SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic – With a hearty laugh accompanied by a customary slap on the table, Dominican Republic President Hipólito Mejía expressed his amusement and pleasure of conversation with Adam Derstine, a Goshen College student from Harrisonburg, Va.
Mejía had asked Derstine what he was studying at college. Derstine replied “film” but quickly added “todólogo,” a colloquial expression that means “a jack of all trades.” Mejía was amused by Derstine’s response and impressed with the senior’s command of Spanish.
The occasion of this highly personal presidential meeting was an April 3 luncheon to which the Goshen College Spring Dominican Republic Study-Service Term (SST) unit had been invited after a brief meeting with President Mejía six weeks earlier. The meal began with a chicken and vegetable consommé, rolls and Dominican cassava bread. The main course included stuffed beef, Dominican rice with pigeon peas and mixed steamed vegetables. The meal ended with coconut bread pudding and Dominican coffee.
The president asked each student where they had spent their six weeks of service throughout the country, and then responded with a fact or anecdote about many of the locations. As the meal progressed, students were given the opportunity to share stories from their service assignments and general impressions of their time in the Dominican Republic. Several students rose to the challenge and spoke briefly in Spanish.
Joy Houser, a sophomore from Phoenix, Ariz., expressed her appreciation for the Dominican culture and described her service location outside of the town of Barahona in a poor neighborhood that has a large Haitian population. President Mejía was surprised to hear that she lived in such a humble location. Houser replied that she thoroughly enjoyed her time there and even learned some of the Haitian Creole language.
President Mejía was impressed to hear that international education is a requirement for students at Goshen College and that most students spend a semester abroad. He called the program an excellent experience, especially citing the value of living with local families. Such programs go a long way in promoting intercultural understanding, he noted.
When asked by a student about his life before the presidency, Mejía described growing up in a rural farming family and admitted to still being a campesino at heart. President since 2000, Mejía’s ability to relate to the common Dominican was a key to his being elected. He is known for his genuine personal warmth and strength of family relationships, evident in the time with the group.
After the meal, SST leaders Phil and Karen Rush presented the president with a small gift on behalf of the college, an oil lamp from alumni artist/potter Dick Lehman. The couple described the gift as symbolic of the lamp which is part of Goshen College’s official seal, which bears the motto “Culture for Service.” They expressed their appreciation for the honor of sharing a meal with the president.
According to the Dominican Republic’s Presidential Advisor on Children’s Affairs, Isabel Mejía de Grullón, also the president’s sister, the president meets daily with over 100 people, and for him to spend an hour with the group was quite an honor. During the meal President Mejía had mentioned to the group that the next week former President Clinton was coming to the palace to meet with him.
The SST group returned to Goshen on April 9 at 7 p.m. They were in the Dominican Republic since Jan. 9. A chronicle of the group’s semester is available on the college’s Web site at https://www.goshen.edu/sst/drspring03/.
During SST in the Dominican Republic, students spend the first half of the 13-week term studying the language and the culture of the country in the capital city of Santo Domingo and the second half of the term fulfilling service requirements, often relating to their majors, in other parts of the country.
Goshen College was one of the first schools in the United States to include international education as part of its graduation requirements. More than 6,500 students have studied in 18 different countries through the program.
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