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APSU math students visit Jamaica for service-learning study abroad

Dr. Vogel and her students in Jamaica

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Several years ago, Cory Reeder spent a few relaxing days at an all-inclusive resort in Jamaica. He always wanted to go back and see more of the Caribbean island, so when the Austin Peay State University mathematics graduate student heard APSU was resuming its service-learning, study abroad trip to Jamaica, he signed up immediately.

Earlier this summer, Reeder once again steered his wheelchair through the Jamaican airport and into an awaiting van, but this time, he didn’t stop at a nice hotel resort. The van took him to the town of May Pen, where he and a group of APSU students spent the next few days teaching at Bustamante High School.

“When I first rolled in the door, it was an awakening,” he said. “There were no regular windows or doors, no air-conditioning.”

The two-story, concrete building was covered with graffiti, and the sweltering classrooms were littered with broken desks.

“It’s one of the poorest schools in the poorest area of Jamaica,” Dr. Jackie Vogel, APSU professor of mathematics, said. “These are the kids who score the lowest. It’s challenging, but they do so much with what little they have, it’s a miracle in action.”

In the winter of 2019-20, Vogel led the first Department of Mathematics and Statistics study abroad trip to the island nation, and the transformative experience had her eager to return with more students. But later that spring, the COVID-19 pandemic reached Clarksville, and Austin Peay suspended all international travel.

Two years later in June 2022, Vogel returned to Jamaica with a new group of students.

“As part of this program, we have Math 490H, a high-impact practices class, and you don’t have to be a math major to take that class,” Vogel said. “In it, we’re looking for a way that math relates to the real world.”

As part of that real-world component, Vogel worked with Dr. Samuel Jator, chair of the APSU Department of Mathematics and Statistics, and Dr. Marsha Lyle-Gonga, APSU political science professor and native of Jamaica, to develop the innovative study abroad program. They partnered with the nonprofit Mission 418, which is run by Jator’s former pastor.

Ebonie Simms, a teacher’s aide at Kenwood Middle School and a student in the APSU Eriksson College of Education’s Grow Your Own Program, signed up to put some stamps in her new passport book. When she arrived at Bustamante High School, she let her recent education training take over.

“It was completely different than the schools I work in,” she said, “I already work in the classroom environment, so I just did what I normally do in a classroom, asking ‘Where’s your notebook,’ and saying, ‘Let’s go,’ see how they’re working, if they understand. I was able to help, and the teacher was like, ‘OK, you teach the next sessions.’ I was like, ‘Are you sure?’ That was the first day.”

APSU mathematics major Quincy Gordon had a specific goal for her visit to the island. During the spring semester, she compared the COVID-19 infection rates in the U.S. to those in Jamaica for her senior seminar project. She planned to see the difference first-hand, so after working in the school, she visited a local nursing home.

“The nursing home we went to didn’t have any COVID cases the entire time,” she said. “That went along with what I found because they took it more seriously than we did from the get-go. Even the patients in the nursing home said they didn’t want to see family and put themselves at risk.”

APSU students Ashley Hertzka and Riley Perkins also went on the trip, and after the busy week – which did include some sightseeing and a visit to one of those all-inclusive resorts – the group returned safely to Clarksville. Vogel is already making plans for next year’s trip.

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