No Travel: Continuing Learning and Partnership in Nicaragua

August 18, 2018

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a globalsl series exploring partnership through crisis and travel cancellations: What is our responsibility as partners even if our students can’t travel? 

By Ashley Rerrie, Erin Kelly, Eunice Doroni, Katie MacDonald, and Stephanie Hepas

This Spring (2018), Community Service-Learning at the University of Alberta was set to offer a new course – Global Service Learning and Solidarity in Nicaragua. The course was designed by Katie MacDonald, whose doctoral research looked at volunteer abroad programs in Nicaragua, in conversation with Community Service-Learning staff, including Erin Kelly, a former Global Education Coordinator with Casa Canadiense in Nicaragua. For both of them, it was a dream course: an opportunity to return to Nicaragua with students and work with partners on the ground to design a meaningful experience for all.

The course was designed to have two main components – a pre-departure course in Edmonton, followed by three weeks in Nicaragua. During the months prior to the course, political unrest began to grow in Nicaragua. Following proposed reforms to social security (along with other issues such as ecological impact, forest fires, and control of social networks), many Nicaraguans protested, resulting in violent repression. As the protests and repression continued, we all watched the events unfold, unsure if we would be able to travel. You can read more about the context here.

Once the Canadian government travel advisory was increased, the university administration determined the situation was too tense and unsafe for students to travel. Following the cancellation, we committed to finishing the second half of the course by continuing academic learning together. For their community placement the students then planned a solidarity event. Collaboratively, we reflect on the experience of the trip cancellation and subsequent course and event – The University of Alberta Nicaragua Solidarity Event and Fundraiser.

What did the trip cancellation process look/feel like to you?

Ashley Rerrie (Country Director at Casa Canadiense): The trip cancellation process was a really tough time for me. The situation in Nicaragua was growing increasingly complicated, but I was acutely aware that many of the families who were going to host students were struggling because of other cancellations. I did not want students to miss out on what had the potential to be a very powerful learning experience. On the other hand, I was also weighing the risks to students and to the possibility of future ISL experiences in Nicaragua through the University.

Stephanie Hepas (student): When I first heard about the travel complications, I braced myself for the cancellation. The losses in financial investment, cross-cultural education, and connections with Nicaraguan host families were very upsetting. Collaborative reflection on a positive response and emotional connection as a class and with our host families helped. Most of all, learning more about the devastating economic and political impacts of the Travel Advisory on Nicaraguans helped with shifting lenses towards impacts on our host families and organizations.

Eunice Doroni (student): The trip cancellation was devastating for me firstly because this would have been my first (and probably last) chance to do any kind of GSL experience because I am graduating in November. It also took a lot of accommodations finance-wise to even consider going. However, it was really great having the support of Katie, Erin, and my classmates. I feel we all became closer after finding ways to cope with the cancellation.

Erin Kelly (Partnership Coordinator): As the CSL staff person involved in the planning and partnership-building for the travel portion of the course, and as someone with personal ties to Nicaragua, the trip cancellation brought up some complex feelings for me: disappointment and frustration at not being able to see the initial vision for the course through; concern for how our partner communities and organizations in Nicaragua would be impacted, not just by our cancellation, but generally by the events that were unfolding in the country; concern for how the students would process the decision and be affected by it financially; and responsibility for minimizing the economic impacts to our Nicaraguan partners as a result of our cancellation.

Katie MacDonald (Instructor): It was difficult for me – I was so excited for the course because it was building from my dissertation work, which felt really special, and I haven’t been to Nicaragua in a long time. It was difficult for me to navigate so many emotions – thinking about Nicaraguans we would be working with, what cancelling meant for solidarity, students, and also my desire to return to Nicaragua. The intentional and collaborative way in which the decision was made was powerful for me, that we worked together with the partner organization, checked in with orgs and families, and stayed in constant communication.

Why did you decide to continue with the second portion of the course?

SH: In all brutal honesty, one of the most pressing factors was that I wanted to get the requirements for my degree. I was also curious about how the dynamics of the course would shift with the lack of traveling across borders, and I also wanted to learn more about Nicaragua’s shifting politics, especially in the present.

ED: Like Stephanie, I was also thinking about the requirements for my degree. I knew that this would be one of the last times I could take a CSL class, so I wanted to push through. I was also really impressed by our professor Katie who was able to connect our experiences locally to the global.

How do you think the course was different because of the cancellation?

SH: Documentaries, reflections, in-class presentations, speakers, etc. allowed us to reflect on long-term involvement/learning within Canada, in contrast to an imagined, short-term departure. This was especially interesting with consideration of that discourse of “sexy voluntourism”. I really believe that the learning was, and is, valuable without the travel component.

ED: One positive thing that came out of the trip cancellation was that because we were in a sense forced to approach global citizenship without the travel component, we searched for creative ways to make sure we were still providing the same kind of solidarity with our community partners in Nicaragua.

