Beyond the classroom: students learn to share rooms, lives and culture

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: June 19th, 2013

Ask students what it’s like to live at EARTH and you will, without exception, hear the word “family” repeated again and again. Rather than a cliché, it is an organic result of this unique place which brings together students from diverse backgrounds from more than 30 nations, including North, Central and South America, Africa and the Middle East and plops them in the middle of the rain forest with a single mission: to gain the skills needed to change the world.

Nowhere is this sense of family more apparent than in the dorms, where students are paired with a roommate from another country. Latinos often play an extremely important role in helping their non-Spanish speaking roommates learn Spanish. In almost all cases, students choose to live with the same person for all four years of their studies. This process of learning to communicate and co-exist with one another across cultures is a valuable skill that aids students in becoming leaders of change in the future.

This sense of family, of shared commitment, has also become a source of comic inspiration for students. The first class in 1990 jokingly started referring to their same-sex roommates as “doñas” (pronounced doe-nyas in Spanish), which translates to “wife” or “girlfriend”. While often a source of laughter and confusion for new students, especially males, who hesitate in referring to a complete stranger as their “wife,” the term (much to the chagrin of many administrators) stuck.

Residence administrator Cecilia Duran remarks that, “This idea of ‘doñas’ wasn’t something that we [the University] came up with, it came from the students themselves almost 25 years ago. I think it reflects this very close relationship that the students have, nothing romantic I mean, but a very tight friendship.”

What was it like meeting for the first time?

Betania: The first time we met, it was really late at night and Professor Tobias Gómez helped me bring my luggage up the stairs to my room. I opened the door and Primrose was staring at me, and we both just started hugging and jumping and laughing and dancing around the room. I think they thought we were crazy.

Primrose: The first time I met her she gave me the biggest hug, in front of two men, at night! And I was like “oh my god”, and then she sat with me and told me lots of stories and I was willing to listen. This was my first clue that Latin Americans are very free and open.

If you had the choice, would you choose a roommate from a different country?

Betania: I would pick Africa, for sure. When I was preparing to come here, I already knew that EARTH was really multicultural, and my mom and I always talked about how cool it would be to have a roommate from Africa.

Primrose: I wouldn’t pick my countrymen because I know I will live with them my whole life, it’s easy to find someone similar to yourself. So I prefer to have someone of a different culture in my room.

What do you think of the term “doña”?

Betania: I was talking to my mom on the phone and I mentioned my doña and my mom thought I had gotten married to a woman in Costa Rica. I had to explain to her that that’s what they call roommates here and we laughed so hard we cried”

Primrose: I like the word doñabecause it makes everyone equal; no one is above the other.[/expand]

Primrose (left) says of her roommate Betania (right), “We really match, we have the same characters.”

Doñas and The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Betania Taquiva (Venezuela, ‘16) and Primrose Najjemba (Uganda, ‘16) have become the best of friends in their first trimesters at EARTH. Primrose especially appreciates having extra Spanish practice, because “I’ve learned a lot from Betania. She has taught me a lot about the language and pronunciation, especially the rolling R!”

Betania is happy to help. As she sees it, “Primrose isn’t my roommate or my friend; she is my sister.”

Support our students at EARTH as they learn to become leaders of change for our future. Donate here.


  1. J̶ ̶a̶l̶e̶x̶a̶n̶d̶e̶r̶ ̶ii̶m̶b says:

    excelente 😀

  2. Alberto Maldonado says:

    muy bueno

  3. Carlos says:

    Uno de los valores por nuestra universidad…. Felicidades… II Promocion

  4. Margarita says:

    Coloquen una foto de los estudiantes completa, año por año, los de 1. 2o. 3 y 4 año para que podamos verlos a todos.

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