Alumni Spotlight: Melissa B.


Give us a little intro!

Hey everyone! I am an adventurous young adult with a passion for the Latino culture. I love speaking Spanish and am still working on those Salsa steps. I have worked with the Hispanic population both at home and abroad. Culturally competent health care is one of the driving goals of my career.

Why did you pick this program?

This program had a relationship with my college in Maryland. I wanted to go somewhere they spoke Spanish, was safe, and I would be in a home stay. My school offered two of these programs. One in Argentina, and one in Costa Rica. The deciding factor for me was that the Argentina program was classroom based and the Costa Rica program* was internship based. I wanted to get involved in the community, get some career experience, and make a difference.

If anyone is confused at this point, the ICADS program is based in Costa Rica, but has the opportunity to intern in Nicaragua. I had never planned to go to Nicaragua (it was ""dangerous"" and ""scary""), but after our study tour there, I fell in love with Nicaragua and decided that that was where I wanted to be (BEST DECISION EVER!).

What do you wish someone had told you before you went abroad?

The bathroom situation gets weird. I think anytime you go to a developing country the bathrooms are very different than in America; it's just kinda part of the adventure. I also wish I had been told to travel internally more. I purposefully chose to stay at home with my host family on weekends so I would be more like part of the family. However, I missed out on the opportunity to see more of the country I fell in love with.

What is the most important thing you learned abroad?

Honestly, I think the most important things I learned were about myself. Living on your own in an unfamiliar places challenges you. Between fending for myself and meeting people who were different from me, I grew a lot as a person. You become very introspective when you have trouble expressing yourself in a foreign language.

Outside of personal reflection, I learned a lot about privilege. I was in a unique position where I was the minority for one (I'm as white as they come), but I was treated specially for it. I didn't face the discrimination that other minorities face. It was an asset, not a detriment. This was the first time I began to understand white privilege.

The other privilege I experienced was male privilege. I come from a family that is traditional in its composition, but not in its gender roles. I have never felt the sting of discrimination or a lack of opportunities from being a woman. However, in Nicaragua, there is still an active fight for gender equality.

Women are killed by their domestic partners frequently, and the system lets them get away with it. I was treated differently as a women in Nicaragua than in the United States. I really gained an understanding of why the need for gender equality is so great. (**Let me just say that although I was given cat calls and was treated differently, I never particularly felt unsafe.

I think Nicaragua is one of the safest countries in Central America right now). It wasn't all bad though. When people face hard conditions, they come together. I felt a sense of community with the women around me. They would talk about 'solidaridad' (solidarity) all the time. This was a concept I had never experienced in America with its inherent value of individualism. I thought solidaridad was really powerful and a new way of looking at the world. It is a concept I still think about even 2 years after my trip.

What do you tell your friends who are thinking about going abroad?

GO! I don't think it really matters where you are thinking about going. I think that everyone should go abroad if they have the chance. It is a life changing experience. The other thing I tell my friends is when they are choosing a location they should challenge themselves. Go somewhere a little different. This is your chance, don't play it safe. Challenge yourself!

What was the hardest part about going abroad?

For me, the hardest part was leaving my family and boyfriend behind. I am a family girl through and through and I wanted to share my experiences with them! However, it was really important for me to go alone and establish myself as my own independent person. The other hardest part was not having a hot shower for 2 months. I didn't know that hot showers were so important to me. Now I know!

What's your favorite story to tell about your time abroad?

There are so many stories to tell it is hard to just pick one:

  • the time a pigeon landed on my head in San Jose.
  • the time a Nica said he had feelings for me (beware the gringeros!).
  • the time I saw not one but 2 guardabarrancos (national bird of Nicaragua).
  • the time I became a regular at the movie store (Bonus: got free movies!).
  • the time we visited a 13 year old with twin boys (heart breaking :/ ).
  • the time I went to my families farm for some holy week relaxation.
  • the times I went dancing! (all the time!) Salsa, merengue, and bachata!

You too will have a million stories to tell. The one I will elaborate on here is the time they played a movie on the bus. We were on a charter bus from San Jose to Nicaragua with lots of other natives to the area. I don't know who picked the movie for the bus, but I think they should be fired from being movie picker.

They chose to play My Sister's Keeper, which I had never seen before. For those of you who are not familiar with this movie, it is quite moving, and I am prone to crying at movies. Anyway, so there I am on a bus full of people, where I already stand out as a blond haired, blue eyed gringa, and I am just bawling at the end of this movie.

What made this experience unique and special?

The program coordinators in Costa Rica and Nicaragua take really good care of you! I needed to see a doctor in Nicaragua and they organized everything for me and attended the appointment with me. I never had to worry because I knew they were there for us.

What made this trip meaningful to you, or how did this trip change your perceptions, future path?

This trip was so much more than study abroad for me. It was the catalyst to my public health career. My internship teaching nutrition with the Movimiento Comunal Nicaraguense helped my get an internship teaching workplace health and safety to Hispanic day laborers in Colorado. Funnily, my boss there had been a program coordinator at ICADS when I was in elementary school. You never know where you will find ICADS alumni, but rest assured they are doing big things.

Anyway, working with the hispanic speaking population in Colorado helped me get my current job as a bilingual analyst and coordinator for a website that offers information about federally supported HIV/AIDS treatment and research. I help disseminate information and answer questions from the public in English and in Spanish. I truly believe I would not be here if it weren't for my internship with the Movimiento Comunal Nicaraguense during my time at ICADS.