Community engagement, competition, & cultural learning

It’s easy to say that students at Augsburg College are interested in the world around them and that they strive to make a difference by serving their neighbors. It shows a deeper commitment to living out the College’s mission to be engaged citizens when a group of student-athletes chooses to take a winter break trip to Nicaragua instead of a destination beach vacation in Costa Rica.

This winter, the women’s soccer team showed just what it means to be an Auggie when the group of student athletes voted to go to Nicaragua for a trip comprised of community engagement, reflective service work, and soccer. When the student-athletes combined their desire for such a trip with the rich programming that comes from partnering with the College’s 30-year-old, award-winning Center for Global Education (CGE), the team landed an experience that pushed their boundaries and understanding of the world.

“The players genuinely have hungry hearts and open minds,” said Mike Navarre, head coach of the women’s soccer team. “They voted to have an immersion experience, and I am proud that they feel they have a responsibility to make the world better.”

By collaborating with CGE, the women’s soccer team became the first of the Auggie teams to participate in a winter break trip that met the College’s “Augsburg Experience” requirement, a distinctive feature of an Augsburg education that links classroom theory with off-campus learning through activities including internships, practica, service-learning courses, study abroad, special and individualized off-campus immersion experiences, and more.

“Our CGE program has deep relationships and a permanent presence in Nicaragua, as well as other locations in the world. We have established mutual trust with our international partners, so students who go abroad engage in meaningful ways with the communities that they visit,” said Leah Spinosa de Vega, director of Augsburg Abroad and International Programs.

“The result is that we deliver a customized experience that aligns students’ talents and interests with the wants and needs of the community. The programs also challenge students to see that the community also serves the students —that both groups experience a mutual gain from the engagement and that there is reciprocity of giving.”

For the Auggie women’s soccer team, CGE designed a program that included service at a preschool and soccer clinic, competition against Nicaragua’s national women’s soccer team, and cultural learning activities.

The student-athletes spent about a third of their time serving two organizations, Nica HOPE (nicahope. org) and Casa Alianza (casa-alianza. org). The team painted the preschool operated by Nica HOPE, an organization that evolved to serve the needs of people who live around and near the site of the now-closed Managua City trash dump and who depended upon foraging in the dump for income and survival.

For the second service project, student-athletes conducted a soccer training clinic with Casa Alianza—an organization that serves young people who are homeless, or may have been trafficked or exploited.

The clinic prepared the Casa Alianza youth soccer team to represent Nicaragua in the international Street Child World Cup (streetchildworldcup.org), a soccer tournament that is held in late March in Brazil with the goal of raising international awareness of issues of homeless youths.

“We were humbled by the challenges of the kids at Casa Alianza and grateful to share in their love of soccer,” Navarre said.

The Auggie team also had the opportunity to compete in a series of three games against the Nicaragua women’s national football (soccer) team. While the Nicaraguan team won two games, the Auggies tied in the third game. All the games received coverage in Nicaraguan newspapers, an added bonus because it raises awareness of the value and impact of women’s sports.

“Our players work hard and respond well to raised expectations on and off the field,” Navarre said. “We showcase who we are by how we play soccer. It’s our medium. It has proven to be a significant medium through which our players can grow individually and collectively.”

The team also visited a coffee growing cooperative, La Reina Agroecotourism Project, in the small, rural community of Matagalpa. The visit was a chance to learn about the cooperative, which has 55 members of whom 22 are women, about the impact of coffee and ecotourism on the national economy, and about the culture and typical lifestyle in Nicaragua.

All the experiences—working to improve the Nica HOPE preschool, working on soccer techniques with homeless youths through Casa Alianza, visiting the coffee cooperative, and even the bits of free time—not only help students build a greater understanding of the world we share, but also help them prepare for the work world.

“Employers today are looking for employees with intercultural skills,” said Spinosa de Vega. “Augsburg and CGE programs require that participants take time to reflect upon their experience. Reflection is fundamental to driving intercultural skills development. This process undertaken by the team—to engage and reflect—will help bolster their success in their professional and personal lives.”

To make the trip possible, student-athletes conducted soccer camps and clinics, fundraisers, and an online auction. In all, they raised about $20,000.

Team co-captain Alekzandra “Ali” Miller ’14, a business management major responsible for the online auction, said she knew the value and impact that playing soccer and studying abroad can have. During high school, Miller played soccer in Sweden and Denmark, and earlier in her college career, she spent a semester studying in Spain. Miller wanted her teammates to have an experience like the ones she had, but also knew finances would be a challenge for some of her teammates.

The trip was highly rewarding to all the participants and Navarre and Spinosa de Vega are hopeful that the success of the trip will spur other athletics teams to explore how to mix sport, community engagement, and reflective service for the type of meaningful learning experience for which Augsburg College is nationally known.

“It’s hard to say how much of an impact we were able to make in just eight days,” Miller said. “But I can say for certain that our team was impacted for the better. These types of experiences are the kind of catalysts that give a direction to people’s lives, that spark a new type of gratitude, and that change the way we think about and live our lives.”

“This trip confirmed for me and the players that we have an obligation to make ourselves and the world a little better,” Navarre said. “In doing so, we also make our own lives better. We don’t need to be overwhelmed by the enormity or gravity of the world’s problems. We can embrace the world to make meaningful connections and improvements.”

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