From Nicaragua to Gettysburg, students serve others through internships

"How can I complain about living in a small dorm room when these children live in cramped conditions ... and wear the same clothes basically every day?" asked Margaret White, one of 11 Gettysburg College students who participated in the James Heston Experience, a summer service-learning opportunity in Nicaragua and Adams County, Pa.

The program, also known as Communities In Action/Comunidades en Acción, is made possible by a gift from 1970 Gettysburg College graduate James Heston. It provides opportunities to culturally inquisitive students who cannot afford to take an unpaid internship.

Students who work in Adams County, which includes Gettysburg, receive a $2,700 stipend. Those who work in Nicaragua are placed and housed through the Foundation for Sustainable Development, a non-profit organization that has been based in Nicaragua for over 20 years.

"A large perception of the world"

"I knew families that lived off two dollars a day, but spent 50 cents on wood," said Tara O'Shea, an environmental studies major who helped families in Chaguitillo, Nicaragua make sustainable ceramic stoves that burned coffee-bean shells instead of wood.

"The things I learned are applicable not only to my studies, but how I see things," said O'Shea, Class of 2010. "I think of things in terms of environmental, social, and economic sustainability."

Students' discoveries about Nicaragua ranged from the geographical-cloud forests, beaches, mountain trails-to the deeply personal. Jackie Powell visited "a village with one dirt road which led to the house of this old man down in a valley. For the last few decades this man has been carving a mural on the side of a rock cliff of events he believes are important [such as] September 11. Though he has never been twenty miles away from where he was born, he has a large perception of the world." Powell, Class of 2009, has three majors: environmental studies, Latin American/Spanish studies, and globalization studies.

Students also learned about how Nicaraguans see them. About a week into her visit, Dominique Volney, Class of 2009, stumbled and broke her ankle. "There were not that many dark skinned people, with braids in their hair and foot casts walking around. They stared at me and I wanted them to say ‘hi.'"

Volney, a health sciences major, and four other students spent nine weeks in Ciudad Sordino, Nicaragua, engaged in a culture, speaking a language, and adhering to societal customs completely different from their own. But the students were prepared: a weeklong orientation helped them understand how their race, gender, and religion affected their position in Nicaraguan culture. Once Volney opened up, she said, the people of Nicaragua did too. The experience reinforced what she had been told during orientation: don't jump to conclusions; remain open.

"There is need everywhere"

"People think America is already developed, but there is need everywhere, you just have to do your part," says Aimee George, Class of 2009, an Adams County participant.

George, a political science and globalization double major who is minoring in philosophy as well as peace and justice studies, spent her summer assisting the county Office for Aging, where she assessed the activities and conditions of nursing homes. Although there is a five percent minority population in Adams County, George only saw two persons of color in all of the homes she visited. To address the lack of diversity, George initiated a support program for Latinos, the largest minority in Adams County. She partnered with Latino Services Task Force and Healthy Adams County to create directories and publicity materials in Spanish.

"The friendships I made with clients at the homeless shelter taught me more about society, community and social service agencies than I ever could have learned in a book or even simply working at one of those agencies." said Mary Laphen, another Adams County Heston Experience participant. Laphen, Class of 2010, an English major and Spanish minor, spent her summer working with the South Central Community Action Program. She organized a poverty simulation exercise that educates community members, students, and faculty about the barriers people face when living in poverty. Participants role-play the lives of low-income families and then try to complete various tasks such as finding food and shelter. After summer break ended and classes resumed, Laphen continued working with one of her summer internship programs, Getting Ahead, which provides weekly education sessions on poverty and other issues for shelter clients.


The Heston Experience is life-changing for students, said Gretchen Natter and Kim Davidson, director and associate director of Gettysburg College's Center for Public Service, and developers of the program. "It's been great to watch the student's experiences, but Mr. Heston's enthusiasm for the program is also really exciting," they said.

O'Shea agreed, adding that Heston has funded "a program so reflective of Gettysburg College's goals: global and local citizenship, interdisciplinary studies, and cultural adaptation."

Heston majored in business administration at Gettysburg College and went on to serve as executive vice president for human resources for Metropolitan Life Insurance.

2008 Nicaragua participants
Megan Graham ‘09
Jackie Powell ‘09
Dominique Volney ‘09
Tara O'Shea ‘10
Christine Crayton ‘10
Kaitlyn Vredenburgh ‘09
Rebecca Brown ‘10
Christine Crayton '10 (2007)

2008 Adams County participants
Michael Hannum ‘11
Margaret White ‘09
Megan Crowe ‘10
Mary Laphen ‘10
Aimee George ‘09

Founded in 1832, Gettysburg College is a highly selective four-year residential college of liberal arts and sciences with a strong academic tradition. Alumni include Rhodes Scholars, a Nobel laureate, and other distinguished scholars. The college enrolls 2,600 undergraduate students and is located on a 200-acre campus adjacent to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Pennsylvania.

Posted: Thu, 16 Oct 2008

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