Awakening in Nicaragua

Spending nine months in Central America doing community service, these students were challenged and inspired—and surprised by what stayed with them
Watch a slideshow of scenes of Tufts students taking part in the 1 + 4 Bridge Year Service-Learning Program in Leon, Nicaragua. Photos: Alonso Nichols
August 24, 2016

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Before Abigail Barton, A20, could flourish during her gap year in León, Nicaragua, she had to grasp the basics. On her walk to work, she learned to maneuver between patches of shade in the 95-degree heat, even if it led her out of her way.

She took advantage of the cold drinks that were sold on most every corner, often packaged in plastic bags rather than expensive bottles. She learned the sing-song calls of the different vendors: “Chi-cha! Chi-cha!” for a sweet, pink beverage made from corn or “Agua-Agua-Agua!” for water. And she discovered that despite the heat, she should still wear skinny jeans, which are de rigueur among Nicaraguan teens.

Of course, Barton had to acclimate in other, more difficult ways, too. As part of the inaugural class of the Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program, Barton spent nine months this past year doing full-time community service in Nicaragua (other program fellows were based in Madrid, Spain, and Santa Catarina, Brazil) prior to starting her undergraduate studies at Tufts this fall.

View complete coverage of the Tufts Bridge-Year program >>

Like the four other fellows in León, she at first felt awkward, homesick and uncertain that she was doing anyone any good by being there. But that would change. In fact, it was getting through those low points that turned out to be the key to appreciating her gap year, just as the scalding heat of León’s days made the evening breezes so delicious.

The 1 + 4 fellows received university support throughout their gap year, from an on-campus orientation prior to leaving to regular check-ins during the year with staffers at the Tisch College of Civic Life, which sponsors the program, to a retreat at Tufts after returning home in May. The goal of it all: a transformational year of learning about themselves, their passions and their place in the world.

Like most of the 1 +4 fellows in León, Barton had studied Spanish in high school, but struggled with the transition to the real-world version. She almost went without dinner one night because she mistakenly told her host father that she had already eaten. At Las Tías, the after-school program in León where she worked five days a week helping adolescents with homework and teaching English, she worried that her imperfect Spanish would hurt her credibility with the students, some of whom were only a year younger than she was.

Abigail Barton, A20, makes her way to work at Las Tías in León, Nicaragua. Photo: Alonso NicholsThese were new challenges for Barton. Back in Hailey, Idaho, the tall brunette with the shy smile and indirect gaze had been an excellent high school student, an accomplished ballet dancer—and a master of avoiding intimidating situations. She was not going to get away with that here.

For starters, there was her service project. As part of Tufts 1 + 4 in Nicaragua, the fellows received a $500 grant each to create a service project for the people of León, with the requirement that they get buy-in from community members and work with them every step of the way.

Barton came up with what she thought were great proposals for things she could do for Las Tías, but the organization’s leaders had other ideas. “Just give us the money,” they said. Barton understood why: Las Tías could use the cash to buy supplies for their cosmetology classes, or a computer for the office. But under the rules of the program, the money had to go toward something sustainable, so supplies didn’t count.

Eventually, they settled on painting the entire Las Tías facility. Then it was up to Barton to call stores for the materials and organize the volunteer painters—a thousand interactions that would normally terrify her. But she did it. “There is no use being embarrassed,” Barton said of the experience. “You’re never going to get things done.” Now Las Tías visitors are greeted by cheerful colors and a sunny mural made from discarded chip bags, bottle caps and plastic straws.

But a bigger challenge lay ahead for Barton. She couldn’t seem to click with her host family. For months she didn’t feel comfortable, and avoided going home each night. Was it her? Was she not going with the flow? It took all her courage to ask her 1 + 4 supervisors for a change.

Her new host mom was a grandmother, a soft-spoken minister. Three generations lived in her house, and each night her 6-year-old granddaughter brought out a parade of toys and dances to try to make Barton laugh. When Barton went with the family to church, she was honored when her host mom introduced her as “my new daughter.”

Abigail Barton reacts as she reviews a Spanish lesson at the kitchen table with her host mother, Juanita Francisca Gonzales. Photo: Alonso NicholsThe low, concrete-block house with a corrugated plastic roof had fewer amenities than her original lodgings—no car, no washing machine, no hot water—yet Barton was much happier, and glad she finally spoke up. She may have come to León to do service for others, but “you have to take care of yourself first,” she said.

Making Change in the World

Over time, Barton and the other Tufts fellows became very protective toward their new home. They commiserated with their host families about how the resort area of Granada is geared toward foreigners now, and lamented that a Subway restaurant had opened in León. They said they felt different from the backpackers with sun hats and cameras who stop in León for a day on their way to the beach, or to go boarding down the side of the volcano.

