After a long term in LACS 20 talking about international relations, service, development, and responsibility, the class has finally come to a close. I’ve learned a ton these past 10 weeks, and more importantly, what I’ve learned has been truly applicable to my life. This class has brought up concerns and considerations about development and service that I’d never considered before, and has made me think deeply about topics that I might never have noticed had I not sat through this course. As someone interested in travel, medicine, and international service, I believe that taking this class has predisposed me to be a great deal more responsible in my future endeavors. I have a deeper understanding of what service-learning is and what it means to partner with, not seek to “help” a community abroad.
Now, it’s time to move on the part that we’ve all been waiting for – our CCESP trip to Nicaragua. I am nervous, excited, worried, hopeful, and just about going out of my mind with anticipation. Even with 10 weeks of prep, it still snuck up on me.
So now what? I’m packing my bags, taking my malaria medication, and planning for the implementation of my final project with Kate and Valentina. We had such tremendous success in starting the conversation about maternal mental health at the DHMC Women’s Resource Center here in New Hampshire, and I can’t help but hope that our results will be just as good at the casa materna. We have a polaroid camera and film ready to photograph any willing women (and kids!) and a list of questions that will hopefully elicit answers about the emotional state of pregnant women and new mothers in Nicaragua. Maternal mental health is such a taboo subject of conversation, even here in the States – any conversation that we can get going, even if it occurs after we’re gone, would be a huge victory in my book.
I can’t help but feel like the learning has just begun. 10 weeks in a classroom is a lot of hours to put in, but I have a feeling that the two weeks we spend in Nicaragua will be just as educational, if not more so. I feel so ready to immerse myself in that, to experience everything that the country and the people can offer me, and to hopefully lose myself in the service of a greater good for at least a little bit of every day.
This week is final presentation week in LACS 20, and I’m thinking about all of the awesome projects that I’ve seen thus far. It has been so incredible to hear about all of the in depth research and innovative work that my classmates have been doing this term. I’d like to talk about just a couple of the presentations that I’ve listened to this past week: Angela, Hana, and Dave’s presentation on traditional medicine, and Billy, Julia, and Matt’s presentation on autonomous regions and border disputes.
Angela, Hana, and Dave presented on traditional medicine and its role in Nicaragua, particularly among the indigenous population. This was a really fascinating topic to me because the “Western” medicine practiced in the United States often completely neglects any mention of traditional practices or spiritual care. As someone who wants to be a doctor and will presumably be trained in America by Western doctors, I am interested in broadening my perspective to include other facets of medicine that are more prominent in regions outside the U.S.
The presentation began with a brief history of the indigenous groups in Nicaragua. Like many places, there are a variety of indigenous cultures and peoples, all of which have been mistreated by the colonizing government for nearly as long as the government has existed. Although the group touched on several indigenous groups, this presentation focused the Miskito people, for which the most information on traditional medicine was available. In particular, there was a great deal of information on spiritual illness, which encompasses illnesses of the soul rather than physiological illnesses. This is a concept that might draw scoffs in Western medicine, but in indigenous populations, there are recognized spiritual illnesses for which traditional healers have respected remedies. One of my favorite parts of this presentation was the respect and care with which this topic was discussed, because it is so important that we recognize that just because these illnesses are different from what we know and foreign to us as Americans does not mean that they aren’t real to the indigenous Nicaraguan people. This was also present later in the presentation, as it was discussed that many traditional remedies, such as those for certain types of diarrhea, do in fact work.
