Course Development For Chemical Engineering

In the late summer and early fall of 2020, I spent my extra time reinvigorating a previous course I had taken in the chemical engineering department to prepare it for online learning. Specifically what I did was update the lecture slides, homework, and worksheets. With the lecture slides, they were updated to be easier to follow, with more intermediate steps in derivations, updated references to the textbook and homework assignments, as well as the creation of new graphics and movies to represent various concepts in the course. Homework was updated to be self-graded with significantly more details in the solutions as well as a new section after each problem, titled Insights, where it is explicitly stated why the students are being asked to do the problem and where resources, in the lecture slides and textbook, can be found to help assist in problems. This was repeated for worksheets.

Over the course of this project, I have become a much better teacher and student. In the process of learning how other students learn, I have learned much more about how I learn as well. Being able to critically think about problems from multiple directions makes it much easier to not only solve problems, but also to comprehend the truths behind it. From the work I have done for this course, specifically regarding the creation of insights for each problem, I have begun to ask those questions in my studies as well. I have begun to answer some of the assumptions I didn’t even know I had. When a professor is asking you to learn something or solve a problem, I assume they have a reason for it, but I had never really considered it before. Now I actively try to answer those questions. Understanding why you are being asked to learn specific things and understanding the connections between different concepts makes me a much better student, which I wouldn’t have thought critically about, without this project.

The beginning of understanding and developing this metacognition was through my weekly meetings with my professor. Hearing his thoughts about problems and his reasonings for the structure and direction of the course helped me understand the connections that he was trying to implement and enforce. Hearing another person who has had a lifelong desire for learning and teaching helped show me things I hadn’t considered. Before these meetings, my focus had been on learning specific areas, rather than trying to understand the connections between them.

The next activity that drove this change was my implementation of Insights. Going through previous problems and lectures and trying to understand why they were relevant and why they were asked when they were helped me realize that there was meaning behind everything. Occasionally you will find that the meaning behind asking a question is nothing more than you will need to solve this problem on an exam, but even knowing that is valuable knowledge. When I went through the previous homework assignments and created these insights for the problems, it showed me the usefulness in doing this for my own work and studies. Without this project, I would not have considered how useful it is to know why you are being asked to do what you are doing. 

The most powerful driving force in my transformation over these months was the creation of new knowledge. Learning to look critically at a set of information and observe where the gaps in knowledge or the unstated assumptions are is not trivial to do. Once these points are identified, creating something to fill these gaps is even more difficult, but it reinforces the connections between the material and creates a more complete final result. Learning to think critically about these knowledge gaps and how to find them was the most important discovery of this project.

This transformation of how I learn and how I can teach is going to be extremely valuable in the future for my career. Over the course of this project I have learned that I enjoy teaching. I could easily see teaching becoming a career path in my future, or trying to include some way to implement teaching as a part of my lifelong career. As I am going to graduate school in the next academic year, I would argue that learning how to learn is one of the most important tools I could have learned before pursuing a doctoral degree. The personal growth I experienced over the course of this project is invaluable to how I will learn, not only in the next few years as I pursue more coursework, but for the rest of my life. I hope to never stop learning. This project showed me how important that is and helped me develop the tools to do so.

STEP Signature Project Reflection

My STEP signature project took place over the summer and it involved me volunteering for the Legal Aid Society of Columbus for the Veterans Team directly under an attorney. While volunteering for this team, I completed a variety of activities including researching and synthesizing medical literature to aid in appeals, reviewing drafted doctor statement requests for persuasiveness, and contacting clients. I also helped collect data on past decisions made by the corrections board when veterans had attempted to get a discharge upgrade.


While completing this project, I my views and understandings of the world around me and of myself changed and transformed. Working with this group of individuals of which I had never had any personal connections to in the past was eye-opening to me. Through the direct communication I had with some clients in addition to reading through appeals, I had the opportunity to read and hear some of the struggles these people face and have been facing for years. I learned a great deal about how the Veterans Affairs office handles cases and how veterans are treated when they need help, and it was shocking and disappointing. From learning all of this, I realized how difficult it is for these members of society and how much change needs to happen. Prior to this, I had never thought about the hardships that veterans face because I was uneducated on the matter, and it had not crossed my mind. My view has transformed, though, to not only being more conscious of their struggles, but of the struggles of all different kinds of people. I have gained an understanding about myself in that I want to be able to help and make a difference for the people that really need it.


One significant interaction that I had while completing this project that still stands out to me now was a phone call I had with a client. My supervising attorney had wanted me to call this client to assist her in completing paperwork to send to the VA that would explain why she cannot and should not pay them anything. Before the phone call I was told that she would most likely be stressed over the situation and have a lot of questions that I won’t be able to answer. Throughout my phone call with her as I was filling out the form, these statements proved to be true and the client was overall very worried about having to pay the VA. She repeatedly told me that she could not afford to pay them any money for a multitude of reasons and was worried that they would not understand. Additionally, the client was asking me about how things would go, and I did not have any answers for her. I felt very empathetic towards her in that moment and very powerless as well.



