Senior Reflects on How Service Abroad Transformed Her
April 15, 2010
By Aislinn Cunningham '10
Critics of service trips often argue that it would be more beneficial to send the cost of flying a group of students to an international destination, directly to the people and places in need. While the critics have a valid point, they fail to see the bigger picture, missing the mark and the intention of service, which is about the education that the server receives.
As a fourth year H.O.P.E participant and third year student leader, I have frequently straddled the line between critic and fanatic. I struggled transitioning from my trip in '08 to New Orleans-where our results were tangible and amazing-to my trip the following year to Honduras-where our end of the week results were harder to find.
I often felt like a poverty tourist, intruding on the lives of those who struggle immensely. I felt useless, guilty for having led a privileged life and frustrated at my inability to help in a feasible way.
Yet this year, I reconciled my qualms, my anxieties and regained my sense of optimism when I traveled to Nicaragua.
I resist calling this transformation an epiphany, but it was an astounding realization. The Nicaragua trip was a true immersion experience-one that I believe every service trip should be-for the reason that the educational value of our journey was priceless.
We traveled to Chacraseca, Nicaragua in partnership with the non-profit, Friends of Students for 60,000. Our guide, host and mentor for the week was Michael Cipoletti '99, the founder of the H.O.P.E. program.
Our mission was vague, but soon became apparent as we arrived in Chacraseca. Our project for the week was to build a modest home for a family of seven (two adults and five children).
We spent various parts of the week working on this home, digging in heaps of rocky earth, kicking up piles of dust, mixing cement and laying bricks. While we didn't finish the house, we helped to resurrect half.
We also spent time teaching art and music lessons at two elementary schools. We spoke with an English class at a public university in Leon, Nicaragua, we visited a community whose water supply is practically nonexistent, and we sat in on important community meetings.
We learned about water projects going on in the community, failed attempts at such projects in the past, and prospects for future projects. We walked, drove, waded through dust. We heard stories from different members in the community who have experienced seemingly unsurpassable hardships. (Pictured left is Cunningham with other students, Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. John Denning and Campus Minister for Community Service MaryAnne Cappelleri while in Nicaragua.)
We learned about Spanish and American colonialism in Nicaragua and its consequences. We climbed a volcano. We walked through a dry forest, went to the beach, we played baseball with the Chacraseca team.
Yet what is most important is whom we shared these experiences with. Our group grew very close with each other and with Michael, but we also formed relationships with local Nicaraguans striving to make the community better.
Three women accompanied us on out entire journey-Rita Urbino, Leyla Torres and Rosita Ojeda-who we became fast friends with despite a sometimes-tricky language barrier. They not only worked with us throughout the week, but also taught us the significance of how young people are changing the world, one step at a time.
Our trip ended with a despedida-where everyone we met bid us adieu with gracious speeches, celebratory songs, and some dancing.
I have been transformed by Nicaragua. I have taken something invaluable from all my past H.O.P.E. trips, but never learned more nor felt more impassioned as I did in Nicaragua.
As a freshman I embarked on my first H.O.P.E. trip to (in the words of Gandhi) "be the change I wished to see in the world." Yet my true moment of salvation did not stem from my mark on the world, but rather the mark the world left on me.
A senior English major, Cunningham will has been accepted to the Teach For America program and will be stationed in its Greater New Orleans region for the next two years. While there, Cunningham will be teaching Secondary English while simultaneously working towards her teaching certification through the Lousiana Practictioner Program.
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