This article was published in The Independent Collegian Sunday, June 4, 2011.

By Megan Gross.

A group of Honors College students and a UT Honors professor came together to give back to those less fortunate, passing up pizza parties and trips to amusement parks.

Twelve students in the Honors Living Learning Community, traveled to Nicaragua to experience community service at the core of a poverty-stricken country.

Last fall, Page Armstrong of the UT Honors College was named the HLLC director.

Once Armstrong got all the students together that were willing to participate in the HLLC, she asked them a simple question, “What is it that you guys really want to do?”

Expecting answers such as pizza parties or trips to Cedar Point, she was shocked to hear her students say they were interested in service learning trips and community service projects.

Inspired by her students’ positivity and spirit, Armstrong managed to get in touch with an organization called International Samaritan.

The Ann Arbor, Michigan-based community service organization was established to improve international poverty and raise awareness about the poor in developing countries.

International Samaritan has sent students on mission trips to Central America, Egypt and the Philippines.

Student Government Vice President Jordan Maddocks was among the students who attended the trip.

“The reason I wanted to go to Nicaragua was to expand my horizons,” Maddocks said. “College is the time to go outside of your comfort zone and see your society and the global impact on the world.”

The UT Honors students were told the trip would not be completely paid for, but that did not stop them from pursuing this opportunity.

According to Armstrong, the students raised money on their own and with help from the Office of Academic Engagement, each student received a grant reserved for student international work. Some additional donations from a local charity also helped the students meet their goal and start planning their community service trip to Nicaragua.

According to Sydni Coleman, a UT student who attended the Honors service learning trip, this was the first time International Samaritan organized something in Nicaragua.

“Going into the trip, I was really excited but a bit nervous because I had never been to a third world country, and also because I didn’t know most of the members in our group,” she said.

Coleman said the level of poverty she saw in Nicaragua was “surreal.”

“I have seen poverty in the states, but on an individual basis,” she said. “In Nicaragua, I witnessed impoverished individuals, but also an impoverished society. I have never felt more needed in my life.”

Coleman said seeing this sadness from poverty motivated her to really make a difference on this trip.

The first place the students came to was a school called Colegio Reina Sofia in Managua. This school consisted of almost 1,700 children attending in morning, afternoon, and evening shifts. Coleman said they painted murals on the walls and repaired over 40 desks that were in poor condition.

Coleman added the physical labor was a rewarding experience, but the emotions the students felt were just as special. She remembered how the children of that community treated them.

“None of them knew your name or where you were from,” she said. “Yet they constantly hugged all of us, held our hands, and were genuinely interested in getting to know us. By the end of the week, we had become part of their family, and they had become part of ours. It was a beautiful and emotional experience for everyone.”

Maddocks said the most shocking thing that he saw on this trip was the degree of degradation.

“Driving through the streets and seeing the sewage and trash and the pieces of metal and shacks and seeing people living in them, that was the most devastating thing I saw,” he said. “Even with all the poverty that we saw the thing that we really took away was that these people were happy in a sense, and they were overcoming these barriers that we could not even imagine.”

Maddocks said he was amazed by the strength of the human soul to persevere.

Armstrong said it was difficult to explain how they could have an incredible experience from a place in such tragedy and despair.

“Although the Nicaraguans had less than nothing they kept their focus on the intangible values that make them ‘rich'” Armstrong said. “We, who have so much, focus on concrete, material values and never feel that we have enough.”

The second location the students worked at was the equivalent to an American kindergarten classroom.

Armstrong said the kindergarten served around 120 students, teaching 40 to 50 students at a time in a room about the size of an average American living room.

Due to the intensity of the rainy season, the roof of this classroom was falling apart. So the UT students worked along with some Nicaraguan construction workers to repair the roof, cement the walls, and build new and clean bathrooms.

Upon returning home, Armstrong said the students were very satisfied with their choice to attend the Nicaragua trip.

“The trip was met far beyond anyone’s expectations,” she said. “I am incredibly proud and honored to have gone with this group of students.”

Coleman said teamwork was what got them through the difficult parts of the trip. Dehydration, exhaustion and language barriers were just some of these difficulties, according to Coleman.

The students would like to “adopt” Colegio Reina Sofia, the first school they worked at in Nicaragua.

On one mural, Coleman said the 12 students put their handprints on the wall next to the UT symbol and a picture of the state of Ohio.

“To me this is a promise to help and to never forget,” she said. “I hope fellow UT Honors students will join us in our support of this school.”

According to Armstrong all 12 students who attended this trip are committed to going again next year. She said she hopes to make this community service trip an annual tradition.