This phone call was significant to me because it was the first time that I had experienced something like that. Never before in my life had I been faced with a person in desperate need of help, telling me all of the reasons why they needed this help, and been so utterly unable to provide the help. I knew what I was doing was helping in a way, but even still it felt like a very small action for her. I found myself in a position in which I didn’t know what to tell her to make the situation better, and it was very uncomfortable for me. From this interaction I realized that I want to have an active role in helping people, and I don’t like to be watching helplessly on the side. It also opened my eyes and gave me a different perspective on the challenges that some people face, challenges that I have never seen firsthand. I think that hearing an account of these struggles from someone living through them has set me up to approach other people differently in the future, and to put myself in other people’s shoes.


Something else that I had the opportunity to do through this project was listen to and watch a hearing on the VA character of discharge determinations process. Firstly, this gave me my first real insight on proceedings within the court and the justice system, which was interesting to see. More importantly, though, I also got to hear all of the current issues with the process of completing character of discharge determinations and how frustrating this is for veterans. There were personal accounts from veterans who have had to deal with the VA when trying to get medical and other types of care, and it was disheartening to hear. As the people testifying in the hearing were stating over and over, the system is greatly flawed and in need of reform so that these veterans can get the treatment they need. From viewing this event I once again realized how much hardship this group has to endure when trying to get what they need. Most people go about their lives completely ignorant to the problems other people in other walks of life have to face, but we should be more conscious of this.


The transformation I had as a result of this project is significant to my life as it would to anyone’s life. In a way I got a lesson on human decency and empathy and was shown firsthand why we should be kinder to other people. Everyone is going through their own struggles, and while we won’t always be able to fix their problems, there are ways to help and show support. Even though I couldn’t solve the issues of these clients directly, I was able to be compassionate to them on the phone, and they were appreciative of that. Just by being conscious to what other people are going through you are doing your part. Being able to navigate those difficult interactions with people in that setting will benefit me greatly in my personal life when the people close to me are going through something. I will be able to build and keep stronger relationships with the people in my life.


Outside of my personal life, this change will also benefit me in my professional and future goals. As I stated, I realized from doing this project that I want to be in a position to help people who really need it and take an active role. Seeing that people need help but not being able to do anything for them will frustrate me greatly. I want to have a career in the criminal justice system, and there are many different ways that I could help from within the field. I know that the justice system is in need of some major reform, whether it be for juveniles or adults, and I want to be on the forefront of that change. After this experience, I will continue to educate myself on the biggest issues of the system, and eventually get into a position where I can push for change.


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A Week in Guatemala – Buck-I-Serv: Constru Casa

The goal of this program is to support the construction of a home for a family lacking one. Through ConstruCasa, we spent much of the week lifting heavy bricks, hand-mixing concrete, digging foundations, and chipping holes into hundreds of cinderblocks. In the evenings, as well as during the two designated free days, we were given unique cultural tours of many drastically different parts of the area surrounding Antigua, as well as the opportunity to immerse ourselves in local customs.

Growing up in the United States brings about certain conclusions about the world, for better or worse. One such conclusion is the role of financial capital – money – in securing happiness, security, and prosperity in life. Growing up, most goals existed for the sake of increasing the odds to make more money; taking AP classes, commitment to extracurriculars, and maintaining a high GPA increases the chances to go to a good university. Going to a good university increases the chances of achieving a strong profession, and achieving a strong profession ultimately meant that it paid well. The mindset of the people I worked and lived with during my week in Guatemala made me realize that financial success is not the only path to lifelong happiness or purpose – on the contrary, overemphasizing financial wellbeing is a detriment to the many other facets of life, all of which necessary for happiness and purpose.

Even before leaving the airport in Columbus, I knew that I would be challenged and humbled throughout the coming week. We were told of rampant poverty, sexual and economic disparity, and insurrection that occurred throughout the country. When we first arrived, the poverty was unfortunately immediately obvious – well-dressed individuals stood separate from their less kempt countrymen, an obvious separation of wealth caused this division. The drive from the airport reinforced this separation; gorgeous villas hovered over the hillside, protected behind thick walls, security cameras, and armed guards. Some of the homes nearer the road scarcely had more than a single room, and failing walls and collapsing roofs were not uncommon. Guards armed with rifles and shotguns were posted in front of many shops and intersections, unclear whether or not they were police forces or paramilitary. While I never feared for my own safety, I felt dejected at the conditions so many were enduring in the capital city.

Upon arriving in Antigua, we were introduced to our hosts – two of the most sincere, kind, and loving individuals that I have ever experienced. Each time Ohio State students travel with this program, they stay with these hosts – and each time, they ensure that we are comfortable, fed, and cared for the entire stay. They are not lavishly wealthy, but part of the small middle class; they had the ability to give, but they could not do so recklessly or without planning ahead. The family that we helped construct a house for was equally as caring as our hosts – despite their economic situation. Even though this family had slept in tents, without the security of a door or clean water, they always found reasons to smile. Family is clearly very important in Guatemala, and that emphasis on love truly shines when they lack the material wealth seen in the United States. Community involvement is apparent as well, as local commerce, assistance from neighbors, and community sports teams help to keep everybody united instead of concerned only with themselves. As we traveled to various villages in the area, we witnessed significantly different cultures, religions, and languages – despite being only 30 minutes away from each other. In each of these villages, however, we also saw a community that supported each other: women made crafts to send children to school, men build homes for other families, and everybody chipped in to help make their community a more prosperous place for everybody.

