Experiential Learning through Harper Study Abroad Journeys

This guest blog post was written by Lily Voyles (Harper College AA 2017 & DePaul University BA Communications 2020), who participated in several faculty-led experiences while at Harper.

While at Harper College, I participated in two study abroad programs, (Art 105: Seeing Italy Then and Now and BIO 150: Field Biology in Costa Rica). Both short term study abroad programs were excellent and had amazing professors who made sure each student had the opportunity to make the most of their cultural learning experiences and trip abroad.  As someone with learning disabilities, I especially benefited from the experiential learning aspects of my study abroad programs.  The success of my Harper study abroad journeys inspired me to go on Semester at Sea, Spring 2017 Voyage around the world, which I used as a Global Scholars Distinction project at Harper, before transferring to DePaul University to study Intercultural Communication.

Lily on a horse ride in Costa Rica

Professors Stephany Rimland and Karen Patterson taught the Introduction to Visual Arts course in Italy where we visited Milan, Florence, Siena, Ravenna, Padua and Venice.  While in Florence we were privileged to see the Last Supper by Leonardo Da Vinci, tour the Uffizi Gallery, and see Michelangelo’s David. Another special aspect of the program was attending the Venice Biennale contemporary international art exhibition, which is often described as the “Olympics of the Art World.” 

One of the major learning outcomes of the trip to Italy was the creation of a course reflection journal.  I used current and vintage post cards in my journal to illustrate and reflect on the theme of “Art Then and Now” for various world-renowned Italian renaissance works of art and architecture.  The use of journaling to process experiences, learning and memories showed me the value of time spent on reflection in the education process.

Professor Craig Stettner (who tragically passed away in 2018) taught the Field Biology course in Costa Rica where each student created an Independent Field Study Project, as well as participated in rainforest restoration, and volunteered at a wild animal rescue center.

It was an honor, privilege, and a lot of fun to explore Costa Rican rain forests with Professor Stettner.  Originally, I planned to survey Orchids in the various rain forests (primary rainforest, secondary rainforest and tropical dry/seasonal forest) but changed to fungi after talking to Craig who said mushrooms would have more potential biodiversity to study. In fact, the Field Museum has a Costa Rican Fungi database with thousands of records of fungi found throughout Costa Rica. Craig could not have been more helpful and understanding that this was my first science lab class.  When I told Craig I wanted to apply to Semester at Sea he wrote an amazing letter of recommendation, without my even asking, that I am sure helped me get accepted to the program.  I told Craig’s family at his memorial service that he had quite literally given me the world.

After completing my Associates in Arts at Harper and going on Semester at Sea, I started on my BA in Communications at DePaul University.  While at DePaul, I was fortunate to go on several short-term study abroad programs: Rome to study Catholicism in World History and the Catholic Experience, “France & Switzerland: Exploring European Hospitality, Tourism, Culture,” and “Hong Kong, Macau, & Singapore: Exploring the Growth of the Hospitality Industry in Three Colonial Pearls of Asia.”  I had planned to study in London on the spring break program “London Alive: In Theaters, Markets and Museums,” but it was cancelled because of COVID-19. 

I believe in the power of experiential learning and that it is the best way to learn about another culture, even if it is for a short period of time.  I have learned so much from all my study abroad experiences, and they have contributed to my DePaul University BA in Communication, and minors in Intercultural Communication and Hospitality Leadership.  If I could recommend one thing to every college student, it would be to study abroad.  There are many affordable short term study abroad programs available, as well as semester long programs on practically any topic in countries all around the world.  You will learn so much about yourself and other cultures, while gaining the skills to be an effective global citizen and a success in our interconnected world economy.

Bring your campus internationalization efforts into focus!

Since the AAC&U identified global competencies and intercultural skills as essential components of a 21st century college education nearly 20 years ago, it has become a cliché to say that we need to educate our students for a global future. And yet the nation’s nearly 1200 community colleges have lagged behind 4-year institutions in acknowledging the vital importance of global education in their mission and vision statements, general education learning outcomes, career and transfer curricula, and faculty development agendas.  As community college educators, we know that we must graduate students who are able to participate effectively in a global workforce that is interdependent, highly diverse, and fast-changing. The question is how do we prepare our students for these global realities?

At Harper College, we are meeting this challenge through our holistic approach to international education.  The organizing principle and engine of our efforts is the Global Region of Focus initiative (GRF).  A three-year cycle of interdisciplinary and area studies focusing on a region of the world, the GRF prioritizes our annual goals for comprehensive campus internationalization. The programs in each of the three years are guided by an annual theme, and each year is marked by a sustained project. In the first year, we offer a Faculty International Field Seminar, followed by a Visiting Faculty Lectureship in the second year, and student study abroad experiences to the region in the second and third years. Our Global Regions of Focus have included Africa (2014-2017) and Latin America (2017-2020).

