“You’re not coming back, are you?”

These words from an 11-year-old Salvadoran girl still haunt Paula Beckman. 

The special education professor, along with university students, alumni and a former university lecturer relived their experiences abroad in El Salvador to about 100 attendants yesterday evening in the Benjamin Building.

“Why Care? Finding Inspiration in El Salvador,” an event sponsored by the Institute for the Study of Exceptional Children and Youth, explored going abroad through the lens of a service trip and making a meaningful impact on a community. 

The experience — hosted through International Partners, a nongovernmental organization based in Silver Spring that offers year-round service trips targeting high school and college students — is part of a university course, EDSP 488B: El Salvador’s Children: Risk, Poverty and Education, a two-week service-based study abroad trip in January.

Students of all disciplines with varying levels of proficiency in Spanish go on the annual trip to one or more of four villages: Cacahuatal, Hacienda Vieja, Palo Grande and Alegría. They go to gain a deeper understanding of Salvadoran culture and help improve social conditions in El Salvador through education and initiatives in water and health, said Beckman, who serves as International Partners’ vice president.

Beckman started organizing the trip after she befriended Wendy, then 11, in 2001 when she went on a service trip to the country, still struggling to repair itself a decade after a violent civil war tore it apart from the late ’70s to early ’90s. And when the trip ended, Beckman vowed to reconnect with Wendy one day. 

But when she returned a year later, she found out the young girl had died.

“She committed suicide,” Beckman said. “She swallowed rat poison because she didn’t think that she had any options.”

Salvadoran children, especially those who live in rural areas, often can’t attend school because of lack of supplies or money for the bus fare to get to school. The trip tries to tackle this, Beckman said.  

At least 97 university students have gone to El Salvador to donate books, build libraries and train teachers since the program began in 2009, Beckman said.

Melissa Robbins, a 2010 alumna who went on the first delegation to El Salvador, told a firsthand account of her interactions with Salvadoran sisters Elsi, then 13, and Paula, then 16.

Neither girl went to school on the first day back from break. Neither went the next day. Then Paula went on the third day while Elsi stayed home.

Robbins found Elsi at the community center instead of in a classroom. “When I asked why, Elsi said, ‘Oh, well, someone gave [Paula] notebooks,’” Robbins said. “And I said, ‘That’s why you can’t go to school?’”

Over the past five years, International Partners, this university’s volunteers and local students have built four community-oriented education centers, each equipped with about 1,200 books and at least two computers, to provide enrichment activities for children, Beckman said.

The trip makes an impact at home too.

Two million people of Salvadoran descent live in the U.S., and 1 in 3 Hispanic people in the Washington area are of Salvadoran descent, according to a Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project report. The Washington area also has the second-highest metro area population of Salvadoran residents in the U.S., behind Los Angeles. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are among the top five in the U.S. with the highest population of Salvadorans.

This makes it challenging for both teachers and immigrant students in the area, Beckman said, especially when these students come from a country where secondary education is mostly optional and many don’t make it past fourth grade.

“Everybody thinks of [the racial achievement gap] as a language issue, and it’s not only a language issue; it’s what kind of background, in terms of school preparation, kids have had when they arrive,” she said.

Lizzie Hammett, a graduate student studying special education, said the experience reinforced her desire to sacrifice her time and focus on struggling children rather than herself.

“It really motivated me to see what I could do for the children of the world,” she said.

Diana Liddi, who went on the trip twice, said the limited time frame of two weeks was a gift because it encouraged her to put in more effort.

“It was from the faces of the kids,” she said. “I can’t not give my all to them.”

Several students in attendance who haven’t studied abroad, such as Daniel-praise Mowoh, were inspired by the speakers’ stories at the event.

“There are instances like [Wendy’s story] that make you know you want to live in a particular moment and not miss out on an opportunity to help people,” the junior physiology and neurobiology major said.

Amer Geries, a junior criminology and criminal justice major, said the event allowed him to see things in a new perspective.

“It opens your eyes to the society outside of which you’re living in because we’re so stuck on what we see every day,” Geries said. “Seeing these pictures on the board opens your eyes to what we’re missing … how we may take things for granted and how it makes you want to help.”

Beckman said the service trip has evolved from her original vision.

“When I first started, which was in 2009, was, ‘Let’s just get some books to some kids.’ That was really the basic thing,” she said. “And so it’s really because of the University of Maryland students that the whole thing took off.”

And while the speakers said they had mostly good experiences, some admitted there were some surprising ones.

“Have I ever had a chicken walk across my bed?” Robbins said. “Not before I went to El Salvador.”