Spending spring break at a Central American resort may sound like a vacation, but Carlow University’s Study Abroad program mixes learning and social justice with the fun.

Carlow Center for Global Learning“Until I came to Nicaragua, I never thought I was fortunate,” Carlow University senior social work major Jaquayla Huger told Susan O’Rourke, EdD, special education professor at Carlow.

Huger was one of nine students to spend their 2017 Spring Break in Nicaragua with O’Rourke, Carlow Director of Global Learning Ben Pilcher, and Carlow Adjunct Professor Kevin Spencer.

Their destination? Gran Pacifica Resort. But they weren’t there to soak up the sun and scuba dive. Their first priority was community service.

“It really was an eye-opening experience,” said Huger, who graduated in May and is now working with Allegheny County’s Department of Children, Youth, and Family Services as a case worker. “I had never traveled outside of the United States before. You think you know what poverty is, but then you see how the people are living in Nicaragua, and you feel very humble and appreciative of what you have.”

While many resorts in undeveloped areas feature lavish luxury that starkly contrasts with the abject poverty outside of its borders, Gran Pacifica offers something different: socially conscious tourism.

“Gran Pacifica is committed to developing the surrounding community which was left with a void following the collapse of the centuries-old sugar cane industry,” said Pilcher.

The resort employs local people, who benefit from a resort-run health clinic and school.

Carlow students majoring in nursing, social work, psychology, education, and business worked in the resort’s clinic. They created an intake form for parents who had brought their children to the clinic for treatment. And they socialized with the children who were awaiting treatment.

O’Rourke and Spencer were the first special education professionals to work with area children.

“Children with disabilities from the community were brought to the clinic, and we provided guidance on how to improve the child’s skills for functioning independently,” says O’Rourke.

Students also worked in area schools. Education students taught lessons on nutrition and solar energy. Nursing students designed lessons on hygiene and first aid. Carlow also used a FIDES grant to purchase 35 first aid kits which were distributed at the local schools.

While teaching about hygiene, the Carlow students realized that a well was broken, leaving children without fresh water and a place to wash their hands. And the community didn’t have the $500 needed to repair the well.

Moved by the plight, the group described the problem in a Facebook video. Within three days, enough funds were collected to not only fix the well, but also to repair another school’s well.

In addition to their foremost goal— service to others—Carlow students had the opportunity to tour historic cities, learn about the Nicaraguan economy, explore the natural environment, and participate in recreational activities like surfing and horseback riding.

“Most of the students had never traveled outside the United States before,” said O’Rourke. “Getting the opportunity to absorb what the Nicaraguans experience every day opened their eyes.”

By Drew Wilson