A student’s view: COA’s first Study Abroad experience

By on March 5, 2018

During this past winter break, the College of the Albemarle conducted their first Study Abroad program. Nine students and one community member joined four faculty members on the inaugural trip.

The destination was Nicaragua and the students were involved in a combination of community service work and hands-on cultural experiences including the history, art, music, flora, fauna and other aspects of life in the Western Hemisphere’s second poorest country.

We asked Ben Douglas, a student at COA’s Dare County campus to write about his experiences and, as an aspiring photographer, to also document his experience through his camera lens. This is the first in a series.


Story and photos by Ben Douglas

“Photography is a small voice, at best, but sometimes one photograph, or a group of them, can lure our sense of awareness.” – W. Eugene Smith

When I decided to take part in this trip, it was with the intention of seeing what it was like outside of my comfort zone.

Little did I know that it would have a cathartic and inspiring effect on my life.

I was introduced to the idea of going on the trip to Nicaragua with the college by Russ Lay of The Voice, my Economics professor, and friend.

Selde Verde, the ‘compound’ where we stayed, just outside of the capital city of Manauga.

He presented the trip as an opportunity for me to grow as a photographer and see the world, both of which I did,  but those initial motivations were completely overshadowed by the fundamental change the other students and I experienced thanks to the people and traditions of this most human of places — Nicaragua — a little-known part of my world until I made this journey.

COA’s purpose for the ‘Study Abroad’ experience was for the students to be exposed to the culture of Nicaragua and for us to expand our worldview.

Many of us realized how narrow that worldview was once we became a small part of their world.

Growing our vision of the world is ultimately the most important part of changing it for the better.

In creating this opportunity for the students, I believe COA is creating steadfast and compassionate leadership for the communities of eastern North Carolina.

Brian Edwards, Associate Professor of History and the Social Sciences Department chair was a co-leader of the trip along with Assistant Professor Katie Brooks, who teaches Spanish and chairs COA’s Humanities and Fine Arts Department.

When asked why he felt the new Study Abroad program was beneficial to COA’s students, Edwards told us,  “I wanted to carry the students down to show them Nicaragua, to have them enjoy it as much as I have in my own experiences there, to see the sights, but primarily I wanted to them to go into the communities to experience the people and to work with them to gain an even greater understanding of the world around them. One of the things that we don’t really have in our area is a lot of worldly exposure…I think and COA thinks it is very important to have that global experience.”.

Jessica Thai starting her coffee bean harvesting. By the end of her “shift”, the basket was full of beans hand-picked by COA students on a hot day on a steep-sloped Nicaraguan hillside.

The trip was facilitated by Brian Edwards and the COA Foundation provided student scholarships.

Study Abroad is also being conducted in conjunction with a UNC-Chapel Hill initiative called the Global Distinction Program, which allows community college graduates to earn a ‘Global Distinction” designation on their transcripts if they complete a program of courses and other activities with qualifying global components.

Participating colleges also have to meet certain criteria to qualify for participation in the program, and Dean Roughton, Dean of the School of Arts & Sciences has been the primary leader in bringing COA into the Global Distinction fold.

Returning to our narrative, the students were in for the adventure of a lifetime; visiting small villages with coffee farms to help where and when we could, cleaning up elementary schools and interacting with the little ones, and being immersed in the amazing culture and diversity of the cities of Granada and Managua, among other towns.

In total, there were ten students that went on the trip as a part of the program. Two of them prepared essays on what they expected to happen and experience on the trip.

Jessica Thai, a student at the Dare County campus included these thoughts in her essay:

Kristen Cordeiro went looking for a new cultural experience and to make new friends. She accomplished both on her trip!

“I chose to participate in this trip because I believe in learning and growth through travel experiences. There is so much to learn from the world; what better way to do so than to go places? Meeting new people, learning about different cultures, and getting away from your comfort zone are all key components to growth and becoming worldlier. Plus, IT’S WARM!”

Kristen Cordeiro added these pre-trip thoughts: ”I am going on this trip to see other parts of the world that may not be seen by many other people. I feel it is a very rewarding cultural experience. I might find something new here that I like but would have never known if I wouldn’t have decided to take the trip! Lastly, I hope to make some new friends to share this amazing experience with!”

The first person we met upon our arrival at the compound was Stephanie Gynette Fabre of Panorama Service Expeditions, the organization which coordinated the entire Nicaragua experience with COA.

PSE works with numerous colleges on ‘Alternative Breaks’ and other programs to put college students in hands-on service project work in Nicaraguan communities.

A friendly face that welcomed these OBX strangers, Stephanie explained the cultural differences we would experience and prepared us for our encounters with the residents of some of the poorest communities in the Western Hemisphere. She also provided ground rules and went over the ‘do’s and don’ts of working with ‘the locals’.

Additionally, she would be our primary translator for those of us newly exposed to the cascading river of Spanish in which we were immersed in and exposed to from the moment we landed in Managua.

Stephanie Fabre, a Florida International University student served as our leader and liaison between the COA and the villages where we visited and worked.

On our first day, we relaxed and took in the incredible scenery of our little compound for the day because most of us had never been anywhere quite as beautiful as it.

Our first dinner at our little compound was a combination of Central American staples; beans, rice, plantains, and some of the best chicken I’ve had the pleasure of eating.

While in Managua we took most of our meals–breakfast, lunch, and dinner at the compound. And we’d all become familiar with various presentations of beans and rice, which was often served three times a day!

Our evening meals often closed with a time to reflect with our peers on what we had seen, experienced and learned during the day.

Faculty member and co-leader Brian Edwards (right) lead discussions at the end of each day allowing the students to reflect on what they experienced. Voice co-owner and COA Political Science/Economics instructor Russ Lay is on the left.

After reflection, we washed our plates and silverware that went everywhere with us, including the top of a volcano!

These meetings were essential in helping our group comprehend the incredible amount of information and sensory stimulus we experienced each day.

And then there was a multitude of flora and fauna to marvel at everywhere one looked.

Water was the biggest challenge that faced while in ‘Nica’ (as Nicaraguans fondly refer to their nation). We had to port purified water wherever we went and were encouraged to drink as much as possible to stay hydrated.

The reason for this is that most of the tap water in the region contains microbes and that are not necessarily contaminated (although that can be a problem in some areas), but just different enough to distress a system not used to their presence.

Often, there was no running water in our compound, so we often went a day or two between showers. In the villages, flush toilets were rare, and when present, toilet paper could not be flushed, reminding us that the simple things we take for granted at home are luxuries in most of the world.

Be sure to follow along with this incredible adventure to Nicaragua here at OuterBanksVoice.com and follow our Facebook page to catch other amazing stories. Here’s a sneak peek of the next article:

COA Nicaragua 1
COA Nicaragua 2
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COA Nicaragua 5
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