EK: I think it was key that the revised course was developed as a collaborative project between the students and the instructor.  The collaborative process allowed for the content to be responsive to the shifting political landscape in Nicaragua and to students’ own curiosities, while the instructor’s oversight ensured it stayed true to some of the broader learning goals and course objectives that would have been part of the course in Nicaragua.  I also think that the revised course provided unique opportunities for powerful learning that were specific to its Edmonton location. Students explored the political situation in Nicaragua in more detail, and they heard perspectives on the situation from folks in the Nicaraguan diaspora here, many of whom have friends and loved ones in Nicaragua living the political reality daily.  The experiential component of planning the solidarity event also provided students with opportunities to engage directly with some of the community partners, and to explore what it means to enact solidarity across distance through a tangible project.

KM: I have been thinking a lot about this, and how I think that in some ways the learning was more politicized because, as folks said above, the solidarity event was so meaningful and maintained a connection. In my experience, travel can obscure those political connections because of the everyday work of living in a new place, but also because of the allure of sun and sand. I am thinking a lot about this now after the course – how is it that the cancellation, in some ways, produced a different kind of connection to Nicaragua that, given the contemporary context, continues a connection to the political reality.

What was it like to plan the solidarity event?

SH: My involvement was primarily focused on social media for our event and Nicaraguan host organizations: FUNARTE, Casa Pueblito, Iniciativa Colibri Esteli-Nicaragua, Cooperativa Christine King, and ASOPASN (“The Big Five”). This online promotion challenged me to look critically at post engagement and relevance to public interest and involvement, and it provided many opportunities to connect across geographical borders; one of the most exciting moments was speaking to the lovely staff and volunteers with Iniciativa Colibri and Casa!

ED: This was such a pleasure to plan with the group. I felt that I was still able to practice my Spanish, and have the intercultural communication portion of GSL because I was communicating with almost all the partners at every step of the planning. I asked for permission to use photos, and to share other materials for educational purposes. We spent a lot more than our allotted hours planning and executing all of the different parts of the event, but I think we all felt really accomplished after.

Dr. Katie MacDonald, program instructor (standing, far left, back row), Elise Elgert, Londyn Franko, Taylor Franz, Teagan De Seguin, Sarah Drohan, Alawna Taylor Alberta Minister of Culture and Tourism, Ricardo Miranda, Erin Kelly, CSL Partnership Coordinator (standing, far right), (front row) Eunice Doroni, Stephanie Hepas, Alyssa Covey, Ally Hamdon and Annina Plummer.

What did it mean for you that the solidarity event happened?

AR: For me, it was very affirming that the solidarity event happened. I had been looking forward to working with a group of well-prepared students and having critical discussions about what solidarity looks like in an ISL context. That students were committed to having a solidarity event even though they were unable to travel really gave me hope about the possibilities for international solidarity in more challenging situations where direct connection with communities was unable to happen. Many community members also expressed their gratitude and appreciation for the event that students held, feeling seen and held, despite the fact that students could not come.

SH: The solidarity event provided emotional closure from the trip cancellation, but I’m still wary about whether my own feelings of conclusiveness could barricade further desires for involvement. It’s important that the event happened, not only for the opportunities to connect with a vast plethora of Canadian and Nicaraguan lived experiences, but also to reflect on the possibilities and limitations of one-time, cross-cultural events.

EK: For me the solidarity event was a tangible way to channel the emotions that resulted from the trip cancellation and from the events in Nicaragua, as well as the critical learning from the course, into something meaningful for our Nicaraguan community partners and our local University and Edmonton communities.  The event was a demonstration of solidarity in a particular moment, but I think the students would be the first to acknowledge that solidarity requires a long-term commitment to social justice for all. It is about living life every day with that commitment in mind. I have heard the students describe the event as a seed that they hope to nurture and grow, one that will take root and flourish for years to come.

U of A Nicaragua Solidarity Event and Fundraiser: What was the event like?

SH: I engaged with participants through a chalk and a painted mural, as well as discussion about Nicaraguan current events. It was interesting — some passerby noticed and asked questions, but some averted their eyes and kept walking. The latter was disheartening at first, but this contrast in responses were authentic and appreciated. I absolutely loved the personal, insightful stories from Ricardo Miranda and Oralia Achtzner. My hope is that learning about and with Nicaragua does not end here, but that this event is a springboard for further connections!

ED: The event was such an amazing experience. Some Nicaraguans in Edmonton attended, and it was great to talk with them, hear their stories and hear their feelings about what is currently happening in Nicaragua. It was really incredible being welcomed into a private Facebook Group for Nicaraguans in Edmonton. The people I spoke with wanted more non-Nicaraguans to be aware of what was happening.  