As we pivot our third Region of Focus, here are some key takeaways that we’ve learned:

Dismantle institutional silos

We know our traditional academic silos isolate people, so we’ve deliberately sought allies from all across our campus, including career and transfer programs, counselors and advisers, faculty and staff, and community stakeholders. Our first job is to listen to and understand the needs of these various constituencies. That means we’re having different but equally intentional conversations with each group. That can be challenging, but very productive.

Don’t be afraid to focus on faculty

Let’s face it, without a globally-minded faculty, you won’t achieve a globally competent student body. As the custodians and curators of their curricula, faculty must be afforded the opportunity to enhance or share their global competencies. This may mean incentivizing faculty stakeholders by connecting their professional development in global competencies to hiring and promotion decisions. To build a campus culture of holistic global awareness, you have to start with the faculty.

Count everything

Participation in your activities is key. If you can document engagement from across campus, resources will likely follow. Attach outcomes to cultural programs, to faculty workshops and campus presentations, expect a deliverable from engagement with your programs. Holding yourself and your colleagues accountable for deliverables will not only draw attention to what you’re doing, but it will also elevate the stature of your program. And of course trumpet these triumphs: let your campus leadership team know that you are meeting your objectives.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

I’ve always said that someone somewhere has faced and likely solved just about every challenge we may face on our campuses. Know what your colleagues and counterparts at other institutions are doing, and reach out to them. You may have to tweak what they’re doing to fit your campus, but it’s far easier to tweak than it is to invent.

Be generous and share your success

Be bold and share your successes loudly and widely. Give presentations at conferences, offer hands-on workshops on your campus, tell your story on campus and through external publications such as Community College Journal. Everyone enjoys a good story with an exciting plot line and happy ending!

Value proposition

We know global education promotes student success across all measures, prepares students to participate in a global workforce, and ensures their lifelong civic engagement as global citizens. But not everyone gets it. So, the champions involved in internationalization on your campus should have an “elevator pitch” prepared that articulates in 30 seconds the value proposition of globalizing their area. 

In closing, I would also add that we should be thankful to our institutions and colleagues for their collective good will and hard work. We at Harper College are very fortunate to have the resources, both financial and human, that we have. Not all aspects of our model will be replicable at every institution. Yet I believe the key elements I’ve outlined here are universally relevant and applicable.

Those of us in international education are doing some of the most important work on our campuses, so let’s celebrate our successes—reach out and tell someone your story today!

(This article originally appeared in AACC Community College Journal, April/May 2020, p. 35.)

Dr. Richard Johnson is the faculty director of international education at Harper College. Harper’s Office of International Education is the 2020 IIE Andrew Heiskell award winner for Innovation in International Education.

FER-NE CINC CÈNTIMS: Reflections on a semester in Barcelona

This guest blog post was written by Alisa Taranchuk, who spent a semester in Barcelona, Spain with our partner, BarcelonaSAE. 

As my time in Barcelona comes to a close, I am left trying to compartmentalize my experience. For several days, I have been wondering what one experience was truly the most transformational? Yet, is it that simple? Can the arc of my character growth be traced back to one zenith where everything “clicked”? Was it traveling to Vic, a pro-Catalan town north of Barcelona, for work and seeing green landscapes canvassed in yellow ribbons? Was it sitting with friends in Plaça del Sol, eating patatas bravas and drinking mojitos, marinating under the afternoon sun? Was it coming back to my apartment at night, sharing a cigarette and a few words with my roommate, and watching from our balcony as the sun sunk behind towering mountains, shrouding Barcelona in star-studded twilight?

Of course, it isn’t any of these singular moments. The metamorphic experience of living in Barcelona cannot be traced back to one cathartic moment of awareness. There was no “ah ha!” moment; there was no sudden awakening. In fact, there was no zenith at all. To say there was implies that my evolution has reached a completion. And that certainly isn’t the case. I have realized that Barcelona provided a gradual and continuous transformation. Every experience melded with its antecedent, forming an amalgamation of adventures, tribulations, events, and encounters that became foundational pillars. Barcelona hasn’t proven to be an arc, but an unwavering bedrock from which there is only up.

It is clear to me that since my experience has been transformative, it is nearly impossible to expound upon it in only a few pages. This is partly so because it is hard to pinpoint which experiences will manifest in my life and to what extent, and partly because it is difficult to take something so tremendous and boil it down to something uncomplicated. I’ve come to realize the cornerstone of transformation is continuous learning rather than direct cause and effect.

Yet, I’m still left with the task of trying to present a written scaffolding of my newfound connections. I’ve spent many days trying to figure out how to sum it all up, and then I remembered a Catalan phrase: fer-ne cinc céntims, or “make it five cents”. It means to explain something succinctly when you don’t have much time to talk. Ergo, I present to you the cinc céntims version of my experiences in Barcelona.

