Students Volunteering Locally & Abroad

Friends from Cantaro Azul
Lindsay with friends at a Chiapas home


Lindsay’s Experiences

Inspired by my first experience living abroad for a semester in Chile, when I graduated from UC Berkeley in May 2013, I began to seek experiences to continue to learn, work and grow in Latin America. The summer after graduating, my colleague Rebecca Peters and I won the Human Rights category for The Big Ideas@Berkeley Contest. Our project, called the Pachamama Project focused on improving access to clean water, sanitation and gender equity in Mexico and Bolivia. We executed a pilot project in collaboration with Water for People in Bolivia of a safe water treatment program from a Mexico based nonprofit called Fundación Cántaro Azul (FCA). One piece of the project was implementing FCA’s water treatment technology (referred to as the mesita azul or little blue table in English), which uses ultraviolet light to disinfect water, in 12 schools and 1 clinic in Cochabamba, Bolivia. We faced many challenges and there were many moments when Rebecca and I were confronted with evaluating our roles as development practitioners and the complications of using imported materials and confronting project delays. Ultimately, the warmth, hard work and dedication of the community members and partners with whom we worked was invaluable.

I observed and experienced first hand the challenges of the less glamorous aspects of development work and working in a different country. We saw the challenges of living in a peri-urban city with intermittent water supply where students and teachers waited for water to be delivered in trucks that sometimes did not arrive. I supported local community members engaging in the daily grunt work of scheduling meetings, hammering nails into the mesita’s table legs and twisting wires into plugs. I went to each school with partners from Save the Children and Water for People, scheduling meetings with principals, teachers and students to give demonstrations about the use and maintenance of the mesita. It was humbling to work along side the local employees from Save the Children who dedicated themselves to improving the health, opportunities and livelihoods of the children in the schools we worked. When the last presentations were given and the mesitas azules installed, the students, teachers and staff now had the tools to treat and drink clean water at school with the goal of lowering rates of diarrheal illness and improving school attendance. These experiences were invaluable because I saw there were no quick and simple solutions to development challenges and I learned to frame my contribution as one small piece in the collaborative process of change.

Mother carrying baby and water
Mother carrying baby and water

After returning to the U.S. and spending some time looking for other job opportunities, I was offered a position as an International Trip Leader in Nicaragua with Global Student Embassy (GSE), a nonprofit dedicated to sustainable agriculture and environmental education. My primary responsibilities included leading trips of university and high school students, and strengthening partnerships with local staff and community members. One of the main projects I worked on with GSE was supporting the community’s vision of planting fruit trees to improve access to healthy food. Though the elementary school possessed a large plot of land situated near many interested community members, the main problem was the lack of running water at the school. After organizing meetings with the school’s parent committee and the leaders of the water committee, we were able to create a new water connection at the school. The project culminated in a day of planting trees and laying down the water pipes with community members and student volunteers.

When I finished working in Nicaragua, I began a Fulbright Research Fellowship in Chiapas, Mexico investigating the cultural aspects of water use in rural communities with the support of the same organization I had worked with the summer before, Fundación Cántaro Azul (FCA).  I supported the implementation of safe water programs by working with FCA to prepare interactive conversations and activities to discuss water quality and the importance of water treatment. The most powerful aspect of FCA’s water treatment programs was their approach. While in many rural communities, I saw programs and expensive technologies that had been built, they did not allocate sufficient resources to be adequately managed or maintained and ultimately became obsolete. This was a contrast to the work I participated in with FCA, which placed integral importance on involving community members and collaboratively creating the resources and skills necessary for long-term sustainability. For example, I participated in the activities with the community leader representatives who were provided with additional training and resources to fix the water treatment systems and share information with other community members themselves. I  also coordinated with Compañeros en Salud (Partners in Health) on the development of a diarrhea illness prevention program by engaging in participatory observation and semi-structured interviews with community members and local staff. I stayed in two rural communities, conducting interviews about perceptions around diarrhea illness and documenting current water infrastructure and management practices. The idea behind the project was to frame recurring diarrhea as a chronic disease and engage the clinical team in providing clean water education about prevention. The long term goal of this project is to develop a community health worker model in which local members of the community are equipped to promote water-borne illness prevention practices. On a personal level, I was touched by the deep generosity and gratitude I encountered with the families I met.