A second topic that came up in this presentation was maternal mortality and the role of the casa materna in reducing maternal and neonatal deaths. A statistic that was given that shocked me was that nearly 4% of deaths among women result from maternal mortality cases, largely due to lack of professional medical care during birth. Most midwives are illiterate and lack both formal training and general education, meaning that while they may be very helpful when a birth goes well, they are not prepared to deal with complications in delivery. This is where the casa materna comes in. By providing medical care to women in a group setting, the casa materna is a cost-effective means of reducing maternal morbidity and mortality. This is something that I have researched at length for my final project, but the interesting point that came up in this presentation was a list of reasons for women not to go to a casa materna. Machismo culture prevents women from reaching out and looking for contraception, thereby disclosing sexual activity, and thus the family planning options go underutilized. There are also cultural expectation that women who are “good child deliverers” can give birth at home without all the fuss and prove their worth, an unfortunate phenomenon that contributes to maternal deaths. These were considerations that I did not come across in my own research, and so were helpful in furthering my understanding of my own project.
Billy, Julia, and Matt presented on autonomous regions and the various border disputes between these regions within Nicaragua as well as between Nicaragua and other countries. I thought this was both interesting and relevant given that we members of the CCESP team, will be working in the RAAN, one of several autonomous regions in Nicaragua.
Billy, Julia, and Matt clearly put a great deal of time and effort into their work, and their research was in-depth and informative. The presentation began with a segment on indigenous rights, an area which is key to understanding the autonomous regions of Nicaragua. The presenters did a great job of summarizing briefly and focusing on the big picture, which is that despite UN and other efforts to expand legislative protection of indigenous peoples, cultures, and rights, indigenous peoples are still taken advantage of to a massive degree by the nations that colonized their land.
I thought that the transition from this lack of implementation of measures to protect indigenous rights to a discussion of the history of indigenous-governmental relations in Nicaragua flowed very nicely. The discussion of the history of co-opting and abusing indigenous culture by the Somoza regime and the Sandinistas alike was very informative, as was the knowledge shared about the current autonomous regions. This information is especially useful given our destination in Siuna. One thing that I found particularly interesting about this part of the presentation was the fact that Westerners are still coming into the autonomous regions and using violence to take over the land. After such a long history of worldwide abuse of indigenous peoples by colonizing populations, it shocks and saddens me that we are still seeing such cruelty and disregard today.
The last section of the presentation discussed other border disputes. While not necessarily as applicable to us in Siuna, this information served to further our understanding of the challenges faced by Nicaragua and the political climate in Latin America. There are a great many disputed regions and, as pointed out by Professor Moody, it would be interesting to hear what the Nicaraguans have to say about some of them.
This week, I’m thinking about health care in Nicaragua. This is, obviously, a very broad topic, so I’d like to focus on a few subtopics for this post: infrastructure and availability.
In terms of infrastructure, the Nicaraguan constitution states that all citizens have equal rights to health, and that it is up to the state to provide the basic conditions to promote and protect this health. The Ministry of Health is responsible for applying and evaluating laws related to health and healthcare, and coordination and supervision of all health-related activities lies in its dominion. There is, therefore, a framework in place for public health and health care. However, as the country currently stands, infrastructure and funding do not meet the needs of the citizens. Lack of investment in health care facilities and personnel has led Nicaragua into a downwards spiral in terms of free medicine and public health care since the early 1990s. Recent data listed Nicaragua’s per capita spending on health care at 144 USD, the lowest per capita health investment of any country in Latin America and the Caribbean. The result is that infrastructure is sorely lacking and access to care is extremely low, with less than 2 in 3 Nicaraguans having access to health care services and only 6.3% of the population having health insurance to help pay for those services.
Speaking specifically about access, there is a huge disparity between urban and rural regions of Nicaragua. As explored by our Forbes and Gutierrez reading, the autonomous regions experience the worst health disparities, with women affected more than men. Rates of contraction of, and death from, preventable infectious diseases like respiratory infection and diarrhea are extremely high, while number of physicians to treat these conditions is very low. Unlike in many countries, the Ministry of Health does not financially incentivize physicians to practice in rural or under-resourced communities. As a result, there is less than 1 doctor per 1,000 Nicaraguan inhabitants of a region, with that statistic skewed heavily towards urban areas.
