A “toxic swamp” lurked beneath the feet of more than a dozen high school stu­dents at Ocean Academy in Caye Caulker, Belize. North­eastern Uni­ver­sity stu­dent Ellie Deshaies care­fully observed every step.

She instructed the intrepid trav­elers to cross the wet­lands using a paper plank. If a student’s foot touched the ground, the game was over.

It was just one small part of Deshaies’ spring co-​​op, helping some 15 stu­dents trans­form their com­mu­nity through ser­vice projects grounded in team­work, com­mu­ni­ca­tion and problem solving skills acquired by playing inter­ac­tive games like toxic swamp.

The expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity inspired her to pursue a career in inter­na­tional development.

I def­i­nitely want to do another inter­na­tional co-​​op,” says Deshaies, a third-​​year inter­na­tional affairs major. “Edu­ca­tion was never on my radar, but teaching these stu­dents made me realize that I would love to work in a devel­oping com­mu­nity in another country.”

Deshaies con­nected with Ocean Academy through Northeastern’s stu­dent group Peace through Play, which was named Stu­dent Orga­ni­za­tion of the Year for 2010 by the Office for Stu­dent Affairs and Stu­dent Activ­i­ties, Lead­er­ship & Scholarship.

The club works with campus orga­ni­za­tions, local schools and global NGO’s on ini­tia­tives aimed at erad­i­cating youth violence.

Deshaies, guided by Peace through Play’s Leaders and Change­makers of Tomorrow cur­riculum at Ocean Academy, encour­aged stu­dents to become pos­i­tive agents of change in their com­mu­nity by addressing impor­tant social issues.

She oversaw one group of stu­dents who cleaned up trash from a local beach and posted a video of the expe­ri­ence on YouTube to the tune of the Bea­tles’ “Here Comes the Sun.” Another group of stu­dents cre­ated an in-​​class talk show that focused on teen preg­nancy, drug use and vio­lence in the community.

The class projects improved the stu­dents’ image among a large number of com­mu­nity mem­bers who “don’t see them doing pos­i­tive things or working toward bet­tering the com­mu­nity,” says Deshaies.

Some stu­dents enjoyed the class dis­cus­sions, games and projects so much so that they joined a com­mu­nity ser­vice club at the school.

The stu­dents were great,” says Deshaies. “I learned a lot about edu­ca­tion and teaching from being on the other side of the classroom.”