Fellow Friday - Amy VanderStoep

Hope College Alumna Amy VanderStoep is FIMRC's newest Fellow at Project Restauración. Below, you will find her top nine lessons she's learned in her first month in the Dominican Republic!

After spending four years studying biology and chemistry at the college level, I thought I knew what it was like to be inundated with an overload of information and tasks. After my first month as a FIMRC intern in the Dominican Republic, I can officially say: “boy, was I wrong!” This is not to say that being a FIMRC intern is the equivalent of studying for an organic chemistry exam while trying to simultaneously write a reflection paper for another class, because it is far more enjoyable than that! This is to say that I don’t know if I have ever gotten to learn so much in such a short time and in so many different ways! As a lover of learning, I have decided to reflect on 9 of the lessons I have learned and am learning from my many teachers here in the DR.

            So the biggest thing I am learning right now is Spanish… excuse me, the biggest thing I am learning right now is Dominican. I have come to learn Dominican Spanish is distinct from Spanish spoken in other countries. I think that even if I had had a Spanish background (which I don’t), there would still be so many cultural and dialectical differences to pick up on. However, since my 5 years of German only provided me with a basic understanding of tenses, gendered nouns, and the process of conjugating verbs, I have a whole lot more to learn. Having other FIMRC staff around, both the bilingual and the Spanish-speaking-only types, has been extremely helpful. There are also a handful of community members who are good at picking up what I am trying to say and then telling me how I probably should have said it. While this can be frustrating and result in being giggled at by a lot of the native speakers, it’s the best way to learn. Before I left for the DR, I met with Meredith and Abi to discuss the upcoming trip. They asked me what I was most nervous about. I replied that the language barrier and having to learn Spanish so quickly was making me nervous. They said the best way to combat this problem was, in the words of a past intern, to put yourself out there (PYOT)! After my first month, I couldn’t agree more! When I don’t try and make the choppy, broken sentences that I think get my point across, I don’t learn.

            That being said, I have also learned the value of non-verbal communication. This has been a lesson in two ways: through communicating with the deaf community and through communicating when no one else around me speaks English. Most of the deaf community in Restauración does not know international sign language but there is a form of “sign language” that people use around here to communicate. It’s fairly easy to understand, as the hand gestures are often direct and obvious, but communicating back is often a struggle. I do my best to indicate what I want to say but who knows if they are interpreting it the way I intend. It has really made me appreciate communication, even if language is a barrier. Surprisingly, I tend to use similar hand signals when trying to communicate with people in Spanish. I use the words that I know but if I am unsure of a phrase or want to make sure I’m being clear, the hand gestures come out! My host parents think it’s hilarious. If I don’t know how to say, “move it over”, for example, I just pick up the invisible object with my hand and move it over. My host parents will laugh and nod but then they will teach me how to say what I want to convey.

            Something else I have been learning is conservation! I never really perceived myself as wasteful before but conservation takes on a whole new meaning when overuse of water or electricity can result in running out of said resource. In the United States, a long shower means your shower gets cold. Here, a long shower is one step closer to not having water at all. The same goes for electricity. When there is no street power, conserving inversor electricity means having light for a little while longer.

            Another really important lesson is learning how to be an intern! Having to define intern is a challenge in and of itself! What are my responsibilities? Expectations? Tasks? Needs? I wasn’t sure at first. Luckily, I have had the privilege of overlapping with another intern, Rachael, who was key in helping me figure these out. FIMRC, as it turns out, is amazing at giving their interns appropriate amounts of support and responsibility. I feel comfortable talking with Rachael as well as Diana and Gina as coworkers, bouncing ideas and questions off of them in order to create programs and projects to the best of our abilities. I have incredibly flexibility to explore the community and its needs to find an area that I am interested in and I am given adequate support to do so.

            As someone who is interested in medicine, I’m happy to say that I am also learning a lot about health and how it interacts with other community factors. I have had the opportunity to shadow physicians in hospitals and clinics, as well as watching them interact with others in a health education setting. While it has been difficult, as my Spanish slowly increases, to understand a lot of what is going on, there is a lot that you can witness apart from what is said. For example, I am learning a lot about what it means to interact well with patients. There are physicians who do and there are physicians who don’t. Although the practice of medicine may differ from country to country, I would like to believe that the capacity to truly care for people exists in all places. I think that witnessing different ways in which physicians and patients interact, really helps people form a concept of the physician or health employee that they want to be. This is incredibly important, moving forward.

            Lesson number five is the lesson of joy! This is the lesson I have been learning from the children here in Restauración. Joy doesn’t come from having “things”; it comes from spending time with people you care about doing things that you love. You don’t need expensive toys or electronics to have joy. All you need is a dirty tennis ball and some friends. Rachael and I spent a good chunk of time running around on the construction site (that is going to become the baseball field) with some of the local children, playing pickle. I left with my tee shirt soaked in sweat, my arms and legs covered in dust and dirt, and my face smeared with a huge smile!

            Moving on, I am also learning independence while living in a different country. Although I have the support of FIMRC, they are not my parents. I am moving beyond the “living alone” of college to “living alone” on a global scale. I am in charge of myself physically, emotionally, socially, culturally, etc. I have the responsibility to hold myself to my own (and FIMRC’s own) standards.

            I have also learned a lot about privilege. This has also happened in a few different ways. The first, most obvious way was in seeing the difference in lifestyle and opportunity between Restauración and most of the places I’ve been in the United States. Me, and most of the people who I know, have been so privileged to grow up in a location where we have simple things like access to water, electricity, a free and quality education, etc. Living in such places also opens up so many other opportunities like going to college or finding a good job or buying a nice home. But what I have also learned is the difficulty in recognizing privilege and the difficulty in talking about it. In learning about the many gender and racial issues present here on the frontera (border with Haiti), I have read many articles about what it means to be privileged in the DR and in general and I have witnessed, first hand, the presence of these privileges. Just the other day, on the bus from Restauración to Dajabón, a woman was kicked off of the bus because she didn’t have her papers and didn’t want to (or couldn’t) pay the bribe necessary to stay on. I asked one of my Dominican friends what was going on and he explained the papers situation. My question for him was: why her? I wasn’t traveling with all of my identification and I bet not everyone on the bus had all of their papers with them. He seemed to acknowledge the discrimination but refused to acknowledge how a group discriminated against meant a group privileged. It’s easy to do this.

We can sympathize with disadvantaged groups without acknowledging our own advantage. A few readings I would recommend to anyone, whether you feel you are privileged or not, are: “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh and “Product Review: The Invisible Backpack of White Privilege From L.L. Bean” by Joyce Miller. Both of these are based on racial privilege but the concepts can be applied elsewhere. And I’m sure there is a lot more out there, but these are two I have read while here.

            Finally, on a bit of a lighter note: possibly most important lesson I am learning is the art of the finger wag. No “no” is final in the Dominican Republic, whether it is to a vendor or a man catcalling from a moto, until the finger wag comes out. That tends to solidify the message and has saved me a lot of struggles. Before, my “no” meant “please bother me until you get bored”. Now, my “no” with my finger wag actually means “no”. Victory!

            While I know that there is so much more I am learning, this is a glimpse into that education. All of this is to say that my time in Restauración thus far has been full of so much joy and wonderful experiences and that I am so excited for it to continue over these next months!