Interviews & Profiles by R. Slate, Class of 2015
History Professor Dr. Stacy Sewell, of St. Thomas Aquinas College, along with 11 students, recently traveled to Nicaragua with the Bridges to Community Organization to build houses for two families. Each house was for a family of six to seven people and the community included about 1,500 people. This was the first time that the trip went to the Jinotega region of the country. Joseph Cooper, Lauren Morales and Jamie Walsh, three students who went on the trip, answered a few questions about their experiences.
Joseph: I have done work along similar lines to this through my church, but never anything with the magnitude of this trip. In the little amount of traveling outside the US that I have done, it has made me always want to travel and volunteer on mission trip-like projects such as this.
Lauren: What made me decide to take advantage of this opportunity to travel to Nicaragua was its alternative of studying abroad. To fulfill my minor and play a sport it is almost impossible for me to travel abroad although it is my dream. The class Dr. Sewell offers is a perfect balance to get credits that work towards my degree and travel.
Jamie: What made me decide to go to Nicaragua is because of two things. One, I love to travel and hope to go all over the world. Two, I thought this would be a great opportunity for me. I never went to a different country before to do charity work. I also thought it was going to be really fun and exciting at the same time. Not many people get to say they built a house in Nicaragua.
What is something you learned through this experience?
Joseph: One of the biggest things I learned throughout the entire experience, which was all beneficial, is the importance of family and community. These people have so little, yet are much happier than a lot of the people in other countries who are much more fortunate and show no gratitude.
Lauren: What I learned through my experience in Nicaragua is how to be a more productive person in society. I was very ignorant to the world around me by choice to avoid feelings of guilt. Being thrown into the Nicaraguan environment and being able to do something for families that I have never met before was the most rewarding class I have taken at STAC thus far.
Jamie: Something I learned through this experience is to always be grateful for what I have. Of course, I was always appreciative, but physically being in Nicaragua and seeing how the people live really opened my eyes. It is one thing to hear about the poverty occurring, but when I actually experienced it and myself lived how the community does, the understanding of poverty becomes 10 times clearer.
Joseph: The most memorable part of the experience was the connection and friendship that I made in such a short period of time with the men that I was working with. It was especially significant being that we were from two different cultures and had a slight language barrier.
Lauren: The most memorable part of my experience is the interaction I had with the people of the Sasle community. Sasle was the community where we were stationed to build two homes. I am of Hispanic heritage and was able to have light conversation with the people of Sasle. One person I will always remember was a 16-year-old girl named Joslyn. I asked what she liked to do for fun and what she aspired to be. Her response was to dance at clubs and to be a marine biologist. Even though she lived in a world like nothing I’ve ever seen before, she was a regular teenager, with witty humor and a good heart. I told her she can and will be whatever she sets her mind to and she responded by giving me a hug. That was the most memorable part of my trip.
Jamie: Of course building the house was such an amazing experience, but the most memorable one was definitely the friendships I made there with the rest of the group. Before going to Nicaragua, I never saw anyone around STAC. We were complete strangers. Now, since we spent 24/7 together, I feel like I have known everyone for years. I made amazing friendships that I will never forget.
What was the most difficult part of the experience?
And what were some of your thoughts and reactions to seeing the workers at the coffee plantation?
Joseph: The most difficult part of this experience, by far, was having to leave the people and the friends that I had made in the last week, working with them and talking to them. It made me sick to know that what I was seeing was a “fair trade” coffee plantation. I now believe that “fair trade” products are no different from any other products, and if there are differences, they are so insignificantly minimal that they mean practically nothing. It is also disappointing to think that to most consumers, who have not seen the things that I have, believe they are creating positive change by buying fair trade products, when truly they are not.
Lauren: I believe the most difficult part of my trip to Nicaragua was actually seeing the conditions people lived and worked in. Some might say that the hardest part was living like the people of the community do, or the actual manual labor, but I would have to disagree. The most difficult part was visiting the coffee plantation. The plantation we visited resembled a concentration camp, with living conditions that were hard to look at. Unfortunately we went into the plantation to see women working in the hot sun and the looks and body language they gave Americans watching them was far from pleasant. The whole ride down from the plantation back to the hotel I was in tears. The image of those living quarters and the women working still stays in my mind to this day. Although it was difficult I believe it was a very important part of the learning process. Now I am not ignorant to the world around me and the poor working regulations of Nicaragua and around the world and hope to make a difference one day.
Jamie: The most difficult
part about this experience was by far seeing how the Nicaraguans live. It is devastating to watch the everyday lives
of the community members with barely a house to live in, running water, or
money. Even after spending eight days
there, I still have no idea how they get by every day. It is fascinating and tragic at the same
Joseph: I would go back in a heartbeat to do it all over again. The only thing that I would change is the length of the trip. I could have been there for two weeks and still not felt completely satisfied upon leaving.
Lauren: If I was allowed to go back to the business office and pay for that trip a second time I would do it in a heartbeat. It is the most valuable lesson I have ever received and I also got college credits for it. It was the definition of a win-win situation. The only thing I would try and do more of is interact with the residents of the community more. I would try harder to understand their train of thought and what they genuinely feel about Americans helping them.
Jamie: I would definitely go back and do it again 100%. One thing I would try to do better is trying to communicate more with the masons and people from the community. I do not speak any Spanish at all, so trying to talk with hand gestures can be really difficult and frustrating.
Is there anywhere specific that you would like to go next?
Joseph: I would like to go to the Dominican Republic next. I was visiting there over the summer and was shocked to see the living conditions and the communities surrounding the major tourist spots.
Lauren: I was extremely impressed with the Bridges to Community staff and mission. The next place I will try and visit is through BTC and their Dominican Republic site.
Jamie: Bridges to Communities also does work in the Dominican Republic. If I have the opportunity to go there as well then I will.
If you could give someone one piece of advice if they were planning on doing a project like this, what would it be?
Joseph: Go with an open mind and do not hold back while you are with the people of the community. They love to talk to you and if you do not tell them everything you would like, about how you feel and your friendship that you have made, you will regret it when you leave.
Lauren: Bring lots of bug spray and baby wipes. Beside the obvious my biggest advice would be to enjoy every second of it. This isn't about yourself this is for a family that has significantly less than you do, so put on your biggest smile and take in the rewarding experience.
Jamie: If I were to give
someone advice on maybe doing a project like this, I would say no matter how
hard the work you will be doing every day is, always work to the best of your
ability. In the end when we are finished
with the house, the feeling you experience is so rewarding because you have the
satisfaction of knowing that you just helped build a house for someone who
really needed one, and that person is so grateful for all the hard work and
time you have put into making their life that much better.