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Class Takes Service to Central America


Photo Courtesy of Forbes

Article Written by Paige Stewart

As students finish up their last midterm exams and look forward to catching up with family and friends back home, 10 are preparing to spend the coming week in the rural Nicaraguan village of Ochomogo.

These students are a part of the course “Self, Culture, and Civic Responsibility Through Service Learning,” which enrolls a small group of students to prepare for and later reflect on the highlight of the agenda – an alternative service trip to Nicaragua.

For the next week, the class, under the leadership of Director of Civic Engagement Jesse Griffin, will build latrines for the village inhabitants, hike to the top of a dormant volcano, and visit two Nicaraguan beaches.

Griffin has strong bonds with the homestay families that Roanoke students will be helping. Griffin first encountered their village during his time in the Peace Corps, and he has taken Roanoke students to Nicaragua for service visits annually for more than 10 years.

The students in this course have spent the first half of the semester reading and discussing literature selections about the nature of service, participating in activities geared towards self-reflection, and, perhaps most importantly, getting to know each other better.

The course meets Wednesday afternoons for an hour and a half. Discussions center around the book “How Can I Help?” by Ram Dass, which provides various perspectives on how to mentally prepare to make a significant difference in the lives of others.

In one group assignment, students were asked to draw a made-up person on a whiteboard and describe his personality traits to the rest of the class. The purpose of this assignment was to explore how people of other cultures live by different social and cultural standards, as well as to allow students to develop a group dynamic before spending a week in close quarters with each other.

Freshman Alanna Higdon, a student in the class, shared her thoughts about the upcoming trip. She is well-accustomed to service, having participated in many projects with her church at home, but the only time that she has traveled outside the United States was during a family vacation to Jamaica in the fifth grade. She said she decided to take Griffin’s course because she was interested in developing relationships with the people in Nicaragua.

As for the class preparations for the trip, Higdon said, “They have been helpful because they put you in the mindset for what to expect, but I don’t think it is possible to fully capture what we need to be prepared for.”

Higdon said she is excited to be immersed in a new culture. She also said, laughing, that she is worried about bugs, but even more so she fears that her Spanish will not be sufficient.

Greater than these fears, however, is her hope of forging deep, lasting connections with the families that she meets.

“I want to gain a new perspective and more of an open mind,” Higdon said. “Instead of looking at them like they’re impoverished, I want to see them as family.”

The group left for Nicaragua on Thursday night and will return on March 11. Upon returning, they will develop digital stories that document their personal experiences.