FORTVILLE — When Brittany Caldwell applied last year to spend a semester abroad in Nicaragua, she created a short list of reasons for doing so.
She knew she wanted to improver her Spanish skills, and the trip would give her a unique chance to travel. But performing mission work and growing in her faith also were priorities.
The 21-year-old Fortville resident did all that and more.
Caldwell, who is majoring in biology and Spanish at Greenville College in Greenville, Illinois, said the trip changed the way she views the world.
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“It made it so that things that I could ignore in the past I can’t ignore any more,” said Caldwell, a 2012 Mt. Vernon High School graduate. “When you’re here, it’s really easy not to make an effort to change what’s going on in the world.”
The trip was not Caldwell’s first trip to Nicaragua, a primarily Spanish-speaking Central American nation located between Honduras and Costa Rica.
Caldwell went there on a three-week ministry trip in January 2014 with her college, a trip that is popular among Greenville students.
It was during that time she learned about a new semester-long program Greenville was starting in collaboration with Students International.
guided by faith
Caldwell said she was unsure at first whether she wanted to spend four months away from home in a foreign place but ultimately decided to go for it after talking to a missionary in Nicaragua.
He told her he often prays and looks for three signs from God before deciding to do something.
Caldwell took his advice, and before long, she said those signs presented themselves: On the final night of that first trip, during a program reflecting on the three weeks, the ministry site leader mentioned Caldwell’s name, saying she would be back.
Then, a couple of months later, while still contemplating whether to apply, a friend sent her a reassuring word.
The third sign, she said, came from the professor who had accompanied her group on the three-week trip.
“He encouraged me to go and that it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and that he saw potential in me to go and do the program,” she said.
And that was it — she was in.
“It wasn’t a big thing, the sky opening,” she said. “It was small things, and I think sometimes (God) speaks to us like that.”
So, on Aug. 25, Caldwell boarded a flight to the capital city of Managua, then traveled 45 minutes by car to the city of Masaya, where she would spend four months of her junior year with four other students from Greenville, studying and doing ministry work.
She shared a tiny bedroom with one other student in a Nicaraguan family’s home, while the three other students stayed with another family.
There was an official orientation period and visits to ministry sites, after which she settled into a routine of studies, which included a four-block walk to Spanish class as well as an online history class with a professor at Greenville.
In addition to daily classes, the four months were punctuated by day trips, weekslong trips to ministry sites, a week of accelerated classes during a visit from the Greenville history professor, as well as a week tutoring children in Costa Rica and a trip to San Juan Del Sur, a town on the Pacific coast.
While the locations provided a lot of natural beauty to behold, Caldwell said there was little time for casual sightseeing. She spent most of her time studying and ministering, which she said made sure she met the goals she set out to accomplish.
Power of prayer
It was while helping at a health clinic for those in need that Caldwell said she experienced the most profound impact on her faith; she witnessed the power of prayer.
There was a little boy with an eye ailment — a scratch on the eye and failing vision — the missionaries were not equipped to treat.
Caldwell paid for the boy to visit a private clinic, and the doctor there provided drops for the scratch but said the vision problem was caused by something else and could lead to blindness.
Caldwell said during the next couple of weeks, while she and others contemplated what to do, she prayed for the boy. Inexplicably, the boy’s eyes completely healed.
“That was a big, big thing that shows me God answers prayers,” Caldwell said. “I think that we (in the United States) have so much that we don’t really need anything. (Back home) I didn’t have to rely on God to meet my needs, prayer to meet my needs. All they can hope for is a miracle.”
Caldwell earned 16 college credits for her semester and learned a lot of Spanish, but she said the education she obtained goes far beyond the academic material covered in the course outlines and even beyond the language picked up though immersion.
“I find I have a bigger purpose than just living my life for me every day,” she said, adding she’s now keenly aware of the plight of other people around the world and how her actions affect them.
“I’m aware how that what I do every single day, those things have a chain reaction,” she said.
Caldwell also witnessed people who approach life differently on a daily basis. The U.S. has a task-oriented culture, she said, and Nicaragua has a relationship-oriented culture.
This is reflected in the pace of life, which is much slower and evidenced by something as small as the speed people walk down the street.
“It really drove me crazy at first,” Caldwell said. But then “I started to appreciate it.”
This aspect of Nicaraguan culture shows up in more substantial ways, too, she said. For instance, she said people will be late for a meeting because they are helping someone with a problem.
“It’s not even an option – it’s just what they do,” she said. “They’ll make a choice to put people over things. It feels good to put people first, and I missed that when I got back.”
Caldwell’s mother, Jennifer Caldwell, said she could see many changes in her daughter when she came home after the semester abroad.
“She came back feeling a little guilty about the amazing, fabulous life we have here in the United States,” she said, which seemed to feed a desire to take positive action. “She came back with more of a desire to help, worldwide.”
Back at home
Jennifer Caldwell said she also observed many small changes in Brittany’s behavior. For instance, she said it took Brittany a little while to get used to having hot water at the turn of a faucet. And when they went to the grocery store, Brittany took her time strolling the aisles and didn’t seem to notice the long lines at the checkout that day.
“She had more patience,” Jennifer Caldwell said, noting that Brittany also would sit down and spend more time playing with her little sister, 8-year-old Carmen. “Just slowing down and enjoying life a little more.”
Her mom said she also noticed her daughter’s greater commitment to her faith. She attributes that to her daughter having developed relationships with strong believers in Nicaragua.
Richard Huston, a history professor at Greenville who traveled to Nicaragua for a week of classes, said he could tell Brittany Caldwell was being affected by her participation.
“I knew from her written responses … she was really internalizing the experience,” Huston said.
“It was really impacting her understanding of faith,” he said, noting she seemed amazed at the strength of people’s faith “in the midst of grinding poverty.”
Brittany Caldwell said sometimes it’s tempting to go back into an “ignorant bliss American lifestyle,” but ultimately, she plans to apply her recent life lessons to permanently change the way she lives.
“It’s kind of irreversible,” she said.
About Students International
Established in 1993, Students International is a nondenominational Christian ministry organization. It is a qualified 501(c)(3) charity and has missionaries serving in five countries throughout the world. The International Service Center, located in Visalia, California, provides leadership, supervision and support service in the areas of funds development, human resources, information technology, finance and administration, ministry and program development, and marketing.
What It Does
Students International does long-term, ongoing community development in Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Fiji through the full-time staff missionaries serving in those countries. In addition, outreach participants join missionaries on short-term or semester programs throughout the year.
Occupational Ministry Sites
Staff missionaries and outreach participants come together cross-culturally to encounter God, share the Good News, disciple and serve the poor. This is all done while working in locations and conducting activity in specific areas of occupational ministry that correlates with a career, academic, or personal interest of the participants. Students International calls these occupational outreach settings Ministry Sites.
Five things to know about Nicaragua according to Brittany Caldwell
1. Most of the people are friendly, hospitable and eager to talk with you and take care of you.
2. Though Nicaragua struggles with poverty, the people have pride in their country and a rich and colorful culture, which they live out through traditional dances, songs, parades, festivals and foods.
3. Things may not always seem as practical and efficient as they do in the United States, but it is made up for in relational aspects.
4. Don’t be alarmed if you visit Nicaragua and see some things that seem wacky to us: chickens in the house are normal, standing very close to the person in front of you so no one cuts you in line is perfectly acceptable and you may see elderly women ride side-saddle on the back of mopeds.
5. Although it may not be as high-profile as other countries, Nicaragua is worth visiting for its interesting history, rich culture and beauty.