Nicaragua: Social Justice and My Place in the World Past Review

By (Fairhaven, Western Washington University) for

Study Abroad Programs in Nicaragua

What did you gain/learn from your experience abroad? Was it worthwhile?
Again, I'm not sure how to answer that question in such a small box. My study abroad experience defined who I am as a person, and who I want to be. It helped me find my place in the world, a world in which there are many inequalities and power differences, and it gave me a sense of purpose. I am incorporating much of my experience - from the program course, to the blog I kept, to daily life - into my academic major. I hope to return to Nicaragua as soon as possible, and I hope to live there for at least a few years someday.

Personal Information

How much international exposure did you have prior to this program? 2 weeks - 1 month

Review Your Program

* Overall educational experience

Academic rigor, intensity, resources, etc.

The program course was incredible - I want to incorporate part of the curriculum into my Fairhaven concentration. I gained a thorough understanding of poverty, revolution and neoliberalism in Nicaragua, as well as much of the 20th century history. Most of the readings were engaging but time consuming. The only assignments were three essays (in Spanish), two of which had very loose criteria but were still graded fairly harshly, which seemed a little unfair and left me with a negative impression. Courses at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Nicaragua, however, were very different from U.S. university classes. There are no textbooks or syllabi; students have to search for readings in the library (which is one room) that pertain to the homework assignment. Classes are all lecture style, with lots of note-taking and 30 minute presentations every few weeks. Grades are mostly based on mid-term and final exams.

* Host Country Program Administration

On-site administration of your program

At first I thought it would be a weakness that all of the students live so close together, because I thought it would hinder immersion. While that was the case to some extent, it was also a benefit because Managua is too dangerous to explore alone, especially for a U.S. citizen (petty crime, but I was robbed at knifepoint in broad daylight, so it happens). Thus, it's nice to have people to explore the city with, who live nearby. Apart from the program course, Revolution and Neoliberalism in Nicaragua (which was one of the best classes I've ever taken), the program also offered Resources for Ongoing Orientation (ROOs) which helped the students adjust to Nicaraguan life over the course of the semester. The first few sessions were on cultural differences and dimensions, and over the course of the semester we progressed to issues like poverty and stereotyping. These were extremely helpful in understanding cultural differences, and helping with the immersion process. Hector and Gaby, the on site directors, were very available, approachable and knowledgeable. They participated in the majority of our program excursions (to visit different parts of the country), and felt like a part of the group. After the first few weeks, I needed to request a change in host families, and they were very supportive in helping me with the transition process. I loved the fact that there were only 7 other American students. While CIEE is a huge organization, my experience felt very personalized and intimate. I got to know the directors very well, and I felt as immersed as possible. My expectations were different from the reality of living in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a very poor country. While I knew this in theory, it played out differently in daily life in the form of crime and violence, high visibility (very little racial diversity, so white people really stand out), and dependency on others (have to go out in pairs or groups, too dangerous to go alone, etc.). Also, the volunteer work was a major part of the program. I'd been envisioning a few hours of non-intensive volunteer hours each week, in a fun and relaxed environment. However, I found (and most of the girls in my program agreed) that my volunteer work was stressful - I was teaching English to a class full of disinterested teenagers, with no lesson plans, curriculum, materials or teaching experience. It was very much trial-by-fire, learn-as-you-go, and it was stressful and time consuming and demanding. Most of the other girls, even in different volunteer situations, felt similarly.

* Housing:

How satisfied were you with your living arrangements?

I had a great experience with my host family. At first, I was placed with a host family that didn't fit well, so after a few weeks I transferred to another, which was a great match for me. It was in the safest neighborhood in Managua (safe to walk around alone, even at night - on lighted streets), literally across the street from the university. It had a little bar and a basketball court/soccer field, as well as an internet cafe and a photocopy shop (which is important, because that's how you do all your homework and readings for school). There was a great community feel because it was the neighborhood for all the university student housing, so there were a lot of people my age who attended UNAN. Also, all the busses pass by UNAN to get to different parts of the city, so it was never difficult to get around. My host family treated me as a guest, but not in a bad way. THis might also have something to do with my personality; I tend to be shy at first, so it took me a while to open up to them, which contributed to them treating me as a guest. But by the end of the semester I had formed strong connections with a few of my host siblings (my age) and the 10-month-old baby. CIEE has a really detailed housing questionnaire that you fill out before arriving, so that they can match you with the best possible family. Questions range from whether you are vegetarian/smoker/etc., to whether you would prefer host siblings your age, or younger kids, or no host siblings at all. Even so, if for whatever reason your housing situation doesn't work out, they are really good about finding another host family. My experience was such that, two weeks after arrival I requested a new host family, and about two weeks after that I was officially moving in. Considering they had to find a family willing to host me (they didn't have any backups on the list), and the interviewing process/etc., I was very impressed. Also, Gaby, one of the program directors, helped facilitate my move so that it was the least uncomfortable it could be (leaving the first host family), and accompanied me to the new house.

