This summer, UNM students will travel to Central America’s poorest country to learn economics and lend a helping hand.

Professor Matias Fontenla will take 18 students to Nicaragua in June for his Sustainable Development in Central America class. Fontenla said the program, in its second year, gives students six credit hours for a first-hand look at poverty and economic stagnation.

“It is horrendously poorer than anything you can imagine or have seen,” he said. “I always say economics is about improving quality of life, which is what we will aim to do there.”

The class combines theory and observation, Fontenla said. Students are housed with individual families in Granada, and the families give them a room and three meals a day for the four-week course.

Student Richard Bailey said his time in Nicaragua last year was eye-opening.

“After three years of studying economics, I noticed that I understood the theoretical and the human side, but I only understood it through a narrow perspective — that of a citizen of a very stable and wealthy country,” he said. “I realized that if I was going to graduate with a degree in economics, I should have a broader, more tangible perspective to go with it, too.”

Student Felicia Alexander wasn’t one of the 18 who participated in the abroad course last year, but she took the opportunity to establish the UNM chapter of Nourish International, a group that raises money and organizes service projects to help fight global poverty and hunger. Nourish UNM will also travel to Nicaragua on July 5 for five weeks, where it will build homes for women.

The last week of Fontenla’s course will assist Nourish’s efforts.
“It was kind of a happy accident,” Alexander said. “By not getting into the program, it inspired me to find some other way to make a difference.”
The chapter’s efforts raising money for the housing project earned it first prize in Nourish International’s fundraising contest. Nourish UNM raised $5,949, placing it above the 11 university chapters at schools including Yale, UCLA and the University of North Carolina.

Nourish UNM’s housing project will sell deeds to homes at little cost to female heads of household, providing the owners with a property investment and increasing their independence, Alexander said.

Fontenla said Nicaraguan people are in need of housing. Last year, students in his class helped remodel a neighborhood, outfitting the homes with brick-and-tin roofs, indoor plumbing, running water and electricity.

“Most houses are shacks with no roof,” he said. “It rains every day, so it constantly floods. We created a neighborhood, and those homes are now beautiful. They are raised so they don’t flood. The health implications for having a house like that are tremendous.”

Last summer’s trip inspired student participants to create the UNM Latin America Sustainability Association, Fontenla said. LASA is a community service organization that finances development projects and works to fulfill the need of sustainable development in Latin America, while supporting some already established nonprofit organizations, Fontenla said.

“They said this was the most important experience of their life,” he said. “I came back and said this was the most important thing I have done as an educator, because it really affected them.”

Bailey said that it benefits students to travel abroad, get hands-on experience and get out of comfort zones.

“Education isn’t always in classrooms, devoid of any interaction beyond the formal student-professor form,” he said. “Sometimes it takes shaking the hand of the guy who possibly grows the beans for your coffee, or listening to a nurse talk about her experiences through a civil war, to really learn a few things about what you’re studying.”