Dateline: Kingston, Jamaica
“The opportunity to conduct research offered me the conscious space to levitate between my understanding of privilege and the harsh reality of hitting rock bottom.”
– Paapa Kwabena Okyere
Arnold L. Mitchem Fellow
The Mitchem Fellows — Talking about Jamaica
Many visitors to Jamaica go for some beach time, but DePaul’s Center for Access and Attainment created a summer research and service experience program that enabled a group of DePaul’s Arnold L. Mitchem Fellows to learn, work and connect with the Jamaican people.
As undergraduates preparing for research careers, the Mitchem Fellows engaged with Jamaican youth at risk for being involved with violence and/or dropping out of school as the youth participated in the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica, a nongovernmental organization for social change. The Mitchem Fellows were charged with providing life-skills workshops for the youth, developing assessment tools, surveying the youth to measure the effectiveness of the workshops, and preparing academic presentations of the experience to present at a national conference at the University of California, Berkeley.
It was a life-changing experience for these DePaul students, if not for all involved. A few of the Mitchem Fellows will tell you in their own words:
If you imagine traveling to a country where you know there is a high percentage of crime, poverty, drugs and violence, wouldn't you think something has to be wrong with you for wanting to do research there? I wanted to take that risk and learn Jamaica’s story in person. Getting that one-on-one experience in Jamaica, not only with the high school students we worked with but the people in the city, is something everyone should experience. They live in a totally different world than you, but yet are just like you in many ways. This experience is, by far, not only the hardest because of its intensive research component, but an experience that has been the most rewarding to me.
Paapa Kwabena Okyere
There’s a stark difference between a study abroad program and a study of the human element. This, my friends, was the latter.
The opportunity to conduct research in Jamaica—provided by the McNair Scholars Program and the Arnold L. Mitchem Fellowship—offered me the conscious space to levitate between my understanding of privilege and the harsh reality of hitting rock bottom.
Fortunately, the visual representation of culture was not presented through the manipulated view of a detached camera lens. The sandy beaches and carefree vacation resorts along the coast of Jamaica were vividly shattered by the real stories of the beautiful people of the land.
It was the story of a young woman who mothered a child before the age of 18. The abandoned single parent struggling to keep her hopes and dreams alive, yet her every attempt to improve her life and offer a better future for her child is stifled by a lack of opportunity and resources.
Or perhaps it was the story of the young man with music genius that would rival Beethoven’s. Due to societal limitations, he dwells in the murky depths of self defeat and economic oppression. It is painful to see how societal barriers put this young man at risk of never being able to see his true talents and potential realized or fulfilled.
Maybe it was the story of Smiley, a Jet Ski owner and operator who strives daily to make ends meet by breaking water regulation laws set by a few wealthy businessmen.
It must have been the story of the street sweeper who sits outside building offices every morning offering to sweep the sidewalks for a few dollars to feed his family.
Or maybe it was the bartender who told stories of a dream deferred—her enjoyment in reading and writing were put on hold due to the lack of potential guidance and family support.
At the end of the journey, you realize the melodic repetition of these spoken stories echoing across borders and boundaries. Harsh stories echo from America, Jamaica, all the way to the continent of my birth, Africa. The poor are the poor, the rich are the rich, and everyone else sort of lingers in between the shadows.
We as a people can choose to remain between the lines, or we can make a push toward creating a different existence because the current and the past living conditions have not been working in favor of maximizing human potential.
Lessons were learned—and growth gained. What I choose to do with this experience, only time will tell.
Oh, Jamaica. Of this is the change that knowledge can bring, I want nothing more than to find it, create it and impart it.
The most valuable aspect of being part of the summer research and service experience in Jamaica was having the amazing opportunity to learn about the Jamaican culture that views time differently than we do in the United States—in which I questioned my own perspective on time. It was mind-blowing.
I was able to build and develop long-lasting relationships with the students of the National Youth Orchestra of Jamaica that motivated me to continue to advocate for at-risk youth and teach and train youth about the importance of getting an education to empower themselves and their community.
Photos by Luciano Berardi, McNair Scholars Program associate director.