Ultimately the web of these experiences is fundamental to my dreams, worldview, values, beliefs and the person I am today.

Lindsay volunteering in Chiapas

Lindsay volunteering with Cántaro Azul


Justin’s Experiences

My Service Learning Project: a life of opportunities. Service learning is usually perceived as a method of teaching/learning by which universities form partnerships with local community organizations where students can go to complete volunteer hours for class projects. It, really, is much more than that. The volunteerism not only creates subject matter for the course, it also develops the student as a professional for the world after graduation. While there might understandably exist concerns about the place of service learning in the context of some subjects like literature and writing, I would like to take a moment to point out the importance that this teaching methodology has had in my life. For me, as a student who was fortunate enough to have service learning opportunities during my years at UC Berkeley, my experiences not only resulted in useful resume fodder, they also complemented my studies and made me a better writer.

My service learning experience started in the spring of 2010 at Berkeley, in the class on advanced Spanish language writing that I took with Prof. Amelia Barili. To build our knowledge of language and culture through practice in the community, we were to require to fulfill a certain amount of volunteer hours each week for the following semester, and reflect on the connections between the class readings and our volunteering, reporting on it for a final project. We received a list of a variety of different nongovernmental organizations in the Bay Area with which we could volunteer. I decided I would join a friend in working with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant offering English tutoring services to refugees from Central America.

Nevertheless, when my professor told me that I was going to be fulfilling volunteer hours in addition to the overwhelming load of coursework that I was taking along with the class that I was giving, I felt nervous. How would I balance everything? Also, what would the work of tutoring other people look like for me as somebody who is blind?   Though I did not know it at the time, the following months of working with a Guatemalan man on his English would teach me a lot. I gained confidence in my ability as a blind person to come up with creative solutions to issues that my disability presented in communicating sometimes visual material to someone who could not read. Cutting pictures of power tools out of magazines, and labeling them in braille with the help of friends enabled me to teach that language to my student. Bringing bags of things to share also not only created a medium that was useful to both of us, but also brought English to life with real objects for my student.

My experience working with the East Bay Sanctuary Covenant as an English tutor not only gave me an increased sense of confidence, it also reinforced what I was learning in my writing class. Our conversations about the lives of first and second-generation immigrant families from Latin America came to life in the faces of the students that I was meeting with every week. I came to understand the power of biographical writing and the conversation-changing messages that it could carry.   My life of service learning did not end with the project in my Spanish writing class. In fact, volunteerism continued to be an important part of my life as I went through my college career, graduated and went on to work. Each time that I volunteered, or became involved in social justice, I learned new things about the world and myself.

When I studied abroad in Chile, I spent a semester learning about the blind community while I did an internship at a local nongovernmental organization whose purpose was to support blind Chileans in locating employment by outfitting them with necessary computer skills and connecting them with interested employers. I spent around three hours per week in the computer lab where I accompanied the two computer instructors in assisting beneficiaries to learn basic skills. My conversations with students and teachers gave me a more well-rounded concept of what it meant to have a disability in Latin America, and inspired me to write a thesis on the history of the blind in Chilean society, using primary sources from the National Library in Santiago. Also, during the internship I made friends who I still speak to today.

When I returned to the United States, I still had one semester of college to complete, and I also took advantage of that time to do a service project, promoting study abroad on campus in collaboration with the University Study Abroad Program as well as the Disabled Students Program. I spread the word about the importance of study abroad talking to people at tabling events, making announcements in classes, and at alumni events. I also worked with the campus on enhancing the participation of students with disabilities by offering suggestions for ways that programs could be more accessible and through direct outreach to the disability community. Through that work, I realized my passion for all things international, and for encouraging other people to experience them.

After I graduated from college, my volunteerism continued, and was extremely useful for keeping my resume strong while I looked for employment in the middle of an economic downturn. I organized a Spanish conversation and reading group in my local community, where I helped over 15 people improve their Spanish proficiency through reading and conversation, while enhancing their knowledge of Latin American and Iberian culture. This was my first experience organizing a group of people to come together based on a common interest.

