In May of 2013, Corey Dennis found himself among the Andes Mountains, rafting down the Sacred Valley of Peru.

Along with 11 other students, Dennis, a sophomore majoring in civil engineering, gave the first two weeks of his summer to the Community Service Center’s alternative break program. The trip was not just a shortened study abroad program, but a service project intended to help others. Dennis says this meant traveling with a group that shared many common interests.

“We could’ve gone anywhere in the US to do community service, but starting the break together with this was something so different,” Dennis said.

Dennis’ trip to Peru was a combination of labor and leisure. Beginning in the capital of Lima and on to mountainous Cusco, Dennis’ group spent the first week exploring the overwhelming scenery of the Andes. It was here in the Sacred Valley that Dennis decided to expand his interactions beyond his comfort zone. Accompanied by Rachel Ramey, a student fluent in Spanish who attended the trip as a translator, Dennis set out to meet some of the locals in the area. The two entered a tiny village nearby, and before long they found a family outside of the community’s spiritual healing lodge. In spite of Ramey’s help, Dennis struggled with the challenge of the language barrier.

“I was trying to throw together any words I knew to have a conversation,” he explained. “I think I ended up asking the kids ‘Yo gusto escuela?’ which was me trying to ask ‘Do you like school?’”

Dennis and Ramey were immersed into Peruvian culture when they found themselves in the midst of hundreds of villagers dancing in a market square. Rather than being observers, the two joined in the best they could.

“We stood out as being taller and bigger,” Dennis laughed, “and after a second, an elderly woman saw me, pulled me into the circle, and danced with me for 20 minutes.”peru1

Dennis says he was thrilled to have been a part of such a rare experience and acknowledges that this was something he never could have received on a typical vacation. After the first week, the group got to work on the ultimate goal of the alternative break—to better the lives of others.

They set out to help the Maijuani tribe in the Peruvian jungle, where 400 to 600 Peruvians live in small, leafy huts. The engineers tested the quality of their water, dug compost pits and latrines, while surveying the land so that future groups could bring materials necessary for improving the lives of the Maijuani. Additionally, the group installed solar panels to power computers at nearby lodges where visiting groups often stay.

During their interactions with the Maijuani people, Ramey and Dennis were surprised by how similar they were to this group that they initially considered jarringly different.

“It’s a poorer country, [with] a lot of differences in education and money,” Dennis said. “There were a lot of things that I thought would make it impossible to connect with them, especially not knowing the language.”

Yet even with social barriers between Dennis’ culture and the Maijuani, Dennis says he came to see similarities.

“Everyone is working to better their lives,” he concluded. “We are all searching for the same goal.”

Ramey also describes feeling a connection. “Seeing people living completely differently, yet facing the exact same daily struggles and joys as yourself shows you how much you still have to learn about the world,” she said.

To Ramey, attending an alternative break trip provided her with an experience not available in other study abroad opportunities.

“Traveling abroad definitely broadens your perspective but there is something about traveling to a remote village buried deep in the Amazon rainforest that throws you completely out of your comfort zone and leaves you with a nagging curiosity,” she said.

Ramey says that she believes the alternative break program allows you to approach a culture with a different mindset. The desire to learn and understand in such a raw, serving environment overwhelmed her with curiosity.

Both Dennis and Ramey believe that the alternative break has affected their behavior back at UA. After returning from the sight of Peruvian poverty, they both acknowledge the importan-ce of applying the same view of service onto American society.

“Living college life on a beautiful campus like UA, it’s easy to get caught up in our own academic world and forget that life continues for the rest of the 7 billion people on our planet,” Ramey said.

She plans to nourish her newfound curiosity for the world in her continued actions here at home. Dennis also has a new goal because of the program. He plans to return next summer to bring the Maijuani more resources from their previous research.

“I hope to stay in Peru after the trip and spend the summer as a white water rafting guide in the Sacred Valley,” he said. He says he ultimately wants to live in the valley, nearby the straight, tall mountains of the Peruvian Andes.