Area students travel to Nicaragua
By Lindsay Wallace
photo by Rachel Knighten
Sophomore Amanda McHugh makes friends with a local from
San Juan de Oriente in Nicaragua over winter break.
Two UW-Fox students spent their winter break studying abroad.
Amanda McHugh and Stephanie Diedrich visited Nicaragua, a country in Central America, Jan. 3 through Jan. 21.
World languages professor Rachel Knighten led the trip with UW Colleges, in collaboration with Hands on Spanish Travel (HOST), an organization that specializes in Latin American travels.
"I enjoy travel and take every opportunity available to me to do so," Knighten said.
McHugh and Diedrich spent the bulk of their time in the Nicaraguan city of Granada at their educational partner school Casa Xalteva.
They dedicated most afternoons to teaching children and youth in the afterschool program how to read, and helping them conduct a play for the community.
"I would definitely go back just to spend time with the kids," Diedrich said.
McHugh agreed that the most memorable experience from their travels was working with the children.
"My favorite part of everything would have to be working with the kids from the school. It was very rewarding and I think humbling for a lot of the girls on the trip," McHugh said.
Students were also enrolled in language and culture classes at Casa Xalteva, which is also the first Spanish-language school in the city.
"A lot of the things that we learned in the classroom were easier to learn because our teacher was a native speaker and lived there," Diedrich said.
The trip served as a good teaching tool for Knighten.
"As a language educator, I view study abroad as the ultimate field trip for my students and wish I could take all my students out of the classroom and to the countries we study," Knighten said.
Many students took this opportunity in hopes of bettering their Spanish-speaking abilities.
"I wanted to improve my Spanish by actually submerging myself into the language and having to use it," McHugh said.
Eleven students total from across the state traveled to Nicaragua, including two from UW-Stevens Point and one from Appleton North High School.
While in Nicaragua, they visited historical sites and local markets around the country. HOST director Lee Ann Silva was the trip's primary organizer, setting up lodging and city tours for the group.
The program allowed students two free days while on the trip. During those days, they surfed in the Pacific Ocean, walked through a coffee plantation and visited a number of lake islands with both active and inactive volcanoes.
Although this was her second UW Colleges study abroad trip, it was Knighten's first time in Nicaragua. One of her favorite memories from the trip was the weekend spent on the island of Ometepe in Lake Nicaragua.
"We stayed in two different hotels, both of them with a strong commitment to sustainable tourism. Nicaragua is in the very beginnings of becoming a major tourist destination after decades of war. It still lacks the infrastructure to support major tourism," Knighten said.
"As visitors to this country, it was both sobering to see the poverty and its impact on the people and the environment, and yet exciting to see the initiatives supported by the government and citizens at every level."
McHugh especially enjoyed visiting one of the country's nature centers in her free time.
"Everything's green, and tropical, and fresh, and alive, it was beautiful," McHugh said.
Students were paired up and lived with host families during their stay.
"Our rooms were furnished with a bed, a dresser, and a fan, just the minimal," McHugh said.
Open homes were also common in Nicaragua. Many had gardens in the center housing palm trees, mango trees or chili plants, and iron bars on the windows for better ventilation, making it easy for wildlife to pass through.
"There were a ton of bats and birds that flew in the house," Diedrich said.
Students and leaders alike were surprised at the country's living conditions.
"Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations in the Western hemisphere; this is visible in the living conditions of many people there and in the state of the infrastructure. The students in the group expressed tremendous dismay regarding the ubiquity of garbage strewn everywhere," Knighten said.
"One of the goals of the current government is to restore and protect the environment, and I hope that as a nation, Nicaragua will be able to strengthen its infrastructure, not for the tourists, but for the sake of its own citizens."
Visitors also noticed that Nicaragua's culture varies considerably from that of the United States.
"I had heard about the culture but it's really hard to actually picture it until you're there," Diedrich said.
photo by Rachel Knighten
Study abroad students hike the coffee plantation
Finca Magdalena at the base of Volcán Maderas.
"It was very common to see parents carrying very young children on bicycles and motorcycles. We also saw pickup trucks with groups of people riding in back, sometimes sitting in plastic chairs, riding on whatever was being transported or simply standing up in the bed of the truck," Knighten said.
Another cultural difference the group noticed was the natives' views about religion and family. Nicaragua's population is mostly Catholic, so religious celebrations and rituals are part of their everyday life. The country's official slogan is "Nicaragua: Cristiana, socialista y solidaria".
"They have a different focus on family there, it's culturally different than her. Family is always passing through all of the time, all days and all hours," McHugh said.
The students also noticed that for the most part, Nicaraguans have different outlook on life than the average American.
"However poor they may be, or however long it's been without work people are happy. They aren't worrying about the stresses people worry about here," McHugh said.
When asked if they would do it again, McHugh, Diedrich and Knighten were in agreement that they would return to Nicaragua without hesitation. McHugh already planned a return trip to Nicaragua for spring break to see the country and people once again.
"They were very gracious and welcoming," McHugh said.
Not only was this a fun and adventurous experience for the students, but they also received academic credits for participating in the study abroad program. Knighten hopes to run the program annually.
McHugh gave one recommendation for anyone interested in a similar experience.
"Go with an open mind because we live a very different life."
For more information about studying abroad in January 2014, please contact Knighten at email@example.com or UW Colleges study abroad coordinator, Tetyana Schneider, at (608) 890-4611.