This January a group of 14 Students from the College of the Holy Cross, along with a Jesuit Priest and two members of International Partners in Mission, traveled to Nicaragua to spend ten days learning, reflecting, and living in solidarity with the people of Nicaragua. From looking down into the depths of an active volcano to sitting in the dirt to play duck-duck-goose with children, we experienced beauty and poverty of a country very unlike the United States.

As a college junior who has had little experience traveling, this trip to Nicaragua was my first trip to a developing country. This trip was not a service trip-it was an Immersion Trip. This meant that we did not have a week-long project to complete or a general goal in mind. Instead, we were there to learn about and experience the culture of Nicaragua. This meant there was a lot of reflecting, and for me a lot of journaling. We visited several NGO's and organizations aimed at empowering women and youth in their communities. We saw countless inspiring people trying to make a difference in their communities.

At Mujer y Communidad, we listened to women trying to help legally and psychologically in domestic abuse situations. We met young adults who got to go to school because of their scholarship programs. At CEPROSI, we met women who make beautiful flowers out of corn husks to sell, and women who make soaps, cough syrup, and other medicines to sell in the community. We also got to see firsthand the way one woman was able to get a roof for her kitchen, and farm animals she could raise, sell, and get food from. The wonderful women of CEPROSI invited us into their homes where we stayed the night and experienced the way they live on a daily basis. Podcast for Peace showed us the children who learn more at their after school programs and told us about their original goal to get children out of gangs and back into the classroom. Esperanza en Accion showed us a commitment to fair trade and reminded us to be conscious about where our food and our belongings come from. Fe y Allegria showed us that education matters.

Throughout school, I have read books about other cultures, learned some basic world history and geography, and spent time trying to keep up with world news. However, there is a lot that I can learn from the rest of the world when I leave my own personal Massachusetts bubble. Traveling to Nicaragua, I learned three substantial things about myself and the world I live in.

The first is that I am rich. I do not mean this in a monetary sense-I am a college student with a lot of loans-but I mean this in a sense that I physically, mentally, and spiritually have a lot. I am never hungry, I have a roof over my head, and I have boundless opportunities that have been presented to me throughout my life because of education. I am also intelligent, having the opportunity to go to college and pursue a career of my choosing. Because of where I came from and the people I have interacted with, I have common sense and morals that are at the foundation of who I am. I am also a part of a Catholic community, where my faith helps me grow as a person.

Many people we met in Nicaragua are in poverty; 26.6% if you define that as less that $2/day and 54% if you define it as $4/day. Just surviving--having a place to sleep, eat, and be healthy is a struggle for many. Despite the sometimes desolate conditions, many of the people we encountered in Nicaragua were so full of life. They readily cooked elaborate meals for us, talked happily about the work they do or the cow they were able to buy with a small loan from an NGO. They were always smiling. The children ran around their dirt-covered backyard with only a soccer ball and each other, coming up with other games to play. An old radio blasted traditional music as the people danced together, taking in the night. One particular woman named Yamileth talked about the way her faith gives her motivation. She said that every person is a reflection of God-and because of that, she should treat everyone with the same dignity and respect. This is why she dedicates her life to helping those around her, thus cultivating her relationship with God. Yamileth is rich because she has faith and love. This was a reminder that it is not the possessions that make the person, or bring happiness to life; this reminded me that I am rich in love, and I have much to be thankful for.

The second lesson I felt was emphasized in my experience in Nicaragua is that differences should be celebrated. Growing up in a diverse city as I did, I got to experience different cultures, different foods, and different ideologies that made me appreciate my own culture and heritage. By learning about the differences within our student group as well as the differences of the country, I came to appreciate how much different people have to offer in a group in terms of experiences and viewpoints. It's always good to practice being able to see both sides of an argument, and being able to look at the world a little differently.

Traveling to Nicaragua showed me how one-sided both history and news sources in the United States can be. A lot of the recent history of Nicaragua has been strongly influenced by the United States. In the early 1900's, the United States provided political support to a candidate, eventually occupied the country, and aided the beginning of the Somoza Dynasty. After the Revolution and the winning of the Sandinista party, the Iran-Contra Scandal involved funding the Contras in the 80's to overthrow the Sandinistas. Even today, with the Nica Act in Congress currently, the United States threatens to pull out funding because of unfair elections. Learning about all of the history of Nicaragua, I learned that differences in viewpoints make for very different stories and in order to be an educated citizen of the world, it is important to learn every side of that.

The third lesson I learned in Nicaragua is that I want to do something impacting with my life. I want to make a difference in the lives of others just as the women we met along the way made a difference in their communities. I have always believed that serving others is the way to live a meaningful life, but seeing the people of Nicaragua and learning more about my place in the world has motivated me even more to do something to enact positive change in the world. I also know now that making a difference does not have to mean reaching every corner of the world; I can leave a lasting impact on a handful of people and understand that that in itself is making the world a better place.

The women we met across Nicaragua talked about seeing a problem in their community and acting to change it. In one case, that was seeing domestic abuse cases ignored and finding a way to help the victims seek psychological assistance or legal assistance. In another case, that was seeing the rise of gangs and violence in a neighborhood and creating after-school programs to get children off the streets and making smarter decisions. If these women, in positions of poverty or near-poverty, can make such a meaningful difference in their communities-why can't I?

Seeing the beauty of Nicaragua was amazing, but meeting the people who so hope to change the struggle of the country was awe-inspiring. It was certainly a journey I will never forget.