Discovering injustices in the legal system, learning cultural differences, connecting with children sick with AIDS – Georgia State University students Nyeepha Carroway and Molly Lustig never knew their study abroad program would leave them with such stories they could share for a lifetime.
From unique educational experiences to life-changing cultural journeys, the first Andrew Young School West Indies Study Abroad program undeniably left lasting imprints on the seven students who participated.
Led by criminal justice faculty member Cyntoria Johnson in May 2013, the program gave students opportunities to increase their cross-cultural awareness and expand their knowledge of an international justice system through engaging coursework and real-life encounters with criminal justice policies in the twin island country of Trinidad and Tobago.
For 28 days, they engaged with local students and gained new insights on Caribbean culture and law.
Carroway and Lustig, both studying toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, say they gained new perspectives on life and policy. For example, they noted the contrasts between the criminal justice systems in Trinidad and Tobago and the United States during their trips to the prison. They agree that the Trinidadian corrections facilities place more effort on rehabilitation and reintegration than those in the U.S.
“Prisoners are given options to participate in vocational training activities such as carpentry, agriculture, plumbing, sewing and technological and culinary programs to equip them with necessary tools to re-enter society,” Carroway explains.
Inmates also ran and produced their own radio station, playing therapeutic music throughout the prison as a form of anger management.
“One prisoner found a passion for music during his incarceration and is looking forward to being released so he can pursue his dream in the music industry,” says Lustig. “It was inspiring to see a prison reform system that was so revitalizing and successful.”
Both students agree that some of these practices should be adopted in the U.S.
“When inmates learn helpful trades like these, they can enter back into society with new confidence, knowing they have skills to do things on their own and believing they can make a difference,” Carroway adds.
The students also observed differences between how Trinidad and Tobago and the U.S. approach crime. For example, the island country has a limited police presence that prevents monitoring drivers for traffic violations, which could cause them to overlook possible DUI cases. High crime areas force Trinidadians to take safer routes to work to avoid violence and criminals who use HIV/AIDS as a weapon to harm innocent young women. Also, their police records are logged by hand instead of by computer.
Young children inspire
Lustig and Carroway agree that the most heartwarming part of their study abroad experience was their visit to the Cyril Ross Nursery, an institution that houses and cares for children sick with HIV/AIDS. They spent time with the children, playing games and sharing stories.
“Although their illness makes their lives different from most, the children live a normal childhood. They attend church and school regularly, they like playing hide-and-seek, and they participate in recreational classes such as art, swimming, music and football,” Lustig says.
Both students say they made a connection with these children and felt a great sense of joy and fulfillment spending time with them.
“This was by far the most humbling experience of my life,” Lustig adds. “Even though they face incredibly rough circumstances, they were the happiest and friendliest children I have ever met. They inspired me to never lose hope, which is something I will need to overcome obstacles when I am in my career, fighting for justice for citizens like these children.”
Tying it all together
As part of the program, Cyntoria Johnson introduced different guest lecturers to the class. Trinidadian criminologists and professors from the University of the West Indies (UWI) helped lead discussion topics and give the students different perspectives on criminal justice systems beyond U.S. borders.
“Professor Johnson was so helpful in organizing this trip and making it one to remember. She ensured the coursework provided was interesting and engaging, and she would readjust our schedules to include activities that we were interested in, but weren’t originally planned,” Carroway says.
Lustig says that while speaking with a UWI student, she learned about injustices in the Trinidadian criminal system, which treats lower income citizens unfairly, delaying their trials or eradicating them altogether. Unfair treatment had become the culture there, and she says she has seen some similarities in the U.S., inspiring her to continue her education in law.
“It was so disturbing to hear about these inequalities,” she says, “and it will have a detrimental effect on the criminal justice system as a whole. Everybody deserves a fair legal system, and my experience in the West Indies has moved me to pursue a law degree after I complete my undergraduate studies to ensure justice and equality for each individual.”
Carroway says this experience has simply taught her to be grateful for what she has.
“It’s so important to be appreciative and realize how fortunate we are, even in our justice system. For instance, Trinidad has automatic death penalties for offenders of particular crimes, whereas we have the opportunity for lighter sentencing based on the facts of the case. That’s something to prize,” she says.
This experience left a mark on seven Andrew Young students. But also, by their bonding with Trinidadian and other international students, children and members of the legal system through service learning projects, these students left their mark on the criminal justice community of Trinidad and Tobago.
–Jelisa Lowe, M.P.P.
The 2014 Maymester West Indies Study Abroad is now open to undergraduate, graduate and transient students in good standing. Students from other institutions , non-criminal justice majors and post-baccalaureate alumni students are also welcome to apply. To learn more, go to http://aysps.gsu.edu/cj/study-abroad-program.