Social Issues and Human Rights in Nicaragua

Name: Kelly Haller

Type of Project: Study Abroad

  1.                  Please provide a brief description of your STEP Signature Project.

For my STEP Project I traveled to Nicaragua for a three-week study abroad trip through the College of Social Work.  I learned about social issues and human rights in Nicaragua by interacting with the communities of Managua, Granada, Leon, and Matagalpa.  In addition, I participated in a four-day home stay with a family in Leon.


  1.                  What about your understanding of yourself, your assumptions, or your view of the world changed/transformed while completing your STEP Signature Project?  

This trip greatly affected and impacted my life.   I have gained a new perspective on a culture both similar and different to our own.  As a pre-med student, my knowledge of international healthcare has greatly increased.  My views of volunteerism and community service have also been impacted through being in Nicaragua.  I have been touched by the kindness and patience of the Nicaraguan people.  Finally, I have learned, and gained a new interest in, social work and human rights in general.  

The physical journey I took to Nicaragua is a metaphor for the inner journey I experienced by participating in this travel abroad experience. As I have never been out of the United States (except for a childhood trip to Niagara Falls), I was nervous about traveling abroad. Would I understand the people? Could I eat the food? How different would the culture be? As I became more comfortable with the physical experience of traveling abroad, I also grew to appreciate the many new opportunities to learn about and participate in the culture of Nicaragua. I also came to truly appreciate the cultural differences while also realizing that human nature makes us all one people.


  1.                  What events, interactions, relationships, or activities during your STEP Signature Project led to the change/transformation that you discussed in #2, and how did those affect you?  

Participating in the home stay with a family in Leon allowed me to gain a new perspective on Nicaraguan culture and being in a different country in general.  On the first day of the home stay, I experienced some culture shock due to the differences in culture and homelife.  Though I speak some Spanish, I am nowhere near fluent, which also proved difficult when surrounded with people who did not know any English.  However, I began to appreciate and understand their way of life after spending more time talking with the family members, sharing photos, and discovering similarities in our lives and interests.                 

  One place we visited that impacted me significantly was The Jubilee Center, an organization that serves a community called Ciudad Sandino.  One thing that really affected me was a presentation by the organization’s leader who told us how she and other volunteers wanted to come in and create a library for the community.  However, while that would be nice, the community had larger, more urgent needs than having a library.  I think this resonates with all volunteer and community service work in general.  When helping a group of people or serving a cause, volunteers should not be going in with an idea of what they want to do for the community. They need to see what the community actually needs, and work to provide or help with that issue.  Finally, something that the leader of the Jubilee Center said on the bus really resonated with me.  She said, “People come to Nicaragua and say they’re going back to reality when they leave. Actually, this is reality and they’re heading back to wonderland.”  This statement, along with everything else I learned at the Jubilee Center, resonated with me for the remainder of the trip and allowed me to have a better perspective on my study abroad experience.  

As a pre-med student, our visits to the clinics and community health centers were naturally of great interest to me.  Though some of the students felt these visits began to get repetitive, I was captivated by the differences in services provided and the similarities and differences to comparable organizations in the United States.  In general, the health centers and clinics we visited were quite similar to family or neighborhood clinics in the United States in terms of services provided.  However, differences arose due to the variance in medical needs, available equipment and personnel, populations served, and funding.  There were certain things about these clinics and health services that I found extremely surprising.  Many locations only had one doctor and one or more nurses, though they served large neighborhoods or areas.  La Mascota, the sole children’s hospital in Nicaragua, only has four doctors, even though the capacity is 310 children.  I was shocked by the limited medical equipment in all of the facilities we visited.  Having worked and volunteered in many hospitals, I felt strange being able to enter patient care rooms, a ‘sterile’ environment, with my ‘unsterile’ clothes and belongings.  In addition, patient information was sitting openly on desks, something that could result in termination and lawsuits in the United States due to HIPAA and similar policies.  I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to visit medical facilities in a country very different from our own and to have gained more knowledge about Nicaraguan healthcare and medical services.  


  1.                  Why is this change/transformation significant or valuable for your life?  

Before coming on this trip, my knowledge of the field of social work and the human rights situation in Nicaragua was extremely limited.  However, though I spent a significant amount of time reading articles and watching videos about the country prior to the trip, I still learned very little compared to actually being in Nicaragua and seeing and experiencing things first-hand.  Through this trip, I gained significant knowledge and exposure to Nicaragua’s culture, politics, and social issues.  Some of the lectures I attended made me aware of topics and ideas on which my personal knowledge was very limited, sparking new interests and curiosity.  I had the opportunity to meet inspiring people such as Juanita Urbina, a transgender woman, who was the first transgender person to join the feminist movement as well as attend a public university in Nicaragua.  I learned so much about the transgender movement, and Juanita’s incredible journey to becoming a transgender woman who dresses as a man.  

Maria Lopez Vigil gave us an update on Nicaragua’s current political and economic situation on our first day in the country.  A talented speaker, Lopez Vigil introduced us to many issues facing the country, as well as how the United States has been involved in Nicaragua.  Each lecture attended introduced me to inspiring people making a difference in Nicaraguan society. Having the chance to meet these individuals and hear their stories has inspired me to continue to learn more about Nicaragua and follow up on these issues.

Though I am not a social work major, I appreciated the opportunity to learn about the field of social work for the first time from a unique perspective.  Being on this trip allowed me to learn about social work primarily in Nicaragua, and secondarily in the United States.  It was very interesting to be able to attend a lecture or visit a location and first hear a Nicaraguan perspective, and then later discuss it with a social work student from Ohio State.  I was very impressed by the group discussion we had with a mixture of Ohio State and UNAN-Leon students.  Being able to hear different perspectives and experiences created a distinctive learning environment and truly sparked my interest in this field.

The part of the trip that was most interesting to me, personally, was visiting the different clinics and learning about healthcare in Nicaragua.  I plan on attending medical school with the goal of becoming a family physician/pediatrician.  As a result of the trip, I have begun researching the possibility of doing a residency in a country in Central or South America, gaining exposure and experience in a medical system that differs from our own, while helping communities similar to those we visited.  On this trip, I had the opportunity to visit and learn about a variety of health systems and clinics which was very fascinating for me.  I learned about the healthcare situation in Nicaragua, and how that affects private organizations as well.  It was shocking to visit the children’s hospital and see the minimal equipment and medical staff they had.  I was inspired by the different services and programs neighborhood clinics had created in order to best serve and treat their patients in both preventative and curative medicine.  I also enjoyed learning about and seeing the connection between the fields of medicine and social work.

Finally, this trip has reignited my passion for the Spanish language.  I am determined to become fluent before I return to Nicaragua, or any other Spanish-speaking country.  Though it is possible to communicate without knowing the language, I feel I would gain so much more if I were well-versed in Nicaragua’s language, culture, and customs.  Even in my short time there, my conversation skills significantly improved.  I still find myself listening to the popular music heard on the trip and craving gallo pinto.  I believe this trip was everything I could want for my first time out of the United States.  I have been permanently impacted by the people, ideas, and culture I encountered while in Nicaragua, and I cannot wait to continue learning about this country.


To see my blog posts during my time in Nicaragua, visit

cathedral prison pic

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