William & Mary students reflect on their alternative breaks in Nicaragua and Haiti

The Branch Out alternative break, which is part of the college’s community engagement initiative, sent more than 20 students abroad over the winter holiday break to work on social justice projects.

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Brandon Posner’s holiday trip to Nicaragua was not a luxurious excursion.

The College of William & Mary junior did spend plenty of time in the sun, but it wasn’t poolside or while swimming at the beach. Instead, there were long hours of hauling heavy cinder blocks and he had to take showers with a bucket of water.

But every day he emerged from his host’s house, Posner was reminded of the impact he and previous W&M students have had on Campuzano, a small town in Nandiri, a rural area in the southern part of the country.

“We lived in house within the community and it was just 20 steps from where William & Mary students had built a house just last year,” said Posner, 21, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs.

“When we build these houses, they are pretty standard and then the family element is added. It was a great feeling to see these families take these houses and turn them into homes.”

William & Mary student Brandon Posner, right, and his fellow alternative breakers help build a house in Campuzano, Nicaragua last month. (Photo courtesy Brandon Posner)
William & Mary student Brandon Posner, right, and his fellow alternative breakers help build a house in Campuzano, Nicaragua last month. (Photo courtesy Brandon Posner)

Posner was among more the 20 students from the school who traveled to international destinations during their winter holiday to participate in an alternative break, which is an immersive service trip where students engage in direct service with a community partner organization.

The Branch Out alternative break, which is part of the community engagement initiative at W&M, involves students who volunteer to travel locally, across the United States and around the globe in small groups. Once they arrive at their designated location, the students work in partnership with host organizations on community-driven service and social justice projects.

Over the winter break and before the spring semester started, the school featured three international trips during the first week in January. The locations included one in Haiti (the trip focused on education) and two more in Nicaragua (education and housing).

Related: Giving back — William & Mary students will travel far and near for holiday service trips

Before each trip, students prepared with a one-credit course that focused on applied leadership, immersion into each location, along with an orientation about each culture and their needs. But W&M students were not visiting these areas to tell the locals what they needed to do in order to make their lives better.

“Oh no, nothing like that — we were there to listen,” said Jose Acuna, a 20-year-old senior, who was born in Bolivia and grew up in northern Virginia.

“Every trip focused on a social justice issue. As a whole, the program was called ‘Active Citizenship’ as we each strive to be someone who actively cares about their community. What we learn, we bring back home with us. The end goal is to inspire more people to serve their community.”

Acuna and classmate Jiajia Chen were co-site leaders for a group that included three other students and a faculty member as they descended on the Caribbean island nation of Haiti.

They worked with Haiti Compact and there was a focus on education for their trip. But the students were exposed to so much more while partnering with a local non-profit organization, Sonje Ayiti, which means “Remember Haiti” in their native Creole language.

“We realized that Haiti has not been portrayed accurately in the media,” said Chen, 20, a junior, who is from Shenzhen, China and skipped celebrating the Chinese New Year with her family so she could make a difference in Haiti.

“Our host took us around to see all the projects going on. In Haiti, there are so many small businesses that are sustainable and have an impact on the community. These businesses fed villages and create thousands of jobs.”

Said Acuna: “Everyone there is full of hope. They are a very energetic, kind and happy people.”

The students did their work in and around Cap-Haïtien, which avoided destruction from an earthquake that decimated areas of the country in 2010. But the city, located on the northern coast, is still coping with the many pot holes left behind from last year’s Hurricane Matthew.

W&M student Jiajia Chen, front, and fellow alternative breakers eat with their hosts in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
W&M student Jiajia Chen, front, and fellow alternative breakers eat with their hosts in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)

Aside from all their work in and out of the local classrooms, Acuna and Chen said some of their most memorable parts from the trip was the food, driving around the city and the music. They exchanged music with their driver and one of their new favorite tunes, Se Pas Sa by the Haitian Kompa band T-Vice, is featured in the video above.

“I felt like the language barrier was difficult but we communicated with plenty of smiles and the music,” Chen said.

“During our short commute, the driver played this music, which meant so much to them. It integrated their message through the music and it was beautiful. Because of that, we instantly connected with each other.”

Abigail McFarland, a sophomore, was joined by nine other W&M students when they arrived in Jinotega, Nicaragua the day before New Year’s Eve. Their group worked with Outreach360 and wasted no time in exploring the culture of the city on such a festive holiday.

In celebration of the new year, Nicaraguans have a tradition of burning an effigy of “Father Time” when the clock strikes midnight. The effigy is usually filled with old paperwork from the previous year or old clothes, and most of the time, fireworks.

We had not even started working with the students yet but we got to go out into the streets with all our neighbors and burn effigies and see all the fireworks exploding around the city,” said McFarland, who spent many hours in the classroom during the one-week trip with her fellow alternative winter breakers.

“The thought that all these people were celebrating the beginning of a new year and allowing us to celebrate with them was so cool and really summed up our trip. This community welcomed us with open arms and let us experience part of their culture while also educating us.”

“And all with so much joy.”

Each of the students interviewed for this story said they would like to return in the very near future to the sites they visited last month.

At the end of each trip, the groups also took part in what was called a reorientation, where the W&M students reviewed what they were able to accomplish. They also reflected on how they can take the principles they learned and apply them to their local communities back home.

“The actual trip is only about half the deal,” said Posner, whose group worked with Bridges To Community and contributed to the 34th house built by W&M students over the years at their site in Campuzano, Nicaragua.

“Branch Out does a great job with this — they make us think hard about what we have learned and what we can bring back with us. Helping this community for afar is great but being a leader in our own community is the goal.”

Since his return to the States, Posner conceded he tends to “space out” when he steps into a typical shower.

“It really puts things in perspective,” Posner said. “I look at all the water and I just feel guilty. A big part of it is being more aware of the resources we have here and what we take for granted.”

“Since I’ve been back, I have drastically cut down on my water usage among other things. I sort of got used to using a bucket for showers and it wasn’t so bad.”

For more information about Branch Out alternative break, check out their website.

William & Mary students teach a class in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
William & Mary students teach a class in Cap-Haïtien, Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
William & Mary student Jiajia Chen, left, makes a new friend in Haiti. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
William & Mary student Jiajia Chen, left, makes a new friend in Haiti. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
William & Mary students get comfortable in their surroundings in Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)
William & Mary students get comfortable in their surroundings in Haiti last month. (Photo courtesy Jose Acuna)

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