Learning While Serving in Puerto Rico

By Elizabeth Lopez, Botany & Plant Pathology major, Class of 2024


io Soto is an undergraduate student in Crop and Soil science who participated in a recent service-learning trip to Puerto Rico.

Wanda Crannell, BRR Academic Program Coordinator and Advisor at Oregon State’s College of Agricultural Sciences, advised Gio to attend and put together a small team to organize two main projects along the ecological corridor.

Gio, Xavier Tacker, and Nicholas Carleson organized the projects in collaboration with the coordinators.

Gio’s favorite activity in Puerto Rico was visiting the coconut farm. Danny Carrera is a local coconut farmer. Carrera purchased land from his previous boss after working for him.

The Coconut Route in the Finca of Puerto Rico is situated on the island’s lower west side and is primarily composed of palms from the Philippines. This is when Hurricane Maria hit in 2017 and devastated Danny’s productive palm trees, requiring him to start from the ground up once again. Today, the coconut farm has grown and is back in business. Coconut meat and water are mostly gathered for human consumption. Additionally, the shell is composted. Coconut trees start producing coconuts after three to five years, but their peak production is after ten to fifteen years. The Brazilian type produces more water per gallon and fetches a higher price than the Philippine variety.

After his visit to the coconut farm, Gio noted that Danny reminded him of his dad because of the similarities in how they obtained their land. Overall, being in Puerto Rico allowed Gio to break out of his comfort zone and allowed him to connect, have bigger goals and dream bigger.

“Challenges make you grow, and help you become a stronger person,” Gio said.

Tai Renee King joined the 2022 service-learning project in Puerto Rico with other students from Oregon State University. Thirty students who went on a 10-day service-learning trip to Puerto Rico to study resilient coastal communities and natural resource education for island communities have returned from completing their projects. There were two main projects, and three different side projects that involved NOAA Sea Grant and UPR Mayaguez, Rincon Puerto Rico Chapter of the Surfrider Foundation, USDA Forest Service and Dept of Natural and Environmental Resources, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Projects. Tai is from Cleveland, Ohio and is pursuing a double major in ecological engineering and natural resources.

While most people are aware of Hurricane Maria, learning about its impact from locals who went through the devastation pulled at the heartstrings of many that attended, including Tai.

Dr. Edly Santiago from the University of Puerto Rico, gave a powerful speech about how Hurricane Maria impacted the lives of people in Puerto Rico, and underscored their resiliency as they faced challenges together. Dr. Santiago works at the Mayaguez campus of the University of Puerto Rico. She holds a B.S. in Animal Science, an M.S. in Agricultural Education, and a Ph.D. in Environmental Education and Agricultural Education from Pennsylvania State University. She was born and raised in Puerto Rico and oversees the UPR-Mayaguez program for agricultural education teachers. In Puerto Rico Santiago and her students work to increase agricultural literacy by creating educational modules that involve the teachers and students from various schools. Since September 2019, she has served as a state contact for agriculture in the classroom.

The two main projects of this year’s OSU service trip included a community garden for a school and a collaborative project with the USDA Forest Service and the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources to work on a Pterocarpus/Amphitecna/Anona region overgrown with vines. The latter project is also part of a longer-term research effort that will include drone captured data over the summer when the severed vines turn brown to better understand canopy cover.

Tai chose to participate in the garden-building project at Caguas High School – Escuela Especializada en Tecnología Gerardo Sellés Solá where a team worked nonstop to bring a community garden to life. This included solar lights, drip irrigation, a bench, and compost fence, in addition to replacing landscape plants in the front entrance of the school.

After the Puerto Rico service-learning trip, Tai saw lots of similarities between Puerto Rican culture and Black culture.

“We have a lot of the same struggles, such as not getting the proper help we need especially in devastating events,” Tai said. “The treatment they got after Hurricane Maria was the same treatment that the Black community in Louisiana got after Hurricane Katrina.”

Tai was inspired by others on the trip and shared that she was able to face her biggest challenge: getting over herself to tackle her fears. Today she’s more vocal about her dislikes, likes, and beliefs, and overall gained confidence. Tai’s ultimate goal is to increase urban forestry in under-serviced communities and develop eco-friendly technology for communities that are occupied with surviving rather than worrying about the environment.

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