Study Abroad in the Dominican Republic: One Student's Perspective

Kylie-Armentha Aquino, MSW '12, spent last summer in Santiago, Dominican Republic, in an NYU Silver of Social Work global learning program focusing on health and social welfare. In the following Q&A, Aquino discusses her experience.

Q. What initially drew you to the Santiago program? What was the main factor that influenced your decision to apply?

A. Since my childhood, I have always dreamed of one day working in the Caribbean. So, when I received an email advertising the Silver School study abroad practicum in Santiago I envisioned this as a way to start building a professional network in the Dominican Republic. I imagined this opportunity would also permit me to work with the Haitian diaspora in the Dominican Republic; another lifelong dream of mine.

Q. The Dominican Republic is a popular tourist destination. What do you feel your social work training brought to the experience? How did it influence your view of the country?

A. As social workers we are always being forced to challenge our assumptions and view a situation for what it is, and not for what we would like it to be. This results in a certain conceptual plasticity that enhances our ability to objectively (to the extent possible) analyze a set of factors. Before my study abroad period, I had only visited the Dominican Republic on vacation. I resided with friends and the family of friends, but I had never actually experienced what it is like to work for survival in the context of a developing country. That being said, during my Santiago practicum I soon saw a side of the Dominican Republic I had not known. Poverty is painful, no matter how bright the sun or pristine the beaches. However, witnessing the hardships of life in the Dominican Republic did not lead me to flippantly dismiss the country as "backwards." Instead it inspired me to contemplate and analyze the plethora of national, transnational, and global factors that are at stake in the Dominican Republic.

Q. What was the most memorable part of the trip?

A. I recall one late afternoon discussion I had with some of the Haitian youth at the center where I worked regarding anti-Haitian discrimination in the Dominican Republic. They perceived me as a blan (foreigner) who lived a life of luxury. To counteract their assumptions I insistently reminded them that I am black just like they are, and that I am also of Haitian descent. Unbeknownst to them, in the United States these are not privileged identities. In my mind, I have always been a minority; largely unfavored in the American social hierarchy. Then, one of the Haitian boys said to me, "You can say you're Haitian all you want, but if la Migracion Dominicana (Immigration Services) comes up to us on the street, which one of us do you think they'll deport?" This was the first moment in my life when I realized just how much privilege and protection my American citizenship and light skin complexion afford me. A jarring moment to say the least.

Q. What were some of the assumptions you faced going in and how were they either dispelled or proved true?

A. My main assumptions were about the facility with which people live in the Dominican Republic. The bachata music and happy moments I had enjoyed with friends distorted my view of real life in the Dominican Republic. The months I spent there in the summer of 2011 served as a gradual awakening and education as to what survival entails on the western third of Hispaniola.