These are some pretty sobering statistics, especially for a group of people preparing to head into a rural area of Nicaragua and immerse themselves in the healthcare system there. The area that we are visiting, part of the RAAN, falls into the category described by statistics like “has a chronic childhood malnutrition rate of 22.6%” and “one psychiatrist per entire population of the RAAN and the RAAS”. The extent to which health care services, and the ability to pay for these services, is lacking is truly staggering. Thinking ahead to the sorts of cases we will be seeing, I’ve been thinking back to something that was said by the woman who came in to the CCESP retreat to teach us how to paint fluoride onto teeth – she told us that we shouldn’t expect our work in Nicaragua to look like our practice here, because “we’ve never seen mouths like that”. That’s something that I imagine will apply to the full spectrum of illness that we see. As a result of lack of access to simple preventative care like fluoride and toothpaste and common treatments like antibiotics and steroids, the disease that we’ll see in Nicaragua is likely to have progressed beyond anything we’d likely see in the U.S.
This week, I’m sharing my thoughts on UnderFire, a fictional film based to some extent on true historical events about journalists covering the Nicaraguan Revolution. The film, which was released in the United States in 1983 for American audiences, is a political thriller set in Nicaragua in 1979. It centers around three American journalists, Russell, Claire, and Alex, covering the end of the successful Sandinista uprising against the Somoza regime.
The film stars Nick Nolte as Russell, the wartime photographer who faces a crisis of journalistic integrity, Joanna Cassidy as Claire, the female radio reporter who is the shared love interest of the two male leads, and Gene Hackman as Alex, the TV reporter who ends up getting killed on camera by Somoza’s soldiers. It was directed by Patrick Crowley, Jesus Marin, and Ron Shelton and produced by Edward Teets, Aurelia Ortiz, and Anna Roth. Although the entirety of the action is set in Nicaragua, the movie itself was filmed in Mexico.
The plot of the movie revolves around the three journalists and their roles in the Nicaraguan Revolution. It is loosely based on a couple of true historical events, including the murder of Bill Stewart, an American reporter working for ABC, which was caught on tape by an ABC cameraman named Jack Clark. Clark’s footage became international news, and was shown on national television across the United States for days. The incident was crucial in drumming up American support for the Sandinista regime and resulted in the final destruction of the relationship between Somoza in Nicaragua and the Carter administration in the U.S. Just over one month later, the Somoza regime finally fell to the Sandinista party, an event also shown in the film.
In Under Fire, Russell, Claire, and Alex are working to cover the revolution in Nicaragua for audiences back home. They begin as impartial observers, cataloguing the fighting and taking pictures of the carnage, but over time, Russell in particular begins to lean towards the Sandinista cause. Eventually, he ends up in a secret Sandinista camp, believing he has scored an interview with the elusive revolutionary called Rafael, a character loosely based on Carlos Fonseca Amador, an influential leader in the Sandinista National Liberation Front. However, Russell soon discovers that Rafael has been killed by Somoza’s forces, an act that has the potential to deal a serious blow to the Sandinistas. Remaining Sandinista leaders then reveal to Russell that they have invited him to their camp so that he can convince the world that Rafael is still living: they want him to take a picture using Rafael’s corpse that makes him appear alive. He is reluctant, as is Claire, who has accompanied him to the camp, but eventually agrees, compromising his journalistic integrity in order to influence the outcome of the war. The picture is taken with a newspaper reading, in Spanish, “Rafael Has Died”, and it spreads through American and Nicaraguan news outlets like wildfire.