During that time, I also volunteered with a disability rights community organization. I provided technical feedback to the local public transit agency for improving the accessibility of its online services, which ultimately led to a much more usable website for blind customers. My Spanish skills also proved to be of use in outreach to the Latino community at a health fair, where we educated people on services and supports available. This opportunity helped me to begin developing as a professional, and it eventually led to my first job in January 2014, working in the field of community organizing and policy at FREED Center for Independent Living, a nonresidential nongovernmental organization providing services to individuals with disabilities across five counties including Nevada, Yuba, Sutter, Sierra and Colusa.

The thing that I like most about my work is that I get to do community service. I have registered people to vote, organized get-out-the-vote drives, and created voter education materials including a guide on a local marijuana measure, and a question and answer to candidates on disability-related issues. I have also become involved in a national effort to reform Social Security and Medicaid programs in order to make them more amenable to individuals with severe disabilities to maintain employment while also keeping important long-term services and supports that enable a healthy and active quality of life.

While I am not working, I continue to look for ways to volunteer and grow personally. I collaborate with organizations like Mobility International USA on expanding the participation of students with disabilities in study abroad programs. Most recently, I got to speak to a convention of over 200 young people at the convention of the National Federation of the Blind about my times studying and volunteering abroad. I also maintain a personal blog where I discuss current events at

It is hard for me to imagine my post-university life being the same without the richness that service learning added to my education. I not only was given the opportunity to enhance my skills as a writer, but also to build confidence in myself as an aspiring professional in a world which continues to progressively value experience over educational attainment. I also struggle to imagine how my academic experience would have been quite the same without the community context provided by service learning.


Hannah’s experiences

I first came into contact with the intricacies of the Spanish language, in the Fall of 2011, while volunteering in Santuario (Links to an external site.)—a non-profit legal service provider for undocumented immigrants in the Bay Area. I was taking Spanish 102A Advanced Grammar and Composition, with Professor Barili, and through the service learning aspect of the course, we were given the opportunity to translate, coordinate, and help individuals who came to Santuario (Links to an external site.), and connect them to legal help and representation. It was the first time during my years at Cal that I was learning a subject, but felt like I was using all parts of my brain and heart to think and feel, in a way that they mutually enriched each other. I was using compassion, frustration, confusion, and intellect to break down and dissect literary pieces from decades before my birth as well as contemporary authors, and relating all that back and forth to/from my volunteering with real people at Santuario (Links to an external site.). 102A opened up another valve in my mind that began to witness a connection between academia and soul.

In the small office space of that NGO to which so many immigrant and refugee families go for help, my classmates and I answered phone calls, greeted new clients, and acted as interpreters on attorney/client meetings. El Santuario (Links to an external site.) offered us a look into the very real ways in which Spanish interacts with social issues, and is an integral force for changing the future for a new immigrant in the United States. I started to see firsthand how language could provide a key to previously locked doors. This experience, although I did not know it at the time, would have a large impact on where I would one day find myself as a Migration Counselor in New York City. 


Hannah 1.png Hannah2.png


 Left: The founding members of the Youth Empowerment Program, after winning The Big Ideas at UC Berkeley grant.

Right: Recycled art project created by elementary school youth at Ernest Ingold Boys & Girls Club (Links to an external site.) in honor of Martin Luther King Day.

At the time that I was taking the class, I began to piece together the beginnings of the Youth Empowerment Program, a campus-based organization that provides a network of support and hope to immigrant youth detained in Bay Area juvenile hall facilities by connecting them to Cal student role models. With the support and participation of some of my classmates, as well as Professor Barili, the organization grew to nearly twenty students who made bi-monthly visits to a detention center in Fairfield, California—just forty-five minutes north of Berkeley. Without a doubt, this was one of the most fulfilling parts of my education at UCB. Alongside these youth, we discussed community, we wrote poetry, we ate good food. We laughed. And sometimes we cried. Our car rides back to the East Bay were sometimes bursting with chatter. Sometimes our helplessness hung on our shoulders at the end of a visit, leaving us with only silence and freeway for the drive home. I began to see how the Spanish language, words leaving my mouth and mysteriously evoking emotion and understanding from others, had such a visible impact.

