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ICADS in Central America

Combining Experiential Learning and Social Justice Work

In 1986 Dr. Sandra Kinghorn left the Univ. of Michigan, where she had taught sociology, to work on a Fulbright research grant in Costa Rica. At Michigan, Kinghorn was connected to a solidarity network providing medical supplies and other donations to the needy in El Salvador and Nicaragua. In Costa Rica, Kinghorn and her friend Peter Rosset, a Univ. of Michigan biologist also working in Costa Rica, used their personal connections in Nicaragua to organize informal internships for students and faculty members who requested them.

Transitions Abroad: Why did you decide to turn ICADS (www.icads.org) into a formal program?

Sandra Kinghorn: Peter and I saw how the experience was transforming the lives of the students who participated. Students were educated by the Nicaraguans themselves regarding the history of U.S. policy in the region, the political and cultural history of the country, and the oppression of poverty and under-development. The students, who worked in Sandinista or small grassroots organizations and lived with Nicaraguan families, began to understand the world through Nicaraguan eyes.

The students worked selflessly and very hard. They learned about economics, development, the IMF, the World Bank, etc.--things that could never, never be taught in a classroom--through observing the effects of policy decisions on the people and organizations they had begun to care about.

It was at this time that we began to think about developing a formal academic program to, in some sense, legitimize their efforts. The Institute for Central American Development Studies (ICADS) was born in our minds in 1986. We accepted our first three students in fall 1988.

T.A. How did you go about setting up the program?

S.K. I began by carefully evaluating all existing study abroad programs in the region. I examined their mission, their goals, and their services. Most had no political or ideological stance whatsoever. Most did not provide homestays. They simply enrolled students in a local university and allowed them to live in apartments near the campus. Those who did try to provide a more personalized educational experience tended to have a very North American approach.

Here's an example of what I mean: For two semesters I worked with a good program in San Jose, Costa Rica. I was an adviser to a bright undergraduate woman who wanted to interview women who had become pregnant as teenagers. She would arrive at the home of a woman --who typically now had three or four children and in many cases no husband--and expect the woman to rock on the porch and answer her questions for several two-hour sessions. The student had no understanding of the woman's life, of the fact that she rose at 5:30 a.m. to get her children bathed, dressed, and fed before she spent the day laboring in the fields. She came home to more cooking and cleaning before dropping into bed at 9 p.m. The woman had received no compensation for this donation of her time.

I saw this as pure exploitation and tried to explain this to the student, who never really understood that to take one must put back. I decided at that time that ICADS students would not be allowed to do this. They could get better interviews by working alongside people in the fields, bathing children, and helping with the menial tasks routinely performed by Third World women. We also knew that it was essential to compensate these people financially for the time we took from them.

With experiences like these as the catalyst--seeing what U.S. students take for granted in terms of rights and privileges with others, examining the socialization which gives North Americans a sense of entitlement and the sense that they know how to do things better--we slowly constructed ICADS. We knew we wanted to teach everything from a Central American perspective--from the perspective of the poor, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed.

We built a curriculum that included seminars on human rights, women's studies, history, economic development, and environmental issues--all taught by Central American academics who had worked at the grassroots level.

For internships we sought out different types of experts: women who were educating themselves about how to deal with domestic violence, small farmers trying to liberate themselves from expensive agrochemicals, and healthcare workers who worked in small, rural health posts, educating about nutrition, pregnancy, and drugs. These experts sometimes had formal degrees, but most did not. They did, however, have years of experience and a dedication to their work, their communities, and to social justice.

T.A.: Why did you not affiliate your new program with a U.S. college or university?

S.K.: We wanted to be completely independent so that no one would influence our politics or our vision. If I knew then what I know now we probably would never have attempted to start ICADS as a totally independent program. It was our ignorance about the "study abroad business" that enabled us to go forward and succeed.

T.A.: Explain the academic rationale and guidelines for the program.

S.K.: The original plan was to channel all students into Nicaragua and into responsible internship positions. It wasn't possible for many reasons: the infrastructure was almost nonexistent; many times there was no water, no electricity, and poor phone service; parents worried, we worried. It was not the place to start up anything, so we decided to base the program in San Jose, Costa Rica and let students choose to work in either country.

We knew that each student should have: 1) an intellectual or academic orientation to the history, politics, and culture of the region taught from a Central American perspective; 2) a personalized internship experience that belonged only to that student and to his or her Costa Rican or Nicaraguan colleagues; 3) the best language skills possible to be able to confront the challenges of work in a foreign language; 4) a supportive and caring homestay family who enabled the student to learn about the culture and its citizens and to promote the use of the language; 5) finally, a huge safety net whereby we would be standing by to intervene, negotiate, and provide support (academic and emotional) at all times.

T.A.: What has changed from your original plan?

S.K.: Everything but the basic principles. As ICADS began to grow, the biggest challenge was learning how to manage and how to delegate. We all tried to do everything. I suppose it's a common problem. I had always been a professor and had no training in business or organizational management, so I had to learn fast.

The world was also changing. "Peace" slowly came to the region. The revolutionary atmosphere in Nicaragua waned, and in Costa Rica Oscar Arias won the Nobel peace prize. Suddenly everyone wanted to come to Costa Rica, the country with no army. We worked on developing more and more diverse internship opportunities in both countries (we now have almost 70 placements in Costa Rica alone). Two years after starting the program we decided to build a Spanish language school. We needed independence and security. We needed tuition payments to sustain us, and the internship program alone would not do it.

Our resident expert, Elisa Zeledon, began to build an excellent language school with ICADS' principles and educational objectives: to teach about environment, poverty, and economics in this part of the world through intensive grammar and conversational Spanish.

The language school offers some of the same opportunities for short-term volunteer work in schools, health clinics, etc., for students or professionals who want to combine language learning with education on social justice issues. The language school allowed us to keep tuition rates low, and it now allows us to give many scholarships and donations to the people in the region.

In the last five years, we expanded our internship program to Belize and added another full-semester program in Natural Resource Management and Sustainable Development. This last program provides an opportunity for a dozen undergraduates to travel, live, and work in biological stations throughout Costa Rica with two full-time professors and a field assistant. Although the focus is on natural resource management, students live and work with local people and are required to make a contribution through shared research and participation in community development projects.

T.A.: Now that you are established, what are your greater concerns?

S.K.: To be sure our staff salaries and benefits are excellent, that our prices stay as low as possible, and that we recycle as much money as we can to the organizations and communities in Central America which have given so much to ICADS and its students. In the end, these are the things that make for success. Employees who feel respected and well paid do their best work. Recycling financial contributions back to the communities in which we work creates more support and opportunities for our students. Our students are always positioned for the best internships because members of these organizations know us, trust us, and feel respected.

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