Student takes RARE opportunity to work first-hand with school children in Peru

Students in Puerto Maldonado
Trevor Tidwell, Sydni Pennington and Hannah Jang relax at the hotel in Puerto Maldonado, Peru.

As a student in Communication Sciences and Disorders, Sydni Pennington, of Dublin, Virginia, learned about an inclusive education model that was adopted by the United Nations Convention on Rights of Persons with Disabilities. That knowledge lit a fire in Pennington, who wanted to see how that model was put into practice abroad.

When Pennington heard about the Radford Amazonian Research Expedition (RARE) program at Radford University, she knew that was a way for her to get that first-hand research experience.

“I really wanted to analyze the opportunities that children might have in Peru if they are in a setting like Lucerna (a small remote logging village of 75-100 people),” Pennington said. “I wanted to observe the progress since Peru’s adoption of this act in 2007.”

The idea of visiting Peru was “alluring,” Pennington said. “It’s different from anywhere I’ve been before. I like camping, but I know I had never experienced anything to the capacity of the rainforest. I wanted to experience that unfamiliar environment and immerse myself in the culture and see first-hand what these kids face daily.”

As part of her RARE experience, Pennington made three visits to the public school in Lucerna and a visit to Stella Maris school that specializes in teaching children with disabilities.

“I’m so happy I got to go and that the principal was willing to sit down with me,” Pennington said. “It was a fully-functioning school for children, ages 3-20, where they learn life skills. It was for people all over the Madre de Dios region. They didn’t have to pay extra to attend it, either. It was amazing seeing how the classrooms were set up and how they had a huge courtyard where they could come together and learn from each other.”

Sydni Pennington is excitedly greeted by a student in the class she observed.

Sydni Pennington is excitedly greeted by a student in the class she observed.

The school also teaches self-advocacy and language skills to its students. “I thought that was really interesting,” Pennington said. “There have even been programs where they go into public schools and advocate for themselves and for public education. I was amazed at all the work that they do.”

Pennington said that seeing people excel with such limited resources was encouraging.

“A lot of things I saw there are similar to how we implement practices here, which I think is a wonderful way to open a dialogue on how similar people are around the world,” she said. “They’re all working toward the same thing – being understood.”

It was not just the culture that stood out to Pennington on the RARE trip – the natural environment was a driving factor behind her choosing to take part in the adventure of a lifetime.

Sydni Pennington talks with the teacher of the school after class.
Sydni Pennington talks with the teacher of the school after class.

“The jungle is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. It’s amazing,” Pennington said. “The fact that we are so far removed from civilization was incredible. I think it’s really beautiful, seeing all the animals you learn about when you were a kid and thought you’d never see in person. You get to see them here, which is really cool.”

One of the most important parts of the RARE experience is individual growth, said Associate Professor of Geospatial Science Stockton Maxwell, Ph.D.

“When we send our students down to Peru, they are engaging with populations their families may not have had a chance to visit and may never have a chance to visit,” Maxwell said. “They bring that experience back and communicate what they have seen in the world. It really pulls together communities. It is not just about the single student.”

In the jungle, Pennington discovered that the unattainable is achievable, if you work hard and are determined to reach your goals.

“As corny as it sounds, there was this tree we were told to climb. I tried hard the second day we were here to climb it. I didn’t make it far,” Pennington said. “By the end, Paul and Mohsin (our guides) were encouraging me so much that I did make it to the top. That was a big personal highlight for me. That wasn’t something I thought I could do.”

A major component of the study abroad experience is about learning outside of the traditional four-walled room. The unique nature of the rainforest allows for an up-close educational opportunity not typically available in a classroom.

Sunset above the rainforest canopy.
Sunset above the rainforest canopy.

“You can see deforestation and climate change and see how the pristine environments are changing at the hands of humans,” Maxwell said. “You can then engage with students about how to engage with these topics.”

The changing environment of the jungle stood out to Pennington.

“At home, I try to be aware of my impact on this planet,” Pennington said. “But, I only know so much. Being here and talking to the people it directly affects has made me more aware. It’s opened my eyes.”

Now, back at Radford, Pennington is ready to take any obstacle head-on.

“I was in the Amazon, so I feel like problems here are a lot easier to face," Pennington said. "There were situations where I could’ve been in danger, or I was faced with physically exerting myself beyond what I thought I could. I feel like I can face anything now.”

Pennington emerged a changed person from the Peruvian rainforest, ready to tackle the challenges that will face her – all because of the opportunities available to her at Radford University and the support of her professors and family.

Aug 8, 2019
Max Esterhuizen