Students traveling to El Salvador on a service-learning trip experienced an outflowing of love from the Salvadoran people whom they met, but they also saw the vestiges of the hate that had plunged the Central American nation into civil war during the 1980s.

In the seventh annual Suffolk University Alternative Winter Break journey to El Salvador, students, faculty and staff followed in the footsteps of the late Congressman Joseph “Joe” Moakley, who had led a U.S. investigation into a military assassination of Suffolk University studetns at work buiding a home through the Habitat for Humanity progra. Photo by Elise Corrinne Kapitanceksix Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter. Congress became involved because the United States had been funding military training and operations.

The students also worked on a Habitat for Humanity home-building project in the town of La Palma.

Death squads

The trip was preceded by an academic course on the history of El Salvador, where students learned, among other things, how the civil war ignited after the military shot and killed Archbishop Oscar Romero – known as the “bishop of the poor” – as he was celebrating Mass in March 1980.

“The most emotional day for me was when we went to Monsignor Romero’s house and to the church where he was murdered,” said student Caroline McHeffey.

"We promised to be human, to be brave"

As they sat in the church, each student was asked to offer a word that would describe Romero. “We said words like human’ and ‘brave,’ then we promised to be human, to be brave, like Archbishop Romero,” she said.

That day also included a visit to a military museum and to the house where the priests were murdered.

“The museum glorified the military, and some of them were involved in the massacre,” said McHeffey. “This was on the second day of the trip, and we didn’t know each other yet, but the emotion of the experience brought us together.”

The group stayed at Centro Arte para La Paz, an arts education center created by Sister Peggy O’Neill to help communities confront conflict and build a culture of peace.

Enriching the experience

Each evening, the Suffolk group would gather for a reflection on the day’s events.

"This group of students was exceptional in the way they worked and lived together and reflected on their experiences together,” said Tim Albers, assistant director of service learning and an Alternative Winter Break delegate. “Once again, the preparation each student did before going made the trip’s experiences so much more meaningful for them.”

Albers noted that the students often heard emotional and potentially disturbing testimony from people who had lived through the civil war

“The evening reflections provide a safe space to talk about what can be really uncomfortable things,” said Albers. “We all look at these experiences from our own points of view, but by talking them through, we all come out of it with a richer experience.”

“The trip opened up a totally different world to me,” said McHeffey. “I didn’t expect to fall in love with the culture. Everything is so vibrant and alive, so colorful.”

Making connections

Children of El Sitio, El Salvador. Photo by Elise Corrinne Kapitancek“This experience gave me a chance not only to become acquainted with families all over El Salvador, but also to get to know some of the members of my own community at Suffolk as we all worked, played, cried, laughed, and supported each other,” said student Jake Houle.

“It’s amazing that Suffolk does this, said McHeffey.” We saw a part of history involving the United States that students today seldom learn about. It opens your eyes to politics and the role the United States has abroad.

The annual service-learning journey is co-sponsored by the Moakley Institute at Suffolk University and the  S.O.U.L.S. Service-Learning Center.