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    • Pre-pandemic, Hopkins regularly offered language and cultural immersion trips around the globe. In August 2019, Bennitt led students on a trip to Guatemala.

Students “Zoom” to the Dominican Republic

Megan Davis ’23 Assistant Features Editor
During the first week of March break, Hopkins students connected over Zoom with students and community members from Batey Libertad, a small area in the northwestern Valverde Province of the Dominican Republic.
Hopkins partnered with Yspaniola, a Dominican-American education nonprofit, to bring the experience to students. The purpose of the program was to both strengthen Hopkins students’ Spanish language speaking skills, and encourage learning about a different culture and way of life. The experience was designed as a Covid-friendly replacement for a March break travel experience. Hopkins Spanish teacher Susan Bennitt served as the brains behind this operation. She shares her experience with the planning process: “I’ve been leading immersion trips abroad for Hopkins for sixteen years now—it’s what I love most about my job, and not being able to travel because of Covid-19 was a crushing disappointment for me.” She continues, “One day this winter, I was sitting at the kitchen table and the idea just popped into my head—if we can’t go on the trip, why can’t the trip come to us?”

Bennitt connected with Hopkins alumnus Jon DiMaio ’05, who directed the growth of the Yspaniola University Scholarship Program and the Service-Learning Trips Program and oversaw the creation of the Learning Center and Summer Camp while serving as Executive Director. “Only days later, Jon called me to catch up. We agreed to have Hopkins participate in the modules that Yspaniola was already developing to meet the demands of a non-traveling world.”

DiMaio chimes in on his experience working with Yspaniola and how the nonprofit came to be. “I became involved with Yspaniola in 2007 when it was an undergraduate group at Yale. I traveled to Batey Libertad and became friends with young people in the community and with my fellow student travelers. We U.S. college students were so affected by the experiences our friends in the community shared with us, we decided to start a non-profit to help people in the community who were also being denied access to education and citizenship because of systemic racism.”

DiMaio’s work with Yspaniola and the Batey Libertad community made the opportunity available for Hopkins students. Bennitt explains, “Jon had been in my AP Spanish class his last year at Hopkins, and we’ve kept in touch ever since. Jon and Yspaniola, the NGO [non-governmental organization] that Jon worked with while at Yale and beyond, made it possible. His involvement in and passion for the project align[s] with Hopkins’ goals for global citizenship, so it was only natural that, eventually, we found a way to start working together.” DiMaio adds, “I want to emphasize that building Yspaniola has been a huge group effort. The work we’ve done is only possible with the support of our transnational community!”

The online program held a series of Zoom meetings in Spanish to further develop students language skills and cultural awareness, including sessions on topics such as Dominican history and culture, a presentation on Batey Libertad, the specific issues facing Dominicans of Haitian descent, and volunteer work done by Yspaniola, along with more volunteer options for students. Bennitt not only “used Spanish for the meetings,” but also “English in the conversation exchange at the end of every visit [as well as] the chat feature for translation of some of the tougher words maybe [Hopkins] students didn’t know.”

Hopkins students who participated in this virtual trip found the program to be eye-opening. Evan Migdole ’22 talks about why he chose to sign up and the benefits that came with the experience: “I wanted an opportunity to learn about and meet people from another part of the world. [It] helped me make practical use of my classroom Spanish skillsin talking with students and immersing myself in a culture I had never experienced.” In addition to the educational benefits that came out of the Zoom meetings, participants were also able to have social experiences with other teens their age. Swarna Navaratnam-Tomayko ’24 observes, “I really enjoyed talking with the students at the school. It was interesting to get to know kids our age and the ways our lives are both similar and different. Some of the students I spoke with taught me how to dance the Bachata, a traditional Dominican dance. It was a lot of fun!” She recalls, “Two of the students I spoke with taught me words used predominantly in the Dominican Republic, such as ‘pana’, meaning friend.”

Amidst a global pandemic, the virtual trip to the Dominican Republic was a modified way for the Hopkins community to be safely immersed in a new cultural experience. Bennitt welcomes newcomers who may have been hesitant to join in, “I would encourage everyone not to be shy and to come along, and hopefully, next time it will be a trip for real!”
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