Fairfield Now - Spring 2008
The World is Our Classroom
By Barbara D. Kiernan, M.A. '90
Walking up the dusty, sun-baked hillside, a group of visitors from Fairfield University wonder how farmers can coax crops from the barren plots of land they call home. Home is typically a cement-block structure, open to the elements save for a roof fashioned from woven branches or corrugated tin. Having it secured to the structure is a status symbol of sorts, as is having an outhouse equipped with a door.
By contrast, at the city-based campus of Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in Managua, one notices students walking to and from cement or cinderblock classroom buildings, attractively landscaped with lush, colorful vegetation made possible by access to a water source. Many students at this university were raised in poverty and most comprehend the blessing of attending a Jesuit university.
Enter the main administration building and meet an academic vice president whose passion for quality is matched by her love for learning, and for students she calls by name. Meet a president who recognizes the profound mission to which she has committed herself (yes, "she" - this Jesuit university has a woman president) and the incredible potential that higher education offers to her people and, through them, to their country.
What, you might wonder, is Fairfield University doing in Nicaragua? Many things as a result of a partnership established with the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) in 2004 that offers clear benefits to the faculty and students at both campuses. Reciprocity is something both institutions made clear when signing a formal agreement, one that is currently preparing small numbers of students at each school to become global citizens.
"Being located in a 'first-world' country means that Fairfield is far more advantaged, materially speaking, than UCA is," explains Rev. James Bowler, S.J., facilitator for Catholic and Jesuit Mission and Identity at Fairfield. "Even so, this partnership is not about what Fairfield can do for UCA, although our help is appreciated. It is equally about what UCA has to offer Fairfield."
Witness to another reality
To date, exploring the potential fruits of the relationship has been varied in scope and rich in potential. "We have faculty beginning to establish projects in Nicaragua, bringing Fairfield students as research assistants," says Fr. Bowler. "One UCA student per semester has studied at Fairfield, and our students have begun taking advantage of this unique opportunity to study abroad in a secure setting, which happens to be located in a third-world country."
Alejandro Martinez '06, a native of Colombia and now coordinator of international student services at Fairfield, applauds the partnership. "It's easy to be here at Fairfield and read about social justice. It becomes a different thing when an institution like Fairfield ties itself to reality - third-world reality, that is. It makes the Jesuit mission a living thing."
Martinez, who himself studied abroad in China during his junior year at Fairfield, knows just how it feels to step outside the comfort zone of one's culture. At Fairfield, he now plays a crucial role through University College, helping ease the adjustment students on both sides of the equation must make.
One thing that helps is having a language partner at each campus for visiting students, ensuring one-on-one support while in the host country. For three years now, the language partner at UCA has come to Fairfield the following semester, and is partnered with a student who plans to go to UCA the semester after. It's a rotation that creates an instant sense of community for the "stranger."
A unique opportunity to learn
On another front, Dr. Brian Walker, assistant professor of biology at Fairfield and an environmental biologist, has found the partnership to be an exciting way to diversify his research while providing Fairfield students with extraordinary field projects. When his preliminary trip in February 2007 proved promising, he returned the following month with his departmental colleague, Dr. Jim Biardi, whose specialty is ecotoxicology. Together they spent time with UCA faculty comparing curricula, and then visited two of several long-term research projects being run by UCA far from the campus â one by the Bay of Fonseca and one in the mountains close to a native forest.
Last summer, Dr. Walker returned for two weeks with research assistants Jonathan Velotta '07 and Caitlin Coakley '08 to the mountaintop town of Jinotega, where Jesuits have converted five donated acres in the midst of a shade-grown coffee farm into a wonderful field research station. The site has running water and, thanks to a water generator rigged by one of the Jesuits, the farm has electricity as well. "You know the Jesuits," laughs Walker. "The house they built is very comfortable, too."
During their time in Managua and Jinotega, Dr. Walker and his students compared the physiology of robins living in the city with those living amidst the shade-grown coffee, exploring what in their physiological make-up accounts for the difference in the birds' adaptation to such contrasting environments. To do so requires having a bird in hand. "We caught them in nets and drew blood samples from the wing - holding the business end of the beak away," laughs Dr. Walker. This testing is done at 5 a.m. Having secured government permission, he shipped the blood samples back to his lab at Fairfield, where he and his research assistants do the measuring of reproductive and stress hormones. More of such research trips are planned.
The challenge of language
"Studying in Nicaragua requires a working knowledge of Spanish for students going for a semester," says Martinez, "and vice versa in terms of UCA students and English. Before the students leave, they need to have solid academic background about the country. They also take a month of intensive classes before they start their courses. Really, though, there's nothing like immersion in another culture to make you learn the language."