The driving force behind my decision to go to Barcelona was that I didn’t know what to do with my life. I loved biochemistry and I loved research, so surely it made sense that having a career in biochemical research would be fulfilling. But I wasn’t sure. Progressing further through college exacerbated my overwhelming unease of committing to a potentially unsuitable career choice. The opportunity presented itself to step away from school, family, friends, and whatever else might be influencing me, and to gauge whether my passions were worth pursuing (or frankly, if they were even passions to begin with). So, after a couple of months, some paperwork, and a few interviews later, I was on a plane to Barcelona.

My internship was the cornerstone of my growth. The real-world experience of working in a lab and leading a project was surreal, difficult, and worth every moment of stress. Every hurdle pushed me to keep going; an unexplained tenacity overcame me. Things went wrong often , and I stayed up researching and reading, toiling away in the laboratory, powered by a deep-seated urge to find solutions.  My internship also provided me with more than just a newfound persistence. It equipped me with qualities of substance. From apathetic supervisors to language barriers, I had to learn how to navigate through frustration and discontent early on.

Feelings of displeasure were translated into patience and compassion. I accepted that I was an anomaly in my surroundings: the first intern, an American that spoke just enough Spanish to order food and make small talk with taxi drivers. If I wanted to be accepted, it had to be by way of composure and equanimity. I countered every moment of confusion, dismissal, or irritation with tolerance and moxie.

So that’s how I began to approach living abroad in all aspects. If I wanted to be accepted into my community, I had to accept my community the way it was. I knew I was trying my best, and I had to accept and trust that the people around me were too. I made a cognizant choice to acknowledge this central truth. The first weeks were hard . Homesickness and feelings of isolation crippled me. I felt like it was pointless to try to fit in and any attempts to do would prove futile.

I came to understand that if I yearned to be welcomed into my neighborhood, I had to be welcoming too. I had to extend respect, gentleness, and tolerance to everyone. This was a pivotal moment for me. From this point on, I recognized that transforming my attitude and refining my ethos was crucial to overcoming culture shock and easing myself into my new reality.

Living in Barcelona day-to-day was an ongoing struggle that was only remedied by personal evolution. From buying groceries and hailing cabs to ordering food and taking Spanish lessons, everything presented its own challenge. Each day began with a new hurdle but ended with a lesson learned. I realized that comfort can be stagnating, and the only way to evolve was to be uncomfortable. So I forced myself to speak Spanish, to have genuine conversations with cashiers and cab drivers, and to order food in Spanish even though I was given an English menu. I forced myself to visit new places, see new sights. I forced myself to meet people. I put myself in positions where I was scared of being judged because I knew that was the only way I could learn and grow. As I began to blend into my surroundings, maneuvering through two languages, social etiquette, and Barcelona, adapting became second nature. I realized that there is a difference between making a space for yourself within a community and molding your mindset to fit a community.

My entire experience in Barcelona was marked by this sort of evolution. It is the ability to be adaptable. It’s easy to superimpose yourself on to any situation and environment. It was tempting to speak English, it was tempting to go to the same, familiar places. It was tempting to come overseas and continue living as if I had never left Chicago. But, what would have been the point of that? Is the point of living abroad not to fully immerse yourself in the culture? If so, immersion is not dipping your toe: immersion is taking a cannonball plunge. I could have easily molded my experience around myself. But I let it sculpt me instead. I let interactions with waiters soften my edges.  Conversations with strangers on the metro were chisels, and fleeting exchanges chipped away at me.  I let Barcelona refine me and carve me until patience, kindness, compassion, and introspection puddled in my pores. I was malleable, I was fluid. I went with the ebb and flow of change, of my new life.

Traveling to different cities and countries cemented this capacity to acclimate. And I discovered that the ability to adapt is transferable. I refused to let transitional shifts upheave me and uproot my foundation. Instead, from Morocco, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and every place in between, the lessons I learned in Barcelona manifested in my different cultural experiences. Interactions in other countries helped me grow and understand more. I related to more cultures, to more people and their experiences. Traveling alone and wayfaring through different cultures also helped me realize that I had become self-sufficient. I was capable of navigating unknown spaces by myself. Even though traveling and living in Spain altered already existing components of my personality, it also exposed elements of my character that I previously didn’t think I possessed. I never imagined myself as particularly independent. I always relied on others and on remaining in my comfort zone for protection and support. I always felt like I had the backbone of a chocolate eclair. Yet, I managed to explore over ten cities by myself. I found comfort in my own presence. I slowly began to rely on myself more. This newfound strength became my driving force. While my driving force had previously been uncertainty, now my driving force is confidence.

