President Nancy Oliver Gray describes her trip to Jamaica last spring when she helped celebrate Hollins’ most enduring service project.
“Hollins is here!”
A group of running and shouting children quickly surrounded our van to welcome us as we arrived last March in the town of Lucea, Jamaica, where Associate Dean of Cultural and Community Engagement Jeri Suarez and a group of Hollins students would be participating in our annual spring break cultural immersion and service-learning trip to the island nation. I was privileged to join them to mark the 25th anniversary of our special partnership with Lucea. Jeri had prepared me for the hot days, mosquito-filled nights, and cold showers I would encounter in the coming week, but I did not anticipate how profoundly I would be affected by this experience.
Three students and I stayed with a Jamaican family of four, and I was struck by how easily our students settled into their new home, establishing a relaxed rapport with our gracious hosts. The next morning as we walked through the streets of Lucea, the students interacted politely and kindly with everyone they encountered. They immediately put me at ease and gently helped me dodge cars, bicyclists, and even the occasional swinging wire from a telephone pole.
Our first day of volunteering was spent at an elementary school. Though classrooms are sparsely furnished and equipment is limited, the teachers’ commitment to learning and discipline is exemplary, and our students connected to the children with poise and confidence. Later, I watched our students conduct thoughtful, well-prepared lessons in the middle and high schools despite noisy, hot classrooms and too few teachers. Our visits to the local infirmary were even more challenging: the elderly and critically ill were placed in crowded, difficult conditions. Yet I will never forget seeing how those patients would light up as our students read and talked with them.
I was deeply moved by the testimonials and expressions of gratitude for the impact Hollins volunteers have had over the past quarter century.
Another memory I will cherish is the evening we gathered with members of the local Rotary Club, Lucea city and school officials, host families, and program founder Richard “Dick” Pyle (father of two Hollins alumnae) for the 25th anniversary celebration. I was deeply moved by the testimonials and expressions of gratitude for the impact Hollins volunteers have had over the past quarter century, and the tremendous respect Jeri and our students have for the people of Lucea. I cannot imagine a more positive intercultural exchange among partners than what we experienced that night, and I was honored to present our on-site coordinator, Beverley Lawrence, with the Hollins Medal for the amazing work she has performed since 1988 organizing projects for our students, alumnae, faculty, and staff. She has been the one constant in Lucea and the reason the program still exists and thrives.
To honor the anniversary, former participants in our program have established scholarships at the elementary and high schools. These scholarships will cover the cost of books, lunches, and uniforms for one child in the primary school and one child in the upper school. The recipients will also have the chance to work on leadership development activities with Jeri and our students when they visit. During our time in Lucea this year, Jeri and I worked closely with school administrators on the details of the scholarships, which they believe will encourage two of the best students to complete their education and aspire to more ambitious goals.
As I left Jamaica, I reflected on all I had observed—the warm, hard-working, fun-loving people I was delighted to encounter over the past several days, and our diverse group of students, who are so committed to helping others and can relate to our friends in Jamaica or their university president with equal ease.