This year, Columbia Business School’s Committee on Volunteerism and Philanthropy (COVAP) sponsored its first annual Service Break—an international service opportunity for students and faculty. A group of eleven Columbia MBA students and two CBS professors participated in the inaugural event, spending their spring break working for Habitat for Humanity in Leon, Nicaragua. Like its US counterpart, Habitat Nicaragua seeks to provide high-quality, low-cost homes to working families who contribute their own sweat equity and purchase a mortgage that covers the cost of building materials.
Leon is a beautiful Spanish colonial city with narrow, cobbled streets, a large student population, festive nightlife, and fascinating culture. The city is perhaps best known as a political and military stronghold for the Sandanista movement (colorful political murals supporting the Sandanista cause are still visible throughout the city).
In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated much of the area surrounding Leon, along with much of the rest of Nicaragua, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Now, a significant percentage of the city’s residents live in abject poverty, lacking adequate food, shelter, hygiene, and clothing. Habitat has been working in Nicaragua since 1984 and has built 2,314 homes for its poorest citizens, many of whom live in Leon.
Our time in Leon was spent working on several different homes located on the outskirts of the city. Each workday began bright and early at 8:00 a.m. At times the work was challenging, particularly since there were few resources to purchase sophisticated construction tools. Most of the work was done by hand. We dug ditches, mixed cement, and constructed floors in each of the homes. Although the work was tough, it was satisfying and gave us the opportunity to interact with local Nicaraguans, or “Nicas.”
The trip wasn’t all about work. On two occasions, we managed to sneak away to Las Penitas beach, which is located on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. There we were able to enjoy lobster, fish, lots of Victorias (Nicaruagua’s best beer!), and a spectacular sunset. During our time in Leon, we also got a taste of the city’s vibrant nightlife. During one particular outing we danced at some of the local discotheques and then continued on to a 400+ person graduation party that went until 5:00 a.m.! (Needless to say, the alarm clocks brought out a few groans from everyone the following morning.)
On the weekends, we set out to see Nicaragua’s countryside and its major cities. Our tour guide was Richard Leonardi, author of Footprint’s Nicaragua, the country’s most popular guidebook. For our first weekend excursion, Richard took us to see several historical sites in and around Managua, including Masaya Volcano National Park and the Masaya market. We also visited Granada, a beautiful city with stunning, colonial architecture. For our second weekend excursion, we headed north to the mountains. Outside Matagalpa, we stayed at Selva Negra, a sustainable coffee farm located in the cloud forest. On the way there, we stopped at Olivia Cigars and sampled some of their hand-rolled products.
In all, it was a fun, challenging, and culturally enriching experience. Nicaragua is a beautiful country, still relatively untouched by tourism (evidenced by the fact that it was nearly impossible to find a postcard). It seems the lack of tourism is primarily due to its “hostile” image. Many Americans believe that Nicaragua is still deeply mired in political conflict, making it a dangerous destination. However, the truth is that Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Latin America, boasting an extremely low crime rate. Each of the many Nicaraguan people we encountered was extremely generous and welcoming.
Our entire group would like to thank Nayla and the Office of Student Life for supporting this trip. We would also like to thank the Habitat for Humanity staff in Leon for helping to ensure that everyone in our team had a terrific experience. Our trip to Nicaragua was the first COVAP Service Break, and we hope it will not be the last. There are many more places that can offer a meaningful international volunteer service opportunity for members of our community.