Engaging a community to surmount social barriers

While on co-op in Nicaragua, third-year Northeastern student Colleen Kelly helped women and children hurdle social barriers on everything from gender equality to domestic violence, both by talking about these issues and engaging the entire community.

It ultimately resulted in a profound experiential learning opportunity she later described as “one of the most challenging and exhilarating experiences of my life.”

Kelly, an international affairs and political science combined major, worked from March to June at Mujer y Comunidad (Women and Community) — an NGO that provides health care and other vital services to women and youth in the small, rural town of San Francisco Libre.

She worked alongside one of the organization’s psychologists, who led group therapy sessions for women throughout the town that focused on a range of issues, including gender equality, physical and emotional domestic abuse and HIV/AIDS awareness. Kelly said it was incredibly gratifying to see strong women making progress in the country’s male-dominated culture of “machismo,” and the experience strengthened her own appreciation for the rights women enjoy in the United States.

In addition, she helped organize meetings with local networks of women and youths that would gather regularly for themed discussions. Women would talk about domestic violence and employment, while youths would learn about teen pregnancy and gender equality. The sessions, Kelly said, empowered these women and youths to become community leaders who could later inform their neighbors about what they learned.

“It was very far-reaching, and it did a great job of educating so many people with so few resources,” she said.

Kelly was also present for the start of a significant research project the NGO was running to survey community groups on their knowledge of a range of social issues related to gender, violence and sexual health. Participants will be surveyed again in five years to assess the impact these educational programs are having.

Toward the end of her co-op, Kelly said a youth celebration called El Día de los Niños helped her put the entire experience in perspective. As she interacted with the children and watched them laugh and dance, Kelly realized how close she had become to the community, and the importance of her organization to its people.

“They just play a huge role in the community as a group that can create (social) action,” she said.