And so the question I am pondering now is, how will this experience change me in the long-term? How will it impact me, in personal relationships and in my career? Will I become more multi-dimensional? I must admit it’s hard to say: I’m still evolving and I’m still learning. Some of the things I have learned living abroad became apparent to me immediately and some things blossomed more slowly. I know I have become more kind, patient, introspective, trusting, and courageous. I know that these characteristics transcend boundaries of race, color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, or disability. I know that I can extend what I have learned to others. But I don’t know what the future holds; all I can hope is that I continue progressing, learning, and evolving. Barcelona has not completed my character arc: instead, it exposed the beginning of all that is yet to come. And I can’t wait!


March 30, 2018: The Final Day of Service and the Power of Community

The purpose of our trip to Nicaragua has been to engage with the surrounding community and question how our volunteer work affects them. In my opinion, community means a group of people connected by common hobbies, goals, interests, and attitudes on life. This defintion of community is obvious in San Juan de La Concepción’s community no matter where we go. As today was dedicated to our last day of service, after breakfast it was time for our group to split into three smaller groups for the three different service projects we were doing. As my group approached El Rincón de Cuentos (the Reading Corner) and heard the children shout “buenos días” for the last time, it was a bittersweet moment. The number of children that attended the reading Corner on Friday was very low due to Good Friday. Dariela, the woman in charge of this project, told us that they have low attendance on Good Friday because many children stay home with their parents to spend time with their families, go to church, or go out of town for the Easter weekend. We began the day by helping them with a project where the younger children have to cut out objects that we drew. The older children that attend aided the younger children in cutting out the objects. As I worked alongside Anjelica helping Alondra and Vanessa, I realized the familial community that exists in the Reading Corner. The teachers are like the parents that care for the students, and in turn the older students are like the older siblings that care for the younger siblings. The older children hold the younger children’s hands when they walk home to protect them from the cars that pass by, they help them during snack time, read books to them, and take care of them during recess. The Reading Corner has built up a community of students getting an education with a sense of family above all. The Reading Corner would not be as successful without the sense of community they have developed and shared with us.

EL RIncon
Group photo of the three volunteers, two teachers, and children at El Rincón de Cuentos.

At eleven, after our service projects ended, we met up at La Mariposa eco-hotel to say our final goodbye to Paulette. We found it difficult to say goodbye to her as we admire her for the work she is doing to support the local community. With the goal in mind of strengthening both the local community and local environment through sustainability efforts, she hires local people to cook for the eco-hotel and El Piscacho, to be Spanish teachers for the Spanish schools, and to hold administrative positions. It is evident that the reciprocal relationship between Paulette and her workers are what makes up the community and the experience at La Mariposa.

Group Photo-Paulette
Our last visit with Paulette. Group photo of all travelers, Paulette and Chester.

After saying our goodbyes to Paulette, we returned to El Piscacho for lunch and our last day of Spanish classes. My Spanish teacher, Johanna taught our class grammar as well as Nicaraguan culture. Today we began talking about family in Nicaragua. Johanna shared with us that her late son, Gerald died at the young age of thirteen due to medical negligence. While it seems that for the most part communities are always supporting one another, there are some moments when communities are not supportive. The Nicaraguan community holds a belief that is strongly embedded in the Catholic Church. Contraceptives are hard to come by and Nicaragua enforces one of the world’s strictest abortion laws. Johanna told us that in Nicaragua the average age to have a child is fifteen years old and if one is older than twenty-five years old, they are looked down upon. When her son had Dengue fever and went to the clinic for help, due to Johanna’s older age as a mother, her son passed away. In this case, Johanna’s community held such a strong and unanimous belief about the appropriate age to have children and this communal belief allowed her son to pass away.

While it is apparent that communities can be unsupportive, like in Johanna’s case, she says that in times of need “we support one another”. The funeral that was held for her son was more of a celebration of his life rather than a somber day. She says that when a funeral occurs, “members of the community bring food, take care of the loved ones, and a march around the village is done in remembrance.  Also, music is played, food is eaten, stories are shared.” When it comes time to plan for the burial of a family member, Johanna said that it is completely free to the family because the community makes donations so the family does not need to worry about any additional costs. She says that she does not agree with some values of Nicaraguans (such as having children so young), but that “these are my people and this is my community that I hold near and dear to my heart”. In Johanna’s case we see the true power of a community as one can both support but also neglect members because of the commonalities they share.

Johanna- Nica
Johanna teaching her students on Spanish grammar and Nicaraguan culture.

After our final Spanish class, we went into the town of La Concha to purchase some gifts and afterwards returned to El Piscacho for dinner. As I sat down, ate dinner and drank the juice of the day with my fellow travelers, I could not help but think about what Johanna said and how similar our class has become to La Concepción’s community. We have developed into our own little community of travelers. Just as any other community, we have had our lows, but above all, supported one another and more importantly, appreciated one another for what each person brings to the table.