Just a few months later, I graduated from Cal and traveled to Viña del Mar, Chile to complete my Spanish B.A. abroad. I took classes about film and sociology, but longed for that extended kind of learning—the learning that comes with feeling the presence of others, listening to a good story about the person who is telling it, and understanding history through those who live it. I ended up volunteering at an all boys orphanage in the rural Chilean country. I met a fifteen-year-old named Alfredo who lived there. He taught me about the patience and frustration of identifying as a gay teenager in his country—how his sexual identity led to more and more doors slamming shut in his life. Nearly no high school would accept him, he struggled to safely travel on public transportation, he had no idea where he stood with his parents. We attended a Lady Gaga concert together during her first performance ever in Chile. As we left the concert, he boarded the bus as a sweaty, exhausted, fifteen-year-old boy. He was just a kid. My final essay for my film class at the Universidad of Viña del Mar (Links to an external site.) asked me to characterize my study abroad experience. I thought of themes I had learned in Professor Barili’s class—about experiences blending and sometimes helping us make sense of our position between different cultures, personalities, countries.

When I returned to the Bay Area, I took a position as an Education Director at the Treasure Island Boys & Girls Club (Links to an external site.). The position challenged me in many ways—I learned about the academic needs of a population that was geographically and economically very isolated from the rest of San Francisco. After the Clubhouse was permanently closed, I began working with youth from San Francisco’s Fillmore District. In the position, I created enriching academic programs, worked with schools to support students’ needs in the classroom, and worked with local community-based organizations to allow youth the opportunity to grow and learn alongside their neighborhoods. As an educator, I started to see more and more how learning interacted with other areas of life—how basketball could be a tool for teaching math, volunteering a tool for creative writing.

After about two years at the Boys & Girls Club, I felt ready for my life to shift again. I wanted to return to working with unaccompanied minors, as I had with the Youth Empowerment Program. Last November, I accepted a position as a Migration Counselor with Catholic Charities Community Services Archdiocese of New York (Links to an external site.). As a counselor, I work with the undocumented population in New York City. I help individuals apply for immigration relief, inform them on current policies that may be applicable to their circumstances, and help them access social services. A large portion of my work involves serving victims of domestic violence, serious crimes, persecution in their home countries, and human trafficking. Oftentimes I am brought back to my work at El Santuario (Links to an external site.), in which I remember that each person who comes through the door, every individual in need of a consultation or intake, has their own very complex and important set of needs, of expectations, of history and experiences. I am moved and intrigued by the work, and inspired by the people who face adversity with courage and authority. I am inspired and empowered by those who protect their children, are the active agent in bringing their family together, and fight for education, for opportunity, for the right to work and pay taxes.

Professor Barili’s 102A challenged me to consider and to remember that there are multiple ways of looking at complex situations and current events. I learned about expression, and the necessity to hone my use of the Spanish language to speak clearly and professionally, in order to gain conviction and sensibility in my writing. I began to see Spanish and language as an important tool that could approximate communities, and also enemies. I see how language helps people fit into laws and rules that in large part may be agreements between countries or different societies. In becoming an active learner in 102A, I was given the gift of being able to look within and identify where I stood and how I felt about everything. As my professional path continues to unfold, I plan to hold onto these lessons and insights, and continue to assess situations and stories with consideration, compassion, and intention.


Daniela’s experiences

My rich childhood has allowed me to understand better my position as a Latina immigrant. When my family emigrated from Mexico to Berkeley, California, we found families like us whose parents had barely obtained basic literacy skills. At the age of twelve, I took the initiative to volunteer as a translator for my family, friends and anyone who didn’t speak English in my community to ensure that they understood options available to them. I realized at a young age that my ability to quickly understand and relay information in both languages was critical to our day-to-day lives such as: attending court dates to prevent eviction or understanding doctors’ medical advice and prescription information. After school and during summers, I spent many afternoons attending medical and legal appointments for Latinos in my community who did not speak English. Experiencing and learning about the circumstances under which Latino families lived in the Bay Area, as well as the structural and institutional challenges we faced such as language barriers and access to resources, further deepened my interest in bilingualism and language access rights.

