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Kean University

Kean Students Travel the World to Give Back and Learn

Kean University students spent Spring Break traveling across the globe as part of six international Travelearn excursions, including a trip to Costa Rica to launch Kean’s new Give Back Abroad internship initiative.

Kean students built gardens and taught children English in Costa Rica; volunteered at a shelter for refugees on the U.S.-Mexico border; traveled in the steps of World War II veterans in France, Belgium and Germany; visited civil rights sites in Northern Ireland and Ireland; and learned first-hand about psychology in Spain, and global business in Greece and the Czech Republic.

“The world becomes the classroom for our students during Kean’s Travelearn programs,” said Kean President Lamont O. Repollet, Ed.D. “These transformative experiences broaden the Kean experience for students. Now, through our Give Back Abroad internship, Kean is also giving back to the world.”

A total of 113 students took Travelearn trips, earning college credits in the process. Their schedules were full of learning and museum visits but also included activities like kayaking in Costa Rica; visiting the Irish coastline; and enjoying local cuisine.

“We gave back, we took away memorable experiences, and we left behind our Kean Cougar spirit,” said Jessica Barzilay, executive director of the Center for International Studies at Kean, who led the Costa Rica trip.

In addition to building raised gardens and teaching English, students in Costa Rica set up composting systems and conducted environmental research, collecting data on dolphins, whales and bats. 

Jared van Ramshorst, Ph.D., an Assistant Professor of Global Studies in Kean’s Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, led the group to Brownsville and McAllen, Texas, on the Mexican border. Students volunteered at a shelter for refugees and asylum seekers, serving hot meals and playing tag and soccer with children; met with legal aid attorneys and Border Patrol agents; and visited the border fence.  

“Students were able to experience and witness, firsthand, ongoing issues at the border,” he said. “As you can imagine, this was a particularly impactful experience.”

Some of the Kean students are children of immigrants.

Joshua Rivera, assistant director of Kean’s Center for Veteran Student Success, traveled with a group to World War II sites from Normandy, France to Munich, Germany.

The Veterans Travelearn to Normandy, which included Kean student veterans, toured battle sites and bunkers; visited Omaha Beach, site of the D-Day landing; and learned the background of the war.

“Some places were absolutely beautiful,” Rivera said. “Then when you dig deeper into the wars and some of the things that took place there, it really puts it into perspective.”

No matter where they went, students said they came back with a new understanding of the world and themselves.

“I think I found another place of peace,” said Aneus Brown of Springfield, a junior global business major who joined the Costa Rica trip. “It allowed me to understand the world isn’t just the U.S. or New Jersey or Kean University. It’s very diverse and very different.” 

Hilda Bermejo, a junior sociology major from Passaic, and daughter of immigrant parents, was on the U.S. border trip.

“It is one thing reading about asylum-seeking families, but it is such a different feeling when you are there interacting with these families and young kids,” she said. “It is something everyone should do at least once in their lives.”

Freshman Ashley Saavedra, a criminal justice major from Elizabeth, said it was difficult to leave the refugee center after volunteering.

“One thing that kept me going was that this small moment of kindness meant the world for them,” she said. “I thought to myself that the kids would remember this moment when they get older, and I’m glad to be part of the help. From that day at the refugee center, my perspective changed.” 

Kayleigh Polidura, a senior history major from Colonia and Army National Guard member, said the Veterans trip helped her appreciate other cultures.

“As a history major, seeing how museums are set up is always fascinating, how those countries interpreted the events of World War II and chose to put them on display,” she said. “Those events happened on their streets and affected their families in many ways.”

Senior communication major Alex Salazar of Perth Amboy said his favorite part of the Costa Rica trip was teaching English to children.

“I found that I can make a difference,” he said. 

Kean’s Give Back Abroad program is also active at home. The program kicked off with a cleanup at Zimmerman Park in Union that took place before the Spring Break trip, and students are organizing a Give Back Day in April.

“Giving back isn’t just about one event,” Barzilay said. “It’s really a philosophy of life, a way of approaching your career and your work.”