March 29, 2018: Environmental Issues Facing Nicaragua

Today Paulette gave a presentation on the environmental issues facing Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a beautifully biodiverse country with many different ecosystems including 1,052 species of animals and 7,590 species of plants, but not unlike other places in the world Nicaragua’s ecosystems are facing devastation. Between 1990 and 2010, Nicaragua lost 31% of its forest coverage. Biodiversity is important locally and globally for protection of water sources, provision of food and medicine, preservation of diversity in genes in the ecosystem, and break down of pollution. There are many more reasons that biodiversity is so important to our planet including some still to be discovered, in addition to the few I’ve listed.

Paulette lecture environment
Paulette’s lecture on environmental challenges facing Nicaragua.

There are many global and local causes of environmental decline, all of which are important to discuss, but there are a few that are especially important to Nicaragua. These include progress and consumption, deforestation, contamination of water, and water shortages.

The price of progress and the impacts of consumption, particularly meat consumption on our environment are enormous. Meat production causes climate change, uses copious amounts of fresh water and causes soil erosion and degradation. This is especially a problem in Nicaragua’s protected forested areas that are now being cut down to make room for more cattle ranching. The results of deforestation in Nicaragua, whether due to cattle ranches, volcanic gases or climate change, is also detrimental on the daily lives of the Nicaraguans. In the area we are staying deforestation has caused loss of food sources, destruction of windbreaks, reduced rainfall, and loss of access to firewood. Progress, consumption and deforestation all play a big role in Nicaraguans lack of access to clean water. A few other factors are droughts, panning for gold and soap collecting in water wells.

Canada Onda
Cañada Honda

March 28, 2018: Communication is a powerful tool

Each day of our trip we have had two hours of scheduled time with a local teacher to be taught Spanish. We were split into three groups: advanced, intermediate, and beginner, so that each teacher had a slightly narrower spectrum of where to start. We would learn vocabulary, conjugations, comprehension and even get to play an occasional game. Spanish lessons quickly became a highlight of the day. I have spent multiple months in Spanish-speaking countries and something changes when you are able to communicate, even if just a few words. In my experience people enjoy the attempt, no matter how rough, to connect in their respective languages. Coming into the trip I could understand a lot of what people were saying as long as I knew the context, but I couldn’t speak back very well. Something clicked on this trip.  As a human race we are a lot more connected than we can tangibly see. In today’s society there is a tendency to crave an individualistic ideal of not being like or needing anyone else, and yet society thrives when we aren’t caught up in ideas but instead realize that we can’t operate without each other. In Nicaragua, language has proven to be a beautiful picture of the connectedness of societies across the globe for me.

Each day our group would be split into three smaller divisions for two hours of Spanish lessons at El Piscacho.

After I tried to trick myself a few times into believing that the roosters would stop crowing and that if I jammed my pillow hard enough over my ears I would return to silent bliss, I would get up and get ready, and head over to greet Yajaira, Elizabeth, and Melba, the women who prepared our meals. None of them spoke English and pressure was defused when I didn’t expect them to. Over the course of the week I got to hear about their families, all of their favorite things, and uncover the secrets to the delicious food they crafted. We joked about the absurd amount of Chile sauce we consumed and they no longer were just the ladies that told us when it was time to eat. After breakfast we would go to our respective service locations. A classmate and I had the opportunity to work with kids with special needs. La Mariposa sponsors thirty-three kids with all kinds of disabilities to receive therapy multiple times a week. I work with kids with special needs here in the States and so I was extra excited to experience that field in Nicaragua. Something that was especially surprising to me was that my favorite thing to do when I was serving was actually to translate for my classmate Rachel. She is working toward a medical degree at Harper College and is as equally energized as I am about the special needs community. Margine, the head of therapy, would explain how to do the needed physical therapy and I would translate so that Rachel could carry out the necessary exercises. Over the course of a week we did equine therapy, hydro therapy, and a few days of physical therapy. I got to sit and comfort a boy in his own language that was in tremendous pain from a dislocated knee, I got to translate for another La Mariposa volunteer who was making specifically designed rocking chairs and hammocks for kids with specific needs who couldn’t otherwise sit in anything but their wheel chair. Because of the Spanish that I knew, Rachel and I were able to take a little pressure off of Margine, even if it was for just one week, so that she could really focus on the work that only she could do and then pass of work that others could easily do. I felt as though we were able to fill a need more efficiently than we would have been because of the ways we were able to communicate. The Spanish didn’t stop there. We found our transportation back to El Piscacho, and with my free time in the afternoons I made friends with the individuals who were in charge of the rescued horses, Chepe and Pedro. Pedro and I talked about politics and the differences in our governments, and I had a powerful conversation with him about his experience in the revolution. I wouldn’t have learned about humanity and connection as I did on this trip without the Spanish that I have picked up throughout the year.

