English Language Institute Students Help in Puerto Rico

 Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and courtesy of Fabrisio Ochoa and Rebecca Boyle 

Saudi students at UD help build hurricane-resistant homes

What do tying and laying out rebar have to do with cross-cultural connections and leadership training? Plenty, according to Mohammed Naseeb, a 19-year-old Saudi Arabian who is studying at the University of Delaware’s English Language Institute (ELI).

He and 13 other Saudi students recently spent a week in Puerto Rico, building more hurricane-resistant houses in a community where the existing houses are highly vulnerable to storms. The students are taking part in the SABIC Foundation Year, a program that enables recent Saudi high school graduates to travel to the U.S. to improve their English and prepare to become matriculated students at UD and other universities nationwide. The SABIC Foundation Year is sponsored by SABIC, one of the world’s largest petrochemical companies. 

“You have to work as a team when you are tying rebar,” Naseeb said. “You learn how to collaborate and deal with other people. Being a leader is not something you can learn from a book or from a class.”

In 2016, Karen Asenavage, associate director of ELI, Scott Duarte, an assistant professor at ELI, and MariaJosé Riera, manager of special programs at ELI, developed the volunteer program in Puerto Rico as part of a required class and incorporated it into UD’s SABIC Foundation Year. The initiative has proven to be so successful that all SABIC programs operating in the U.S. now include a service-learning requirement.  This year’s student team was led by Duarte and Rebecca Boyle, ELI student life manager.

The program is based in Villa del Rio, a small town that’s just a short drive from San Juan but feels far removed from the posh hotels and high-end restaurants found in the capital city. Many residents of Villa del Rio don’t speak English and some houses still show damage from hurricanes Irma and Maria, which hit less than two weeks apart in 2017.

Residents of Villa del Rio worked side by side with the Saudi students to build homes for their neighbors, or in some cases, to build their own future homes. Fajr Almutairi said she was frantically checking Google Translate when she began her first work shift with a local resident who spoke only Spanish. “After a while, we realized that hand gestures went a long way in communicating with each other,” said Almutairi. “We were efficient but also were laughing and having a good time together. You don’t need a common language to bond.”

The students worked long stretches at the construction site, with free time devoted to cultural tours, beach walks, sightseeing and shopping. The time that the students spent on site in Villa del Rio was just one component of their class, “The Core Intensive Language and Culture Course in Puerto Rico.” The course included an introduction to the culture and history of the island, and what its status as a U.S. territory means to Puerto Rico. After the students returned to Newark, class exercises focused on helping them critically reflect on the project and all that they had learned.

A post-trip survey showed that an Old San Juan tour and a hike through El Yunque rain forest were well-liked activities but the single most popular activity was the construction work itself, with a whopping 92% of the students saying that they had “loved” it.   

“My favorite thing about the trip is not something we did,” said Duarte, “rather, it was witnessing the growth of these students into true global citizens. It’s watching that light bulb turn on in their minds that there is a bigger world out there and they can be part of facilitating positive change.”

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