* Food:

I'm vegetarian, and it wasn't really a problem. People in Nicaragua tend to assume that if you're vegetarian, you still eat ham/pork/chicken/fish, but if you are clear up front, it's not an issue. (You just have to be prepared to eat a lot of rice and beans.) I personally ended up eating chicken and fish, just to experience a little more of Nicaraguan food and culture. However, I did get a series of stomach infections which led to not eating for two or three days straight. As always, exercise caution before you eat: don't eat food from street vendors, especially fruit. Food at my house was always home-cooked and delicious. The servings were always too much; at first I tried to eat it all, to be polite, but you get caught in this vicious circle because Nicaraguans are both generous and poor, so they show their hospitality by giving you tons of food. After a few weeks, I just ended up not eating it all, and over time the serving portions decreased as well.

* Social & Cultural Integration:

How integrated did you feel with the local culture?

One of my favorite program excursions was a trip to the countryside in the first few weeks after we arrived. Managua is the capital of Nicaragua, so it's pretty urban, and it was nice to get out of the city. We stayed with families in a tiny rural agricultural town for three nights, and it was incredible to get to know that family and live their lifestyle. After the trip, I kept going back on the weekends, so I technically had two host families: one in the city, and one in the country. It was an incredible experience.

* Health Care:

How well were health issues addressed during the program?

* Safety:

As far as health issues, CIEE has a great health insurance program that covers hospital and medical costs. I personally never went to a hospital or clinic, but I know a few of the girls on my program did (for stomach flus/sickness, etc.). As far as health goes, I got really sick (probably from the food) at least once a month, to the point where I couldn't eat for a few days. But that's pretty unavoidable, and isn't too bad. Definitely worth the experience. It helps to be cautious about what you eat. As far as safety goes, Hector and Gaby went over a routine safety procedure guide with us at the beginning of the trip, and then it wasn't really addressed again. They would make announcements if anything seriously dangerous happened in the news (for exmaple, the flooding of Carretera Panamericana in the winter, which closed roads), and gave safety tips for election weekend, which could have been violent. Overall, almost everyone in the program had at least one experience with robbery, whether it was attempted backpack thefts on the bus, or getting followed, or (in my case) getting robbed at knifepoint. There were a lot of stories circulating about how people got killed for their laptops or cell phones, or how taxi drivers or motorcycle gangs would rob tourists. I found that CIEE really didn't address this aspect of Nicaraguan life before we arrived, and I was a little angry about that because it played a major role in my daily life and affected all my decision making. However, if you use good judgment, are aware of your surroundings and don't go out alone, you will likely be fine. Petty crime and pocket-picking are common and will likely happen, but you can avoid really dangerous situations if you are concious and aware.

If you could do it all over again would you choose the same program? Yes


* Money: How easily were you able to live on a student's budget?

(1 = not very easy/$200+ on food & personal expenses/week, 2.5 = $100/week, 5 = very easily/minimal cost)


* Did your program have a foreign language component? Yes
If applicable, to what degree did your living situation aid your language acquisition?

Language acquisition improvement?

Not many people in Nicaragua speak Spanish, with the exception of a few students who are learning it in high school or college. Taxi drivers, waiters/waitresses, police officers, etc. very rarely spoke English. However, the way the program is set up, all of the U.S. students live in the same two neighborhoods. In my experience, we spent a lot of time together speaking English, which hindered my language skills in Spanish. I did, however, practice speaking with my host family, which helped a lot.

Other Program Information

* Where did you live?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family
* Who did you live with?

Select all that apply

  • Host Family

A Look Back

* What did you like most about the program?
  • The course Revolution and Neoliberalism in Nicaragua
  • Host families/immersion/language skills
  • Resources for Ongoing Orientation
* What could be improved?
  • Transparency
  • Opportunities to form connections with Nicaraguans my age
  • More manageable volunteer expectations
* What do you know now that you wish you knew before going on this program? As I've said before, Nicaragua is a very poor developing nation. The government is stable, but lacks legitimacy and is corrupt. The police whistle at girls on the street. But the whole focus of this program is poverty, development and social justice. You are living the reality of what you learn about in class, and it's amazing and life changing and inspiring and mind blowing. This program is for someone who is passionate about social justice, and wants to experience how people actually live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America. It is for those of you who want to rough it, who want to push yourselves, who want to change the world. I felt like my time in Nicaragua has defined who I am as a person; if that is the type of intensive experience you are looking for, this program is for you!