PT staff
Team at the physical therapy clinic where each child attends multiple times a week for their specific treatment (from left to right): Rachel, Marisol, Nora, Hazel, Margine.

On trips like this, we are presented with the opportunity to spark social change because of how it shifts our world view. After personal experiences, you are more willing to fight for people and for change because that change is no longer associated with a passing cloud in some far off land, but with faces and memories that have shaped who you are within the society in which you exist. Having the desire to educate yourself about the world outside of the immediate contexts in which you live makes you realize that when another person is thriving so are you, and equally that when another is oppressed we all feel the consequences.

weaving collective
A group picture at the woman’s cooperative where local woman have empowered each other through the creation and selling of handmade blankets.


March 27, 2018: Becoming Community

You can classify every type of community by the purpose that brings them together.

Here in Nicaragua, our English class has transformed itself into an exercise in community. As a community of interest, we’ve traveled here intentionally, to a country whose history we’ve studied, know a little about and are ready to find out more while we investigate service-learning.

Our days begin with building an appreciation for the opportunity to serve by paying attention to where we are. Seeing Nicaragua from the inside is a privilege we have been afforded. This community of place, the simplicity and stunning beauty of our location, include the people who keep the group El Piscacho Study Centre going even when we are not in residence (and after we leave). We are here to see for ourselves some of the things we have studied about at home. Nicaragua wears nature for her everyday clothes and the look is fantastic, a regular Tuesday here at El Piscacho in La Concha. The flowers, trees, and sounds are otherwordly. We get our first glimpse of Masaya Volcano from the road. There is no other place like it.

We work at La Reserva, the organic farm La Mariposa operates. Our purpose here is part of our community of action. We harvest, maintain, and water several gardens while learning about the plants that feed visitors and community members alike. Many interesting medicinal plants and herbs grow here. I sample caranna, eneldo (dill), and menta (peppermint) daily. Some creature live here (a baby serpiente was waiting to greet us this morning as we entered the gate) and work here. The tiny hormigas (ants) have a wicked bite. The bees are too busy to notice us. Seedlings are being raised to use in the reforestation efforts that La Mariposa began. The aim is for these young plants to repair the damage by corporations that clear lush forests to plant pina (pineapple) and pitaye (dragon fruit) crops.

Local Mariachi band

Our community of practice changes yet again in the evening. Our usual reflections turn musical. Our hosts arranged for dance lessons WITH LIVE MUSIC–a mariachi band led by a beautiful trumpet-wielding lady whose father plays the guitarrón (bass). The remaining six members play accordion, vihuela guitar, traditional guitarra, drums, and sing at the top of their lungs. Learning to dance, on the spot, to live music brings us great joy despite how tired we are.

During our engagement with the land, culture and community of Nicaragua, the effect of our encounters is a lesson in openness. Recognizing internal resources and reserves that often go untapped is another way to learn, often about ourselves. The importance of community in our service learning experience is as much about our shared community of circumstance as our sense of being in the world.


March 26, 2018: Service!

Today, we began our first full day of service and learning. The class has split into three groups to either read with children in a daycare called El Rincon de Cuentos, help support children with disabilities through physical therapy, or get our hands dirty at an organic vegetable garden located in La Reserva. We all had to squeeze into the Mariposa van and head into the town, La Concha, to begin our work. In La Concha we needed to take public transportation to get to each individual project. In the early hours of the day, the streets were already alive with people and barely any cars in sight. The main form of public transportation in La Concha are microbuses, Tuctucs, and repurposed school buses which were all packed with local people making their way to work just like us.

bus to service locations
Heading off on local transportation for our first full day of service.

Each service project is directed entirely by Nicaraguans through La Mariposa. I believe this has an important impact on the success of these projects because local people are able to use their knowledge of the land and community to help the projects thrive. The goals of La Reserva are to help reforest the area, provide organic produce to the Mariposa community, and create opportunities to help preserve Nicaragua’s wildlife. I personally worked in La Reserva along with two other classmates. At first we were hesitant and questioned how we fit in to the project due to the new culture and language barriers, but the workers at La Reserva were very welcoming and eager to help us through the process.