The picture rallies support among the Sandinistas, but draws suspicion from Alex, who tells Russell that he wants to arrange a meeting with Rafael. Russell and Claire lead him around the region pretending to search out Rafael, but eventually admit to him that the picture was fabricated. Later, as he and Russell search out another story to make up for the loss of the Rafael interview, the pair finds themselves in an abandoned town that has been taken over by Somoza’s national guard. After getting lost, Alex leaves their truck to ask a woman for directions, and she points him towards the soldiers. He walks up to them, looking for directions out of the town, and they force him to his knees. Russell films the interaction, up to and including the moment when the soldiers shoot Alex, killing him. He then flees, and is injured in the process. The movie then ends with his dramatic reunion with Claire, who is struggling to cope with her grief at the death of her original love interest, and their presence at a parade in celebration of the Sandinista victory. It is revealed that Alex’s death on camera pushed the United States to sever their last ties to Somoza, aiding the Sandinistas in there final push for victory.
The film centers around themes of journalistic integrity, the fuzzy boundaries of morality, and the role and impact of the media in warfare. Like many war movies, it uses war as a backdrop for other struggles amongst its protagonists, including a love story and the struggle with right and wrong that is central to its message. The mood is tense, as the characters wrestle with their moral compasses and try to decide on the correct course of action. There is both the physical danger of reporting in the middle of the war and the quieter, more ominous danger that comes with taking sides and potentially influencing the outcome of the fighting.
I had some mixed feelings about this movie. The tension and sense of urgency in deciding whether or not to support one side of the war are made very real. To the extent that that was the purpose that the production staff set out to fulfill, according to the producer, this movie was very successful. Some issues to note, however, include the romanticization of war and the fact that the two sides of the war are rather clearly assigned to be “good” and “bad”, with the Sandanistas shown as brave and committed and the Somoza government portrayed as oppressive. It has also been noted by some critics that there should perhaps have been some afterword with the film noting the fighting still to come and the fact that no group or side has proven to be purely good for the country. Personally, I enjoyed watching the movie. It was engaging and if I weren’t aware of the history of Nicaragua already, it might have sparked an interest in doing some research about the Nicaraguan civil wars. However, because it centers around an American love story and moral dilemma, with the civil war in Nicaragua in the backdrop, I did feel like this was perhaps an example of ignoring the rich history of a foreign conflict and using the struggles of others to set the scene for an American story. To the extent that the movie reduces the conflict in Nicaragua to background for Americans falling in love and examining their convictions, I could make as much of an argument against Under Fire as I can for it.
Ethnography is defined as the systematic study of people and cultures. It is the process of collecting ethnographic interviews in order to provide us with a window into the lives and experiences of others. To use the words of Weiss’ Learning from Strangers, “interviewing rescues events that would otherwise be lost. The celebrations and sorrows of people not in the news, their triumphs and failures, ordinarily leave no record except in their memories.” To conduct ethnography is to ensure that this knowledge doesn’t die with the people who were primary witnesses, allowing us to gain a better understanding of what life is like in a given place and time.
My personal experience with ethnography for the purposes of this class will be twofold. I have recently interviewed my father, Dr. Mark Hite, as a first attempt at conducting ethnographic interviewing. I chose to ask him questions about his experiences with medical service in the Dominican Republic, something that is relevant to myself and the rest of the CCESP clinical health (CH) team, since we will be serving as part of a similar medical outreach program in Nicaragua. This serves as practice for my time in Nicaragua, where I’ll be helping the CH team to collect information on patients there. In particular, I will be collecting information on maternal mental health from women at the casamaterna as part of my final project alongside my group members, Valentina Sedlacek and Kate Herrington. Our goal is to get an understanding of the emotional experience of a woman in Nicaragua as she finds out she is pregnant, goes through the process of pregnancy and birth, and then becomes a mother. We believe that by collecting this information and discussing emotion with women in the process, we can spark a conversation about maternal mental health that will hopefully continue after we’ve gone.