It was humbling to see such unity and cooperation between so many people – especially as I do not even know the full names of my own neighbors. The lack of financial capital means they are in abject poverty, with many seeing less in a year than some Americans see in a week. But poverty has been defined on our terms; while their communities are not lacking problems – electricity and clean water is scarce – they highlight that our definitions do not define their lives. Community compassion and unity, strong familial ties, and overall positive treatment of all people give the villages that we visited a much higher social capital than anything I have experienced in the United States. It is unlikely that any single culture has created a utopia, but Guatemalan culture gives US (western) culture a lot to consider about how it treats others, and about how success, prosperity, and value is determined.

I plan to dedicate myself to protecting and enhancing the environment – our only Earth. But the environment does not exclude humanity or our society. Environmental justice is social justice, and by experiencing the cultures of other people, my ability to understand what ‘justice’ may look like increases. Programs like ConstruCasa do not only build homes, but understanding, community, and environmental integrity – solar power is used to power their homes, and compost is used to help grow their own food. Limiting my measure of worth to only financial consideration is irresponsible – and the same way a strong community is valuable beyond a dollar value, a strong environment is likewise valuable.

STEP Signature Project Reflection

My STEP signature project occurred from May 2019 – April 2020, a period of time in which I grew in multiple areas of my life. I spent summer 2019 in Columbus taking Chemistry and began volunteering in the Emergency Department at Riverside Methodist Hospital. I spent the remainder of my STEP period in regular (weekly) clinical volunteering.

While completing my STEP Signature Project, I could sense myself growing academically and in the community. My project exposed me to experiences I had never encountered before, and they encouraged me to step outside of my comfort zone and explore the unknown. Going into my signature project, I was excited to have the opportunity to stay in Columbus to pursue my academic and community service goals, but never anticipated the self confidence and awareness they instilled in me.

My experience volunteering weekly at Riverside Hospital helped me familiarize with what a career in the medical field looks like and gave me the opportunity to work among doctors and nurses. I often communicated with patients and was assigned my own set of tasks to complete. What in the very beginning seemed foreign and intimidating to me, grew to be what I looked forward to weekly and loved. A passion for patient-care began blooming in me. Additionally, I grew in my presence in the community outside of OSU by becoming a part of Riverside Hospital’s volunteer team. Prior to my signature project, I hadn’t found community outside of campus.

Various components of my STEP Signature Project led to the changes and growth I experienced. Taking chemistry over the summer helped me develop and maintain strong study habits. The lack of other coursework and extra free time brought about by summer encouraged me to dedicate ample time to the class and helped me remain motivated. I adopted study strategies that I hadn’t used before and completed my assignments ahead of time due to the lack of distractions. The class itself challenged me and helped me grow as I had never taken a class a chemistry class in college before.

Additionally, being a part of a large team of volunteers and working closely with Patient Representatives at Riverside Methodist Hospital boosted my self confidence by leading me to interact with health care professionals and giving me responsibilities I had never experienced before. In the very beginning, interacting with patients felt new and intimidating. As time progressed, performing patient rounds and engaging in conversation with patients grew to feel normal and enjoyable. Stepping outside of my comfort zone and welcoming in something new was rewarding and transformative.

Working closely with other volunteers in my weekly shifts also fostered my personal development by encouraging me to form new friendships and function as a team member. When working with another volunteer, I would always learn new things and enjoyed the presence of a friend. We would discuss the plan for the shift and work both together and individually depending on the tasks at hand. The presence of other volunteers helped me learn and grow.

My STEP transformation is significant in my life due to the knowledge, personal development, and growth I will take with me. Taking chemistry over the summer enabled me to excel in my coursework the following academic year and remain on track to complete my major and graduate on time. This eased my anxieties about the future and kept me academically motivated throughout the summer term. This academic component of my signature project strengthened my studiousness and academic strength. Additionally, volunteering at Riverside Methodist Hospital affirmed my idea of the career I will hold in the future. I am even more confident that I desire to work in a clinical setting centered on patient-care. My clinical service has not only helped me grow in the present, but solidified my professional and future career goals.

Volunteering at The Salvation Army Learning Center

For my STEP signature project, I chose to volunteer my time for the past year at a learning branch of the Salvation Army here in Columbus. This role consisted of my volunteering as a “homework help” assistant as well performing miscellaneous tasks while aiding the directors and teachers of the learning center. This included cleaning up after the children, helping set up technology, keeping the children in check during field trips, helping out with lessons, and aiding in games and playing with the children during their gym-hour. While these things may seem superficial, I was able to make deep connections and bond with the children, learn much about them and the walks of life they came from, and came out of this experience wanting to continue to do this kind of work in my future.

