Can’t travel to Nicaragua: One year later we came together in Costa Rica

April 18, 2019

The past year in Nicaragua has been marked by protests, violence, and political and economic crisis. Our globalsl blog series last summer explored a key question sparked by these crises:, Nicaragua, Nicaraguita: What is our responsibility as partners even if our students can’t travel?. As part of that blog series, Erin Sabato (Director, International Service and Learning, Quinnipiac University) shared Quinnipiac Global Solidarity Program’s immediate response and longer-term planning steps in her reflection: Working towards solidarity in times of crisis: Partnering in Nicaragua now.   

Quinnipiac University and Alianza Americana, a language and leadership institute in Leon, Nicaragua have worked together for 14 years. Each year over 150 Quinnipiac University students have traveled to Leon, Nicaragua through 11 different programs. This partnership has worked with the same 19 host families in Leon since 2004.

Oscar Aragon and Eira Argeñal Hernández (Co-founders of Alianza Americana, Nicaragua) at Quinnipiac University in 2018

As Quinnipiac University and Alianza Americana worked to continue partnership during the last year, one opportunity that emerged was a Spring Break trip to Costa Rica with Alianza Americana students travelling from Nicaragua and Quinnipiac University students travelling from the U.S. As part of continued reflection and collaboration, the students and leaders of Alianza Americana and Quinnipiac University respond to a few questions about their recent trip experience together in Costa Rica.  Responses and reflections below represent multiple perspectives in this partnership:

  • Eira Argeñal Hernández (General Director of Alianza Americana, Legal Representative of the Institutional and International agreement)
  • Karina Rueda (Student, Alianza Americana)
  • Erin Sabato (Director, International Service and Learning, Quinnipiac University)
  • Mikaela Rooney (Student leader, Quinnipiac University)

A year ago, the political situation in Nicaragua led to a situation where you (Alianza Americana and Quinnipiac University), like many other partnerships, were unsure how to continue. Many of these other partnerships with partners based in Nicaragua have stopped programming (at least temporarily). You have not. Can you describe briefly how you have worked to continue the partnership?

Eira Argeñal Hernández (General Director, Alianza Americana): We had to resort to Quinnipiac University during the hardest moments. We requested online English courses to keep practicing the language. We also had the idea to go to Costa Rica and meet Erin there to talk about the future plans. During that trip we planned to go to Guatemala and Costa Rica together. Quinnipiac also provided food to the host families so Quinnipiac never let us down – they always supported us.

Erin Sabato (Director, Quinnipiac University): There are a variety of programs that we have worked on together over the last year. This has ranged from continuing our micro-lending program despite not sending students or faculty to Nicaragua, to engaging in online English classes with Alianza Americana students and QU faculty and alumni to facilitating programs together in Guatemala and Costa Rica. In Guatemala we invited a small group of seven Alianza Americana staff members to participate in our programming in Joya de las Flores, Guatemala. The program in Costa Rica consisted of a combination of Alianza Americana staff and current students. These programs provided both continued sources of income as well as global learning opportunities for both sides of the partnership despite the inability to travel to Nicaragua for the last year.

Mikaela Rooney (Student leader, Quinnipiac University): My faculty advisor on the trip, Erin Sabato, immediately started brainstorming ideas with Oscar and Eira of Alianza Americana. Over the summer, volunteers from Quinnipiac taught English classes over the video streaming app “Zoom” to help Alianza Americana in continuing their mission of leadership through language learning. We also fundraised for the host families that we stayed with while in Nicaragua, helping to provide necessities like food and toiletries. Erin was in near constant communication with Oscar and Eira, as well as other members of Alianza Americana, keeping up to date on the situation in Nicaragua while also processing the intense emotions that it had brought.

Eira Argeñal Hernández (Alianza Americana), Erin Sabato (Quinnipiac University), and Oscar Aragon (Alianza Americana) together in Costa Rica (March 2019)

Can you describe the hardest moment of the trip for you?

Eira Argeñal Hernández (General Director, Alianza Americana): Arriving in Costa Rica and seeing how a lot of Nicaraguan people are living in asylum in El Triangulo de la Solidaridad. I will never forget how Nicaraguan people were discriminated against.