Some concerns for ethnographic research include striking a balance between structured questioning and free response, getting answers without leading participants in any one direction with their responses, asking questions without making interviewees uncomfortable, respecting the privacy of participants, and asking questions without ever questioning the integrity or experience of the person being interviewed. The goal of ethnography is to get an honest, unbiased, and holistic view of the interviewee and their experiences with the subject about which they are being interviewed. The interview needs to be focused so that all necessary information is collected in a reasonable time frame, but the questions need to be open-ended enough that the participant can share their thoughts and experiences in an authentic way. The interviewee also needs to feel able to share honestly without feeling pressured or pushed to respond in any given way. These considerations are especially salient in the case of the Nicaragua interviews, where language barriers and cultural differences make it even more important that all questions asked are carefully considered and vetted by people with experience in the regional culture before they are asked in an interview setting.
My interview with my father was my first time conducting this sort of interviewing process. The final recording, as well as some transcription of the questions asked and responses given, has its own page on this site, but the process of the interview is something I’d like to draw attention to here. I tried to use Weiss’ work as a guide for establishing this first interview, choosing an appropriate person to interview for the purposes of the project, developing appropriate questions, asking for consent for the interview itself as well as my recording of the conversation, easing into the conversation, and then working with the participant collaboratively to get the information I was looking for.
My prompt for the interview was to choose someone with insight into the issues explored in LACS 20, so I decided to interview someone with experience working in medical service abroad. My father was a simple choice because it was easy to get in touch with him, I knew he would likely agree to it, and I felt very comfortable having a structured conversation with him. My next step was to determine how I would get at his experience with medical service by drawing up a list of questions. I decided to focus my questioning on three themes: his positive experiences with service abroad, his negative experiences with service abroad, and his experience of the impact that his trip had on the community. My resulting list of questions was as follows:
Can you describe the role of the service trip in the community?
Can you describe your role within the service trip?
In what ways was the trip difficult?
In what ways with the trip rewarding?
What do you think was the short-term and long-term impact of this trip?
Do you feel that this trip was immersive? Do you feel that you learned about the community that you visited?
Is given the chance, would you do it again?
I felt that this would give me a comprehensive picture of his experience and his understanding of the experience of the members of the community that he interacted with. Having drawn up this list, I sat down to a Skype interview with him, where I made it clear that I would be recording the conversation and using it on this public website as a project for my class. We then went through the questions, starting by discussing the class that I would be using this interview for and then transitioning into a more structured interview format. We made it through all of my questions with pauses for followup questions that kept the interview feeling conversational, and at the end, I had all of the information I had originally wanted as well as some good followup info.
Looking forward to my interviews in Nicaragua, I think that this mini oral history with my father served as good practice. I definitely learned the importance of having a ready-made last of questions and staying on task in order to stay within the time frame. I have a few concerns in moving forward towards interviews outside the U.S., namely involving my imperfect Spanish skills and potential cultural barriers to talking about mental health. Still, with the help of Dartmouth faculty and medical professionals who have experience in the area and the input of locals like Hugo and Eva from Bridges to Community, I feel that my group’s questions will be ready to go when we arrive at the casamaterna so that we can gain a better understanding of the emotional experience of pregnancy and motherhood from the perspective of rural Nicaraguan women.
This week, I’m thinking about our Nicaraguan collaborators, Bridges to Community, as well as other service-learning organizations that we’ve heard from like Compas de Nicaragua and the Fabretto Foundation. Bridges to Community is actually one of the main reasons that I decided to apply to go on the CCESP trip this year. I’ve always wanted to experience a medical service trip. I’m a pre-health student who is always seeking more clinical exposure, and I’m interested in public health, so to see how a community health initiative works from a position on the inside is something that could really help me determine my career path. I’m also an avid traveler and a firm believer that you can’t learn about the world around you unless you get up and explore it, and I think that service abroad is a valuable way to give back to a community as you learn from it. The idea of going somewhere new and being able to experience and learn from the people and culture there while simultaneously gaining more medical and public health knowledge is something that has drawn me into research about a variety of medically-focused service trips. However, I’ve always been a bit hesitant to actually commit to a group.
