by Julianne Mosher

What a memorable nine days. My experience in the mountainous city of Jinotega, Nicaragua was out of the ordinary, in some ways, transcendental.

Over the course of a week, I developed an understanding of how and why educational and economic opportunities are so numbered for Nicaraguans. On our first day in Jinotega, Alma, a community partner, shed light on the social conditions that contribute to the issue. She spoke expertly about many families’ dependence on Jinotega’s coffee industry. Students are often unable to complete the school year because their parents require their help during the harvest. Supporting their parents certainly competes with, and sometimes compromises, a child’s education. Alma also spoke at length about the stark inequality between male and female Nicaraguans. Men, who control family finances, spend money frivolously, and often in spite of the family’s best interests or needs. This sort of dynamic disempowers Nicaraguan women. Machismo likewise breeds a culture of sexual promiscuity amongst men; husbands leave their wives for younger women, and father additional children. On the other hand, when young girls are impregnated, they are often taken out of school in an effort to keep their pregnancy hidden. In light of bleak economic prospects, many Nicaraguan girls enter marriage early.

While social conditions undoubtedly constrain the Nicaraguan public, economic hardship is more deeply rooted in the country’s terrible political history. The people of Nicaragua suffered greatly at the hands of the American government, when the populist socialist, Sandino, was replaced with the Somoza dictatorship. The civil war, and the reign of the three Somozas, decimated the Nicaraguan economy. The out-of-touch, and negligent Somoza regime starved its people and suppressed their civil liberties. Infrastructure in Nicaragua likewise suffered from devastating natural disasters. Such hardship and misfortune set Nicaragua back enormously, limiting access to education and economic prosperity.

I was educated not only on the origin of the issue at hand, but Nicaraguans’ opinions on it. In the documentary, Dreaming Nicaragua, which we watched in country, parents expressed an earnest wish: that their children would be more educated and better off than themselves. Despite stifling economic conditions, parents still stressed education. According to this source, lack of access, not a lack of will, deprives Nicaraguans of an education. Alma also provided a staggering statistic: only 2% of Nicaraguans ultimately attend college. While public universities are tuition-free, the costs of books and transportation can sometimes prevent eligible students from attending.

I also came to understand what kind of impact Outreach360 makes, and how volunteers, like myself, factor into this complex issue. Outreach360 attempts to give Nicaraguan youth the tools for a life of choice, by way of teaching English. Nicaragua, full of wonderful sights, cuisine, and people, is in the process of cultivating a tourist industry. For those wishing to partake in the lucrative industry, knowing English is imperative. In this sense, English is an asset and economic advantage to many Nicaraguans. It is not uncommon, in Nicaragua, for teachers to not show up to class. I’m proud to say that Outreach360 focuses a great deal on professionalism; and, that there is strong rapport between the organization and the community it serves.

As I mentioned before, this experience was totally enlightening. The longer I remained in Jinotega, and away from what I knew, the more awareness and insight I gained. Awareness is a good word for it. Absorbed in the moment, internalizing my experience, I felt more aware than ever. This is an enriching feeling. I feel that Alma’s talk during our orientation played a crucial role in my understanding of the issue. She spoke, as an expert, about the social factors which perpetuate and contribute to the issue. During the historical talk that Margo, our supervisor, gave, and during discussions about the documentaries we watched during the week, I learned that poverty is not an arbitrary fate that some people suffer. Rather, poverty has a source. No one is destined to live in poverty; we cannot simply resign ourselves to its inevitable existence. Being in Nicaragua, and being totally exposed to the people’s plight, and its sources, was most valuable. Pre-trip meetings were designed to train us to be of genuine service, an equally critical lesson.

The things I learned and the work I did during this trip affected me profoundly. For instance, I am all the more compelled to be a skeptic of governments, especially my own. I want to do my civic duty, and support a system that gives its people a voice, which is transparent, and which avoids catastrophic foreign policy. I feel that one of the best ways I can advocate for Nicaraguans, at home, is to support policies that avoid disempowering or exploiting them. Of course, I hope to return to Nicaragua next winter. Outreach360 is such a fantastic, reputable organization; it would be so rewarding to work with them again (and again). Whether I will have the means to go is dubious. I’ve said before that the problems surrounding education and economic opportunity are born out of a variety of circumstances. After exhaustive meetings on what meaningful service is, on serving not helping, I truly understand the reach and the limits of service. It’s important to know one’s place and likewise one’s responsibility. I don’t have the means, or more importantly, the authority to dictate how Nicaraguans must change socially to fix this problem. I do, however, have the ability, as an English-speaker, to share my knowledge of the language and to be a supportive and strong example in the classroom. I recognize that working with the children for only a week at a time is limiting; that said, from what I witnessed, every investment makes a difference. My dream is to return to Jinotega for a two-week stay, rather than just the one. My eight-day stay opened up my mind and challenged my privilege so much. It was so rejuvenating, so gratifying. I can only imagine what two whole weeks could do. Outreach360, in its infinite wisdom, was right: service is a two-way street. The people of Jinotega taught and gave me so much. I feel such a strong affinity towards this community. I yearn to return again soon.