Before pursuing this project, I was keen on using STEP to fulfill a lifelong desire to travel abroad and participate in a service project once there. I yearned to experience something like this; traveling was something I generally loved, and combining this with volunteering which was something I knew I loved as well, was sure to be a surreal experience. But after reflecting upon this for longer and discussing these prospects with others, I came to realize that this was unnecessary. All of this still sounds amazing to me, but the reality of it is that there are plenty of people and places in close proximity that need help. Living in a suburb of Columbus, essentially I’ve always been mere miles away from disadvantaged communities. Coming to this understanding, I wanted to use my STEP funds to help me pay for my apartment nearby to the Salvation Army Learning Center located in the heart of Columbus. While completing this project, my assumptions were reaffirmed. This project was just as transformational as one that would take me abroad and permit me to work with underprivileged in another area of the world. I learned about the many disadvantaged families right here in Columbus and firsthand heard about the the differences in quality of life and education that these people have in comparison to ours. I learned that the kids attending the learning center come from these families, many times receiving one of the few meals that they have in a day from the learning center or from their own schools during lunchtime. I learned that my passion to aid underprivileged people is visceral, and that I would like to volunteer my time to programs such as these for as long as I can. I used to volunteer at tutoring businesses, where kids came from families that could afford advanced education of the sorts, but after volunteering at this learning center, I feel that this sort of work is so much more fulfilling and needed. In this way, my understanding of myself and the community around me has changed.

During my time volunteering, I was able to assist the learning center in many ways but my favorite part about everything I did, was being able to form relationships with the children there. Many came from low-income families, and looked forward to coming to the center because of the caring staff and individuals working here. While I and the other staff knew of their backgrounds, we ensured that none of this was a barrier to them any longer once they entered the learning center. All of the children are cared for immensely by everyone there, creating a bond that is genuine and not rooted in the fact that this may be our/their job. The kids usually attend schools in central Ohio that are not exactly commended for their academics. Most children that attend are low-income and the district’s quality of education provided is rather poor in comparison to suburban public schools, which are only a few miles away. This was something that I would often reflect upon, as I was fortunate enough to be in circumstances which allowed for myself to grow up and live further out in Dublin, a suburb of central Ohio, and receive an education from Dublin City Schools, which is revered for its academics and often sees its students attending acclaimed universities all over the country. The kids that attend this learning center are denied this quality of education, and have to resort to after-school programs such as the one offered by this Salvation Army learning center branch.

I’ve learned so much working with these kids; regardless of their backgrounds, they are just as intelligent, responsible, and full of potential as any other kid, and perhaps stronger. I kept all of this in mind when I helped them with their schoolwork; I often went in wanting to solidify their passion to learn with positive reinforcement, and unwavering encouragement when they struggled with problems. Many times, the only thing that these kids were lacking was confidence. Therefore, it was important for me to act as a figure that believed in them, understand their struggles, and explain things to them in a way that was not reprimanding, but productive and kind instead. This experience of working with them displayed to me that these kids deserve opportunities to prove themselves and build up their potentials, but often times this could be limited due to the quality of education they receive and the backgrounds that they come from.

We frequently took the kids upon field trips to all sorts of cultural attractions around Columbus, which they may not be able to visit alongside their families if not for the Salvation Army’s trips. Places we visited included COSI, the Columbus Art Museum, the Kelton House, and Otherworld. During these field trips, I was responsible for guiding some of the kids as each member of the staff would take charge of one small group of kids from the learning center. I would often have to lecture the children on being respectful, following rules set by our hosts, and guide them through learning processes as we proceeded during these trips. Attending these trips with the kids was always eye-opening for me and another situation which led me to thinking about my privilege; before going on these field trips with them, I took advantage of the fact that I could visit these places whenever I wanted to with my own friends. I realized the amount of places I’d gotten to visit as a child, as my family was accustomed to even taking vacation trips abroad as well. Beyond this, I felt glad to be a part of a program that could provide this for their kids. The kids always took away things from these field trips, whether it was that they could have fun and destress for a while at Other World, or learn the historical significance of cultural artifacts such as those at the Kelton House, an underground railroad stop. Simple things such as going out and enjoying attractions like these with our families and friends are natural for a lot of us, and we do not think twice about how fortunate we are to be able to do these things recreationally. I think we also do not recognize how much learning takes place when we take these trips; we learn about culture, ourselves, and are stimulated socially. I could tell that even taking field trips such as these, were fundamental and absolutely beneficial to these kids in the long run.

This experience certainly has been valuable to my life. I’ve met people, both kids and adults, that have changed my perspective on things, helped me reflect on my own life, and that I’ve made personal connections with, that I will truly care about for the rest of my life. Aiding underprivileged children in homework, lessons, and life is an utterly invaluable experience, so much so that I want to keep searching for opportunities similar to this and where I can make even more of a difference. I’ve realized that making an impact on your community can be so simple, yet also so profound. I want to help people understand that anyone can impact others in need, without any special talents or efforts, and that these sorts of opportunities are everywhere. I don’t think that people realize how crucial it is for us to acknowledge that there are communities so close to us that do not live in circumstances as we do, but struggle to make ends meet and plate meals for their families. There are children coming from these kinds of families, and they especially do not deserve for us to turn a blind eye on them. I want to live my life finding ways to combat this and relieve these stresses, for these children especially. And this is just what the Salvation Army Learning Center program was able to do, and I am so grateful for being able to be a part of this.