EK: The event was fantastic!  It included a silent auction, traditional Nicaraguan food, a participatory mural and solidarity poetry, entertainment and speakers.  The event was attended by provincial MLA and Minister of Culture and Tourism, the Right Honourable Ricardo Miranda (originally from Nicaragua) and was featured on a local news channel.  It was an opportunity for students to raise awareness locally about the events in Nicaragua, and to share with friends and family some of what they had been learning about and investing so much time and energy in for the previous weeks and months. The event brought in just under $3000 which was distributed among the 5 partner organizations.

KM: The students planned the event wholly. On my way to the event I saw that a community organization we were planned to volunteer with posted a photo of them saying thank you to the students and I cried. It felt so meaningful to be able to tell community members that we remained committed to learning about their lives and situations and that we stood with them, despite not being able to travel there. From my research, I know that hosts often feel forgotten about once students leave and I was so proud of this group for saying loudly that they still care. It was incredibly powerful for me to see all of the work and dedication of students, but also to witness their work to intentionally build solidarity with others whose lives are not like their own, but for whom they want a better situation.

Iniciativa Colibrí Estelí-Nicaragua sent this photo on the day of the event. Students worked with the four community partners to display their work at the event.

Where is your learning now?

AR: Considering the realities of the situation in Nicaragua and how it continues to unfold, and the unlikelihood that ISL delegations will be coming to Nicaragua in the near future, my learning is in grappling with the question of “what does solidarity look like now?”, and finding ways to engage with students and teachers around that question.

SH: I’m currently keeping myself informed by following Instagram’s #sosnicaragua, Arturo Wallace’s articles, and Iniciativa Colibri Esteli-Nicaragua’s Facebook page — there’s a sense of authenticity and empowerment from Nicaraguan citizens themselves. In the future, some of us are also hoping to be a part of further CSL involvement with Nicaragua, whether through another trip or through continuing to fundraise for organizations like Casa Pueblito.

ED: Like Stephanie, I am still following the #sosnicaragua. I also try to share new things on our CSL 360 Facebook page. While planning the event, I became very close to one of the community partner members from Iniciativa Colibri, and I have stayed in contact with them. I created infographics for each of the Big Five that Stephanie mentioned, and Iniciativa Colibri has decided to use it as one of their marketing materials. I am currently editing it to better fit their audience. I still dream about eventually being able to go to Nicaragua and meet everyone that I have already met from afar.

EK: My involvement with the course resulted in a lot of new and reinforced learnings for me.  I was reminded (in a very experiential way!) that International Service-Learning can be unpredictable, something that will certainly inform how I approach this type of work going forward.  I’ve also come away with a greater appreciation for the possibilities that exist for rich intercultural learning and solidarity without necessarily traversing geographical borders. I continue to follow the events in Nicaragua as they unfold, and to think critically about how I engage in the developing discourse, and how I can be in solidarity with friends and family there.  I am grateful to have had the opportunity to work with and learn from such an amazing group of people, all of whom brought unique strengths and perspectives to the experience.

KM: I continue to think about how unique and special the course felt for me – it was certainly in part because the group of humans was ideal; people cared for one another, made space for one another, and learned together. But, I continue to think about what kind of experiences facilitate learning that inspires a development of solidarity, an ethics of care for others.The students have really inspired me to think not only about learning, but also about what solidarity can look like, and how we might create community together around that.

Ashley Rerrie is the Country Director of Casa – Pueblito, in Managua, Nicaragua. Ashley travelled to Nicaragua for the first time in 2012, where she became interested in social justice, solidarity, and how to build intentional relationships across international borders. Currently, she works with various community partners towards justice, equity, and sustainability in their communities, while teaching delegations of Canadian youth about solidarity and global systemic issues through the microcosm of Nicaragua.

Erin Kelly is a Partnership Coordinator with the Community Service-Learning office at the University of Alberta and was the lead CSL staff person for the CSL 350/360 course.  Previously, Erin worked for two years as the Global Education Coordinator of Casa Canadiense (now Casa Pueblito) in Managua (Nicaragua), facilitating international service-learning opportunities for Canadian youth.  She holds a BA in Political Science and Latin American Studies from the University of Alberta.

Eunice Doroni is a Filipino-Canadian who migrated to Canada in 2001, and currently resides on Treaty Six Territory. She is about to graduate from her BA in Political Science, and hopes to work in non-profit someday! In her spare time, she volunteers with newcomer agencies and other local nonprofits, and enjoys walking her 11 year old MinPin in the Edmonton River Valley.

Katie MacDonald is Education Lead at Capital Region Housing and a sometimes-Instructor at the University of Alberta. Her interests lie in the possibilities of learning across difference in contexts such as volunteer abroad, mixed income housing, and community development. Her favorite things to do are try new local beers, cuddle with her great dane, Rita (the house pony) and send mail.

Stephanie Hepas (she/her) is finishing her Bachelor of Secondary Education at the University of Alberta. She discovered this international community-service learning (CSL) to Nicaragua through meeting Erin Kelly. She is excited to continue learning more about community involvement through an upcoming CSL Student Group, as well as a MA in Social Justice and International Studies in Education or Gender Studies.

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