Erin Sabato (Director, Quinnipiac University): The hardest moment was when our group was standing on the outskirts of a community we were visiting and a truck full of men drove by and shouted at our group. What the men shouted was vulgar and discriminatory against Nicaraguans. It was at that moment that I questioned everything about what we were doing and why.

Mikaela Rooney (Student leader, Quinnipiac University): The hardest moment of the trip for me was hearing about the discrimination that our Nicaraguan friends faced while in Costa Rica. The complexity of the relationship between Costa Rica and Nicaragua was not something that I fully understood before travelling to Costa Rica. Hearing my friends recount stories of microaggressions that they had felt since arriving in Costa Rica was definitely challenging. What was Quinnipiac’s place in this? Were we putting our partners in an emotional, vulnerable situation without even considering it? These questions and feelings were especially prevalent when racial slurs were yelled at our partners one day. Was travelling to Costa Rica worth it? Were we doing the opposite of our goal and actually putting a strain on our partnership by doing this? We received answers by thoughtfully listening to our Nicaraguan friends and being receptive and accepting of their feelings in the situation.

Eira Argeñal Hernández and Oscar Aragon (Co-founders of Alianza Americana) and Erin Sabato (Quinnipiac University) will present a session, “Sustaining Global Partnerships in Times of Crisis,” at GSL 6: Inclusion and Transformation in Global Service Learning in November 2019 at Clemson University.

Was this learning different than your many experiences with the trips to Nicaragua in the past? How so?

Eira Argeñal Hernández (General Director, Alianza Americana): As an organization it was totally different because in Nicaragua we were in charge of helping in the community’s work and in Costa Rica, I felt like a beneficiary.

Mikaela Rooney (Student leader, Quinnipiac University): This trip was vastly different than past trips to Nicaragua. Instead of talking about solidarity and the need for cultural reciprocation, we were actually showing solidarity, quite literally linking arms with our friends from Nicaragua and continuing on with them despite incredible turmoil and uncertainty. The conversations that we had were deep and challenging, I often laid in bed at the end of the day feeling exhausted, emotionally drained. It was bittersweet to be with our partners in Costa Rica. I am so glad that we could continue our partnership, but it was definitely upsetting in some aspects because we knew why we were there.

Can you describe the best moment of the trip for you?

Karina Rueda (Student, Alianza Americana): I think that the best moment for me was when we went to our last dinner together because I could feel the love between us and the connection between people that didn’t know each other a few days before. I think that all those experiences helped us to feel closer and like a family.

Erin Sabato (Director, Quinnipiac University): The moment that will stick out the most, even 10 years from now, will be the evening that we came together and literally took over a local restaurant. We pushed half a dozen tables together; bought out whatever meat and sides they had and literally had a huge family dinner. We invited other former Alianza Americana students that had recently moved to Costa Rica to join us. One in particular, a musician, came to share his music with us. The owner of the restaurant literally had a random guitar delivered in a taxi so that he could play. He played protest songs, songs about freedom, songs about youth, songs about violence, songs about dreams for the future. We held each other and cried. We held each other out of love and friendship. It was cathartic, and heavy, and hopeful.

Mikaela Rooney (Student leader, Quinnipiac University): The best moment of the trip for me was going to the beach. On this day in Costa Rica, our friends from Nicaragua were free to fly their flag. Seeing the American and Nicaraguan flag freely flapping in the breeze was so symbolic of the partnership that Erin, Oscar, and Eira have created.

What are your hopes for the partnership one year from now?

Erin Sabato (Director, Quinnipiac University): Personally, I hope that I will be able to travel to Nicaragua at least once over the next year. I just want to hug each mother from every host family that we have worked with for the last 15 years and walk through the city center of Leon, a city I cherish. But that is just what I selfishly hope for me. I miss Nicaragua very, very much. In terms of our partnership, I hope that Oscar, Eira and I are able to continue providing meaningful learning opportunities for our students. I hope that we can take lessons learned from this last year and implement them to make any future collaboration even stronger. Does that mean hosting a group at Quinnipiac, continuing to travel together to alternative locations? I am not sure. I do know that we will continue to work together and will always make it work.


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