J-term trip exposes students to Romanian culture

HUNTINGTON, Ind. - Gypsies, language barriers and "World Cup" soccer.

After spending three weeks in the Romanian culture over the January term, 11 Huntington University students came back to the states with plenty of stories to share and memories they will always look back on with a smile.

These 11 students experienced "hands-on" learning opportunities geared toward social and human development in the culturally diverse setting of Sighisoara, Romania. Through a collaborative effort with "Veritas," a Romanian social service agency, the students lived and served in the neighborhood and learned new creative solutions in building sustainable communities.

"I was introduced to the social work director who developed 'Veritas' approximately 15 years ago," said Carla MacDonald, director of social work field education at Huntington University. "The agency employs Romanians, but also uses the services of U.S. college students who regularly, throughout the year, travel to Romania to volunteer their work. Romania is still recovering from the longer term negative effects of communism even though the revolution occurred over 21 years ago."

During the trip, the HU students spent time with kindergarteners, played soccer with Romanian teenagers, visited a few elderly homes and immersed themselves in the culture by living with Romanian host families.

"I decided to go on the trip because it sounded like a good opportunity to serve people," said Kieran Jackson, a senior psychology major with a sociology minor from Centerville, Pa. "I was told by one of the staff members that not many of the kids they have coming to their programs have father figures in their lives."

Jackson even had the chance to share his life story and faith with those he met during the trip. He hopes he said something that might have caused others to think about their own life with a different perspective.

"My experience with the kindergartners meant the most to me," Jackson said. "They reminded me how important a father figure can be in a boy's life."

Katie Fager, a junior social work major with a psychology and non-western minor from Houston, Texas, wanted to go on this trip to clarify some eastern European stigmatisms as well as challenging herself to step outside of her comfort zone. But Fager's beginning of the trip did not go so well after losing her luggage in Paris.

"I did not sleep much the first night," Fager said. "There was a whole lot of awkward going on. My host mom offered me her pajamas, since mine were lost with the rest of my luggage."

The Veritas agency asked Jackson, Fager and the rest of their traveling companions if they would be willing to be interviewed by the children attending Veritas's programs. Veritas hoped to begin a new program called "Changed Lives."

"The children asked us what we do in order to live out our dreams," Fager said. "The gypsies did not think they could change, but dreaming big does not mean you change the entire world. The gypsies I met made traditional gypsy costumes, dolls and bags in order to give themselves a source of income and build a sense of community."

Even though she only lived in the culture for a few weeks, Fager hopes to return to Romania again next J-term.

"I learned how every single person, whether they are American or Romanian, is created in the image of God," Fager said. "With mission trips, you just give constantly."