University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

Students construct a school and contribute to a community in Nicaragua

Summertime ucalgarycares projects offer volunteers the chance to travel and connect
September 9, 2014

Victoria Roth, a political science student, travelled to a rural Nicarguan village with ucalgarycares and met several local school children. Photo courtesy of Victoria Roth 

A soccer game in a rural Nicaraguan village helped break the ice between the visiting ucalgarycares volunteers and the local children. Photo courtesy Matthew McDonald

Students worked with their ucalgarycares team leaders and locals to build a school in a rural Nicaraguan village. Photo courtesy Matthew McDonald

Note: The deadline for students to apply for the ucalgarycares Rural Eco-Tourism program in Costa Rica, and the ucalgarycares Education in Nicaragua program (featured below), has been extended to Oct. 22, 2014. Find out how to apply. Both programs will run in early May, 2015.

On a sweltering 40 C day in a rural village an hour outside Leon, Nicaragua, a group of University of Calgary students arrive ready to help the community rebuild an elementary school destroyed by an earthquake.

With supplies delayed, there was nothing to do, or so the new arrivals thought. But the local children had their own idea — a game of soccer. The spontaneous match was the icebreaker the students needed.

“That was the moment I realized we were there for more than to build a school but to touch their lives, and they touched ours,” says Matthew McDonald. “The kids were running around cheering.”

McDonald, 10 fellow students and two team leaders spent the next 10 days pouring concrete, installing rebar and doing other odd jobs in June.  

A second-year education student, MacDonald signed up for the trip through ucalgarycares because of his interest in teaching, and the chance to travel and sample a different culture.

The experience “had a big impact on my life, and my view of service learning,” says McDonald. “A lot of people think it is just ‘voluntourism,’ but it’s more than that; we saw how happy the community was to have us there.”

Victoria Roth, a political science student, believes her experience was a bit different because she spoke Spanish.

“I really got to know them and truly understand what was going on,” Roth says. She forged a bond with some girls, many of whom might never go beyond elementary school. Several asked why she wasn’t married or had children.

“I said, ‘I’m a student: I go to university, I want to do that first,’” she says. “They were shocked. They have no choice.”

Many children finish elementary school, but continuing on to high school is rare, with the need to help the family bring in income. As well, many young people enter into a marriage-like relationship in their mid-teens and have children.

The families in this village, with dirt roads and scarce water, live on meagre incomes, farming, working in sugar cane fields or making crafts.

“The heartbreaking part is that if they can qualify to get into university, there are still many barriers,” says Roth, including transportation into the city and living costs. Nonetheless, Roth marvelled at the children’s love of learning.

The poverty in rural Nicaragua, Latin America’s second poorest country after Haiti, was eye-opening, says team leader Renee Sperling. But the fact a reputable Canadian charitable organization like SchoolBox was working there made the decision easy for ucalgarycares to get involved.  

“We [SchoolBOX and ucalgarycares] also share some of the same values, such as reciprocity and ongoing community support," says Sperling, who was visiting Nicaragua for the first time. 

Like the students, she left with a sense they’d made a difference. Most importantly, “We want it to fit into a student’s journey as a citizen and how it shapes the field they’ve chosen to go into.”

That’s a given for Roth, “I’ve come home with an appreciation of how fortunate we are in this country. We are so privileged.”

Applications to participate in the 2015 ucalgarycares programs are open to all students Sept. 2-Oct. 13, 2014. Visit the Centre for Community-Engaged Learning for more details.