Amber Martinez, ‘18, could have spent her last spring break in college doing what college students do: Relaxing, hanging out with friends, or heading to a variety of spring break hotspots.
Instead, she chose to go to Croatia as part of a service-learning trip to help bring a culture of volunteerism to the former communist nation.
For Martinez, it was the trip of a lifetime.
“This was actually my first experience ever leaving the United States,” she said. “I really had no expectations, but I knew going abroad, doing service-learning, and helping another community was something I wanted to do before I graduated. When this opened up, I was really excited.”
Under the guidance of Christine Lai, professor of business, Martinez and five of her peers participated in the 10-day alternative spring break. The opportunity was born out of a partnership established between Buffalo State and the University of Rijeka (UNIRI), after Lai was a Fulbright Scholar there during the spring of 2017. According to Lai, the University of Rijeka was interested in incorporating civic and community engagement into their curriculum.
“While I was there, I realized that the University of Rijeka, like other universities in Croatia, wanted to institute what we call service-learning,” she said.
To that end, Lai offered a class last spring on “Civic and Community Engagement in Croatia,” with the goal being to bring the service-learning aspects of Buffalo State to the Croatian university.
Finding opportunities to do volunteer work in Croatia was a bit of a challenge, as the concept isn’t as universally understood there as it is in the United States, Lai said. In the end, however, the students were able to volunteer at several facilities, including a home for developmentally disabled children, a home for seniors, and a school serving Croatia’s Roma population.
“We went there for a day,” she said, referring to the Roma school. “The students loved it.”
Martinez said she enjoyed the Roma school, and learning about their culture.
“They welcomed us with open arms,” she said. “They made a presentation for us and cooked for us. Doing that just opened up doors for us to hang out with them and really get to know them on a personal level.”
The University of Rijeka has continued the work the students from Buffalo State started on the visit, Martinez said, and that has been rewarding to see.
“For me personally, that makes a huge impact on my life and what I’m able to do moving forward,” she said.
Iva Tijan, who runs the International Unit at the University of Rijeka, thanked Lai and the students for the work they did in Croatia.
“Your presence was strongly experienced and much appreciated by all who you interacted with during your stay in Rijeka,” she said in an email to Lai. “ Your respectful, yet kind approach was especially noted and highly appreciated by, and at, all the institutions and persons you visited, helped out, and provided services for. You and your students made a huge difference in the lives of the persons you helped during your stay and additionally inspired UNIRI students to think about alternative ways of spending holidays in an active way volunteering within their community and broader.”
The trip wasn’t all work. The students were able to experience the food and culture of Croatia, and explore some of the country’s natural beauty.
“We had too much fun,” Martinez said.
One of the highlights was going to Plitvice Lakes National Park, Martinez said. “It’s breathtaking,” she said. “There are waterfalls everywhere. It’s amazing.”
They also had a question and answer session with local students at a pub in Croatia, Martinez said.
“We were able to speak to them about our lives at Buffalo State and here in America,” she said.
In addition to the Croatian students, Buffalo State students were also able to interact with students from across the European Union, Lai said.
Going on the trip was “super eye-opening,” Martinez said. She realized that she has a passion for helping people, and it’s motivated her to do more to help people in the United States.
“I came back just ready to give back,” she said, noting that she does volunteer work through her job.
Martinez said the trip was life-changing and had some advice for students who are considering a similar trip.
“I 1,000 percent recommend it for anyone who wants to personally better themselves,” she said.