Buck-I-Serv : Constru Casa in Antigua, Guatemala | Eryka Harper

My Step Signature Project was a Buck – I – Serv trip in Antigua, Guatemala. This trip was from March 7, 2020 – March 14, 2020. During this time our cohort worked with a Guatemalan nonprofit, Constru Casa. The mission of Constru Casa is to improve the quality of life among Guatemalans living in extreme poverty through holistic community development with the provision of basic housing, support programs, and community building for health and education programs. Over the course of one week, from 9 am – 5 pm, our cohort worked closely with local masons to build a home for a local family in need of housing. We were also able to work alongside the family and learn more about them. 

This experience was one of the most meaningful things that I have ever been a part of, I was able to reflect on the pace and speed that I live my life in the United States. Although it may seem cliche, the saying “Stop and smell the roses” was something that I was truly able to practice in Guatemala. When walking through the streets of Antigua, I noticed the amount of hard work and time that the locals put into everyday tasks. I believe that there is much value in taking additional time to focus on the task at hand, rather than thinking about future tasks that you have to complete. These simple observations reminded me that I need to make more of an effort to live in the moment, you don’t always have to think ten steps ahead. 

During this trip, I was also able to reflect on the way that non-English speakers are treated in the United States. Prior to arriving in Guatemala, I was extremely nervous that my Spanish would not be up to par and I was fearful that I would have trouble communicating with the site and locals. In the United States, I believe that there should be more of an effort to exercise a sense of patience and understanding when interacting with individuals that speak different languages. Overall, I wish that Americans would be more understanding when it comes to non-English speakers and to take more of an interest in learning other languages themselves. 

Although I believe that these experiences and events were transformative on their own, the rising threat of Covid-19 made me feel every emotion you would normally feel in a different country, but more intensely. An event that had a true impact on me was being able to observe the Catholic processions that were held as a part of Guatemala’s Holy week celebrations. Our hosts, Elvira and Enrique, allowed us to take part in making the traditional flower rugs that adorned the streets during this holy event. The process of making the flower rug was around 2-3 hours. We lined the outside of the rug with a variety of beautiful flowers and filled the inside with layers of lettuce and flowers. The procession stretched throughout the entire neighborhood and there was a beautiful display of flower rugs along the roads. At this moment, I did not think about the obligations that I had back in the states, the only thing that I was thinking about was the amount of gratitude that I had towards my host country for allowing me to partake in this once-in-a-lifetime experience

I would also like to acknowledge the other ways in which the catholic procession impacted me. When watching the procession, I was able to observe the impact that colonialism has had on Latin America. Aside from having strong Catholic influences, the procession had strong Spanish influences. It is difficult to explain the range of emotions that I felt during this event.  Although I was appreciative of being a part of such a beautiful event, I was interested in learning about how and if indigenous religions had been preserved after the Spanish conquest. Throughout this experience, I made sure that I looked at events such as the one that I have just described through a critical social justice lens. 

Finally, I want to acknowledge the amount of kindness and patience that I experienced from each and every person that I interacted with. As I mentioned above, I was extremely worried about my Spanish skills and I did not believe that they were strong enough for me to initiate conversations with the locals. These concerns quickly dissipated as soon as I got off of the plane and landed in Guatemala. I definitely struggled with using the right grammar and tenses but I still was able to communicate effectively. One situation in particular that impacted me was an interaction that I had with a shopkeeper in a women-owned weaving shop. She walked up to me and began to touch the tattoo that I have on my left arm, and she asked “ En Espanol”. I realized that she wanted me to translate my tattoo. She pointed at each word and I translated that word into Spanish. This was a really cool experience for me because it showed me the importance of cultural exchange. For the most part, Guatemala is a pretty conservative country so it is possible that she had never seen an actual tattoo. Her kindness, curiosity, and patience during this interaction is something that I will never forget. 

This experience was transformative for a multitude of reasons. It allowed me to improve my Spanish-speaking skills and to become more comfortable with using my Spanish in a social setting. This program pushed me out of my comfort zone and helped me refine my Spanish skills. Improving my Spanish skills is important to me because after I graduate from Ohio State I would like to attend law school and pursue a career in Human rights. I think that being able to speak more than one language will broaden the number of people that I will be able to help in my legal endeavors. During my project, working with Constru Casa allowed me to contribute to a cause that I am very passionate about. I am a strong advocate for Human Rights and I feel that this opportunity provided me with the experience needed to be more knowledgeable about the ways in which historically disenfranchised groups are marginalized and oppressed on an international scale. 

