On a brutally humid afternoon in May Pen, Jamaica, Austin Peay State University student Sara Grey went missing.
One minute, she was following Jackie Vogel, Austin Peay professor of mathematics, up a dark stairwell in one of the city’s poorest schools, and the next minute she was gone.
“I turned and said, ‘Where’s Sara?’” Vogel said.
In early January, Vogel brought a group of six Austin Peay students to Jamaica for a special service-learning, study abroad trip. Her students were there to observe and help the school’s classroom teachers, but then she found Grey inside a classroom without electricity, teaching high school-aged students about frequency tables.
“I had a bag of Jolly Ranchers, so I passed one out to each of the kids, and we used that to make a frequency table,” Grey said. “The kids were very, very engaged. They get so excited when they get finished, to raise their hand and get a red checkmark.”
This winter’s Jamaica trip marked the first time the university’s department of mathematics and statistics visited the island nation, with the department bringing students who ranged from freshmen to seniors to volunteer in the school.
“I had students in Math 1010, Math 1530 and then Math 490H, our high-impact practices class that all math majors can take,” Vogel said. “We worked with a group that was familiar with this school and knew it had need. So, we helped the teachers and took much-needed donated supplies.”
Samuel Jator, chair of the department of mathematics and statistics, developed the study abroad program with help from Marsha Lyle-Gonga, Austin Peay political science professor and native of Jamaica. They partnered with the nonprofit Mission 418, which is run by Jator’s former pastor.
Vogel and the students spent four days at Bustamante High School, assisting with math instruction and, thanks to the help of a few Austin Peay musical theatre majors, volunteering with the school’s music club.
Bustamante High School
Bustamante High School in May Pen is a two-story, concrete building with open windows and intermittent power and water failures. The classrooms are obscured by shadows and the decades-old desks are little more than splintering pieces of wood with jagged, sharp corners.
“It’s one of the poorest schools in the poorest area of Jamaica,” Vogel said. “The desks were falling apart because there’s no money to replace them.”
It was in this environment that Grey, a mathematics major with a concentration in secondary education, found herself standing before a classroom of bright, eager students. The humid air, passing through the room’s open windows, made it difficult to breathe, much less concentrate.
“I was continually blown away by the teachers’ and the students’ ability to learn or teach anything in that environment,” she said. “That anything was happening that was productive in that place was incredible. And there were a lot of notable accomplishments by students.”
Both Grey and Vogel ended up teaching several classes that week. That type of international experience will look great when Grey begins applying for a full-time teaching job, but the Austin Peay student said the experience gave her much more than a line on her resume.
“It was transformative – I feel cheesy saying that, but it changed so much of my perspective,” she said. “I think specifically for education students, I think this trip is very, very valuable because you see how difficult a learning environment can be, and despite that an incredible amount of learning can still happen. It has so little to do with the resources because they have nothing, and we have every resource you can dream of here, and they are still at or even above in some cases the level that students in the U.S. are learning.”