Darling Garcia, a native of Managua, can attest to that. An education major at UCA, she jumped at the chance to compete for a scholarship that would let her study for a semester at Fairfield University. "I grew up poor, and no one in my family had ever had the chance for an education," she says. "In Nicaragua, it's hard to get into a profession if you have a background like mine. When I got a scholarship to UCA, my parents were so excited, so proud of me." The additional scholarship from Fairfield to study on campus in fall 2006 was, for Garcia, a dream come true. "None of my family had ever traveled before, and ever since I was a little kid I wanted to visit the United States," she says.
At Fairfield, Garcia found the people friendly, the faculty helpful, and the weather colder than she had anticipated. "I especially liked the classroom methodology," she says, "because participation was expected. At first I was intimidated, but after I got over that, speaking in class really helped me develop my language skills."
Apparently so, because after her graduation from UCA the following spring, Garcia landed a position there teaching English as a foreign language.
In spring 2007, UCA engineering major Hector Lizarraga came to Fairfield, eager to polish his English and take advantage of the advanced technology and laboratories available at Fairfield. At Martinez's urging, Lizarraga used part of his time to write a travel guide for students who would be studying in Nicaragua. "The guide tells students how to get around, where to eat, and what else there is to do," says Martinez. "The articles are part of a packet for parents, to help them realize that Nicaragua is not a country in revolution, as it was 20 years ago."
Lizarraga also helped translate the syllabi of several environment-related courses taught at UCA, so that the co-directors of Fairfield's Program on the Environment (Drs. Dina Franceschi and Tod Osier) could compare the curricula and assess the unique opportunities each institution might offer students and faculty of the other.
"People need to realize that UCA is not some backwater school in a poor country," says Dr. Walker. "It has the high standards of a Jesuit university, but a big part of its goal is to raise the people out of poverty. While UCA doesn't have the same level of resources we do at Fairfield, what they do with what they have is extraordinary."
That, says Fr. Bowler, flies in the face of the individualism of our times. "You get the sense," he says, "that the goal of UCA is the common good of Nicaragua - that the advancement of the country (the second poorest in the Western hemisphere) is more important than the advancement of UCA."
UCA President Marya Luz PÃ©rez, Ph.D., explains it this way: "We are working in the present to build for the future," she says. "Beyond the training of good professionals, ours is a university that does research and social outreach to different regions of the country. Every single day, activities here represent a contribution to the country." A major institutional concern, however, is that UCA receives half its funding from the government, money that can be decreased with any change in the political climate. "We're trying to prepare ourselves to be ready if it goes, but the fact of our quality helps sustain us, and we are grateful," she says. "The funding we get allows UCA to receive the poor."
What UCA is doing is not unlike the founding mission of nearly every East Coast Jesuit university in the United Sates, except that UCA's efforts are directed to educating its own citizenry. In the States, Jesuits sought to provide this access to immigrants and/or their children who, at the time, were denied this privilege at other American colleges and universities. As time passed, wave after wave of these mostly European immigrants tapped into and developed their talents through the power of Jesuit education, improving their station in life and joining the ranks of an educated, engaged, and productive citizenry. UCA hopes to be equally instrumental in the lives of Nicaraguans struggling desperately to participate in the world's economy.
Hope for the poor
UCA serves its country's poor in other ways as well, assisting the current generation to offer hope to future ones. Its business school, for example, established a microfinance center called Nitalpan, which, in collaboration with Fondo de Desarrollo Local (a bank founded in 1990), became a bridge between local artisans and consumers in other countries. While Nitalpan became a separate entity from UCA a decade ago, its offices are on campus and the involvement of UCA's business faculty and students remains strong. Since its founding, more than 70 farm or artisan groups (more than half of them run by women) have received loans, on average $706, with a default rate of less than four percent.
Meet Yolanda - a farmer whose sun-aged face makes guessing her age impossible. Through her Nitalpan loan, she was able to purchase a modest irrigation system to water crops on her hardscrabble land. Nicaragua has a wealth of aquifers below ground, but accessing and using them requires more resources than most people have. Once she could pay to have the nine-meter-deep well dug on her property, an easily replenished 1,850-liter water tank was set next to the garden.
A system of tubing has allowed Yolanda to double the size of her plot each year as there's no need to water each row daily. "My husband and I and my son," she says through a translator, "used to have to carry water to the crops and walk up and down all day. Now, it takes not as much time." The blessing of that is clear. Her husband has been able get a job. Her son, whose efforts on the farm can now be spared, is in grade school. Yolanda, who bikes her produce daily to the market, continues to increase her crops row by row, now that there is a source of water nearby.
Her loan repaid, her son in school, her husband at work, Yolanda tugs on the sleeve of a visitor, saying not once but twice, "Don't abandon us."
The work is far from done. "The Gospel call is a universal one," says Fr. Bowler, "to stand in solidarity with the poor. Fairfield's partnership with UCA is one way to do so, institutionally."