Currently, I am the President of an organization, called Ladies of Leadership on campus, our mission is to create and cultivate safe spaces for women of color on campus to feel empowered and supported. I was able to align these values with the work that I performed with Constru Casa in helping the local family to feel empowered and supported as well. This project allowed me to learn more about the issues that individuals with marginalized identities face in other parts of the world. In past courses focused on political upheaval in Latin American countries, I have learned about the relationship between the Guatemalan government and its indigenous communities as well as the role that the United States has played in the displacement of indigenous communities. This was truly a transformational and life-changing opportunity that I will never forget. I was able to be a part of a cause that I am passionate about and learn skills that I can use to better myself as well as communities around me. Thank you STEP for pushing me one step closer to becoming the true globally competent leader I aim to be!

Costa Rica: Sustainable Service Learning – Conner Ahler

The Costa Rica: Sustainable Service Learning Project was a trip to Costa Rica that involved a variety of different jobs and activities. We stayed with local residents in their rural homes, built a biodigester, and toured EARTH University. Some fun things we did included seeing Cahuita National park and Arenal Volcano.

Costa Rica is a beautiful country with amazing landscapes, wonderful people, and advanced agriculture. The beaches have clear water with white and black sand and the mountains are covered with vegetation from bottom to top. I could spend endless hours describing the specific nature of Costa Rica and it would still lack in comparison to the experience of actually seeing it for yourself. I recently visited Costa Rica on a sustainable service learning trip and despite many hours of education on various topics regarding Costa Rica and more hours of video footage of the country, I was blown away by the actual place. On this trip I had the privilege of staying with a local resident deep in the jungle, I got to see many sights across the country, including Cahuita National Park, and I was exposed to the campus of EARTH University.

Through all of these experiences I have learned a lot of things about how I want to live my life. One of the most important things I learned was that enjoying nature and taking time to relax is very important. We are always racing around in American society and never stopping to be mindful and enjoy what we have. I now think that taking some time every day to be mindful is very important. I also learned a lot about how sustainability can be an important daily exercise. The people of Costa Rica care deeply about the environment and therefore they live very sustainable lives with a small imprint on the earth. I now want to live more like this.

The first big influence that I had on the trip was staying at our home stay with the owner, Douglas. Just sitting in silence at such a beautiful location gives one a sense of peace and joy. I thought constantly at Douglas’s farm about how to replicate this feeling back in America. When one is confronted by the ease and beauty of a lifestyle in rural Costa Rica it is easy to see why we are all so unhappy in American cities. If I filled my whole apartment with flowers and paintings it would not even remotely compare to the magic of Douglas’s home. It seems to me now that that is why we spend so much of our energy on pointless and self-defeating exploits. The real things that would make us happy are completely out of reach. Our families are hundreds of miles away and we all live in little boxes surrounded by concrete. It reminded me of the time I drove from the Zion wilderness straight to the Las Vegas airport. It seemed so obvious to me at that moment that everyone in those casinos was wasting their time, chasing something that they could not find anywhere near a neon sign.

The second big influence for me on the trip was our time at EARTH University. At EARTH University we learned about many new sustainable farming initiatives. These initiatives are leading the way for the world to live more sustainably. I was inspired to be a leader in environmental initiatives here at home as well. This experience also inspired me to be a leader in other kinds of social initiatives. The people at EARTH University have devoted their entire lives to sustainable research and education. That was enough to inspire me to give a little more of my life to the same cause and other important causes.

The third big influence I found on the trip was the people of Costa Rica and the students at EARTH University. What all of these people have in common is their devotion to sustainable initiatives and their shared care for fostering strong communities. In Costa Rica, especially the rural areas, different people grow different things and then come to the market to trade them with each other. This process makes sure that everyone has what they need and removes the need for big grocery stores. The students at EARTH University have a great social network that is free of a lot of the problems that we have in America. I can take many lessons from these people back to my life here in America.

I am not an environmental or agricultural major but I did find many things on this trip that will benefit me for the rest of my life. The important lessons I learned at the homestay with Douglas will help me find peace and serenity even in the most stressful times. I know from talking with him and observing his life that we need very little to be happy. The most important thing is to have a good mindset and be surrounded by good people. The experiences I had throughout Costa Rica have given me a better perspective of how communities can operate and how people can work together to create a better world. I feel that I can apply this information to every aspect of my life, both in work and at home.

Once Upon A Time In Appalachia Reflection

For my STEP Signature Project, I lead a Buck-I-SERV trip to Maryville, Tennessee over Spring Break. I worked alongside my other group leader and our advisor to plan meaningful activities for our free time during our trip. Our trip involved our group staying at Once Upon A Time Nature Preserve situated right next to both the Great Smoky Mountains and Cherokee National Forest, and our group did various volunteer activities related to the area and the people living there. 

My view of what one needs to survive and be happy certainly changed on this trip. I think in most areas in the United States, and certainly at OSU, there is a culture of consumption – whether it be the consumption and use of clothes, belongings, food, or something else – and this culture is unnecessary and in many ways can be harmful to our planet. At Once Upon A Time, our hosts had a respect for the land and its natural resources and only bought and consumed what they needed. We very much focused on being with each other and enjoying our time in nature while we were there. We all slept on bunk beds in one room and used outhouses and shower houses each day, but it was enjoyable because we were able to focus on being together and enjoying each other’s company. Now that I’m back in Columbus, I am still trying my best to be conscious of what I buy and how it affects the planet. I have been doing my best to only buy what I need and be thankful for what I have, especially since now COVID-19 has made it difficult to do many of the things that I once took for granted. 

