We last heard from Adriana Banchs and Aaron Wheat, Project Schoolhouse Interns, in our April newsletter. In the April video, Adriana and Aaron gave an initial report of their activities after just two months in Nicaragua. After completing a semester-long internship in May, the two are now back in the United States. A few days ago, I chatted with them about their experiences in Nicaragua, what they learned and their overall assessment about the specific ways Project Schoolhouse works in advancing our mission of building new schools, providing clean water, improving sanitation, and helping students continue their education. In speaking with these two young folks, you could sense the excitement in their voices about not only what they learned and the ways it will shape their future professional plans, but about the important work Project Schoolhouse is doing in Nicaragua.
Adriana, a public health major at the University of Texas at Austin, had many options in terms of international internships but was particularly drawn to Project Schoolhouse because of her intersecting interests of global health and working in Latin America. Her main tasks in Nicaragua involved data collection through face-to-face surveys of community members where Project Schoolhouse works. “But I did so much more,” said Adriana. “I took photos and even did some project management–tracking materials for projects, some accounting work and running errands…to get materials needed for the projects.”
Aaron, a civil engineering major–with interests in public health–at the University of Texas at Austin, was initially slated to study abroad in Peru in the summer of 2020, but that opportunity was canceled due to Covid-19. Given his interests in public health and civil engineering, Aaron’s Public Health Professor suggested he research Project Schoolhouse. After attending a Crash Course and viewing several videos, Aaron reached out to Project Schoolhouse. His main tasks in Nicaragua involved documenting and supporting the work being done to build water systems. “I was in the field almost the entire time, four out of seven days I was probably sleeping in a hammock at the school…and during the day working with the construction crew that installed the water system.”
Adriana’s data collection efforts were focused on issues related to schooling. In particular, Adriana was focused on establishing accurate school attendance rates, finding out the reasons some students are not attending school, as well as whether students have plans in the future to continue their education after primary school. One of the principal goals of her data collection was to document whether a school being built in a community-led to greater attendance. Another goal was to establish baseline data about whether the after-school clubs led to higher levels of school attendance.
Adriana’s data collection involved capturing individual census data that included name, gender, age, etc. This initial data collection was followed up with more in-depth, face-to-face interviews around hygiene, health and education. She also helped to conduct focus group interviews. “We interviewed groups of women because some of them didn’t speak up as much initially and we wanted to get their voices heard.” Adriana’s work will establish a solid data baseline that Project Schoolhouse will be able to draw on to better assess outcomes. In Adriana’s words, “data collection is an investment in time and after a few more years of data gathering, we’re going to see some good trends.”
Aaron’s principal task was to write a report of the gravity-fed water system being built in Mancera Central. “When I first arrived they were finished with the spring capture and they started work on installing the mainline. I documented the entire process and helped with the construction.” Aaron also beta tested a survey instrument called mWater. mWater is a free data management platform used in over 180 countries to map and monitor water and sanitation sites. “So, I would drop [geo-located] ‘pins’ at every school and water resource and then I filled out a survey that kept information on the community the water source served. For example, population, number of households, the site status, etc.”
In addition to documenting and assisting with the water project in Mancera Central, Aaron also helped to construct a database, or spreadsheet of the information gathered by Adriana, Norma, and Maria Ines. “It took form pretty nicely,” Aaron said about the database, “and it started to show some trends. I could tell Selina was pretty excited about it.” These data-related efforts of Project Schoolhouse are crucial because accurate and timely data related to water, sanitation, and education is often difficult to retrieve from the varied “siloed” agencies of the Nicaraguan government. According to Aaron, “now Project Schoolhouse has their own data of the areas they work in to compile a clearer picture for the donors to see that their money is truly making a difference.”
When asked about the most important thing she learned from her semester-long stay in Nicaragua, Adriana stated,
“The number one thing I gained from this experience involved the local people. The project coordinators, the students, the community members…they were the ones that affected me the most. Maria Ines and Norma’s passion over what they are doing, the love for their work. It was also really cool to see the scholarship students finishing their degrees. I loved actually living in the communities that we worked with….It gave me a new perspective and it confirmed for me that I want to do this work in the future. I would love to do the Peace Corps after graduating.”
For Aaron, working for Project Schoolhouse was a life-changing experience. Well aware of the United States’ colonialist histories that have played out in Central America, Aaron said that he approached his work with Project Schoolhouse with what he described as a “socially-conscious view.” That is, he arrived in Nicaragua with a well-developed understanding of the checkered history of global development work and what he described as “white savior syndrome.” In his words,
“What does it mean to go into a place that is not your home and how does one approach this work in a way that is sensible, respectful and sensitive to the communities in which you work? Instead of thinking that I wanted to ‘help,’ I thought I want to learn everything I can from these people, because they are the experts about where they live.”
Most of all, Aaron’s work with Project Schoolhouse confirmed that he wants to work as an engineer abroad after he finishes school. In particular, his work in Nicaragua taught him about restorative water design systems that don’t just sustain but give back to the ecosystem.
Both Adriana and Aaron agreed that what makes Project Schoolhouse unique is emphasis on the projects being theirs, the projects belong to the community, not Project Schoolhouse. “That’s what makes Project Schoolhouse special,” stated Adriana in closing.