While many Yale students were lying on beaches over spring break, Ella Smith ’05 was kneeling on the ground mixing cement to build the foundation of a house in Nicaragua. Smith, along with many others, decided to turn down typical spring break hotspots in favor of visiting the relatively unknown streets and villages of Latin America.

Over spring break, three service learning trips — to Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Cuba — were organized by the recently-created group Reach Out: The Yale College Partnership for International Service. Established in the fall of 2002 by five Yale undergraduates, Reach Out was founded to promote and facilitate international service among the student body.

Jocelyn Lippert ’04, one of the group’s founders, explained the importance of foreign service work for sustainable development.

“It’s really important to be able to see [these cultures] for yourself and to meet people who are struggling with the problems of the developing world,” she said.

Although all three trips offered students the opportunity to meet different people, explore other cultures and work for sustainable development, each trip was unique.

In conjunction with the Yale Hillel and the American Jewish World Service, three undergraduates, one graduate student and Rabbi Lina Grazier-Zerbarini traveled to El Salvador to work with a grass-roots organization known as La Coordinadora. Students lived in a house for volunteers but ate all meals with host families.

La Coordinadora is a group that helps small farmers become more efficient and works to establish stability for El Salvadorians suffering the aftermath of their Civil War, which ended in 1992. Students’ daily work included clearing land, painting, potting shells and performing similar reforestation-related activities. Not all work, however, was indirect and impersonal.

Acacia Clark ’04, the leader of the El Salvador trip, said students were able to get to know the farmers and form strong relationships with their host families. Students also had the chance to explore their Jewish heritage with a trip to the nation’s only synagogue.

Clark said she found it particularly interesting to talk to the people about their views on the war in Iraq, considering their recent experience with a war of their own.

“It was cool being able to talk to families about the war,” Clark said. She said most people did not support the war — there was even a peace rally while they were there — but Clark also pointed out that her host family was not aware that some citizens were suffering under the Iraqi government.

The students who traveled to Cuba found themselves in quite a different situation. Because of the stringent governmental laws, students were not able to live or eat meals with families, and instead had to stay in a guest house owned by the Small Farmers Association.

The 16 students on the trip were all students in Professor Alejandra Bronfman’s class, “Cuba Today: Problems and Promises of a Lasting Revolution.”

“Once they decided to take the trip, I thought it was really important for them to learn about Cuba before they went,” Bronfman said. “It’s a really complicated place, and I thought it would be to their benefit to know as much as possible before going.”

While visiting Cuba, students were expected to do a certain amount of research for an upcoming class project. In addition, students had the opportunity to meet with government officials, members of the community arts center and representatives from the Cuban Women’s Federation.

Although many students said they could feel the effects of Cuban government restrictions, Lippert said she was struck by the amount of misinformation Americans receive about Cuba.

“Being there was absolutely mind-blowing because the extent of misinformation we get in the U.S. about Cuba is unbelievable,” she said.

Lippert said every Cuban has free health care, the literacy rate is 96 percent, and people are living in relatively modest but modern housing. Lippert said she particularly enjoyed meeting a doctor and visiting his office.

“We made a big effort to meet people randomly and talk to them,” Lippert said.

Students on the third service learning trip visited Nicaragua. The trip was coordinated by the New Haven-Leon Sister City Project, a nongovernmental organization with branches in New Haven and Leon, Nicaragua. The group consisted of seven students, one Sister City employee and one city government representative. On this trip, students combined elements of the trips to Cuba and El Savador as they met with governmental representatives and performed service-oriented tasks while living with host families.

For Kate Waldeck ’05, the leader of the trip, traveling to Nicaragua was not a new experience. Waldeck, who is interested in international and rural medicine, visited Nicaragua last summer with a medical team. She said she noticed that much of what was being done to help sick people was not curing or preventing disease, but rather temporarily ameliorating pain. As a result, Waldeck said she wanted to take this more recent trip to work on sustainable development.

Smith said the people on her trip made the experience most memorable.

“I knew that I’d be doing great service and learning a lot, but two things were especially meaningful,” Smith said. “My host family was great. I now have contact with a family in Nicaragua who knows me — I e-mail them, and I am also going to send them a framed digital picture of us. Also, the Yale group was great. We were such an eclectic group of people, and we really bonded.”

Chad Harple ’06, who painted a church while exploring his religious heritage in El Salvador, had never been out of the country before this trip.

“Going on this trip made me realize how much there is to learn,” he said.