Tuesday, February 23, 2010

For Two Students, Semester Abroad Means Changing Lives, Including Their Own

By Liesel Nowak

Vanessa Lancaster and Jeincy Paniagua went from enjoying hot meals at
Hunt Dining Hall to taking cold showers in Central America … and they
love every minute of it.

           The senior social work students are in El Progreso,
Honduras, for a semester-long internship working with underprivileged
children and families, putting into action what they’ve studied in
textbooks and in the classroom. Through this unique opportunity,
they’re also discovering more about themselves and others.

           The pioneering duo is blogging about their efforts, which
are part of Mary Baldwin’s first international internship placement,
according to Mary Clay Thomas, assistant professor of Social Work.

           “Every day in Honduras is a new experience,” Paniagua
said. “I’ve learned to be more culturally sensitive, open, and just
take everything in. I’m always making comparisons between Honduras and
the United States: the government, education, and culture. I am
putting everything I have learned in my years at MBC and applying it

           Applying classroom lessons about how to work with groups
and analyze communities, Lancaster said she’s “constantly learning
something new.”

           “I have learned to step up and become a leader, and I
learned how to properly prepare for a group project,” she said.

           Both students are working for Organization for Youth
Empowerment, or OYE, a well-established and respected group that
provides academic scholarships for children, including many who have
been asked to quit school to work and support their families. OYE
staff will often make house calls in El Progreso and in the outlying
areas, to help stress to parents the importance of education.

           Justin Eldridge-Otero, co-founder of the organization,
said Paniagua and Lancaster are directly serving some of the most
marginalized communities in one of the poorest countries of the
Western hemisphere. He praised them for making a “tremendous impact”
not only on OYE’s youth, but the greater Honduran community as well.

           “It is hard to put into context how significant their
presence is in the lives of these youth, many of whom have no positive
role models and draw an incredible amount of strength from the talent
and passion of two young female volunteers such as Jeincy and
Vanessa,” Eldridge-Otero said. “I applaud and thank Mary Baldwin
College for their innovative spirit, dedication, and desire to affect
the lives of young people across borders.”

           In addition to spending time at OYE, Lancaster and
Paniagua also work at a nutrition center, helping severely
malnourished youngsters. The students bathe, dress, and feed babies
they say are “in very poor condition.”

           Thomas learned of OYE through her husband, who traveled to
Honduras on an alternative spring break trip with students from
another college, and passed along to her students the enthusiasm he
brought home. The professor was in El Progreso at the beginning of the
year to make sure Lancaster and Paniagua settled in. When she left the
students, she witnessed them display a range of emotions.

           “They were everything. They were definitely nervous. But
they’ve been great,” Thomas said, noting that both women had
previously traveled internationally — to El Salvador and the
Philippines — and were not shocked to be without the comforts of home.

           Lancaster, who grew up in San Diego, and Paniagua, who was
raised in Alexandria, are staying with a family of four who rent the
second floor of their house to OYE.

           “We don’t have hot water, so we only take cold showers.
When we want to cook dinner, we turn our propane tank on and light a
match to get the fire started,” Lancaster said.

           When water is scarce, Paniagua said the students must
collect rainwater to wash dishes.

           “Our washing machine was broken the first weeks we were
here, and Vanessa and I really needed clothes so we decided to hand
wash the clothes that we desperately wanted or needed,” Paniagua said.
“That was definitely an experience. We had a bucket and we sat on the
floor and just scrubbed away. I’ll never forget doing that.”

           Keeping track of the students’ experience through the OYE
blog (oyehonduras.blogspot.com) are family, friends, and fellow social
work students, offering feedback and encouragement along the way. The
women say they blog not only to share their experiences in a foreign
country, but to spread the word about OYE’s work.

           I’m so proud of them,” Thomas said. “They’ve been so
amazing — sending me these journal entries — they’re so excited and so
entrenched in the community.”


Justin Eldridge Otero said...

Go Jeincy and Vanessa!
We are so proud of you! Keep up the good work!
I look forward to following your blog.

Matt said...

Fantastic piece! I can't wait to get down there next week and see everybody. I couldn't be more excited about the colloboration between OYE and two colleges in the Shenandoah Valley.