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Northwest Missouri State University

Alumni News

Feb. 8, 2010

Nicaraguan students cap cultural exchange, develop plan to open hospital

Nicaraguan students After spending two weeks on the Northwest campus learning English and designing a proposal to open a hospital in their hometown, eight Nicaraguan high school students recently bid an emotional farewell to the University and Maryville communities and their chaperones.

The students from Juan Mejia Espinoza High School in Villa Sandino, Nicaragua, arrived in Maryville Jan. 15 with their teacher, Andrea Tappmeyer, a Maryville native who is completing a two-year service with the United States Peace Corps.

The two-week leadership and cultural exchange program, dubbed the "Villa 2 'Ville Initiative," began as a dream for Tappmeyer, who wanted the high school students to get a taste of American culture. Tappmeyer is the daughter of former Northwest men's basketball coach Steve Tappmeyer and Lynette Tappmeyer, who taught second grade at Horace Mann.

"When I was planning the trip, I knew this would have an impact on the students and that it would be a great opportunity for them, but I don't think I even had a taste of what it was going to be like," Tappmeyer said after the Jan. 29 closing ceremony at the Charles Johnson Theatre. "The University staff and the community of Maryville have gone above and beyond in planning this and giving the students some great opportunities."

During the closing ceremony, the students unveiled their plan to open a hospital in Villa Sandino. Currently, the closest hospital is about 90 minutes west of Villa Sandino.

With the help of Northwest adjunct professor Shelly Robertson and former Northwest administrator Bob Bush, the students developed an action plan that includes setting up community meetings in Villa Sandino to build support for the project. The students also came up with a team name - "Luchadores para el Futuro" or "Fighters for the Future" - and a mission statement.

To help them continue their work and carry out the plan, the team was awarded a laptop at Friday's ceremony on behalf of Northwest. Each student also was given a T-shirt with the team name, which they can wear while distributing the brochures they designed to build support for the hospital.

Throughout the exchange, the students attended daily English classes taught by Nissa Ingraham, a Spanish education instructor, and graduate assistant Ashley Salisbury. The students also interacted with Francisco "Paco" Martinez's Spanish class, giving Northwest students an authentic Spanish experience.

Ingraham noted the Nicaraguan students arrived with very basic English skills, but they were speaking the language at a high novice level at the end of their instruction. While the classes began at 8 a.m. each day, Ingraham and Salisbury also said they were impressed with the students' eagerness to learn.

In addition to attending classes, the students interacted with Northwest students during physical activities with Alice Foose, assistant professor in the health, physical education, recreation and dance department, and they worked on art projects with Horace Mann instructor Erin Oehler.

During their off-time, the students participated in activities that included bowling with members of the Alpha Sigma Alpha sorority and shopping in St. Joseph. They also attended Northwest and Maryville High School basketball games and took a trip to Science City at Kansas City's Union Station.

"I think it's been really beneficial to the university and for all of the students because they've touched so many people in the university and our community," Ingraham said. "For me, it was wonderful because I've never been able to experience the culture of Nicaragua, and since I speak Spanish also, it was wonderful to be able to interact with them and to be able to learn and connect with them."

During the closing ceremony, the students put their English-speaking skills on display with presentations about their country's culture and experiences in Maryville. Some of the students also performed a cultural dance, and the students expressed their gratitude for their instructors and host families in Maryville.

"For me, these two weeks in Maryville was marvelous," said Vilmara, 16. "I have learned and experienced many things I have never experienced before."

Northwest President Dr. John Jasinski urged the students to maintain contact with the university and commended Tappmeyer for taking the initiative to plan the exchange.

"When we talk about making a difference in a young man or a young woman going from Northwest Missouri State University, I think sometimes people hear that and agree with it, but what do they do with it?" Jasinski said during the ceremony. "If you're a student, faculty, staff member or community member, I challenge you to think about Andrea Tappmeyer. Making a difference is one thing, and saying 'I'm going to.' Acting is a whole different thing. How many of us would step out of our boxes and do what Andrea has done?"

To help Tappmeyer make her goals a reality, the Northwest and Maryville communities came together, raising the funds needed to cover the costs of the students' passports and paperwork fees, transportation and activities. Volunteers also organized a clothing drive to provide the students with warm clothes.

Dr. Max Ruhl, dean of the College of Education and Human Services, and Dr. Joyce Piveral, assistant director of the professional education unit, helped coordinate the exchange.

Nicaragua is the largest country in Central America with a population of more than 5.8 million. Education and literacy are underfunded there, and more than half of the population is unemployed. Statistics also show 48 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and nearly 80 percent live with less than $2 per day. With a population of about 4,000 people, Villa Sandino's economy is based on dairy farms and related industries, such as cheese and cream production. There are no banks, no grocery stores and no restaurants. There is a health center, but the closest hospital is 90 minutes west.