on the reservation, so what do teenagers get up to? The community center is a safe place, and their parents know where they are.”

The group also spent time at the Navajo Immersion School—where classes were conducted entirely in Navajo—ate traditional Navajo meals, including mutton and fried bread, and talked with high school students about the future. “The percentage of Navajo kids going on to college is low,” Washington says. “We helped in programs geared toward getting kids to think about higher education.”

Adds Tobolsky, “We helped get kids excited about learning. It’s amazing to make even a small difference in their lives.”