Our hosts for our trip, Ed and Arleen, were incredibly humble and wise people who really helped open my eyes to all of the beauty this world has to offer. They had built their home, as well as our cabin and the rest of the buildings on their property almost entirely on their own and had been living off of the land for several years. They still go to the grocery store, but much of what they consume has been grown in their own garden. Their mountain life is simple, but it is incredibly enjoyable, and they have made so many friends just by being friendly and generous. They really inspired me to realize that what truly matters in life – friendships, family, and experiences – are not things with monetary value. 

Through Ed and Arleen, my group was able to volunteer at the Snowbird Community Center, located in North Carolina. We spent the morning talking to the seniors who come to the center to chat with friends and do crafts. Spending time at the community center also reinforced the idea that people do not need a lot of expensive things to be happy – all of the seniors were happy to just be together and spend time doing crafts and telling stories. A few days later, Ed and Arleen took us to listen to Rocky Branch Mountain Music in Walland, TN, which is located inside an old elementary school. Several different mountain music bands come every week to perform for a few hours in different classrooms in the school. It wasn’t much to look at – just a group of musicians performing inside a cramped classroom – but it was a truly remarkable experience. The musicians played with such passion and all of the audience members laughed and clapped along. There was a great sense of community in the room, and the musicians and audience members made a point to include us in their fun. The event was completely free for us, but it gave us an experience we most likely will never forget. 

During a few of our volunteer days, my group worked in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park to remove invasive species like honeysuckle and privet. We worked really hard and managed to clear a big area, but continued maintenance is necessary to keep the invasive species from coming back. This in particular helped me to realize that peoples’ actions can have permanent effects on the natural environment. This has encouraged me to really think about my actions and whether or not they are actually necessary if they are harmful for the planet. 

The lessons I have learned from this trip are valuable for me because they will help me to lead a happier life while doing my best to maintain the health of the planet. The health of the planet relates to my major and minor, but also my entire life because it’s the only planet I most likely will ever live on. I know many at OSU and around the world are fighting to reduce the harmful effects of climate change, but many others are not doing enough in their own lives to make a positive difference. This trip has taught me that it is very easy for one person to reduce their consumption in a way that positively impacts the environment, and if many people do it, many world climate and health issues could be solved. This is a worldwide goal that we all should be striving for, and this trip has given me the voice to encourage others to follow in Ed and Arleen’s footsteps and live every day with a respect for the earth and its natural beauty.


Antigua, Guatemala Buck-i-Serv

For my STEP Signature Project, I traveled to Antigua, Guatemala for spring break with Buck-i-SERV. We volunteered with Constru Casa, a non-profit organization in Antigua that provides sustainable housing to families in need. Four of our days were spent working with the masons and family to build a home out of cinder blocks, gravel, and cement. We stayed in the home of a couple that has lived in Antigua all of their lives. In addition to volunteering, we were also able to go on excursions to experience other parts of Guatemala and its people, history, and culture.

I went into Guatemala with very little knowledge of the culture, history, and even the language. We didn’t know our itinerary or many details about what we were doing. This was new for me, because I like to have everything planned and understood before going on a trip. However, I believe having an open mind and less control allowed me to take in so much more of Guatemala and be in the moment. My views on communication, stereotypes, poverty, and international relations were transformed. This was extremely impactful for me, because I didn’t read any of this out of a textbook. This came organically from conversation, asking questions, and new experiences.  In general, I gained an understanding for social justice and social justice issues that affect the lives of so many people. I know that my service trip did not fix any of these issues, but I found that I do have power in my personal choices and in sharing the story of my time in Guatemala.

The relationships and interactions during this project are what shaped my transformation. I have to keep reminding myself that I didn’t know any of these people before going on the trip, but we became so close and learned so much from each other. To begin, Elvira and Enrique, our hosts, were so kind and welcoming. They wanted us to feel at home and went above and beyond to make sure that happened. They were open to any conversation, whether it be about Antigua, their past, or their marriage and kids. They accepted us for our backgrounds, our looks, our culture, and our lack of Spanish, reminding me that I should always do the same. When I think of Elvira and Enrique, I will always think of one of the best examples I have seen of kindness and selflessness.

When I think of one word to describe Guatemala, besides beautiful, I think “patient.” I was amazed at how people were so understanding when we were trying to navigate a new country and culture. Every street vendor, store clerk, and cashier would smile and listen as we tried to use Spanish or hand gestures to communicate. There was no rush or sense of annoyance. This was also the case with the family we were building the house for and the masons, who spoke almost no English at all. Even the poorest of people in the villages would say hello and smile in passing, no matter what. Their culture was so neighborly and showed me how important communication is – even if it is just a smile. It meant so much to me. The people of Guatemala were just kind, genuine people, regardless of their situation. I continuously thought to myself, what if America was like this? What if we had this kind of patience and understanding of people’s differences? It would be a remarkably different place. Again, I know now that I can do my part in being more patient and accepting in the United States. It taught me a lot to be on the other side of things and feel like the minority in a new place.