But if the fellows were not tourists—or “voluntourists,” as people who volunteer at charities on their travels are sometimes called—what were they? The fellows thought about that question a lot, both privately and as part of their coursework for the Tufts program. Who, after all, benefited from their being here? Was it the people of León, or was it really just themselves?

At Las Tías, where international charitable groups often come in for a day to visit, Barton had seen that the urge to do good sometimes misfires. One such group presented new backpacks to the children, who cheerfully put them on and posed for photos. After the donors were gone, the bags were cast aside because they were unfashionable. Or, for instance, whole cartons of donated markers might be sitting in the back drying out, when what Las Tías really needed was someone to pay the electricity bill. “A lot of volunteering has to do with how the donor feels,” Barton said.

Barton was under no illusions that she brought with her a special American ability to improve this developing nation. Had she done something positive for Las Tías? Yes. But mostly she considered her experience there to be a cultural exchange, an internship, a lesson in what motivates people.

“I don’t think I came here thinking I was going to change the world,” Barton says. “More than making change, I feel like I’ve just learned how you could make change—what works, what doesn’t, how different people approach it.”

Building Bonds

Barton’s fellowship may have begun with frustrations and doubt, but that melted away as the weeks passed. Her Spanish improved to the point where she could haggle with cab drivers like a local. She found that her age was a boon to working with the Las Tías teens, as she could be a friend to them.

Camaraderie helped her as well. She would often meet up at a café with Isabel Schneider, another Tufts bridge year fellow, to rehash the day’s ups and downs: talking about pop music and French braiding with the Las Tías girls, being told by her host mom that she’d caught a cold because she’d taken a shower before bed, or facing the Nicaraguan belief that a steaming bowl of soup will cool you off on a hot day. The two friends also talked about how they had changed. Barton discovered that she didn’t like to hide her feelings anymore. “I’ve learned how to speak really honestly while being here,” she wrote on her blog.

A bond developed among all the 1 + 4 fellows. “It’s a very important part of the experience for me that everyone is really close to each other,” Barton said. She might not have asked for that new host family if Schneider hadn’t urged her. And when she couldn’t find enough bottle caps for her Las Tías mural, another fellow, Emerson Wenzel, took it upon himself to scavenge for more, somehow coming back with an entire bag. Another time, when she found herself downtown after dark without money for a taxi, it was still another fellow, Elaine Harris, who rescued her with cab fare and cookies.

Toward the end of their gap year, the fellows met up in one of the oldest neighborhoods in León to tour the famous sawdust carpets. Every Good Friday during Holy Week, locals create elaborate artworks on the streets that are then swept away by processions at the day’s end.

The event was bittersweet for the fellows, who were preparing to let go of the lives they created in León. Schneider said she would miss her spot in the semi-circle of rocking chairs in her host family’s living room, where everyone would sometimes gather for karaoke. Wenzel said he would miss the exquisite danger of hanging off the camionetas, the open-backed trucks that serve as buses. Barton said she would miss her students at Las Tías, including José Carlos, 15, who made fun of her before she could roll her Rs, but always sought her out to talk.

But they knew, as a team, they would carry their experience with them once they started at Tufts. “They are the rice to my beans,” Wenzel said, and everyone laughed at the reference to the ubiquitous gallo pinto that is served with most meals, including breakfast. They said they would miss it—and the handmade tortillas, and the sunset from the top of the cathedral, where the white-washed domes shone bright against the pink sky.

“Before I left, part of me thought, I want to slow down, not grow up really fast,” Barton said. “But the program kind of did the opposite.”

Elaine Harris: Finding That Inner Resolve

Elaine Harris chose to come to Tufts in part because of the university’s bridge year program. She thought it would give her a chance to find herself. “It’s a noble idea,” she said after her 1+4 experience, but for it to happen, “you have to kind of pull yourself apart at the seams first.”

The coursework at the start of the Tufts bridge year made it clear that the fellows were about to embark on an emotional roller coaster—what the program calls the “cultural adjustment curve.”

So Harris tried to laugh off the small setbacks, like the time first one and then another co-worker at the cultural center where she worked told her with some urgency that they were going outside for a cigarette. It was only when she heard a strange noise and looked up to see an exterminator fogging her office that she realized she had misheard the word fumigar—to fumigate—as fumar—to smoke.

These mishaps were to be expected at the beginning, Harris understood, yet she felt it was taking her longer than the other fellows to adjust to Nicaraguan life, and the longer it took, the more she withdrew. Her host mother noticed that after a day of work, Harris would often only pick at her dinner and then go directly to her room.

At Greenwich High School in Connecticut, which Harris attended, competition is a way of life, whether it is grades, varsity sports or emotional strength. So she didn’t ask for help in León. “I wasn’t comfortable admitting, hey, I feel awkward, I feel scared,” she said, “because that’s weakness, that puts you behind the pack.”

