by Aliyah Wooten

I had the pleasure of attending the Branch Out International trip to Jinotega, Nicaragua in January. Here, I was joined by a team of William and Mary volunteers eager to take on the mission of our partnering organization. Outreach360 is a nonprofit organization that promotes learning English as a second language amongst school-aged children in the city of Jinotega. English acquisition has become a necessary skill as Nicaragua’s economy is shifting toward tourism. Therefore, Outreach360 establishes Learning Centers where students can gain a direct cultural experience while learning from native English speakers. I happened to come to Jinotega during a pivotal time for Outreach360. The organization experienced their largest volunteer group of 100 people in their history. The expansion allowed them to have teachers in the learning center, but more importantly, they were able to set up learning camps throughout the city. This was beautiful because students who have not yet been exposed to Outreach360’s impact now had the opportunity.

At the learning center, the volunteers were warmly met by so many amazing students just eagerly waiting to get inside of the classroom everyone morning. Their enthusiasm was mind boggling because they were on school break, but willingly arrived at the learning center to further their education. The fact that the students can recognize the value in learning English and make the decision to attend additional schooling shows how grown they are or how aware they are of social issues. When I was their age, I did not have to take into consideration certain societal factors because my parents sheltered me from them. However, the children of Jinotega have to grow up sooner than I did because they are vital members of maintaining their households. When I heard about their daily life challenges, I just had to respect their drive and determination. Furthermore, I had to sit back and reevaluate the blessings that I have in my life. Sometimes I take for granted my access to education, but now I appreciate it more. I aspire to be more like the children in the learning center. I hope to be enthusiastic and live in a way that celebrates every moment and opportunity. I want to be cognizant of life challenges, but not let those obstacles burden my happiness and success. Their spirit is one that I hope to emulate on a daily basis.

I think I learned the most about my social justice issue before arriving in the country. My trip leaders did an excellent job at providing us with historically relevant information especially regarding the causes and effects of war. Nicaragua’s more recent history is influenced heavily by the feuding relationship between the Somoza family dictatorships and the revolutionaries. Furthermore, we discussed some of the social issues that are present like sexual abuse, machismo, and land rights. In comparison to the historical ailments, I think the social issues were easier to identify while in country because they were more apparent in people’s actions and features displayed throughout the country. I saw instances of machismo in how the male students interacted with female students in simple things like wanting the two genders to be separated. The social issue that was the most compelling was land rights. On our bus ride to Jinotega from Managua, I saw a multitude of squatter homes, poorly built out anything the family could find. This reality reflects the product of war. Citizens lost their rights to the land because it was taken under the assumption that it would be fairly distributed, but it did not actually happen.

 

History, unfortunately, cannot be rewritten or altered. Yet, we do have the ability to learn from the past in order to improve upon the current living environment. Therefore, people should attempt to bring forth change to social issues since their causes tend to be “visibly” present. One way that I plan to make a difference around the social issue of literacy is by becoming a volunteer with Project Phoenix on campus. This organization offers weekly tutoring services to middle school students in the Williamsburg community. I think this opportunity will allow me to affect change in my own community. People always want to make a profound impact elsewhere because it is easier to see other people’s problems. However, this experience made me more aware of the difference that I can be making at home and how issues can be universal but manifest themselves differently. I am so thankful for having had the opportunity to travel to Jinotega, Nicaragua. I could not have imagined the impact that the trip would have had on my life, but I am so grateful for it. In this moment, I have not shared photos of my travel on social media because in part I am selfishly holding on to my memories and those special moments. My trip leaders told us to live in the moment while we were there. Now, I am holding onto the lessons. Right now, I am in place that if I share my photos I am minimizing the impact. I think the stories that I tell with my words hold a greater weight than the pictures that I took. One can capture the peace and happiness through the sound of my voice and the smiles that I show.

I came to a city that welcomed me with open arms and open hearts. I came to a city where people treated a complete stranger like a family member that they have been longing to see. I came to a city that encouraged me to appreciate moments in detail. I came to a city and left in love with it. Connected to it. Bond to it. For these reason, I would like to go to back to Nicaragua to continue serving as a teacher of English. This continuation of service and relationship building is why Branch Out is so successful at getting people interested in participating on these trips. I with no doubt in my mind would recommend this experience to another person. It was life changing.