Nicaragua nostalgia: Students reflect on summer trips

For a typical college student, summer means time to hit up the beach and work on your tan, catch up with old high-school friends and work a seasonal job or — if you’re lucky — an internship.  But for 26 students of the College, this past summer also meant the opportunity to broaden their cultural horizons by volunteering in what is, according to UNICEF, one of the poorest developing countries in Central America, with 16 percent of citizens living below the international poverty line of $1.25 per day — Nicaragua.

Members of WILL's third Solidarity Project pose with children from a school in a rural Nicaraguan community. (Photo courtesy of Jamie Primeau)

Thirteen members of Women in Leadership and Learning spent the past academic year studying the economics, politics and history of Nicaragua and fundraising $2,100 each in order to participate  in the organization’s third solidarity project.

W.I.L.L. advisor Mary Lynn Hopps, who initiated the first solidarity project to El Salvador in 2006, said, “It’s really a two-semester community engaged learning experience that culminates in a trip to the country.”

The trip was organized through the Center for Global Education, which provided the itinerary, transportation and a translator for the group as they traveled the Spanish-speaking country. The students met with leaders and employees of non-profit organizations with focuses on poverty, HIV/AIDS and female equality during their 10 days there.

Senior English and secondary education double major Micaela Ensminger gained a new perspective after meeting with Nicaraguan women who attempted setting up their own sewing cooperative with the help of non-profit organization Jubilee House.

After building a warehouse by hand, the women ordered sewing machines and supplies from Venezuela. The items they received were broken, incomplete and unusable. Two years later, their business and their dream remains at a standstill as they have no functional equipment and are fighting a lengthy legal battle.

“But still, when we were talking to these women, they were so amazing because they weren’t angry or bitter when they told their story,” Ensminger said. “They had the strongest and most hopeful spirits I had met in my whole life.”

According to Ensminger, the attitudes of these women exemplify that of the entire country. “Even though they deal with massive amounts of poverty that students at the College can’t even fathom,” she said, “these people have a strong sense of culture and community and that’s what they really value.”

The Foundation for International Medical Relief of Children is a national organization dedicated to providing health care in areas that lack sufficient coverage while teaching children preventative measures to stay healthy. This

Members of FIMRC give a lesson to students at the elementary school in Limón, Nicaragua on the dangers of Dengue Fever before teaching them how to prevent contracting the disease. (Photo courtesy of Megan Phillips)

past summer, five students from the College’s local chapter of FIMRC traveled for a week to the rural town of Limón, Nicaragua.

Stationed at Las Salinas Clinic, the group spent a good portion of their time shadowing doctors and nurses in the clinic’s remote setting and learning about the Nicaraguan health care system.

Junior nursing major Megan Phillips quickly recognized the startling difference between the health care benefits U.S. citizens often take for granted and the ones sanctioned by the government in developing countries such as Nicaragua.

“The lack of (health care) in Nicaragua was an eye-opener to what its like for the majority of the world and the access other people have to health care, and how much health care we really have here,” she said.

The small clinic, with a medicine cabinet operating as a pharmacy, served eight surrounding towns. Some residents took hour-long bus rides just to get there. Once at the clinic there was no appointment system, so people had to wait and hope they were lucky enough to receive some of the limited supply of medicine. The nearest hospital was hours away and no one could afford an ambulance, which is considered private care and therefore not funded by the Nicaraguan government.

“If they were in a real emergency situation,” Phillips said, “they don’t have a lot of equipment necessary to help them.”

The group also spent much of their time in the classroom with second, third and fourth graders giving lessons in Spanish on how to avoid contracting diseases from mosquitoes.

“The goal is teaching the kids young so they have (the skills) for life and they don’t get these diseases that the country doesn’t necessarily have the means to treat,” Phillips said.

Despite their hardships, the patients and students that the group met never complained.

“They really seemed content with what they had,” Phillips noted. “But I don’t know if that was just because they didn’t know any different.”

Bonner Scholars spent a week and a half in Nicaragua, living on homestays and learning about the residents’ lives. (Photo courtesy of Megan Gerity)

Eight Bonner Scholars spent a week and a half in the Central American country studying the effects of U.S. policy on Nicaraguan politics, economics and communities during the annual Bonner trip for rising juniors and seniors sponsored through national organization Witness for Peace. The students were placed in a homestay in the small rural community of Ramón Garcia and interacted with Nicaraguan citizens from all backgrounds — from economists, community organizers and humanitarians to factory workers, coffee farmers and even children on the streets.

“The families we stayed with did not receive monetary compensation, but instead chose to host us in order to be a part of a larger positive change and relationship with people from other countries,” said senior urban education and history double major Megan Gerity in an email.

This summer was senior international studies major Kathrine Avila’s second trip to Nicaragua for the Bonner Center. Avila said she hoped to reconnect with her host family from last year, but found that the family no longer lived there; when their crops weren’t making enough money for them to survive, Avila found out, the parents were forced to send their two daughters, ages 10 and 15, to opposite sides of the country to live with and work for other families before they left Nicaragua altogether in hopes of a more profitable future in Costa Rica.

Avila said she still can’t believe that “(the Nicaraguans) were really, really nice to us even though they know how our policies make them suffer.”

The trip left Gerity with a new sense of what it means to be an American citizen.  “Being an American,” she said via email, “should not be about ignoring or denying our past decisions to make ourselves look better, but instead owning up to and fixing our past mistakes. That, to me, is the strongest form of patriotism.”