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NJ.COM: Face to face with another world

By David Karas

EWING - A delegation of local college students recently took part in an experience that far transcends the classroom, both physically and emotionally.

Nine students, along with two staff members, a professor and an alumnus from The College of New Jersey traveled to Nicaragua to learn about and experience the culture, understand the effects of U.S. policy on the region, and plan ways to advocate for the poverty-stricken region upon their return.

They are members of the Bonner Center for Civic and Community Engagement at TCNJ, a program that mobilizes the campus to connect its resources with the needs of the surrounding community. Each member commits to 300 hours of service each academic year in exchange for a scholarship package. This was the second annual trip that the program has organized.

"It was a life-changing experience, and I would do it again," said Ashley Rodriguez, a 2010 graduate who is now the special projects coordinator at the Bonner Center. "I wanted to be presented with a situation that was out of my comfort zone," she said.

After an eight-hour planning and briefing session on campus, the group embarked on the journey to work with the organization Witness for Peace (WFP) to try to learn as much about the region as possible during their stay. From spending a night with rural families to speaking with representatives from the U.S. Embassy, the group got a broad range of experience. Even an exercise in purchasing food for the day from the marketplace, on an extremely limited budget, proved to illustrate valuable lessons that textbooks cannot do justice.

"They get to see face-to-face, another world, really," said Ken Crowley, national delegations organizer for WFP. He said there have been 12 trips to Nicaragua this year, though the organization has been sending delegations there since its inception in 1983. WFP also organizes delegations that visit Honduras, Colombia, Bolivia, Cuba, Mexico and Venezuela.

For junior political science and economics double-major Rana Shariatdoust, the experience drove home what she learned through classroom projects and experiences, some of which centered on the Nicaraguan economy. "It put it right in front of my eyes," she said.

Focusing on hunger and related issues in the Trenton area, Shariatdoust saw this as an opportunity to gain a global perspective on poverty.

"I've dealt with poverty a lot in this community, and I've seen it in a lot of places," she said, adding that this trip provided "motivation ... to continue working toward social justice."

From the Bonner Center's perspective, this program allows its members to branch out beyond the local community and view firsthand the social issues plaguing the international community. 

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