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Learning and serving in Nicaragua

By David Gonnerman '90 with Kari VanDerVeen
February 20, 2008

Morning in Nicaragua.
In January Nancy Carlson '82 led a class of nine carefully selected St. Olaf students to Nicaragua, where they worked to assess the health of rural residents in one of the poorest parts of the hemisphere.

Carlson, a nurse and a graduate of St. Olaf's nursing program, led the students on a two-week trek to serve the area through the Interfaith Service to Latin America (ISLA) program. Over the past quarter century, the nonprofit ISLA has developed a solid relationship with the city of Jalapa, Nicaragua, through its construction, medical assistance and educational programs.

Accompanying Carlson were medical doctors Roger Lindholm '82 and Mary Wilkens '78 and dentist Paul Chadbourn '72. Before and during the trip the four alumni served as mentors to the students, many of whom hope to enter the medical profession -- including Andrew Chadbourn '09, who wants to follow in his father's footsteps as a dentist.

"ISLA's mission and the people involved with the organization offer a perfect match with St. Olaf and its students' willingness to help and serve others," Andrew Chadbourn says. "I found it to be the perfect opportunity to help abroad in the medical field."

Health surveys
It had been determined that the St. Olaf students would best serve ISLA by conducting health surveys around Jalapa. Soon after they arrived they were trekking through the area's highlands, often just one student paired with a local interpreter, to ask rural residents some basic questions about health.

(L-R) ISLA Director Jean Kennedy, Nancy Carlson '82 and Robin Andersen '09 get acquainted with local children.
"We were invited into community members' homes, and we were able to have one-on-one conversations about their lives. This could never have been accomplished by reading any textbook," student Betsy Volkman '09 says.

The group had received instruction on how to conduct the surveys when they first arrived in the capital of Managua. Northfielder Geralyn Sheehan, who currently works for a microenterprise development program in the city, told them how to see past the poverty to determine a community's assets. "She planted an amazing platform that we all used," Carlson says.

"When we went to these communities the deficits -- dirt floors, latrines, chickens running everywhere -- were pretty obvious. But what were the assets? Who are the people who make herb drinks for different sicknesses? Whom do people talk to when they feel depressed?" asks Carlson. "So we did the health surveys, but we did a lot more qualitative questioning, too." Such data was later added to a database and provided a more complete picture, she explains, that helped local inhabitants express the health needs of their own communities rather than being told what they need by their visitors.

Conducting the surveys provided an invaluable learning experience for St. Olaf students because it allowed them to interact directly with the people of Nicaragua and see their living conditions firsthand. Nick Wold '03, a graduate student in biostatistics at the University of Minnesota, will help ISLA interpret the 200 surveys compiled by the students.

"The poverty overwhelmed me, especially when we met the children," says student Kelsey Randel '10. "But at the same time, we met people who cared about their neighbors and wanted to improve their communities."

Student Polina Bugayev '10 says seeing the poverty and need in Jalapa put her own problems and worries into perspective. The pride community members there took in what little they have also touched her.

"I saw people empowered and encouraged by someone just taking the time to listen to their problems, beliefs, goals and dreams," adds Bugayev.

'Overloading the senses'
In just two weeks Carlson and her nine students completed some 200 surveys that will help assess the health of rural inhabitants near Jalapa.
Carlson, who says she got her first taste of the wider world when she participated in the St. Olaf Term in the Middle East, admits that she didn't know what to expect with this new program. But she's gratified to see how the experience, which she hopes will be repeated next year, "truly embodied the mission of the college" through its service to the area and education of the participants.

"Healthcare, history, education, sociology -- it all came together under the liberal arts," she says. And, adds Carlson in reference to the sights, sounds, tastes and textures of a foreign land, "there's no substitute for overloading the senses."

Contact David Gonnerman at 507-786-3315 or