Friendships from service-learning trip
to Central America last a lifetime © Feb. 20, 2009, Norwich University Office of Communications

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video courtesy of Moriah GavrishThis is an abridged version of a video by Moriah Gavrish, ’08, documenting the 2008 NU Visions trip to Nicaragua. Gavrish earned an architecture degree at Norwich and has continued her association with Nicaragua.

Amy Branstetter’s journey to Nicaragua ended months ago, but the lessons in language and multiculturalism continue.

When Branstetter, a Norwich University sophomore majoring in political science and history, signs onto Facebook these days, she finds status reports in Spanish from a special group of Nicaraguan friends sprinkled among updates from college and high-school buddies.

If one of the Nicaraguans happens to be online, she immediately launches into an online chat program.

“It’s a very slow chat, because we have to translate,” she laughed. “It can take a good hour for a five-minute conversation.”

Branstetter’s circle of friends expanded thanks to a three-week trip she and 14 other Norwich students took in May 2008 as part of a three-year collaboration with Planting Hope, a Vermont nonprofit organization that serves communities in Nicaragua and the U.S. by fostering education and cultural exchange.

The travelers participated in several community service projects. They taught English to school children, cataloged library books, painted a rural school and worked on a reforestation project. Norwich students worked side-by-side with people from the towns of San Ramon and Matagalpa vested in improving their own communities.

“In addition to the trees and paint, the volunteer spirit cultivated in the community members in Nicaragua is a long-lasting benefit of Norwich students’ service-learning trip,” said Beth Merrill, founder of Planting Hope.

It wasn’t all work. Students played soccer with children, roasted marshmallows for s’mores, learned how to cook local specialties and simply hung out and talked. They stayed with local families, making lifelong friends in the process.

“The biggest thing I took away [from this trip] was the relationships,” said Chris Amell, a senior history major. “Friday night at 11 p.m., my phone rings. I get 10 to 12 emails [from the home-stay family] every week. ... It’s not a one-month exchange—it’s a lifetime.”

Others reveled in how the Nicaraguans welcomed them into their families.

“The adjustment wasn’t hard at all; the people were very welcoming and openhearted,” said Nicole Fabbo, a sophomore history major. “My host family welcomed me with open arms. ... I just felt I was home with my mom. I got there after midnight, [and] my host mom gave me a huge hug and a kiss. Before I even got her name, I got a hug.”

The trip was organized by NU Visions Abroad, an overseas service program based out of Norwich’s Office of Volunteer Programs. The program, which hopes to heighten social awareness and promote lifelong action through community service, began in 2004 when five students, a professor and a staff member traveled to the Cook Islands in the South Pacific to tutor children in English. NU Visions has also featured trips to Tanzania and Vietnam, with plans to send a group to Thailand.

Fabbo said time in Nicaragua strengthened her resolve to work for the Peace Corps upon graduation. “I can go outside my comfort zone,” she said.

Students had to work to overcome language barriers. Andrew Mills, a history major, said he and his host family used Spanish-to-English dictionaries at meals. Branstetter’s hosts spoke very slowly, and worked hard to teach her Spanish vocabulary.

Branstetter added the time in Nicaragua was tailored to her interests. She worked with La Casa de Materna, a home that serves pregnant women, writing grant proposals so the facility can expand. Nicole DiDomenico, director of volunteer services at Norwich, said her office gears the experience to the background and interests of volunteers.

Her office seeks programs that concentrate on what she called “servant leadership.”

“We must be invited into the country,” DiDomenico said. “We do not assume we know what is best for that community. We try to find ... service learning and volunteer opportunities in education, community health, environmental preservation and sustainable economic development.”

Relationships continue. Through Planting Hope, 10 Nicaraguan teenagers visited Vermont in February 2009, and spent time on Northfield, Vt., campus of Norwich, the nation’s oldest private military academy. Another group of Norwich students is heading to Nicaragua in May 2009 to continue the project.

The trip impacted students in a number of ways.

“It furthered my interest in culture and history,” said Mills. “There’s so much to learn. I’m so much more intense. I’m thinking about going for a master’s [degree] or Ph.D.”

Fabbo was deeply touched by her experience. She described how, “a little kid came over [to me], wearing galoshes. He had holes in his shoes. His shirt had holes in it.” Clearly he was very poor, she said. At the next opportunity, Fabbo went to the village store and called her mother. In tears, she told her, “I’ll never complain about anything again.” The trip, she said, “changed my vision of the world.”