My issue with a lot of medical mission groups is something that we’ve explored in LACS 20 at length – the need for responsibility and cultural respect when doing international service and development. In providing medical care as a form of service, there are many serious concerns about whether a group from another country and culture can possibly do less harm than good in the developing world. To paraphrase Suchdev et al., whose Model for Sustainable Short-Term International Medical Trips we read in LACS 20 this week, the dangers of short-term medical service include:
Providing value for the visitors, including an opportunity to be a tourist but feel like a volunteer, without actually helping the community
Sending in volunteers without proper medical training and providing sub-par care
Sending in volunteers without proper language training and creating a barrier to communication and integration with the community
Imposing burdens on the local hospitals or clinics by using their resources or leaving behind waste
Failing to provide continuity of care
Failing to provide equity of care or access to care
Failure to provide sustainable care
Providing care or being a presence that is culturally inappropriate
Initially, it can be hard to imagine how a medical service trip could be harmful. After all, there are people in these under-resourced communities who need medical attention and who would not have received care if not for the medical volunteers. However, this scenario can still be more harmful than good. Consider an individual with diabetes – short-term volunteers might be able to treat some of the complications, provide insulin for a time, and give advice about diet, but they can’t provide long-term blood glucose monitoring, lifelong insulin treatments, or access to healthy but expensive foods that compose a better diet. Or consider a case where doctors are treating a number of GI disorders due to unclean water – they can clear up the immediate illnesses in the patients they see, but without access to clean water, the problem will inevitably return. Then, at the community level, there is a whole host of other potential problems – the burden of using clinic resources, the potential for creating dependence on foreign medical professionals by reducing government funding to areas that are known to be hosts to foreign medical brigades, and the larger problems associated with paternalistic attitudes and lack of cultural awareness in service. Essentially, providing foreign aid is a hugely tricky process and there are a ton of pitfalls to avoid. The extent of the problem is so huge that some people have suggested we should just do away with service trips as a whole, especially for people who are not highly qualified professionals like doctors or engineers.
So that was my dilemma for a long time – medical service trips sounded like an amazing opportunity, but I couldn’t get over the sense of concern that going on one would be irresponsible. Enter Bridges to Community – an organization based in Nicaragua, staffed by Nicaraguans, and dedicated to sustainable development in individual communities. Their Nicaraguan clinic provided an opportunity to be part of a long-term project as a short-term volunteer. I liked the idea of continuity, of Nicaraguans being in charge of the implementation of the project in their community, and of a focus on creating a system that will work without the presence of foreign aid in the future.
Another group similar to Bridges that we heard from this week is Compas de Nicaragua. Michael Boudreau, the director, came in to class to talk about his work with Compas and his thoughts on providing foreign aid. Compas is involved in service learning trips and the support of Women in Action in Managua, a group of Nicaraguan women who organize education and health projects in their area. He had a lot to say about what service means to him – his thought was that the group consistently learned more from the communities they visited than the people there learned from him, but that the value of their presence came from their willingness to integrate into the community and share friendship with the people there. In his words, the Nicaraguans that his group visits get to share their stories, meet men and women from other places, and break up the monotony of life at or below the poverty line, which brings hope and happiness into the communities. The volunteers aren’t always the most efficient workers for the job, but he believes that there is an inherent value to the cultural mixing that occurs. Additionally, of course, is the value of the funding provided to Women in Action and other local groups, who know how best to use the money and resources to address community needs. By putting the decision-making into the hands of locals, Compas does a good job of ensuring that it meets the true needs of the community.
A third group that I’d like to touch on before signing off is the Fabretto Foundation. While Bridges works in both health and community development, while Compas is involved in health, development, education, and women’s empowerment, Fabretto is a group that focuses mainly on education. Specifically, they work in education centers and public schools to provide a holistic education that gives children the skills they need to leave poverty behind. To do this, they engage parents and teachers, work on food security, provide vocational training, and fortify primary and secondary education programs. The point of this approach is to improve quality of education from many different angles – level of parent involvement in their children’s education, extent to which children are well fed and able to focus on their studies, and job opportunities lined up for after they finish school.
