Ivy Link

April 2013

Ivy Link Speaker Series

2013 Penn State Altoona Alternative Spring Break Experience
Jinotega, Nicaragua

During the week of March 3-9, twenty-three members of the Penn State Altoona community—nineteen students, two faculty members and two staff members—devoted their Spring Break to teaching English to pre-school and grade school students in Nicaragua and fostering meaningful personal relationships with their hosts. The educational outreach initiative enabled the members of the travel party to see another part of the world, experience life in another culture, and broaden their international perspective.

In the following account written especially for IvyLink, Taylor Sutton, a senior majoring in English from Doylestown, Pennsylvania, offered his reflections on his week in Jinotega.

I’ve been to Nicaragua three times now: once as a long-term volunteer in the summer of 2011, again with Penn State Altoona last year for spring break, and finally this year––probably for the final time. All the things that we did this year were things that I had done in trips past.

I taught English in the local schools, hiked up a mountain, immersed myself in the local culture, and bought ten pounds of coffee. On paper, most readers might suspect that this trip was exactly the same as previous ones.

Most readers would be wrong. Of all of my experiences in Nicaragua, this past week was by far the most transformative because I had a luxury that most of the other students on the trip did not: I had been there before. It’s difficult to explain. It’s more than a matter of knowing the best places to eat. For example, one day we were touring a village on the outskirts of Jinotega. The town was comprised of nothing but wooden shacks with crooked tin roofs. As we were walking through, I noticed that everyone in the group had their phones out and were snapping picture after picture of scowling, shirtless men and smiling, toothless women. I thought it was insensitive of them.

Why didn’t I feel that same panicked desperation to photograph everything I saw, to taste every food, to walk every street? It took me eight days of journaling and a great deal of introspection to find the answer: I had done the same thing during my first trip. I had wanted so desperately to preserve my experiences that I often forgot to actually experience them. For the first time I was truly able to live in the moment, if only for a week.

As a returning volunteer, I was also able to recognize progress. The pace of learning a new language is a slow one, especially in a setting such as Nicaragua––the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere. It’s easy to get frustrated, to have doubts, to lose faith in the process.

During my first trip, I clearly recall moments of fear in which I believed that all of my work would eventually be for nothing. Last week, I was engaging in full conversations in English with children who, only two years before, could barely speak anything but Spanish. I was astounded by their progress, and learned just as much from them as they did from me. I hope I get to go back some day.

“The trip is a wonderful experience for all students. They not only learn something about a culture different from their own, but more importantly something about themselves. They discover their ability to jump right in and experience the moment, void of any deadlines that need to be met.”
Victoria J. Hesser
A Team Leader of the Alternative Spring Break program
Administrative Assistant for Learning Resources Center, Academic Internships, Education Abroad

If you had an alternative spring break experience when you were a Penn State Altoona student, please tell us about it at IvyLink@psu.edu.