A Parent’s Perspective
I was concerned when my daughter left for Nicaragua. What I now know is that she was learning to listen to a bigger world
When my daughter, Elaine Harris, first mentioned the Tufts 1+4 Bridge-Year Service Learning Program in León, Nicaragua, I figured the idea would bounce around our house for a few days and then disappear. Not that a gap year wasn’t a great idea. I believed that doing something outside the academic world for a year would give her time to mature and reenergize before starting college. But I had envisioned a more comfortable kind of gap year for Elaine, in a more familiar place. Going to Nicaragua? I was stunned and fearful, and I wondered if I should try to talk her out of it.
As a parent I was afraid of the unknown in Nicaragua. Yes, there are plenty of risks in sending a child off on her own right here in the States, but those didn’t bother me, mainly because we’ve educated our children about how to handle some of them, and have grown numb to many of the others. Nicaraguan challenges, on the other hand, loomed cartoonishly large in my mind because of their unfamiliarity and foreignness. I had vacationed once in Nicaragua, but otherwise had a skimpy knowledge of the country.
I decided, however, to support Elaine’s instincts and her desire to go to Nicaragua. It was not easy at first. I imagined her being assigned to live with an unkind host family, being unable to communicate with me for months, or eating bad street food and contracting a horrible disease. I was forced to confront my own powerlessness. I would be out of the picture except through the internet—if there was internet. I had to put faith in my daughter’s ability to live wisely and advocate for herself. I had to trust in the 1+4 program administrators and Amigos de las Américas, the organization that oversees the volunteer sites, to handle the difficulties that might arise.
On Her Own
My fears began to subside during the orientation week on the Tufts campus in August 2015. At drop-off, the other students seemed impressive and good-hearted. Elaine liked them. She would not be alone in León. She would have Tufts students as friends there, and other Tufts students in the 1 + 4 programs in Madrid and Brazil could be her long-distance correspondents. She liked Mindy Nierenberg, the program director at Tisch College, and Jessye Crowe-Rothstein, the 1+4 program administrator, who would check in on her throughout the year, offering emotional and tactical support.
I was further relieved to find that the orientation week wasn’t only about developing a connection among the Tufts students—it also focused on teaching sound strategies for living in another country. This bridge year was, after all, not a vacation. As we learned during the orientation, it was intended as a profound learning experience, one that could be bewildering and uncomfortable early on, but that by mid-year would seem natural and eventually joyful. In one training exercise that August, the students developed a list of comforting activities that could be leaned on during those early, difficult days of cultural adjustment. A list like that is a good lifelong tool for anyone, and Elaine was fortunate to go through that exercise.
Pretty soon after arriving in León, Elaine found an air-conditioned internet café from which she FaceTimed with me frequently throughout the year. In our first conversation, she cheerfully reported that there had been a second week of training, this time with the Amigos organization, and that it had been fun. I was just grateful that she was alive and that we would be able to text and speak often.
It was a bonus that they had stayed in an air-conditioned hostel; that Mateo, the Amigos director, had hosted the group at his house for dinner; that they were getting to know students from other colleges who were working with Amigos; and that Amigos maintained what turned out to be a rigorously enforced set of health and safety rules. In Nicaragua, in fact, she would have more in loco parentis than her friends had at American colleges: she had guidance and support from not just the Amigos and Tufts administrators, but also from her host mom and family, and from her boss at her internship.
Early in the fall, the initial excitement waned, and it settled on Elaine that she was staring at seven or eight more months of living in León. She was new to both her job and her host family, so she had almost no time or place in which she could let down her guard and relax. And she was taking on all that newness in 100-degree heat, with no air conditioning at her home or office.
She had not yet adjusted to the schedule that most people keep in León to avoid the heat. I would have traded places with her, or run a marathon, or sold 3,000 boxes of Girl Scout cookies—anything—if I thought it would have made her happy. But that, of course, was not my job anymore. I couldn’t send her a quick care package, or take her to a movie. I could FaceTime with her, and that was it. She was going to have to get through this next phase of the bridge year on her own.