While at UC Berkeley, I made sure that I took advantage of the opportunities my professors provided. The Spanish Advanced Grammar and Composition course with Professor Amelia Barili gave me the tools to create strong argumentative and expository essays, while allowing us to reflect analytically on the narratives we read in class. The selected narratives helped us gain a deep understanding and appreciation of the history and culture diversity within Latin America. It also gave me the opportunity to begin to reflect on my own cultural history and identity.

Although the majority of my classes at UC Berkeley provided amazing experiences, one of the courses that most impacted my academic and personal development was Spanish 102C Biographical and Autobiographical Writing: Telling the Stories of the Undocumented. The course invited us to explore and reflect on our experiences in relation to the undocumented immigrant experience. Reading about other undocumented people’s experiences- told in their own words and by others, and analyzing studies about the situation of other undocumented youth, enabled me to see that I shared the same experiences. When the time came to write about my memories of my childhood and adolescence, I felt confident that I could use what I had learned in my previous courses to write my experiences in my native language and create a narrative that was true to my life. For the first time in my life, I was able to reflect on my own experiences from growing up undocumented, to becoming an adolescent mother and later embarking on an academic journey as an undocumented student parent. I wrote several true short stories and translated one of them to English. For me, this was a tremendous accomplishment because, although I’ve had a passion for bilingualism since early childhood, I’ve always struggled much with Spanish and English. I recall often times getting frustrated with myself because I couldn’t understand basic grammar in my native language, let alone English. Being able to create a shorty story, translate it myself and see it included in the Anthology “Historias de Indocumentados”, is extremely rewarding.

The course Spanish 102C Biographical and Autobiographical Writing: Telling the Stories of the Undocumented, not only allowed me to achieve high proficiency in understanding the contexts of the Spanish language, within the variety of cultures represented by the people from different Latino communities that seek help at the sanctuary–the NGO where I volunteered–, but also it allowed me and other undocumented students in our class to build a strong sense of community. I really appreciated that it gave me the opportunity to serve my community through volunteer work as a translator. I enjoyed my work because I used my skills to positively impact my community and others, whom are often discriminated and oppressed. It gave me comfort knowing I was helping my community. Being able to understand, speak, write and communicate effectively across languages, while obtaining critical history and cultural groundwork, has allowed me to make positive contributions to my local community and abroad.

During my last semester at Cal, I enrolled in a language course, which had a linguistic fieldwork component that required students to travel to Filomeno Mata, Veracruz, to document an endangered language among the Totonac community. While conducting our research, I learned much of the language oppression and discrimination the indigenous speaking communities encountered when they leave their villages to urban cities for employment and educational purposes. The experiences of discrimination the indigenous communities suffer reflected the experiences shared among those seeking asylum at the East Bay Sanctuary. Often times we could re-live the traumatizing experiences through their stories, as we volunteered to performed initial intakes and translated the personal statements at the East Bay Sanctuary. Understanding the discrimination our indigenous community suffered in their home country and in the U.S. motivated me to seek a deeper understanding of the indigenous communities. I attended Yale University this past summer to study Náhuatl. I plan to utilize the knowledge and skills I’ve gained while at Cal and from the Yale program to continue on a path to higher education and ultimately obtain a degree in Jurisprudence and Social Policy, emphasizing the issues of bilingualism and social policy aspects of the indigenous and Spanish speaking communities in our society.

The knowledge and wonderful experiences I’ve obtained at Cal were not just academic and community based; I was given the opportunity to share my academic space with my daughter. She attended a few classes with me, including the publishing event for the presentation of the bilingual Anthology. Being able to share this with my daughter has definitely impacted her positively; at twelve years old, she has declared herself a future Golden Bear!

Words cannot describe the impact my own achievements has had, not just on my daughter, but on my family. All these years my parents, siblings and I lived in the shadows due to fear of deportation, so we avoided talking about our undocumented experiences. Going home to my mother with the bilingual Anthology, which includes the most vivid memories I have of my journey to the United States as a child, has opened a space for my mom and siblings to share their own experiences. Having the opportunity to revisit my memories and share them with my daughter, my parents, siblings and community has given me a sense of freedom, empowerment and belonging.