We had just left the local hospital in Jarabacoa, Dominican Republic, where we displayed an automated surgical warming mattress that had taken a year to develop. The hospital we were addressing was in a dire situation. Lack of air conditioning, supplies and personnel only encompassed the surface of the problems facing the hospital. That being said, we were quite relieved that our community partners had given us their time and further recommendations for our project. The project, which was to create an automated temperature regulator to prevent perioperative hypothermia in the surgical setting, now definitely had the feedback and push it needed for the next year. However, as part of the Michigan Health Engineered for All Lives team PeriOperative, our contribution to the community we are serving is not only technical; it is also cultural. So after speaking with our anesthesiologist contacts and talking over our device’s function, application and usability, we headed to a nearby elementary school to teach English lessons.
Now I know what you’re thinking. After all, how are a bunch of engineers supposed to teach English? Even worse was the fact that none of us (seven total) knew how to actually speak Spanish. As we neared the school, we witnessed a scene quite different from our perceptions. Barbed wire was layered on top of the fences, and the school seemed to be an assortment of classes with doors leading straight outside. When we entered the school gates, we were escorted to the headmaster’s office and from there we were directed to a couple of nearby classes.
Prior to entering the classes, our group stopped to discuss “the plan.” Truthfully, we had none. We had brought some basic instructional materials but nothing substantial. Also, our mindset was definitely not in the right place. We had just come from hours of discussing a feedback control system. None of that was going to help here. In addition, the environment was different from what we were used to. The openness, heat and lack of linguistic awareness was a step outside the comfort zone. A bit anxious, we split into groups and entered into a third-grade class.
The first surprise was the discipline. The children, no more than eight or nine years old, were extremely quiet. The teacher standing in the front of the class sat down and allowed us to take over. I tried introducing myself in Spanish using a translation in a lesson book, but the children laughed pretty hard when I said it, so I’m quite sure the message didn’t go through right. After all, when I was in high school, my teacher obviously knew English. Imagine teaching a language to someone whose language you can’t speak. That’s the situation we were in.
Eventually, I just pointed to myself and said my name and the message was received. Then, I saw a world map and pointed from myself to Michigan. At this point, the students were quite amused, so we just went on with the lesson. A rough start for sure.
It slowly got better, and throughout the lesson, I learned two things. One, always be positive, even if you have no idea what you are doing. By remaining enthusiastic, the students’ involvement grew, and I actually found myself having fun despite my pathetic attempts at Spanish. And two, be simple. This is an engineering concept: Never make things more complicated than they have to be. We started with pointing at colors on the walls and naming them. We then moved to shapes, drawing and naming them individually, and eventually to the alphabet. Using basic hand motions and identifiable images, we taught the children some basic English words in a couple of hours.
Though I was the person teaching, it was just as much of a learning experience for me as it was for the children. I most definitely gained insight into some interesting aspects of Dominican culture. In an attempt to get my attention, one of the students referred me as “Indio” and another instructor in my group as “Chino.” At first, I was quite taken aback. After all, calling someone out by their race so directly is definitely not tolerated in the United States, especially in an educational environment. But in the Dominican Republic, such a gesture is simply a friendly way of calling someone over. There was nothing derogatory about this identifier; it is simply the way it is. However, it was definitely a shock.
After spending another week at the hospital continuing our project, we returned and taught with better knowledge of the community, culture and expectations. The students were delighted to have us again, and I can easily say that teaching English ended up as one of the highlights of the trip. To conclude, I say this to all students who wish to go abroad, for any reason: immerse yourself. Even if you don’t know the language, learning the host culture is exhilarating, and coming out of your comfort zone is of utmost importance.