20 Years of Service Learning through the bucknell brigade
by Erica L. Shames

In 1999, Bucknell students embarked on an organized first service-learning experience, traveling to Nicaragua with the Bucknell Brigade to help rebuild the community of Nueva Vida following the destruction wrought by Hurricane Mitch. For Jamie Cistoldi Lee ’99 and many other students, the trip was life changing.

After spending a semester abroad at the School for International Training in Nicaragua, Lee was particularly attuned to the plight of Nicaraguans. “It wasn’t enough to watch stories about the hurricane unfold on CNN,” says Lee, director of practicum and partnerships at the Montessori-based Post Oak School, in Houston. “I thought if we could bring people down there, bear witness and work alongside Nicaraguans rebuilding, it would spark something different in each of us.”

Lee was eager to find a way to help and learned about the Center for Development in Central America, the Nicaraguan arm of Jubilee House Community (JHC) in Rock Hill, S.C. JHC’s founders/directors, Kathleen Murdock and Mike Woodard, were receptive, so Cistoldi and former Latin American studies professor Bonnie Poteet traveled to Nicaragua in January 1999. Knowing that many temporary resettlement areas become permanent communities, a long-term goal for those displaced was creating a medical clinic.

“You can’t learn about a place like Nicaragua from a book, documentary or from an article or lecture,” says Woodard. “Nicaragua is a five-sense experience. Our primary objective is to get students down there to have that experience and give them a basis to expand their view of the world and their role in it.”

Lee accomplished that aim, enlisting 36 students and faculty, including former Bucknell physician Donald Stechschulte and former University Chaplain Ian Oliver, for the first Bucknell Brigade, during spring break 1999.

According to Murdock and Woodard, Bucknell’s first service-learning program was instrumental in rebuilding the Nueva Vida community in Nicaragua.

“Bucknell, from day one, was involved in the planning and construction of our medical clinic, which sees over 10,000 people a year,” says Woodard. Other projects in the two decades have included two additions to the clinic, a water line for potable water and a women’s sewing cooperative that provides jobs.

“Bucknell students and faculty mixed concrete by hand, built buildings, painted and helped get furniture,” Murdock adds. “They also fundraise on campus every year. Last year, they contributed $25,000.” Organically grown Nicaraguan coffee is sold on campus and used by Bucknell Dining Services as one of the main sources of support from the Brigade.

Lee’s involvement in the Brigade didn’t end with graduation. As part of her job to curate international programs for her school’s interim term, she reconnected with JHC, prompting student travels to Nicaragua. She organized a similar trip for her synagogue.

Lee says she has talked to many Brigade participants who have changed career paths or joined the Peace Corps as a result of their stints in Nicaragua. “Even 20 years later, the Brigade is a catalyst for change for so many people,” she says.

As influential as Bucknell Brigade has been, no trip was possible this academic year due to civil unrest and a State Department travel advisory. Instead, Bucknell sponsored a visit in October from JHC’s Murdock and Woodard for a 20th-anniversary celebration.

Lee attributes the Brigade’s success and longevity to the strength of Bucknell’s Office of Civic Engagement (OCE). “Other institutions do civic engagement, but Bucknell asks students to think differently about the way they situate themselves in the world,” she says.

Janice Butler, who retired in June as OCE director, participated in the first and many subsequent Brigades. “Witnessing and being part of the transformative learning that can happen when students, faculty and staff live and work together for a common cause led me to want to become more involved [in creating additional Bucknell service-learning opportunities],” she says.