By: Sabrina Brown
For the past 19 years, Xavier has offered academic service learning semesters for its students. This year marks the first time since the program began that Xavier students will not have this option.
The university has been sending students to Nicaragua every year except for two since 1995 and has been offering the urban service learning semester since 1997. The urban semester, with two students signed up, was cut earlier in the year. The administration announced on Friday that the Nicaragua program, with five students signed up, would not be offered this semester.
“We usually aim for eight to 10 students, but the impact is beyond the number of students because it’s what the students do when they come back that really makes an impact,“ Program Director Dr. Irene Hodgson said.
The program allowed students a total immersion opportunity; for three months, they lived with Nicaraguan families and involved themselves wholly in the country’s life and culture.
“Only a few of the Jesuit universities have programs like this, and not one of the other ones has a family stay, which is part of the heart of our program, being able to talk to them about everything you have in class and the issues,” Hodgson said.
Students in the program carried a full load of classes, all of which relate to their experience. In addition to their classes, students are assigned to a regular service site where they do service for approximately 15 hours per week.
“When you’re there, you’re learning all the time. You read things in the newspapers, listen to speakers, and then you go home and talk to your Nicaraguan family about it. It’s a constant exposure,” Hodgson said.
Additionally, students take various excursions throughout the country, allowing them to engage in academic pursuits both in and out of the classroom.
“Excursions allow students to get to know different parts of Nicaragua and the realities there,” Hodgson said. “It isn’t just a ‘let’s go look at the volcano’ type of thing, but (it’s where) the Somoza dictatorship threw prisoners into the volcano and the fort up on the hill was a torture center. You’re always contextualizing what you’re seeing.”
Xavier prides itself on the facets of this program that make it unique to others of its kind, primarily its affordability and family stay.
“Everything (cost-related) comes out of the tuition paid to Xavier and a special programs fee that is equivalent to room and board. If a student could be at Xavier, they could be in the program,” Hodgson said. “That’s something that I feel is really important, for us to have a semester like that so that study abroad doesn’t belong to an elite that can pay for it. I think that’s part of how this program is consistent with the Jesuit mission, making it accessible to everybody.”
While in Nicaragua, many students develop long-lasting relationships with their host families.
“Every family, every year, we are expecting to have a new student. But we don’t see it as a new student. We see it as taking a new person into our family, someone we are going to share good moments, sad moments, because it’s a family. We are going to treat the student like our family,” Kenia Castro Castillo, a Nicaraguan whose family hosts Xavier students, said. “It’s something that at the beginning is a little bit hard because maybe the student doesn’t speak Spanish very well. So we try to speak slowly or use writing. We are very open to explaining things to them. We don’t see them as a Xavier student. We form close relationships.”
The effects of the elimination of the program for a semester extend far beyond that of the university and its participants.
“My dad’s job, the principal job for my dad, (is working with the program),” Castro Castillo said. “For three months of the year, my dad says ‘this time is for Xavier.’ He doesn’t plan anything else. He keeps that time just for Xavier. Now he doesn’t know what he’s going to do.”
Xavier plans to review the program this fall, something Hodgson feels shows the university’s commitment to its continuance.
“I think part of what we have to figure out how to get more classes cross-listed, more disciplines involved… We tweak the program every year, but we do need a more sustainable model. We need to find out what we can do to increase enrollment and increase flexibility so that (more) students (can get involved). We want to use this year in a positive way to make the program better in the future,” Hodgson said.
Hodgson hopes to offer a spring break trip to Nicaragua this year in order to spark more interest in academic service learning semesters, but the details have yet to be determined.