Counterclockwise from top, host mother Ana Cecilia Mendoza and Elaine Harris, A20, share a moment together at the dinner table; Harris gets interviewed by the local media during a visit to the Sutiava neighborhood in León to see the renowned sawdust carpets, created as part of the Holy Week celebrations; gulping down water after a workout at the non-air-conditioned gym. Photos: Alonso Nichols

It was only when she talked with her 1 + 4 supervisors about what was going on that Harris realized it was up to her to make a change. The turning point came when she announced to her host family one night that she would cook dinner—spaghetti Bolognese. She forced herself out of her room and into the family conversation.

In time her host mom would become one of the most important people in her gap year experience. “She’s very strong, smart and hard-working,” Harris said. They talked over breakfast and dinner, discussing everything from movies to local politics to education. “She didn’t know that Americans have to pay to go to college,” Harris said.

A star athlete in high school, Harris also realized that she missed her rigorous workouts, so she joined a gym and started Zumba classes, where she made both endorphins and new friends. “I feel so much better,” she said.

So with her gap year concluded, did Harris consider herself found? Had she discovered answers to some of life’s big questions?

“For me, at least, I’ve come up with more questions,” she said with a smile. “But you realize also, that’s OK.”

Emerson Wenzel: The Hard Work of Collaboration

Emerson Wenzel had never considered taking time off between high school and college. In fact, the first time he heard the term “gap year” was as part of a warning: Don’t write about one in your college application essay, or you’ll come off as a cliché.

But then he heard about the 1 + 4 program, and before long, he and his two years of high school Spanish were on their way to Latin America.  “I was nervous,” he said, “but I had confidence in Tufts.”

A technology enthusiast from Yorktown Heights, New York, Wenzel was surprised at how unstructured the bridge program was, compared to the treadmill of classes, studying and tests he’d grown used to.

“I didn’t notice until a few months into my gap year how burned out I was from high school,” he said. In León, he spent his weekdays helping teach English classes at La Salle, a technical high school, but he also had the opportunity to explore the city at his own pace and to think about his role in it.

“If I wanted to provide the most benefit to a place like La Salle, there are obviously better ways to go about it, as opposed to me coming down here,” he said. But being in León taught him things about collaboration he could never learn at a distance.

For instance, his community project—building a greenhouse on the La Salle campus—introduced him to a cultural quirk: Nicaraguans, when asked to do something, hate to say no. For example, if you invite someone for dinner, he will always accept, but that doesn’t mean he’ll actually show up.

So when Wenzel asked people to be on the greenhouse building committee, they invariably agreed. Only later did he realize that most of them were really too busy to put in the time.

Even so, by the end of March, the greenhouse structure was taking shape, his name (and those of the people who did show up to help) signed in the cement foundation. “Groups are not infallible,” he said. “They are made of individuals.”

In time, Wenzel, an Eagle Scout, began going to Scouts of Nicaragua meetings on Saturdays. Some things were very different, such as the “not-so-safe” games that involved linking arms and racing through a forest—while blindfolded. But other things, like the joy of sleeping under the stars, were universal.

Isabel Schneider: Learning to Dance Along

Isabel Schneider seemed destined to be a 1 + 4 fellow. She grew up hearing her father’s stories about traveling around Europe after high school, back before anyone had ever heard of a “gap year.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t mean that she’d been genetically programmed to breeze through the hard parts of a year abroad. In the beginning, she was overwhelmed by homesickness—the kind that made her want to curl up in a ball and cry.

She understood about a quarter of what her host family said to her. When she began working at Las Tías, she was frustrated that the children would run, yell and fight, a switch from the obedient kids she knew as a summer camp counselor in Lincoln, Nebraska.

She soon learned that her job was not to control the kids. “That’s why they’re there,” she wrote on her blog. “They come to Las Tías so that they’re not running and yelling and fighting on the street. They come to Las Tías for unconditional love and acceptance, something they may not find elsewhere in their lives. So we give it to them, and slowly but surely the disruptive behavior dwindles.”

Other things began to fall into place. She began to laugh with her host dad at a Spanish TV show because she actually got the jokes. She stopped being annoyed at the music blasting from the neighbors’ houses at all hours—she just danced along. 

Her community project was to create a juegoteca, or game room, for Las Tías, with cartoon murals on the walls and shelves for board games. For the project, it was up to Schneider to stay on top of everything from getting estimates and securing painters to hiring people to build tables, chairs and shelves. She learned a lot about taking initiative. “I definitely got better at it as I went along, but it was an eye-opener for me,” she said.

Overall, she said, her bridge year improved her emotional intelligence. As she wrote in her blog: “I’ve become better at reading my emotions and knowing whether I need to take a breather or get over myself.”

Julie Flaherty can be reached at julie.flaherty@tufts.edu.

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