Rapidly Changing and Growing
A lot of uncomfortable scenarios can be avoided if you don’t choose to live for a long time in an unfamiliar culture, if you don’t take a job in another culture, if you don’t live with a host family. But if you’re unwilling to take on those challenges, you never have the pleasure of getting to the other side, where you are actually a part of another culture. You never get to understand a place in a real way if you haven’t done the hard work of becoming intimate with it.
At Christmas, our family met Elaine in Puerto Rico. To this day I wonder if that was a mistake. She appreciated the air conditioning, but I could see that a huge transition was happening for her. She missed her host family—her mom, her sisters and brothers, the little grandson, the dogs, Mufasa the funny cat—and she missed speaking in Spanish. I felt bad that she had forfeited celebrating the much-anticipated Christmas holidays in León.
Most of the other tourists in Puerto Rico were, at least on the outside, like our family: white Americans from the Northeast. But perhaps unlike the rest of us, Elaine had been rapidly changing and growing during the previous few months. She had become used to mingling with Spanish-speaking people, taking dance classes and eating her new favorite food, gallo pinto. She had adopted the warmer manners of the Nicaraguans, giving bright hellos and buenas to everyone, and conversing with even greater kindness and openness than she had done before.
After she went back to León in January, her life really changed. She had put in enough hours with her family and co-workers that she felt more than just comfortable—she loved being with them. Our FaceTime calls became shorter and less frequent. I remember getting a text that said she had to reschedule a phone call with me because it was her mom’s birthday. I was thrilled that Elaine had reached such a level of love with her host mom that she was referring to her simply as her mom.
My husband and I visited León in April. I used to work as a travel writer, and that visit ranks as one of the very best trips I’ve ever taken. In part, that’s because León is not yet a tourist city. It is an authentic working city, with its own rhythms: roosters crowing at 5 a.m., streets electric with the sound of tolling church bells as people walk to work at 7 a.m.
One afternoon, we picked up Elaine at her job, and we copied everything she did as she bought lunch at one of the lively comedors before she went home to take a quick siesta in the heat. At night we ate some of the best food of our lives in a tiny open-air taqueria we’d have never found on our own.
Another night we sat on the patio of her host family’s home, enjoying the cool air. Three generations lived in that house, and next door lived a fourth, the host mom’s mother. The family’s tight-knittedness was a joyous and enviable form of wealth. My daughter, her host mom and I laughed a lot that evening.
On one of our last nights we ate dinner outside at a fritanga with the Tufts students. Some of them mentioned that January was when things had changed for them, too. That was when they started to love León, when it became their true home. By that April evening, the whole group said they were filled with sadness at the thought of the day when the bridge year would end and they would leave. The program had been wonderful. They didn’t want it to end, but they also told me that they were ready to begin studying again.
Thoughtful Beyond Her Years
Elaine is back in the States now, already talking about returning to Nicaragua next summer to visit her family there. I marvel at how much she’s matured, and at her warmth and humor and expanded musical taste. She is aware of the privileges of living in this country, and also aware of the privileges of living in Nicaragua. She seems thoughtful beyond her years, a quality I noticed in the other Tufts 1+4 fellows, too.
I notice that Elaine listens to people even better than she used to, which is saying something, because she’s always been a good listener. Since returning home she asks more questions, thinks openly about what people are saying, and allows others to be themselves. I have much to learn from her.
When people ask, “How was Nicaragua?” she tends to answer quite simply, “Great.” Most people seem to be satisfied with that short answer. The deeper, more nuanced answer, however, would take much longer to explain, and we’d all probably have to move to Nicaragua to really understand. But I think it would start something like this: My daughter fell in love with a family and a city in Nicaragua, and learned to listen to a bigger world.