It was the first day of my spring break — halfway through a grueling semester — and I was unsure about my choice to spend my break in Nicaragua. I sat in an airplane with 12 of my peers, each of us silent, due in equal parts to our unfamiliarity with each other and the tiredness that often accompanies an early morning flight. I quickly texted my parents and boyfriend and closed out of Instagram on my phone, catching a final glance at the clear, blue waters of friends in Mexico that filled my feed. I said a quick prayer and, like that, we were off.
The Ross School of Business, with a generous sponsorship from the Royal Bank of Canada, organized a service learning trip in the recycling-based community of La Joya, Nicaragua where we would work alongside International Samaritan, an Ann Arbor-based organization focused on serving communities that live in garbage dumps around the globe. In the days following the initial morning take-off, I would help build the foundation of a home for Yorlena, a mother who worked tirelessly collecting recyclables from the nearby landfills to sell at a small margin. I would grow to adore the 12 peers who joined me on our adventure in the Nicaraguan town of Nandaime. I would practice my Spanish while twisting wires with a construction worker, speaking with him about his daughters and wife. I would learn about the beauty of Nicaragua from our International Samaritan leader Tanya and how she decided to bring her higher education back home to help her nation with its most dire needs. I would learn how to mix cement and to remind my friends to drink water in the heat. And I would fall in love with the neighborhood kids who came and watched us work on a new, fortified home, much unlike their own.
Yet through the thousand things I learned, saw and finally understood, from my own obvious privilege, to the potential negative effects of volunteerism, the patriarchal norms in many developing nations that help contribute to these issues and even the manual labor that goes into building a small home, one thing stood out to me. My biggest takeaway from my trip was double-edged sword of “doing good.” On our first day at the landfill, our group met with Yorlena and a few of her coworkers, all mothers who spent their days collecting recyclables among the dusty, expansive piles of trash. Standing near these women, I was extremely aware of my waterproof hiking shoes and the iPhone in my pocket. My mind couldn’t help but flit to the recycling standards I so heavily preached in the United States: reduce when possible and recycle at home so that we can create a more efficient recycling process. This belief of recycling at the home level carries over in what I believe should be an international norm. To me, this method was always the solution to our excessive use of plastics, but bringing my own principles to Nicaragua would be heavily destructive. Yorlena provided for her three children only because a recycle-at-home infrastructure does not exist in the Grenada area — with this type of social program, she, and many of her colleagues, would lose their jobs.
As students at the University of Michigan, many of us are looking for ways to improve the world. Whether we choose engineering, business, science or the arts as our medium to create that change, for many of us, it is our final goal. Yet, for me, standing in Nandaime, surrounded by kind people who let us enter their homes and lives for a short period to simply teach us about their way of life, I knew what I had learned – what I had thought was right – would not help people in this community. Nevertheless, I still believe we should reduce our use of plastics and encourage in-home recycling internationally. It is this tension between doing what is theoretically good and what is good for the real people in real communities that drives the difficult decisions that come with creating solutions for the social good. This hypocrisy of helping people was, at first, entirely disappointing. But looking back, months after that first flight with strangers, I now realize this hypocrisy is the reason change is so scary and the reason change is so important. Yorlena had a picture in her home that’s still clear in my mind: she, her husband and her children, smiling and holding each other, photoshopped into a beautiful living room, unlike the small, concrete room in which the picture hung. Tanya told us it was a common practice–families photoshopping themselves into nice homes for their family pictures, a framed escape of their own reality. While generating industry change and positive environmental impact may not help Yorlena achieve the standard of living she wanted for her children, it’ll help others move away from working in landfills to find more lucrative, less dangerous ways to support their families.
Back in Michigan, I’m once again entranced by idealistic solutions, rooted from my own experiences and education. I know that, directly, my actions may not affect the people of Nandaime, but indirectly, my perceived positive beliefs may have negative consequences, consequences that are now no longer distant from me. But maybe that’s why we travel, maybe that’s why we value an education abroad so deeply — it shows us the people who may be hurt by our solutions and challenges us to understand the implications of our actions and make sure the solutions we choose to believe in, we can still believe in even in the face of those they hurt.