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The Scarlet & Black

Global Brigades take on Nicaragua

Left to right: Ryan Yellot, Jamie Schafroth, Jarren Santos and Richard Lee (all ’17) interact with patients at a clinic in Nicaragua during their Global Brigades trip over spring break. Photo contributed
Left to right: Ryan Yellot, Jamie Schafroth, Jarren Santos and Richard Lee (all ’17) interact with patients at a clinic in Nicaragua during their Global Brigades trip over spring break. Photo contributed
Left to right: Ryan Yellot, Jamie Schafroth, Jarren Santos and Richard Lee (all ’17) interact with patients at a clinic in Nicaragua during their Global Brigades trip over spring break. Photo contributed

After months of hosting kissing booth fundraisers, badgering Walmart customers for money and attending weekly preparation meetings, 28 Grinnell students set off for Nicaragua on a volunteer service trip. Students in Grinnell’s chapter of Global Brigades, a global health and development organization, participated in a wide range of programming during their weeklong mission. Participants hosted clinics, engaged with the community through public health projects and shadowed medical professionals. The variety of activities allowed students to engage with the community while still doing their own career exploration.

“Global Brigades is a good way to explore if you want to do pre-med,” said Jarren Santos ’17, one of the trip’s participants. “There were a lot of people who have the intent of doing pre-med, but maybe during the trip they really enjoyed working in the pharmacy that they had available there or maybe they liked shadowing the dentists there. We did this thing called a hybrid brigade where we not only shadow medical physicians, but we do the public health portion where you help build a family’s home and help educate smaller communities about hygiene and preventative measures.”

Although participants believed that all of the programming was valuable, many felt that their participation in a program called triage was the most rewarding.

“The favorite part of the trip was this thing called triage. During triage, you are essentially the medical assistant and what a medical assistant does is takes down the normal rudimentary facts about a person, so height, weight, symptoms and temperature … and we’re doing this all in Spanish,” Santos said. “Triage is very fast-paced. You have 300 or 400 people a day that come to us.”

“It was great to have some kind of quantifiable impact. We processed 836 patients in three days, which is the most we’ve ever done before, so that was awesome for our brigade to be a high-impact brigade,” added Keaton Cameron-Burr ’15, the president of Global Brigades.

While the chapter was highly successful, they were acutely aware of criticism that they might receive for their trip. Group leaders made it a priority to discuss the power dynamics at play during service missions. Along with their standard Spanish language preparation for participating students, Cameron-Burr and Aarti Kolluri ’15 hosted extensive training sessions on colonialism, the history of Nicaragua and the white savior industrial complex throughout the year.

“One of the things that we identified as a problem with our program is that we weren’t doing enough before going to adequately prepare people for what was going to happen because we were focusing too much on fundraising,” Cameron-Burr said. “Our goal for the program by the time we got to here was to have a robust pre-trip curriculum that was going to prepare people for the nuances of the program, engaging with the complexities of global development, specifically with the white savior industrial complex and increasing Spanish language skills.”

While the group did their best to prepare themselves for the trip, they learned much more during their stay in Nicaragua. At the end of each day, students participated in discussions about what they were learning with staff from the larger Global Brigades organization.

“We touched on the white privilege, and the kind of white savior complex [during training], but we actually ended up talking more about it during the trip, when we were in Nicaragua,” said Dabney Hofammann ’15, another of the trip’s participants.

This critical approach to volunteering set Grinnell’s brigade apart from student groups at other institutions that participate in the same program.

“My favorite part was probably the discussions that we had after our programming for the day. People were extremely thoughtful and engaging with the ideas that we talked about before, specifically the white savior industrial complex,” Cameron-Burr said. “We definitely earned ourselves a reputation within the Global Brigades superstructure with how critical we were and the kind of discussions we were having.”

Although the trip was ultimately a success, Cameron-Burr hopes that Grinnell will eventually be able to form their own volunteer group independent of the Global Brigades organization. The program that he envisions would help foster more sustainable development in the areas they visit.

“I’d like to have it become more institutionalized and less student-run,” he said. “If we can make it more Grinnellian in essence, more academic, more critical, especially more pre-professional … and continue to embrace the domestic service component that we have, that’s the kind of program that I would like to see in the future.”

Still, the students got the sense that their work over spring break truly made a difference, and the people that they interacted with welcomed them with open arms.

“People were nice and kind, and seemed to be happy that we were there,” Hofammann said.

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