When Samantha DiBiaso applied to be a student leader on VT Engage’s inaugural service immersion trip to Peru, she was taking a leap out of her comfort zone -- but that was OK.

“I’d been growing this whole time in college and I thought, ‘It’s not time for me to stop growing yet,’” said DiBiaso, of Chesapeake, Virginia, a senior double majoring in public relations and religion and culture in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences.

DiBiaso was selected for the position and ventured to Peru in May, co-leading with Martha Legg, of King George, Virginia, a junior majoring in civil engineering in the College of Engineering.

Over three weeks, the group of 11 students from a variety of majors was immersed in Peruvian culture, serving with two nonprofits and learning about Peru’s history and social issues. In the Amazon rainforest, working with the Alliance for Research and Conservation in the Amazon (ARCAmazon), the group saw firsthand the complexity of environmental conservation. They learned efforts to protect the environment often clash with communities trying to make a living off the land using environmentally damaging tactics like slash-and-burn agriculture.

On the second leg of the trip, the group headed to Cusco to visit historically and culturally significant sites, including Machu Picchu and other Incan ruins. From there, the group traveled to a remote location to serve with Llipin Yahuar, a nonprofit that focuses on empowering high Andean communities through health, education, and nutrition programs. There, the group worked alongside community members building a greenhouse and learning about issues affecting the community. During reflection sessions throughout the trip, Legg and DiBiaso helped their fellow students process their experiences, discussing the big questions they encountered during their service.

“The trip made me think about service on a deeper level,” said Legg. “It made me want to explore more – not just the social issues, but people’s stories and seeing how their stories are impacted by the issues.” 

This immersion trip is the second in VT Engage’s international portfolio. VT Engage also has an annual trip to the Dominican Republic and partners with the Community Service Alliance, a local nonprofit that has worked with Virginia Tech for a decade.

Eliza Wethey, VT Engage’s associate director for global engagement, designed the Peru program with the goal of building a similar, sustainable relationships with nonprofit partners. The trip development process includes selecting nonprofits that have worked with the community to identify projects that the volunteer groups can support. The trips are more than one-time experiences for students; they are part of intentional partnerships between VT Engage and the in-country nonprofits.

“Our trips offer students the opportunity to see what it’s like to live in another country, but more importantly, they interact with and work alongside local community members,” said Wethey. “We help our students understand that these service projects are a partnership with community, and emphasize learning on these trips as much as the service.”

To help prepare the group for the experience, participants met regularly for in-depth pre-trip meetings to discuss service in an international setting and to gain specific knowledge about Peruvian culture, social issues, and history, plus information about the program’s nonprofit partners.

Both Legg and DiBiaso said students who are considering an international experience should look into this trip, which challenged the them to push out of their comfort zones.

“If you’re scared, that’s OK,” said DiBiaso. “I was scared, and I was the leader. Without this trip, I wouldn’t have the mindset I do now – I’m more open and vocal about the things I’m passionate about.”

“It was the best and most challenging experience of my life,” said Legg. “It helped me see connections between engineering and service that I hadn’t seen before.” 

The application for the summer 2017 trip to Peru is now open. All undergraduate and graduate students are invited to apply by Dec, 1. A limited number of need-based financial awards are available. All applicants will be considered. These awards are supported by a 2015 donation from Virginia Tech alumnus Kevin Crofton, who graduated in 1982 with a B.S. in aerospace and ocean engineering.

For more information, contact Eliza Wethey at elizaw8@vt.edu or 540-231-5853. A full gallery of photos from the 2016 trip to Peru is posted on Facebook.

Written by Lindsey Gleason.

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