La reserva
Organic garden at La Reserva

Today is also our first day of Spanish lessons by native speakers. Our group is split into three different classes based on our knowledge of the Spanish language and matched with a teacher that would benefit our group the best. Class with our Spanish teacher was lively as well as educational; I felt accomplished to be able to use my limited amount of Spanish and still hold a friendly conversation with a fluent Spanish speaker.

spanish class intermediate
Intermediate Spanish class


Later in the day we met with Chester, manager of La Mariposa, to learn about the history of Nicaragua. Chester was born and raised in Nicaragua amidst the ruling of the Somoza family and the Sandinista revolution. In preparation for this trip, we had studied the history of Nicaragua through lectures led by professors at Harper College and readings from Thomas Walker’s book Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle. Although these lectures and readings were educational, our lecture with Chester showed us Nicaragua in a way no one else could. Being able to learn in great detail about the conflict and corruption that took place in Nicaragua from the late 1800s to the early 2000s from the perspective of a Nicaraguan native gave our class an entirely different viewpoint of the history and relationship the United States held with the country at the time.

Paulette lecture
Chester, manager of La Mariposa, giving a lecture on the history of Nicaragua.


We finished the day mentally and physically exhausted from all the new experiences and information we had come across in just one day, but it left us all eager to see what tomorrow has in store for us.


March 25, 2018: Conservation at Laguna de Apoyo

One of the purposes of our trip to Nicaragua is to engage in the idea of, service-learning. Our daytrip to Laguna de Apoyo allowed us to partake in this concept. Laguna de Apoyo is a massive caldera, filled with water, and surrounded by a lush forest, filled with essential plants, trees, and animals. This crater lagoon is a valuable resource for a wide variety of activities, such as eco-tourism and agriculture. One of the highlights from our time in Nicaragua was learning about the conservation efforts of Dr. Jeffrey McCrary and his team at Estaciòn Biològica of GAIA/FUNDECI. It was also rewarding to be able to take part in some of the ways that this organization helps preserve the environment.

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First view of Laguna de Apoyo at the rim of the crater.

Along Nicaragua’s Pacific coast, there is a long chain of volcanoes, and in the middle of this volcanic chain lies Apoyo. Laguna de Apoyo is a part of the Nicaraguan volcanic chain from the Masaya Volcano in the south to the Zapatera and Mombacho Volcanoes in the north. It is close to the popular cities of Masaya and Granada and many other small villages. After a volcanic eruption some twenty-three thousand years ago, a crater about six kilometers in width was formed. There are a few active hot springs within this caldera, which classifies Apoyo as dormant volcano. As time went by, rain and other waters filled this caldera, which has created a beautiful lagoon. There are other craters in Nicaragua that contain volcanic lagoons as well; there are the lagoons of Tiscapa, Apoyeque, and Cosigüina, to name a few. Apoyo is the lagoon that has the largest tourist potential because of how accessible it is, how large it is (it’s the largest in Nicaragua), and because of how well-preserved its natural habitat is. Many of the local residents depend on Apoyo for their livelihoods, because of the plant production, tourism, and food. While there, we saw some of the many creatures that call this area home: Howler and White-headed Capuchin Monkeys, Motmots, and butterflies.

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This blue-tailed beauty, a Motmot, is the national bird of Nicaragua.

In the past, Laguna de Apoyo was preserved due to the low amounts of human interaction, such as tourism, economic and agricultural exploitation of the land. In recent years, there has been increasing human intervention, which leaves the area vulnerable to unsustainable amounts of tourism. Tourism spares little consideration for the environment. The increased human interaction is harmful to the area, because of superstitions and traditions that result in the killing of the wildlife and burning of trees, the need for cooking firewood resulting in purposeful deforestation, and leveling areas of forest for construction that causes erosion. As the continued existence of the natural lake and surrounding environment and ecosystems were in danger due to those devastating effects, in 1991 Laguna de Apoyo was declared a Natural Reserve and is now managed by the Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources (MARENA), which seeks to maximize the preservation of the area. We were able to learn from and work with the organization GAIA/FUNDECI at their Estaciòn Biològica and their continued efforts to conserve the natural wonder that is Laguna de Apoyo.

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Estaciòn Biològica of GAIA/FUNDECI, where we spent our day learning about and participating in conservation.

Café, a white-headed capuchin monkey.

Dr. Jeffrey McCrary explained that one aspect of their mission at Estaciòn Biològica is to research and rehab three types of monkeys that are in the area: White-headed Capuchin, Howler, and Spider Monkeys. There are dozens if not hundreds of monkeys living in the forests on the slopes of the crater. They conduct research about these mammals by walking in designated transects in the forest and then observing and recording various statistics on the monkeys: how many there are, how many are in each troop, what they are doing, what they are eating, etc. The rehabbing comes into play if a monkey is injured and needs time to heal. Once the recovery is complete, they release it back into the forest. Dr. Jeffrey McCrary also explained to us that there is a real problem of people taking monkeys right after birth and selling them. He said that some of the monkeys are then brought to them because someone has abused them, can no longer take care of the monkey or just does not want them anymore. The organization has taken in so many monkeys they now require a person to pay about five hundred dollars to take in the monkey.

