I have to submit a “mid co-op” reflection to my supervisor at my university, and it asks a few questions I was hoping to reflect on in a post for my blog soon. “soon” tends to mean never with these things… so I figured I could kill 2 birds with one stone.
Where you are working and your job title. Also note whether this is your first, second, or third co-op. State your job duties and the day-to-day activities associated with the job.
I am working at a non-profit organization in Nicaragua called Masaya Sin Fronteras (Masaya without Borders). This is my second co-op. I am teaching classes to middle and high school students on recycling and environmental conservation, where we are also developing a “Recycling Campaign” to collect plastic bottle caps we will turn into a public mural. Additionally I’m working with the community development department of the organization to seek funding for and help implement a community garden initiative in a sub-urban community.
Have you accomplished any of the goals that you established before your co-op began? Have you set new goals? If so, what are they? What are you learning, including at least one unexpected thing? How has the co-op contributed to your career and academic development?
My first goal was to soak in the culture of Nicaragua, learning as much as possible about the country, the language, the every day life. It’s been hard not to do that living and working here full time- this one was kind of a softball!
My second goal was to improve my Spanish. This goal is incredibly important to me, a part of my broader goal to be professionally proficient before I graduate. I don’t think I’ve improved as much as I could have by now – though I still have one more month of co-op. My listening skills have greatly improved though my speaking skills have been slow coming. The experience of working as the only English speaker at my organization has been invaluable, however – it has truly been sink or swim.
My work went in a completely different direction than I originally thought it would. I came here thinking I would be contributing to the work of a medium-scale microfinance program, to learn that organization had completed 1 pilot microlending project and was not planning to continue the program. I had to create my own role here, which has been challenging, though opportunities are plentiful. I never thought I would be teaching environmental education here (in fact, I think when we sat down to discuss my co-op, I said that was one thing I didn’t particularly want to do). But my interest and knowledge of environmental issues, and my experience working with students in the US combined with MASFINA’s desire to strengthen their environmental education program made for a perfect match. I’m learning a great deal about lesson planning, teaching in a second language, and keeping the attention of rowdy 12-17 year olds.
I also am grateful I’ve had the chance to gain experience in grant writing and project planning, as I know this is a broadly applicable skill.
This experience has strengthened my desire to work in international development and provided me perspective on how my role as a foreigner plays into global issues of poverty and environmental conservation. It has also left me with many questions I’m far from having answers to. Would my time be more impactful working to foster stronger environmental leadership in my own country? What should be the role of the US and its citizens in development around the world? How can we offer aid without intervening in the natural progression of building civil society and internal structures for change?
I have felt varying degrees of discomfort with my privilege here every day, and it has made me strongly consider how I can most effectively play a role in this field of work.
Share a success that you are proud of from your experience. Share a challenge from your experience. In what ways is your co-op providing new growth and development through these challenges and successes?
The recycling campaign at our school has been unexpectedly successful. When I first developed the idea with my supervisor, I was worried students would be uninterested, that the message behind the initiative would be lost, and that we wouldn’t be able to collect enough materials to create the mural we envisioned. But over the course of the last 2 months, the campaign has taken on a life of beyond what I imagined. Several times a day, students proudly run up to me with bags of bottle caps. They are involving their parents and siblings to collect them, and a few students have gotten their family businesses to be involved in the effort. The designs students have drawn for the mural are fantastic – involving art and music in the initiative has been key to its success. The campaign has gone beyond the classroom, as maintenance workers and people who work in the administrative office have started to collect bottle caps as well. It always makes me proud when the very stern Director of Finance of the organization enthusiastically brings me a plastic bag full of colorful soda caps to add to our collection. I’m encouraged that the campaign has taken on a life apart from my efforts and I’m convinced it will continue strongly after I leave.
A challenge from my experience has been everything that comes with working in a different language and work culture. It has been particularly difficult to adapt to the work pace and the way a Nicaraguan organization approaches planning. Promises to have a meeting tomorrow have a 50-50 chance of actually happening — these plans simply don’t hold the same weight they do in a work environment in Boston. For example, I have been working with leaders in the community where we are hoping to initiate the community garden. I have traveled 4 times in a row (45 minutes by foot in the 95 degree Nicaraguan sun) to meet with these community leaders at an agreed time in their homes, only to be met with “he’s not home! Come back tomorrow”. Moments like this can be incredibly frustrating and at times make getting anything done feel futile. I have accepted that this foreign concept of time and nonexistence of concrete schedules may be difficult for me to adapt to, but it works very well for Nicaraguans. I think too many foreigners come here and immediately judge the culture as backwards and hope to influence it. It may not be immediately efficient, but there are many benefits to this perspective; it values family time over work time, and makes room for the little hold-ups in life that American culture dictates we must stress out about when trying to get somewhere exactly on time. It is a different value system that I am not used to, but have learned a lot from.