My project entailed a sixteen-day trip to Nicaragua through Buck-I-Serv. On this trip, I resided primarily on the campus of a healthcare outreach nonprofit organization called AMOS, with a five-day stay in a rural village community in the region of Matagalpa. The Pure Water Access Project (PWAP), a student organization at Ohio State, collaborated with Buck-I-Serv to send us on a thrilling and eye-opening trip to Nicaragua. The trip was a blend of experiences, with opportunities to assist in collecting research data, explore natural attractions, present case studies, and much more.
The people I met in Nicaragua made up the most generous and resourceful communities I’d ever set foot in. They welcomed us into their lives, offering us everything from fresh eggs to washing our clothes to intricately decorated bowls. They are steadfast in their faith, posting Bible verses on thin wooden walls and vocalizing unwavering gratitude for everything they have. It was beautiful. They are beautiful.
When I returned to the States and told people where I’d been, I was often met with widened eyes. The first questions were usually about whether I’d been safe. “Danger” became their one and only story of Central America, of Nicaragua, just as it had been for me at first.
I would never want to minimize the hardships people experience in the developing world. There are so many real dangers, corrupt practices and injustices that they must confront in their daily life. But when violence, danger and poverty become the only impression of an entire country, we do the people within it a great disservice. We ignore the colors of their culture, diminish the triumphs of their progress and forget all the countless ways they are just like anybody else. If I have learned anything this year, it is to never stop trying to find out what is right with developing countries, or any impoverished community for that matter. Conversely, I have learned that we must fiercely question the injustices and privilege that led to the things that are wrong within them.
My newfound understanding of public health, Nicaragua, and developing countries happened largely due to the personal relationships I grew on my STEP experience. I had the opportunity to spend long amount of time with people who knew a lot about public health, Spanish, and other topics from hiking to salsa dancing to biology to religion. I’ve always thought it’s important to surround yourself with people who know more than you about a subject, because it pushes you to be better. This was certainly the case on this trip. Even more significantly, the individuals I spent my time with took the time to get to know me extremely well. The Ohio State students on my trip and I got to know each other so thoroughly on our trip, and it enhanced our ability to work, travel and learn together. Those friendships that formed did not directly influence my knowledge of public health, but because of them I felt more empowered to speak in class, ask questions and express myself.
Other relationships and interactions I had were more professional and mentor-mentee in nature. For instance, on a day off devoted to traveling, I found myself sick and stuck back at the compound while the rest of the group enjoyed an excursion to the Laguna de Apoyo. While I was really disappointed to be separated from the group, I ended up developing a relationship with our professor who came along with us on the trip. She studies and extensively researches maternal and child health, and she served in the Peace Corps in Nicaragua after her undergraduate career. In the day she spent taking care of me and checking on me, I had a number of conversations with her that proved to be meaningful and informative.
My shifted perspective and increased understanding of the world is extremely important to my career goals, as well as my personal growth. In the process of this trip, I was repeatedly put into situations that were uncomfortable. I experienced plenty of uncertainty, asked a lot of questions, and at times I even felt fearful. Prior to the trip, I felt scared of various disaster scenarios that could arise, from accidents to earthquakes to unfamiliar diseases. I nearly let that anxiety win out over my excitement. On the trip itself, I felt unnerved by tumultuous traffic patterns and how dependent I needed to be on others to get where I was supposed to be. But as each wave of anxiety came and went, I learned to work through that tension. Personally and professionally, I feel that this is an important skill to possess. Overcoming my fears led to a more strong sense of self, and expanded my horizons in a way that can never be undone or taken away from me.
This year, I have come to believe in the value of taking risks. We have the capacity to do so much more than we think we can. In many ways, my STEP experience was a risk. I invested countless hours of preparation (reading, shopping, planning, packing, and more) for a trip that I wasn’t sure I would get into or not. I experienced doubts about it, and had to take the time to explain to my family why the trip was something important to me. Those moments where I really need to articulate myself ended up showing me how much I wanted to go after all. I came into college with the goal of traveling to a developing country to work on a service or healthcare project. This is something I finally got to live out in reality. By taking the plunge and working with STEP all year, I got to appreciate my experience and see the value of it.