In November, ten Ohio 4-H professionals participated in a weeklong cultural immersion experience in Puerto Rico. The trip was led by Steve Brady, extension educator for 4-H in Warren County, and it gave attendees the opportunity to learn more about Puerto Rican culture, each other, and themselves.
Brady began cultural immersion trips in 2015 with the idea of helping both 4-H professionals and youth increase their cultural understanding and competency. “The goal of these experiences is to get the group out of their comfort zone and immerse them in an unfamiliar culture. I wanted to take them somewhere that was different where they could experience something new and exciting.”
In Castañer, the group visited a local school and participated in a music class where they learned about the significance of bomba music in Puerto Rico. Other activities included touring a local coffee farm, community meals with local leaders, and hiking in the natural beauty of the island. Brady also led the group through an Amazing Race-style community challenge that encouraged the group to engage with local people in Castañer.
“There was definitely some initial awkwardness as everyone worked to overcome the language barrier,” said Brady, “But this created opportunities to speak with people and ask them questions about Puerto Rican culture and their daily life.”
For Tracy Winters, state 4-H educator for shooting sports and natural resources, the most impactful part of the trip was meeting Puerto Ricans and seeing how they welcomed the group into their homes, schools, and businesses. “Their pride in their culture, their small town of Castañer, and their heritage was amazing to witness,” said Winters.
Brady said watching the group bond and witnessing the interaction with the community is always the most rewarding part of the trip. “Going into this experience, most of the participants knew very little about each other, but over the course of the week I watched them bond and develop relationships that will continue long after they return to Ohio.”
Winters agreed, “I not only learned I can still overcome challenges and go outside of my comfort zone, but also that I need to learn more about my co-workers and network with them to build stronger programs and to rely on their strengths to improve my weaknesses.”
This experience also helped group members deepen their understanding of youth development practices by meeting with extension professionals in Puerto Rico. Through these conversations, 4-H professionals were able to reflect on their own educational practices and be more mindful of how to better welcome people of other cultures.
One of the expectations of participants is for them to develop and lead their own immersion experiences with youth or adults. These experiences could be conducted at a state, national, or international level, with the goal that they immerse participants in new cultural settings. “Before we left Puerto Rico, many educators were already discussing ways they could take what they’d learned back to their counties," said Brady.
Jenna Hoyt, extension educator for 4-H in Ashtabula County, said this experience showed the importance of reconnecting with themselves and with each other. “In Extension and in our lives, we get so busy trying to keep up and get ahead. We often forget to stop and enjoy those meaningful conversations with our clientele and with one another.”
As Brady looks forward to the future of the Ohio 4-H Cultural Immersion Project, he hopes it will continue to grow. “I want to expand this experience and establish multiple destinations for cultural immersion opportunities. I also hope to bring on more people who have an interest in leading these trips so that even more 4-H professionals can participate.”