Any stereotype I had of Guatemala was disproved, and I got to immerse myself in some very important aspects of their culture. Nobody fits into one box or one look. Some people are short, some people are tall, some people have brown skin, and some people have white skin with blonde hair and blue eyes. I had no idea how important religion is to them. With it being lent, we got to see a parade come by Enrique and Elvira’s house, in which the entire town came out for. I didn’t understand their level of poverty until I was working in a town of houses with dirt floors and walls of sheet metal. I found out about the civil war that just ended in the 90s and how that continues to affect Guatemalans. I got to see pieces and remains of their Mayan ancestry. I learned about some of the issues with child labor, especially because they have many agricultural exports. Everyone loves Guatemalan coffee, but not everybody knows that children are working in the fields for their Starbucks coffee plantations. It put a lot of social justice issues in perspective.

Of course, I learned more about myself than I had imagined. I saw my physical strength when I had blisters and sore muscles from working on the house all day. I saw my mental strength when we encountered tough situations, whether it be disagreements in the group or major changes as COVID-19 evolved. I saw myself and the group overcome fears that we didn’t know we had. I saw my strength in building relationships, staying grounded, and asking questions. Above all, I confirmed my love of exploration, service, and new experiences. The things I got to experience firsthand mean more to me than I can express. Guatemala has a very important place in my heart.

This development will stay with me for the rest of my life and will be especially important as I transition into post-graduate life. The trip put in perspective how lucky and privileged I am. Even if my future plans do not go exactly as expected, I am still extremely lucky to have the journey that I do. I hope to be less fixated on my life plans and more open to the opportunities that come my way. Any experience that will make me more well-rounded, even if that means a different or longer path, will make me a better healthcare professional in the end. I want to broaden my scope and seek out more than just my career – I want to focus some of my energy into service, exploration, and travel.

I will constantly be exposed to new people with complex backgrounds and social situations. This trip made me much more aware and empathetic towards that. Communication will always play a role in how I relate to people as a healthcare provider, and I know how important it is to adapt to new situations and be able to have discussion. I will always seek to learn from relationships and experiences rather than textbooks or the internet. In the future, I hope to find ways to combine my loves of service, travel, and the medical field. I will always keep in mind what is important to me in new or difficult situations – which is keeping an open mind and taking every opportunity to learn.

Constru Casa in Antigua, Guatemala

For the Buck-I-SERV trip I attended over this past spring break, me and 10 others worked collectively to help build a house in Antigua, Guatemala through the non-profit organization Constru Casa. We worked with local masons and the family that received the home to construct a safe and efficient place in a fairly impoverished area. Outside of the service aspect of the trip, we also had the opportunity to explore Guatemala and learn more about the culture and history of the country.

Initially, I was not expecting a lot going into this trip. I thought we were going to build a house and that was it. I was very wrong. I had no idea about all the culture and new perspectives I would gain in only seven days. I had never travelled out of the country, let alone to a third world country. To see first hand the poverty that consumed most of the country, and interact with the people who experienced this everyday of their lives, was truly life changing. And yet they were so happy with what they had, and even gracious to make sure we were provided with anything we needed. Coming back home, I knew I wanted to take those qualities with me and be more grateful and caring towards others.

Not only that, but I also got to see first hand the impact our service had on the family. They helped us every step of the way with building the house. I was inspired seeing girls half my age do twice the work I could do. They worked hard and always showed us patience and kindness. You could feel the sense of community, and that the house being built would not only help one family but also everyone in the surrounding compound.

As for the kindness and generosity, I saw this most in our home stay with the mother of the house, Elvera. From the moment we stepped off the bus in Antigua, she showed us compassion and generosity. We had only known her for seven days, but by the end she felt like family. She cared for us like we were her own children and made us feel safe and at home in a country we had never experienced. She was selfless with every member of our group and helped us learn all we could about Antigua (and she cooked us the most amazing meals).

Another interaction that changed my perspective was when I passed by a mother and her 4 year old child asleep on the side of the street. Earlier that day, we had seen them coming up to us on the street trying to sell us necklaces and hats. This was hard to see because the children on the street did not go to school to get an education, have a place to call home, or have a bed to sleep in at night. Poverty in Guatemala is extreme and this effects the availability of children to get an education. It made me grateful for my home and the education I am able to receive.

Also, I am currently minoring in Spanish. I was looking forward to learning the language in a native speaking country, however I was not expecting all the knowledge I would be able to gain. All of the people we tried to speak Spanish to were so patient with me and the rest of my group. Even though most of them were multilingual and also spoke English, they still helped us and just appreciated that we were trying to learn their language. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to learn about the Guatemalan culture, something we do not get to spend a lot of time on in my Spanish classes at Ohio State.

In my future, I hope to one day become a physician. I plan on embodying all the things I have learned on this trip and carry them through my journey to a career. The best way to treat patients is to show them compassion, patience, and look at them with an open mind. Not only have I found a change in how I view the world, but also my passion for service and helping others has grown tremendously. I hope to take this and find other opportunities for me to make an impact in not only America, but also around the world.