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Compassion engaged: Arries recounts lessons of Nicaragua

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For three weeks each year, William & Mary students enrolled in Jonathan Arries’ service-learning course (modern languages and literatures 490/510) in Nicaragua stretch their physical and emotional reserves in order to teach English to schoolchildren and their teachers. In under-resourced, overcrowded classrooms, they use puppets, songs—especially the “Hokey Pokey”—and other innovative means of incorporating movement to re-enforce learning.  That, according to Arries, is their day job.

"Our real job is to do a needs-analysis in under-resourced schools in Nicaragua,” Arries explained. “To do that, William & Mary students need to ask probing questions of all the stakeholders—the teachers, the parents, the kids. If the goal were just to teach English to little kids, our students could do that here in Virginia. What they can’t learn here as easily is how one goes into under-resourced communities and establishes communication based on respect.”

For Arries, anything less and the ethical choice would be to take the money the students spend on airfare and simply mail it to Nicaragua, where it could be used for necessary teaching supplies. His achievable goal is to have William & Mary students teaching in partner schools every year, creating a “continuity of service.” Students who go will return as leaders capable of significantly engaging similar communities whether they end up serving in the Peace Corps, with not-for-profit benevolent agencies or at home teaching English as a second language to some of the 80,000 people in Virginia seeking that service, he said. They also return with an assignment of fleshing out priority needs for the Nicaraguan community. Either they, or their successors, will work to implement them.

“It’s a mistake to think that everything is related to money,” Arries said. “Yes, there are under-resourced schools, but that doesn’t always translate into sending money. Sometimes it is sending knowledge.”

The next trip to Nicaragua already is being planned for July.  Arries knows that the students who sign up will be “self-selected.” They will anticipate a certain amount of discomfort and hardship. Arries will warn them that there will be no air conditioning, that they will bathe by taking bucket showers, that they will do their own laundry by hand in sinks. He also will alert them regarding internal transportation issues and the local litter: “It’s almost as if gum-wrappers and plastic were some sort of invasion and the populace just wasn’t ready for it,” Arries said.

By the time they return, they will have learned a deep respect for the Nicaraguans with whom they will have partnered, Arries contends. They also will have developed a deeper sense of compassion through working and living in the community.

“More than one scholar has said that compassion is the cornerstone, the emotional intelligence, for democracy,” Arries said. “You can’t have democracy if people don’t understand compassion.” He further equates compassion with an end-goal of the humanities.

“Yes, we teach students to try to appreciate beauty, literature, art, and that can be a transformative experience,” he said. “Some people read a poem or see an object of art and they are moved in profound ways. I need that human contact. I not only need to see the art, I need to see the way other people see that art and the way that they experience it. That’s how people learn to be compassionate.”