Nicaragua – First Year Experience
The first study abroad I went on was to Nicaragua during winter break of my freshman year of college. The first year experience program no longer travels to Nicaragua, so the program website no longer exists for me to share, unfortunately. To share my experience with you, I will be reflecting on the various stages of the program. This program was focused around learning about global agriculture and environmental issues in an international setting. The program consisted of a prerequisite course that allowed us to become more familiar with Nicaragua’s culture, history, and current state before traveling to the country.
Before leaving the country for Nicaragua, all students in the First Year Experience study abroad program were required to take a one credit-hour prerequisite course. This course served to provide us with a background knowledge of the agriculture, politics, economic status, food, traditions, etc. in Nicaragua. Investigating current events and practicing Spanish phrases were just a couple of the things we spent time doing in class. One of my favorite days of class was when Dr. Rodriguez brought in a traditional Nicaraguan dessert called Tres Leches. It was delicious! Another aspect of our pre-departure course was a final group project. Each group was assigned a specific topic that they would present to the rest of the class at the end of the semester. This allowed each student to become an “expert” on a specific area of Nicaraguan culture while allowing the class to learn about a broader range of areas of Nicaraguan culture. This was a great way to prepare the entire class for the trip. My group did research of the cattle industry in Nicaragua. We learned a lot about their dual breed systems where they use cattle breeds suitable for milk and beef production. Other topics covered by classmates included traditions/holidays, food, government, and family life. This class was very valuable and necessary for us students to get the most out of the study abroad experience.
While Abroad Reflection
Leaving Ohio to head to Nicaragua was a huge step for me because I had never flown or left the country before! Not only did I gain a lot of cultural knowledge from this trip, but I also learned great life skills, like getting a passport, figuring out what precautions to take based on where I am traveling, learning how to pack for extended periods of time, navigating an airport, exchanging money and much more. Fun fact: the cordoba is the Nicaraguan currency!
One of the first things the group got to experience in Nicaragua was the food! Our first meal consisted of rice, chicken, carrots, squash, and some other sides. I remember thinking how different it was compared to a typical meal I would eat at home, but it was delicious nonetheless. Our week in Nicaragua consisted of a lot of tours because our time their was limited. We first toured a farm owned by a man named Henry. Henry raised cattle and row crops. Sorghum was one of his main crops, and he explained to us how his stand of sorghum at the time was experiencing dehydration due to an infestation of insects. This was apparently an issue they have never encountered before. It was also interesting to learn how the cattle he raised were a dual breed, which means they were suitable for milk and beef production. He mentioned that he had plans to switch to all beef production, however, because it was more economical for him. It was insightful to hear about the production methods and challenges faced by farmers/ranchers in Nicaragua from an actual farmer like Henry.
We spend a couple days in Penas Blancas which is a community that protects the rain forest and educates others about the biosphere through tourism. We stayed with the families there while learning about coffee production, and we actually got to help harvest coffee beans one afternoon. My friend and I spend about two hours picking beans together and filled a basket about half way. We were told that a full basket was only worth one to two dollars. While we were observing the different coffee fields, we noticed that there were many trees distributed between the coffee plants. We learned that this is a method used to produce “shade grown coffee” which apparently results in higher quality coffee. The trees growing in the coffee field where we worked were Plantain trees.
We got to see how the cooperative in Penas Blancas processes their coffee, and later we got to visit a larger processing company called Solcafe. I never realized how many steps there were in producing a small amount of coffee grounds. The community members of Penas Blancas also told us a lot about the biodiversity in the area. One tree called Dracula’s Blood tree has sap that is deep red and can be used as an antibiotic and is being researched at several universities in Nicaragua.
My home stay was probably the most impactful experience I had while in Nicaragua. Below is a picture of my host family. Through my stay with the Cruz’s, I learned how to adapt to a language barrier. My broken Spanish allowed me to communicate with the kids and we were finally able to communicate about things like music (they love Justin Bieber) and school (Melchizedek wants to become a teacher). I also got to experience a bucket shower with warm water that was heated over a wood oven, and I learned how to make homemade tortillas with my host mom. My host stay was a very grounding experience for me and it is something I will never ever forget.
After Return Reflection
It was interesting returning to the U.S. at the time we did because we went straight from Nicaraguan culture to jumping right into the Christmas traditions in the U.S. We were encouraged to share our experiences with our families during the holidays. I learned that it was very hard to communicate what I had learned and experienced in Nicaragua to everyone back home because it went so fast and we had so many experiences packed into one week. One thing I realized after returning is that my ability to travel abroad is a privelege. I am so blessed to have been able to travel across the world and connect with other humans that, yes are very different, but at the same time are so similar. I believe I am a better citizen, voter, community member, family member, etc. because of this experience that made me well rounded. Although it was difficult for me to communicate my experience to others immediately after returning, the Global Option course has given me the tools and techniques I need to do so.