There are a ton of different facets to international service and development, and health, education, and community development are just some of the ways in which organizations can seek to improve the function of communities. Still, no matter the goal of the group, the most important thing is to focus on serving the community in a way that emphasizes sustainability and cultural appropriateness and prioritizes their needs over the desires of the volunteers.
This week, I’m thinking about what it means to be a traveler or tourist in Latin America and the Caribbean. As someone who has spent, taken together, years of my life traveling in this region, this is a topic near and dear to my heart.
Over the years, I have visited two Latin American countries and twenty separate Caribbean islands. I have been a tourist visiting resort towns and staying in hotels, a traveler sailing my way through the Windward Islands, a visitor staying with family in Puerto Rico, a volunteer working in the jungles and on the coral reefs of the island Saba, and an employee of an outdoor education company living in a shack in the mangroves of St. Martin. This diverse range of experiences has shaped me greatly, but some have undoubtedly been more important to who I am now than others. The vast differences that I’ve found in my experiences abroad depending on what brings me to a foreign place have been staggering.
My first set of experiences has come from my time as a tourist. I have spent time in the tourist hotspots of Costa Rica, Mexico, and a number of typical vacation spots in the Caribbean. The tourist experience has always been enjoyable, but never terribly informative. My family and I usually see the sights, spend time on the beach, explore some of the eco-tourism options, and enjoy the sunny weather without engaging with the people or culture of the country that we are visiting. I don’t think that this is necessarily bad – we are always careful to avoid businesses that harm the environment, and we do our research on cultural taboos and things to avoid doing before we arrive. Still, being a tourist has never been transformative for me, and I often wonder if there are ways in which I could have been a more responsible, respectful traveler while abroad.
My brother, Alex, swims with a whale shark near Isla Holbox, Mexico. Swimming with whale sharks has been a longtime dream of mine, and when I visited Playa del Carmen with my father, I had the opportunity to try it. Unfortunately, I found out that the excess of boats searching for the sharks were not taking proper precautions to protect the ocean from pollution and the sharks from their propellers. I can’t support an industry that does that kind of damage, and so I will have to wait until I can make it to Holbox instead, where there are fewer boats and more protective regulations.
Visiting family in Latin America & the Caribbean is certainly different. Whenever we visit my aunt and uncle in Puerto Rico, there is necessarily a cultural exchange. Although Puerto Rico is an American territory, the culture is quite distinct from what you’d find here in Hanover, NH, or anywhere else in the continental U.S. The food, the language, and the way of life are all different, and when you are staying in the home of your family and trying to befriend and communicate with their Spanish-speaking friends, you would be hard-pressed to not feel immersed in that culture. My experiences there have been far more significant, and have shaped me in ways that tourism has not.
Still, I find that my most meaningful experiences have come from working and doing volunteer work abroad. When I was living on Saba, a Dutch island in the Caribbean, and volunteering for their marine park two summers ago, I learned far more about Caribbean culture than I ever did as a tourist or visitor. The long-term commitment, the forced immersion as I lived and worked with the people in the community, and the sense of partnership that I felt with my coworkers as well as the community members were all crucial to my experience of the culture there. Most important, I think, was my desire to learn and to be a partner to the community, rather than a tourist or an outsider. I strived to build relationships, listen to the people around me, and learn about and respect the culture I lived in. The experience of doing service in a community that I felt welcomed into, one that I worked to understand and fit into, was far more rewarding than I imagine it might have been had I viewed myself as an outsider come to help those in need. That’s one of the reasons why I’m so excited to be a part of this specific program – I’m looking forward to being involved with an organization that has a long-term relationship with and commitment to the people it serves. I’m glad to know that my classmates and I will be going into this experience with knowledge of the Nicaraguan culture and awareness of our role as service-learners. It is my hope that this experience will be just as transformative as my previous time as a volunteer abroad.