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Summer class immerses students in daily lives of Nicaraguan women

Originally published in March of 2015

Thanks to years of Spanish classes, a curiosity about Central America and the realization that the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire offers her countless opportunities to explore the world — opportunities that will not be so readily available after college — Meghan Hosely will spend part of her summer studying in Nicaragua.

"I have six and a half years of Spanish under my belt, and while I'm not majoring or minoring in the language, I want to keep it so I can hopefully be bilingual and teach my kids the language, whenever that may be," Hosely, a sophomore organizational communication major from Sun Prairie, said of enrolling in a three-week summer class that will take her to Nicaragua. "Immersing myself in the language by living with a host family and honing my Spanish skills speaking to locals is what I'm most excited about going abroad. There's no pressure for me to come back and have to master the skill, but I know I'll get great practice and be a better Spanish-speaker than before." 

Through UW-Eau Claire's three-credit "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" summer class, Hosely and five other students will be immersed in the daily lives of Nicaraguan women as they study the struggle for women's rights in this Central American country. 

The students — five from UW-Eau Claire and one from UW-La Crosse — will live with host families, attend classes, interact with experts, and participate in field trips that will bring them in contact with everyone from Nicaraguan health care providers to garbage pickers.

"This course gives students a vision of the social struggle for women's rights in Nicaragua, but more importantly, the struggle of women to claim their place in the development of their country and take action to promote freedom and sexual diversity," said Dr. Rose-Marie Avin, a professor of economics who will co-teach the women's studies course. "Students will meet women who had and have important roles in Nicaraguan history, the Revolution, the economy, social movements, and those who have suffered under the patriarchal system and are members of a constant struggle." 

While in Nicaragua, students will have face-to-face class meetings where they will analyze readings and interact with Nicaraguan guest speakers who have expertise in topics ranging from women in the Revolution to contemporary women's rights issues.

The program also includes multiple field trips that will immerse students in the day-to-day lives of Nicaraguan women, said Meghan Mehlos, a lecturer in languages who will co-lead the summer program with Avin.

Students will visit the indigenous communities of El Chile and Mulukuku, as well as an organization that gives micro-credit to women, a women's coffee cooperative, schools, health centers, a women's cooperative that provides health services to poor women, an organization that promotes sexual diversity, an organization that employs some of Nicaragua's most marginalized workers — the garbage pickers at Central America's largest garbage dump — in innovative environmental initiatives, and the central office of the Autonomous Women's Movement.

"Students will develop new perspectives on women's lives because they will interact with women on a daily basis through their Nicaraguan host families, through their classes in the Colibrí Spanish School and through the field trips," said Mehlos. "Engaging students in the daily lives of women inside and outside of the classroom will help them understand the power of collective action and what it means for women's empowerment in Nicaragua." 

This is the fourth time the class has been offered at UW-Eau Claire, said Dr. Analisa De Grave, an associate professor of languages who led the program in 2013, noting that it also will be offered during Winterim 2016. 

"Based on past students' reflections, spending time with their host families has been very transformative for many students," said De Grave. "For others, it's the stories told to them by guest speakers or by women they meet that have biggest impact. For example, a student said she was powerfully affected by her day with a woman everyone in the neighborhood called 'Abuelita,' or 'Little Grandma.' She said the experience helped her reflect on the terms 'poor' and 'poverty' because these women did live in poverty, but they were far from poor. The student said thinking about Nicaragua and her experience there made her feel like she can make a difference, one person at a time." Read a Q&A with students who participated in the 2013 "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" class.

Students who will travel to Nicaragua this summer already have been preparing for the journey, Avin said.Before their June departure, they will have two face-to-face meetings — a formal orientation meeting and a social gathering — and complete assignments on D2L. The D2L site is a place where students can create an online community and exchange information about the trip while, at the same time, learn about Nicaraguan history and the Nicaraguan women's movement, she said. 

As part of their preparation, students also will read and discuss on D2L a book by the famous Nicaraguan poet and novelist, Gioconda Belli. The book, titled "The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War," is an autobiography that provides a powerful account of the experiences of a Nicaraguan woman as she struggles to liberate her country from a brutal dictatorship while at the same time trying to find her own identity. 

"The book will encourage students to reflect on the lives of women in Nicaragua before they leave for Nicaragua," Avin said, noting there also will be D2L discussions on the issue of race in Nicaragua and Latin America, and women's role in the economy.

Hosely, a self-described homebody, says the three-week class is a perfect way for her to begin exploring the world and learning to navigate new cultures. Three weeks will be long enough for her to get a sense of the people and culture of a new place yet short enough that she is confident she can manage it away from family and friends. 

While studying abroad has been something she's thought about in past, it was her involvement in the university's Civil Rights Pilgrimage — a weeklong journey to many sites in the South that are of historic importance to the United States' civil rights movement — that convinced her to get serious about taking advantage of the many domestic and international immersion experiences the university offers, Hosely said.

"It was during that trip that I realized that if I have these great opportunities literally at my fingertips, why not take advantage of them?" Hosely said of her decision to study abroad through the summer class. 

Examining women's issues within a different culture will likely transform her thinking about her own life and the opportunities she has as a woman in the U.S., said Hosely.

Hosely remembers that as a girl she liked to doodle on maps to mark the places she hoped to someday visit.  

"I distinctly remember writing Central America on my list of places I wanted to visit," said Hosely. "I know Nicaragua isn't all of Central America, but it's a start. And this program will get me out of my comfort zone." 

De Grave says she's confident that Hosely and the other students will be forever changed by their time in Central America. 

"Nicaragua has a way of transforming peoples' lives for the better," DeGrave says. "In the words of the author of the autobiography that our students read, it is a country that gets 'under your skin.'" 

Students in the "Women's Lives and Experiences in Nicaragua" summer study abroad class will be in Nicaragua from June 1-21. 

Photo credit: Mark Aumann

Meghan Hosely, online editor for UW-Eau Claire's student newspaper, The Spectator, is writing about preparing for the study abroad experience in her weekly "Countdown to Nicaragua" column.