Students engaged in service by planting seeds that will later be used in reforestation efforts.

Our service project in the Laguna de Apoyo region involved gardening work that would eventually be used in their reforestation efforts. We partook in the seed preparation part of reforestation. We sifted through soil that would be used to plant our seeds, prepared empty water, milk, and coffee containers that would be used as pots by poking holes in the bottom, filling the empty containers with soil, planting the seeds, and watering the plant or tree. After a few weeks of growth, these plants are taken into the forested and planted. Dr. McCrary shared with us that one of the best trees to plant for reforestation is a Tecoma Stan because of its ability to cure various medical problems, such as inflammation, scorpion stings, and stomach aches. He also explained that it is essential to only plant native plants because it is easier for them to survive and they do not upset existing ecosystems. Our day at the marvelous Laguna de Apoyo allowed us to gain first-hand knowledge of the effects of human activity in natural places and we were able to work alongside those that are trying to reverse these devastating outcomes, in order to preserve one of Nicaragua’s beautiful treasures.


March 24, 2018: La Mariposa Spanish School and Eco-Hotel

On our second full day in Nicaragua, our class had a conversation with Paulette Goudge, the founder of La Mariposa. She first explained to us the origin of La Mariposa. After she studied at Oxford University and secured a position as a social worker in the UK, Paulette visited Nicaragua in 1988 on a political tour to understand development and aid after the Sandinista revolution and during the ongoing Contra War. During her tour, Paulette interviewed many of the “givers” of aid she met and found that they all labelled themselves as “experts”, which is a common issue regarding the power and privilege that exists while serving abroad. Paulette then returned to Nicaragua for several years to learn Spanish and adopted her daughter Guillermina, a young girl who lived in the children’s center where Paulette was doing voluntary work, in 1990. Over the next decade, both Paulette and Guillermina would visit Nicaragua every two years or so and they developed a love for La Concha after working with a local Spanish teacher there. In 2000, Paulette purchased a small piece of land and by the spring of 2005, a local building team began to construct La Mariposa. The Eco-hotel/Spanish school hosted its first guests in January of 2006 and has been growing ever since.

Paulette Goudge, founder and presiding genius of La Mariposa

Paulette explained to us how the idea of reciprocity is essential to the mission and success of La Mariposa. In the literature we’ve analyzed for our class, we’ve learned that effective ISL organizations promote “the idea of service as a reciprocal activity that is conceived of jointly and carried out collaboratively” (Green & Johnson 13). La Mariposa places emphasis on the importance of mutual learning, self-empowerment, and community development that help to create partnerships and foster reciprocity. The service projects that are offered by La Mariposa not only help to educate Western students in the responsibilities of global citizenship and Nicaraguan culture, but they also serve as repositories of knowledge for the community. La Reserva’s communal seed bank aids in educating the local community about the importance of reforestation and the women who run the project for disabled children work to educate the families of the children in physical therapy techniques they can administer at home. La Mariposa also works to ensure that their projects are sustainable, meaning they are not dependent on the aid provided by visiting students. The mutual benefit provided by La Mariposa’s reciprocity efforts are what help to make a week in La Concha a fun and transformative experience.

La Mariposa started with five employees and now has grown to over eighty. Although Paulette has worked for many years to foster the trust of the La Concha community and provide economic opportunities to its members, some resistance still exists towards La Mariposa. The projects that are provided to the community are expansions of Paulette’s original concept of La Mariposa, and some tension exists because the team at La Mariposa, in some regards, is doing more than the La Concha city council. Regardless, we learned that La Mariposa’s next project is to create a shaded eating area for the local children of the Palo Solo community, a nearby area that suffers economically and has limited access to potable water. They have made this decision on the agreement that local farmers will help to reforest the area by planting trees on land that is not used for harvesting. This cooperation for mutual benefit is a direct example of the importance of reciprocity that Paulette had mentioned earlier.

La Mariposa exists to attracts guests from the “developed world” and funnel their dollars directly into the surrounding communities. Such efforts are beneficial in fighting against economic disadvantages and aid in decreasing the amount of poverty in the country. We learned that 30% of Nicaraguans live on less than $2 a day. Paulette also explained to us that two-thirds of the supermarkets in Central America are owned by Walmart and that local meat producers in Nicaragua are being outcompeted by big factories that are built by companies from “developed countries”. By working to strengthen the country’s economy instead of exploiting it, NGOs like La Mariposa can help to fight the adverse effects of Western economic interference. In Paulette’s own words, “the developing world owes the developed world nothing.” Every bit that we can do while at La Mariposa to bolster the local economy will help to slowly chip away at the debt we owe the underserved people of Nicaragua.