A group of Quinnipiac students visit the Cathedral of León in Nicaragua, a beautiful white building.

Beautiful architecture

Quinnipiac students, from left, Justin Ragozzino, Gabriella Verderame and Kathryn Peterson visit the Cathedral of León in Nicaragua.

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auren Wendel ’14, DPT ’16, still remembers the elderly Nicaraguan woman’s face. Her eyes were joyless and fearful, a broken window staring out from a broken heart. Slowly, she told Wendel about her 18-month-old grandson, who couldn’t sit up by himself, let alone wobble across the kitchen with those first uncertain steps.

In many ways, Wendel was taking her own tentative steps that day in Nicaragua. It was her first time in León, a city of about 200,000 people. She had just finished a clinical rotation in 2015 when she joined 17 other Quinnipiac students on a life-changing journey.

“The grandmother came and found us,” said Wendel, who now works as a physical therapist at a Level I trauma center in Florida. “The little boy was clearly in need of some intervention, so we helped him out as best we could.”

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Quinnipiac students interact with their host family in Nicaragua in a bright blue kitchen

Family connections

Quinnipiac students interact with their host family in La Villa 23 de Julio in León.

The connection began with a reassuring smile. What followed was a magical transformation of cardboard squares, each one cut, folded and padded by students to make an adaptive device to support the toddler when he sat. The cardboard came to life for other children, too, with adaptive equipment that enabled them to walk, stand up straight and fit more comfortably in their wheelchairs. 

“The next year when we went down, we brought the boy way more equipment. I got to see him take his first steps at 2½ years old,” Wendel said. “For me, seeing that and being right there, it solidified that I wanted to do pediatric [physical therapy]. In that moment, I knew what I wanted to do every day.”

Wendel returned to León this semester with faculty, current students and four alumni from the physical therapy and occupational therapy programs who had traveled there as students — Rose Flammang ‘07, Matthew Healy, MOT ’10, Nicole Lewis, DPT ’16, and Ashley Majeski ’08, MOT ’10.

 

The cultural and global engagement programs at Quinnipiac are rich with learning opportunities in homes, schools, clinical settings and businesses. During the trips, community-based relationships are built with laughter, tears and trust, a commitment that gives students and faculty a chance to connect with families in Nicaragua, Guatemala, Barbados, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico.

Quinnipiac’s eight schools and the College of Arts and Sciences all take part in the cultural and global engagement programs. In January, delegations from business, nursing, physical therapy and occupational therapy went to Nicaragua, and a multidisciplinary group went to Puerto Rico. This month, nursing students and others with engineering, science and technology-related majors made the trip.

“All of the work we do is community-driven. We’ve tried to shift the focus from ‘What am I going to do? What’s the project?’ to ‘What am I going to learn? How am I going to engage?’” said Erin Sabato ’06, director of international service and learning at Quinnipiac. “We’re trying to prepare our students to serve for the rest of their lives — not just that week — whether they are studying education, nursing or any other discipline. It’s learning how to adapt on the fly and engage with different cultures. These aren’t one-and-done trips.”

In January, a delegation from the School of Business met with Jeffrey Bernhard ’97, MBA '13, the owner of JBernhard Designs, and toured his shop on a busy street corner in León. His company creates handcrafted leather and animal skin handbags, satchels, belts, holsters and wallets, among other items. The delegation also toured Plascencia Cigars, the largest tobacco grower in the world with more than 6,000 employees, eight plantations and four factories; the CUKRA peanut factory; and Finca Kilimanjaro, a working coffee farm in the mountains.

David Tomczyk, associate professor of entrepreneurship and strategy, helped students from the School of Business make investments in three companies. The microloans were made after students met with business owners to jointly develop ideas to run their companies more effectively. In all, the School of Business made seven microloans. Dean Matthew O’Connor and Mario Norbis, professor of management, also accompanied students on the trip.

For Julie Booth, a clinical associate professor of physical therapy, the enduring relationships in Nicaragua are essential to the success of the program. They build the foundation for trust, cooperation and education. Valerie Strange, clinical assistant professor of occupational therapy, also worked with patients on this trip.

