Southeast Missouri State University alumna Erica Robbins is always looking for unique opportunities that can broaden her own and her students’ cultural competency and education.

Robbins, a 2005 Southeast graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Education, elementary and early childhood education, teaches “Introduction to Foreign Languages” at Jackson Middle School in Jackson, Missouri.


When the opportunity arose to travel to the Dominican Republic this summer from July 6-13 as part of Cenet’s Culture Exchange Network and Culture in the Classroom program, Robbins jumped as the chance to participate in a first-hand cultural, international experience that she could bring back to her classroom.

Cenet is a not-for-profit organization in the Marquette Tech District in downtown Cape Girardeau that is dedicated to inspiring a safer, more prosperous and compassionate world through international education and cultural exploration. Cenet provides opportunities to experience world cultures through programs including Culture in the Classroom, Culture in the Community, Exchange Visitor Program which is authorized by the U.S. State Department, and The Magellan Exchange, a consortium of universities worldwide offering faculty and student exchange opportunities.

Robbins was one of four southeast Missouri educators, and one of three Southeast graduates to be selected to participate, along with April Garner, principal of Franklin Elementary in Cape Girardeau, a 1990, 2008 and 2012 Southeast graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Education, early childhood education, a Master of Arts in elementary administration  and a Specialist in Education in educational administration.; and Seth Mayes, fifth grade teacher at Chaffee Elementary School in Chaffee, Missouri, and 2015 Southeast graduate with a Bachelor of Science in Education, elementary education. The fourth educator to be selected was James Tilman, a social studies teacher with the New Madrid School District.

“I know the selection process was difficult, but being one of the four chosen is a life-changing opportunity that will benefit so many individuals, especially our students,” Robbins said.

On why she wanted to participate in the program:

From 2009-2015, I lived in Barcelona, Spain, teaching English as a foreign language. I earned a Trinity College of London certification in teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL) after completing an intensive TESOL training program in Barcelona, Spain. I always thought that I would come back to the United States and eventually teach Spanish or foreign languages. I wanted to participate in this program because the opportunity arose right as I began teaching “Foreign Languages and Culture.” I can incorporate my experiences in the Dominican Republic smoothly into the curriculum I currently teach, educating my students in cultural sensitivity; global differences, similarities, intricacies, uniqueness and individuality; and synthesize their knowledge with new experiences and information, thus facilitating their personal and professional success in an increasingly diverse world.

On some of her experiences with the Culture in the Classroom program:

As part of the program, we visited local schools and collaborated with local educators; took dance lessons and attended an open-air concert; ate dinner in local homes; observed Dominican poverty issues; and went on tours at a coffee plantation and women’s cooperative chocolate factory.

We participated in thought-provoking conversations with entrepreneurs, activists and school personnel who gave us down-to-earth, realistic accounts of life in the Dominican Republic and exposed us to certain injustices that citizens there face, such as racism, poverty and other social inequalities. We were able to participate in supporting local businesses such as a women-run chocolate cooperative and a local coffee plantation, as well as visited at-risk schools and spoke with children who were grateful for the chance at an education in hopes of bettering their futures and escaping generational poverty.

We also had debriefings every evening where we discussed our question of the day, such as how does the education system in the United States compare to the rest of the world and what can we learn from a different system? Is racism the same around the world? How can tourism help or hurt a community?

One of Erica’s (second from right) favorite days was visiting with local residents. Here she is with (from left  to right) Robyn Walker, executive director of Cenet; Pedro´s mother, who hosted everyone in her home for dinner; Andy Tilmon, teacher at New Madrid High School; and Pedro, father of Saúl and Gisele in the front.

My favorite day was when we met two children, their father and grandmother, and were invited into their homes to eat a meal, intimately commune and share our thoughts together. The children were so happy and grateful, and their family, close and extended, poured in and out of the home throughout the evening, bringing with them smiles, handshakes, hugs and happiness all around.

 On what she learned from the Culture in the Classroom program:

I am definitely reminded of humility and how important it is to recognize what is going on in the world we live in, especially so close to the United States. I have learned a lot of history about the Dominican Republic, including the mass genocide carried out in 1937 under the direct order of the dictator at that time, Rafael Trujillo. I have also learned about his execution of the Maribel sisters, and the tension between Haitian and Dominican citizens.

I hope to bring back a clearer idea of lifestyle discrepancies, both here and abroad, but especially in places where we might think “island paradise” upon first mention of the name. Cultural awareness, sensitivity and acceptance, as well as empathy and a heightened sense of gratitude are characteristics I would like to develop among my students. My goal is to integrate my experiences to help my students truly comprehend where they come from, view the world they live in with admiration, and motivate them to mindfully participate in society in order to partake in creating a more unified global population.

 On her time at Southeast:

I chose Southeast because my mother, father and paternal grandmother attended and graduated from Southeast, so it was a privilege to be a third generation Southeast alumna. Because Southeast first began as a teachers’ college, attending Southeast was also special to me in that aspect — I am proud to be an educator who graduated from a University that prides itself in top-notch education and producing top-notch educators!

Southeast has immensely contributed to my success. It was through Southeast that I went on my first travel and study abroad experience to Greece and Italy, and it was that trip to Europe which ignited my passion for world-wide culture, languages, geography and the idea that education can take you places. It was after graduating from Southeast, that the idea of teaching abroad came to mind, and I am positive that my teaching degree from Southeast played an important, if not essential, role in my being hired abroad.

On advice for Southeast Students:

Always do more than you think you can. You will be extremely satisfied with your results!