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Projects for Under-served Communities 2014: Nicaragua

Meet Lindsay Morris, a master's of social work student and member of the 2014 Projects for Under-served Communities Nicaragua team.

PUC 2014 Nicaragua

Tell me a little about your project and how your team decided on it.

Our team is partnering with Manna Project International, a nonprofit organization that has sites in several Latin American countries. Originally the idea was to collaborate in building a medical clinic in a poor Nicaraguan community, but based on what we learned in our class about the scope of such a project and the needs of the nonprofit, we realized it was not a good fit for our team. 

We are very excited about our new project: building a flush toilet at a community center in Cedro Galan, a suburb of Managua, where English classes, art classes, and camps are offered daily. Recently, a "pop up" medical clinic has been established at the center several times a week, and it has no functioning public bathroom. The goal of constructing this bathroom is really to support that clinic. If they need to take samples for medical reasons, this will be a confidential and safe place to do that.

What drew you to the Projects for Under-served Communities program?

As someone who has enjoyed traveling and has become interested in international development, I was excited about the opportunities to understand, from an academic point of view, how to do that work well. In college, I participated in a study abroad program, and I really enjoyed learning in a group setting through an experiential model of education. I'm interested in continuing to travel, not for the purpose of leisure or being passive, but to do good and become more culturally competent. Professionally, I hope one day to run programs like those through Manna Project International, so I am curious about what makes a nonprofit successful and how to develop the qualities necessary to lead such an organization. 

What role do you play on the Nicaragua team?

My role has transitioned this semester to assisting with cultural debriefings and looking at issues of privilege and oppression. I've led several modules in class that engage the teams in self-reflection with the other social work students. It's the beginning of a bigger conversation that will come up when the students are in-country and on-site.

On our trip, one of the things we're thinking about is how to engage with the leadership of the nonprofit and residents of the community. We have several initiatives, like hosting a welcome ceremony, participating in English classes as assistant teachers, attending dinners hosted by community members, presenting to the nonprofit board of directors, coordinating an art competition to decorate the newly-constructed bathroom, and holding some sort of closing event. The goal of these engagement activities is to integrate the students into the community a bit more, and try to understand more about the impact of the project. I think it's also to promote cultural exchange, because PUC isn't purely about constructing something—it's broader than that. We want to leave the project, not with the message of 'We've done this for you,' but instead with a message of solidarity and appreciation for what the community has taught us and allowed us to learn from the experience.

What has it been like to work so closely with students in the engineering field?

What's been most interesting has been the age difference. I've been very impressed by the competence and professionalism exhibited by the undergraduates. I think it's been a really great collaboration, and I couldn't have selected better teammates.

Engineers working on international development projects can benefit from social workers who look at issues of community engagement, cultural competence, team-building, effective communication, and project sustainability. And I think this project is a great example of ways social workers can be part of work that doesn't fit neatly into the social work world.

What has been the biggest challenge your team has faced so far?

It's a challenge not to be on-site. In a way, we're doing this blindly. Getting things like measurements, soil samples, and in-country cost estimates is incredibly time consuming; we are fortunate we can rely on our partner Manna Project International to help us with these tasks. You can't just go online to Home Depot and search for the price of materials, because sometimes the American prices are not comparable to Nicaraguan costs. That's been a big challenge, so we have tried to build in contingencies and plan B's in case something doesn't work out.

What are you hoping to gain from your Projects for Under-served Communities experience?

Personally, I hope to gain the leadership skills to help oversee the completion of a service project, promote cross-cultural learning, and support the cohesion of our team. As for the community, I hope that in constructing a bathroom, we contribute to the growing infrastructure of this innovative medical initiative. I believe it is an important component of making health care more accessible for Nicaraguans.

Learn more about this year's Projects for Under-served Communities projects in Tanzania and Costa Rica.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

By Jordan Schraeder

Photo by Sara Combs