“With our collaborations with community partners and our interactions with families, students are learning as much — if not more than — the people they are going there to see and work with,” said Booth, who has taken seven trips with occupational therapy and physical therapy, and one trip with nursing. “We’re not going there saying, ‘This is what we’re going to do.’ We’re going there to listen and learn and work together. I notice when students return, they are much more appreciative of cultural experiences. The immersion of this program definitely has an impact on them.”

Senior Emma Regan, a nursing major/ global public health minor, was a student leader for a 10-day trip to Nicaragua in January. It marked her fifth trip to the Central American nation — three times with Quinnipiac and twice in high school. Faculty who journeyed with her were Teresa Twomey, assistant professor of nursing, and Mary Peterson, clinical assistant professor of nursing.

“As a student leader, I try to share what I have learned to help shape the experience for the new students because you’re only there a short time,” said Regan. “It’s not a vacation, and that’s the best part. You think you’re going to do X, Y, Z and you come home with so much more. It really is a wonderful learning experience for students. I think it’s a great way to learn and a great way to become more globally aware.”

On this most recent trip, Regan said she especially enjoyed a three-day overlap working with Quinnipiac students, faculty and alumni from the physical therapy and occupational therapy departments. Her group also met with student nurses who are training to work in Nicaragua’s rural communities. The visit was part of a collaboration with the country’s Ministry of Health. The Quinnipiac delegation also did home visits with children they have come to know over the years.

“Some of the patients we had seen before, so even though a lot of time has passed since the last time we saw them, that relationship and that bond is still there,” Regan said. “Faculty can go up to a family and say, ‘Hey, do you remember me because I remember you!’ I think that feeling of comfort and care is enhanced because the families trust you a little bit more.”

Ariel Scalise ’12 went to Nicaragua every year as an undergraduate, including a summer stay for an independent study project as a senior. The former psychology major figures she spent five or six months in Nicaragua as part of her Quinnipiac experience.

“After I went for a week as a freshman, it kind of stole me. It changed me,” said Scalise, who went on to earn a master’s degree in behavioral health science/epidemiology from Saint Louis University and now works as a project coordinator at Tufts Medical Center in Boston.

Matthew Healy works with children at the Los Pepitos clinic in NIcaragua.

Giving back

Matthew Healy, MOT ’10, at the Los Pepitos clinic. He journeyed to Nicaragua as a student and returns to help as an alumnus.

“We had debriefings after each trip. Those discussions really made me want to experience new cultures and work with new cultures,” Scalise said. She also collaborated with local constituencies to promote the arts in Nicaragua. It was another way for her to connect two countries as one people. “I didn’t just want to teach English, so we worked on a three-month theater program for kids after school,” Scalise said. “The kids loved it, and it was so much fun.”

Ashley Majeski ’08, MOT ’10, was among the students who took part in the pilot program in Guatemala in 2009. She has returned three times since then, also serving as an adjunct faculty member.

“After I’m done with my teaching or coaching, I love to watch our students take charge of the situation and see them learn and grow,” said Majeski, who works as an occupational therapist at New York-Presbyterian Hospital. “When a student becomes comfortable interacting with people regardless of any cultural, socioeconomic or gender issues, that’s an amazing skill. You can’t teach that empathy and love that’s right inside them.”

Majeski said many of the cases seen by the Quinnipiac delegation involve children with cerebral palsy, Down syndrome, hydrocephaly, microcephaly and other issues that affect development. It’s a great day when they can fashion a cardboard support device, decorated with stickers and stars, to help a 4-year-old boy join his family at the dinner table for the first time, after needing to be held all his life.

“Many times, these individuals are on the lower cognitive side, so they can’t necessarily express their gratitude and enjoyment of things,” Majeski said. “But once you get them in the right spot, you can see it in their faces. If you look around, you’ll see 10 students sitting at the table looking at them with Christmas Day eyes.”