Tales from Abroad: Jamaica

The students who participated in the Mechanical Engineering International Service Learning Experience often interacted with the children in Jamaica, despite cultural and language barriers. (credit: Courtesy of the MechE International Service Learning Trip) The students who participated in the Mechanical Engineering International Service Learning Experience often interacted with the children in Jamaica, despite cultural and language barriers. (credit: Courtesy of the MechE International Service Learning Trip)

An overseas experience is highly valued in our increasingly globalized community today. That is one of the many reasons why I pursue opportunities to go abroad. I understand that many students find it difficult to plan for a semester abroad, especially if their majors require on-campus core courses every semester. However, there are other opportunities. Last summer, for example, I had an overseas internship in Indonesia through the Freeman Indonesia Non-Profit Internship Program from the International Institute of Education. I worked with a non-profit organization in economic development and education.

Having gained a lot of invaluable experience from my first trip abroad, I continued to look for other opportunities to go overseas. A few weeks before spring break, I decided to participate in the Mechanical Engineering International Service Learning Experience to Jamaica. I had never been to Jamaica before and I did not know the conditions there at all, but that’s all part of the fun of going overseas: the excitement of exploring the unknown.

Along with a professor and a graduate student, 17 undergraduate students participated in this trip. When we first met in the Pittsburgh airport on the Wednesday night before spring break, we hardly knew each other. Yes, we might have seen each other around on campus or in class, but we had not had the chance to talk to one another. However, after spending 10 days together replacing a church’s rooftop and teaching young children about engineering, we became really close friends. Spending time overseas allows you to learn more about yourself and about the people you work with. In this way, the trip served as a platform for students to build their network among their peers.

In Jamaica, we worked in a small town called Dallas. According to the locals, it was established by the father of one of men who founded Dallas, Texas a few decades after. We are all students of Carnegie Mellon University, and we are used to working on a strict schedule — most of us have our entire days scheduled down to the hour. But in Jamaica, the locals prefer to go with the flow rather than working on a schedule. Our guide there told us a joke: “One day, a pilot called the control tower of an airport asking what time it was. The airport asked what airplane he was flying, and the pilot was confused why it would matter at all. The control tower answered: ‘If you are flying American Airlines, it is 3 p.m. If you are flying Austrian Airways it is 15:00. If you are flying Air Jamaica, it is Tuesday.’ ” It was freeing to realize that we did not have to follow a certain schedule, but we soon realized that if we did not get started on our work, we would never be able to finish our project.

Working on our project was also another challenge. Our group’s project was to replace a church roof that had been destroyed by a hurricane a few years ago. The project site was high up in the mountains, and we did not have enough tools for everyone to work effectively. We had limited electricity most of the time, so we only had limited access to power tools, like drills and circular saws. We had to do a lot of tasks manually, especially on top of the roof. To do so, we had to improvise and used our engineering knowledge to complete our projects. It was difficult to accomplish at first, but when everyone contributed different ideas, we could usually come up with a way that was relatively effective and safe to use. The locals were really eager to help — they would not think twice before climbing to the rooftop to help us. However, communication issues arose between us and misunderstandings often happened; finding a way to successfully work with the locals was therefore one of the unexpected challenges we faced.

Although English is the main language in Jamaica, the locals had a really unique accent that we found difficult to understand. What’s surprising is that it seems they did not have any problem understanding our English. The small children in the village spoke a dialect called Patois. It actually resembles a sort of Jamaican English, with a lot of slang and with the words mashed together. For instance, “move from here!” sounds more like “mofaya!” Although we had difficulties communicating with the children, it did not bother them at all; we managed to understand each other through our body language and we got along really well. It was heartbreaking to say goodbye on our last day, and we did not know what to say exactly when they asked when we would be back in Jamaica. We all knew that we might not see any of them again, but we just could not bring ourselves to say it.

The locals were often really grateful for simple things like being able to spend time with us, watching us perform in our talent show, or attending church services on Sundays. It struck me that while we were frantically chasing our dreams of success at Carnegie Mellon, they lived a “happier” life by being satisfied with what they had. I believe that this is the most important lesson that I learned from them. Even when we are busy challenging new heights in our daily lives, we should stop and reflect for a while about what we have achieved so far and be grateful for those achievements.