The Value of Reciprocity
Photos & Text by Ayanna Wright
The journey from Hamden, Connecticut, to Nicaragua started roughly around 4:30 a.m. on a Friday in March. By the time students boarded the vans in the Managua airport that would take them to where they would be living for the week, the anticipation was replaced with exhaustion.
Stars began to illuminate the sky as the van pulled into the quaint neighborhood of La Villa in León, about 60 miles from the country’s capital. Soon, music could be heard, children were laughing and the silhouette of a crowd could be made out under the streetlights. Students were met with hugs and cheers warmer than the night air, and above them a white banner that read,
ịBIENVENIDOS A NICARAGUA DELEGACION DE QUINNIPIAC!
The visit in March was part of Quinnipiac University’s service learning and study abroad programs, which also includes visits during January and May. Every year Quinnipiac University collaborates with León-based Alianza Americana - an educational institution that serves to create opportunities for its students through leadership and English courses. Through the Alianza partnership, Quinnipiac University is able to send students of various degree programs to Nicaragua, an experience that gives them a chance to create projects in a different cultural environment. With Alianza acting as a liaison, students are able to visit locations that most relate to their field of study.
This unique partnership has been beneficial to both institutions by facilitating meaningful learning experiences for all involved. However it is the León community of La Villa 23 de Julio that benefits from this relationship the most.
The relationship between Quinnipiac and La Villa 23 de Julio is 13 years in the making. Back in 2004, the university sent its first group of students to León during spring break. As the program developed, the need for host families grew and now there are 20 families that see hundreds of students a year. These trips serve a purpose greater than providing students with a cool story to tell on the quad. Students are encouraged to embrace a foreign culture and allow the experience to make them better not only in their field of study, but better human beings.
Upon arrival, students are paired with La Villa host families, who provide them a place to stay for the duration of their trip. For that week students are treated as one of the family and immersed in traditions that may seem out of the ordinary for them. What is familiar however, is the love and support that often transcend the language barriers and cultural differences.
Charlise Roper, a student at Quinnipiac studying in the graduate social work program, looks back on her first encounter with her host mom, Ana Ortiz.
“I was very nervous the entire plane ride,” she recalls. “But once I saw my host mom, Ana, she looked nervous also so it calmed me a little. There were three of us staying with her so I imagine it was stressful for her.”
Ortiz, a stay at home mother of two, is in the process of helping her significant other, Jorge, move to the United States in search of work. Although she plans to send her children with Jorge and going herself once they’ve settled, she says her family’s goal is to make enough money to come back to León and purchase a house in La Villa and continuing to host students.
Elena Rubio has been hosting students since 2006, and back then her house was made simply out of cardboard and plastic. With the money she is given by the school to host she has been able to better prepare her home not only for her children but her host children as well.
“Every year I have been able to add onto my house somehow, have a wall built, buy an extra bed, maybe a fan,” she says.
The hosting responsibility isn’t solely about the monetary benefits. Maira Laguna, a convenience store owner in La Villa, looks forward to hosting students because it means her normally quiet home becomes much more festive. With her 19-year-old son, Nabil, away at college, only Laguna and her daughter, Thayla, reside in the home.
“The love my daughter and I feel in our home is different when students are here versus when they leave. When they leave I am always a little sad,” she said.
Erin Sabato, Quinnipiac’s director of international service and learning, oversees the trip and vets the host families to make sure they are able to house students. Having gone on the trip herself as a Quinnipiac journalism student in spring break of 2005, she immediately fell in love with the country and culture. So much so that after graduation, she moved to León for six months before taking graduate classes in Costa Rica. Having first-hand experience has helped her shape the program and pick the right women for the job of hosting students.
Sabato’s main focus is reciprocity, and making sure that as these host moms continue to make students their priority that the school also recognizes that and gives them help when they need it. One of the ways Quinnipiac is able to help is with the microlending program through the School of Business.
Flor de Maria Cisneros, a host mom for almost 10 years, used her business loan to open a pharmacy with her daughter Crystel, who is a pharmacist. Laguna owns a convenience store near her home that she started after being granted a loan. Sabato attributes their success to the trust and consistency they have shown over the year as host moms.
“Some women leave their jobs to exclusively host, and obviously this is benefitting to their family as well,” Sabato said. “But they’re doing it so that the conditions of their home are better for our students.”
Sabato’s says she hopes that what students take away from this experience stays with them much longer than the 10 days they are visiting.