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Students Return from Assessment Trip to Nicaragua

Written by: Carlos Nazario

Last week, I found my way to Managua, Nicaragua with an extraordinary group of students who want to change the world. That concept may intimidate many due to the responsibility and sacrifice it entails. Before I get into details of our adventure, I think it’s important to clarify that changing the world is as simple as helping the person next to you. Our group is simply taking that fundamental concept to the next level.

Our group is a student organization called Notre Dame Students Empowering through Engineering Development (NDSEED) that works with the NGO Bridges to Prosperity (B2P) to provide isolated communities with safe access to essential health care, education, and economic opportunities by building footbridges over impassable rivers. Since 2009, our student group has built 8 suspended footbridges in collaboration with B2P.

This year, our traveling members include five civil engineering majors, one chemical engineering major, one mechanical engineering major, and one business major; two of our team members are native Spanish speakers (including myself). When we set out on this assessment trip to prepare for the summer bridge build, our knowledge on Nicaragua and the community we were going to work with was extremely limited. Nevertheless, we were ready and excited for the challenge.

NDSEED team takes selfie on 2014 bridge in Mata de Tule after inspection.
NDSEED team takes selfie on 2014 bridge in Mata de Tule after inspection.

On Tuesday, our first day in Managua, I went with several team members to the house of Carlos Sacasa, a Notre Dame alumnus, who graciously stores our construction materials. After inspecting our inventory, we prepared for dinner with Notre Dame alumni living in Nicaragua. Two incredible alumni attended the dinner, David Levy and Christianne Wheelock, who shared about themselves and their rich Nicaraguan history. Not only has Nicaragua struggled with political tyrants, it has also been challenged by the forces of nature. We learned that in 1972, the country was struck by an earthquake of magnitude 6.2, followed by two aftershocks that killed thousands and destroyed the capital of Managua. Despite Nicaragua’s difficult history, these two alumni refuse to give up on their home country and are determined to see it thrive.

The following day, we traveled to Mata de Tule, a rural community two hours from Managua, to inspect two bridges built by the 2013 and 2014 NDSEED teams. We were happy to discover that both bridges are still in great conditions and safe to use. It was powerful to see the lasting impact of NDSEED’s work on the communities and we enjoyed reminiscing with community members about the past teams. After a hard day of work, we recovered our strength for the following days.

On Thursday, we met with the American University of Managua (UAM) to talk about their research collaboration with our NDSEED team and the possibility of establishing an academic relationship with Notre Dame. After a productive meeting, we headed out to Sébaco, the closest city to our project in the summer. We gathered information from police stations, pharmacies, markets, and doctors to prepare ourselves for our 8 week immersion. The next morning, we met with Alex McNeill, the Nicaragua Program Manager for B2P. He led us to our community, Las Pencas, located an hour away from Sébaco, and three hours from Managua. The community members were overjoyed to see such a large group of volunteers, and are excited at the prospect of building a safe passageway across the Rio Viejo Santa Barbara.
The site was stunning. We were in a beautiful, isolated valley, where there was no electricity, no running water, and no phone signal. I was surprised to learn there had been numerous casualties due to the river flooding during the rainy season. We quickly realized this project was no joke. The anticipated footbridge will span a gorge 35 meters in depth and 130 meters across.

While some of my teammates helped Alex gather the topographical data by performing a standard site survey, other teammates spoke with community members. We informed them that we will be coming back during the summer for two months to work together to make this bridge a reality.

After being in Nicaragua for a week, I learned so much about myself and the people who surrounded me. I learned that amazing things can happen when a group of determined people get together. I also realized that this upcoming trip will be one of the most challenging yet rewarding projects of my life. Despite the sacrifices that await me, I wouldn’t have it any other way because the best way we can find ourselves and change the world is by “being the change we want to see in the world” (Mahatma Gandhi).

By Carlos Nazario