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JPC Students Combine Public Service, Research Efforts in Nicaragua

This story is the second in UVA Today's occasional series this semester on the work of undergraduates, graduate student mentors and faculty advisers participating in Jefferson Public Citizens service projects. The 2009-10 academic year marks the first year of the JPC program. There are 16 projects in all, 12 faculty advisers, nine graduate student mentors and 71 undergraduate participants. The program was identified as a University priority by the Commission for the Future of the University and approved by the Board of Visitors in October 2008.

February 25, 2010 — Robin Kendall first felt a strong connection to Bluefields, Nicaragua, after a January Term trip during her first year at the University of Virginia. Struck by the warm, welcoming community and numerous opportunities for economic development, she knew she wanted to help the economically depressed area.

Through her participation in U.Va.'s Jefferson Public Citizens program, Kendall, now a third-year commerce and global development major, and 14 other students combine academics, research and public service as they assist the Bluefields community.

Last year – the inaugural year of the JPC program – the five members of the first Bluefields team sought to identify sustainable economic enterprise projects. After targeting bio-gas and composting as priorities through research and discussion with Bluefields students and community members, the JPC students formed two teams for 2010 projects. The Board of Visitors and private donations fund the projects.

Advised by commerce professor Brad Brown, who also leads the January study abroad trip each year, the groups appear well-equipped to face the challenges of executing a project from thousands of miles away. Graduate mentor and nursing doctoral student Emma Mitchell, who is currently studying in Bluefields, provides an in-town contact.

In addition to the biogas and compost teams, a third group of students formed with the goal of empowering Bluefields women. Women's Center director Sharon Davie serves as their adviser.

Before the newly formed teams visit Bluefields this summer, Nicaraguans will visit the University. A few students from Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University will travel to Charlottesville in March to meet with JPC students and learn about University efforts in the areas related to their projects.

Composting

Though the Bluefields municipal government and local university already participate in composting efforts, the U.Va. team hopes to further boost composting in the community and educate individual households and schools about composting.

Before choosing its emphasis on small-scale "backyard" composting, the group consulted Bluefields students and officials to obtain feedback and hear the community's needs.

"The project would not be possible without our strong ties to community partners," Kendall said.

About 75 percent of the waste in the Bluefields dump is organic and burned, rather than composted. Expanding compost efforts could lower the government's waste management expenses and benefit the environment.

"We hope that composting both reduces the amount of waste burned at the open-air dump and can be used in household gardens and for small-scale agricultural use," Kendall said.

If the project expands beyond household composting in the future, Bluefields residents and government could eventually sell the compost.

"I hope the community embraces it and makes it their own," Kendall said.

In addition to Kendall, the composting team members are first-year pre-commerce student Ania Turnier, second-year pre-commerce student Ben Robbins, second-year engineering student Auesta Safi and first-year engineering student Rowan Sprague.

Bio-gas

The bio-gas team, composed of engineering, economics and commerce students, is working to create a more cost-efficient bio-gas system. Bio-gas systems use pressure and heat to convert manure into fuel for household cooking.

The structures necessary to make the conversion are relatively simple to construct and last several years with good care, according to Liz Broderick, a third-year economics major in the College of Arts & Sciences.

During the school year, the team's engineers are designing and testing bio-gas structures while the business students are making supplier contacts.

Collaboration with Nicaraguan students from Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University is essential for the project.

"They give us a real impression of what the community needs and wants from us," said Broderick.

Through the project, the team hopes to create job opportunities in an environmentally responsible manner. The Bluefields unemployment rate is about 85 percent, Broderick said.

In the future, the team hopes that Bluefields residents can make the bio-gas system into a profitable business without JPC support.

"It's going to take a couple of years to be economically viable," said Broderick, who hopes that future JPC teams can continue the project.

Though the service aspect of the project is important to team members, they said the academic experience is also valuable.

"It's a great way to apply engineering skills and use what I've learned," Ashutosh Priyadarshy, a second-year student, said.

The bio-gas team consists of Priyadarshy, Broderick, third-year commerce student Hana Abbas, second-year engineering student Philip Reinhart and first-year engineering student Ben Erban.

Empowering Women

In a society where machismo culture dominates and women often lack education and job opportunities, a third group of students seeks to empower the women of Bluefields.

The team plans to work with community women to produce a radio show. Potential topics include family nutrition, women's health, gender equality and domestic violence. In addition, the show will include interviews with successful women in the community.

Written materials will also be made available for distribution.

"We want to give women access to information and research to better their situations," Sara Duke, a third-year College student, said.

The students will also start a blog, in which Bluefields women can suggest future topics for the radio shows and read transcripts of past radio programs. The radio program may also expand to a local television program.

"I hope the program eventually leads to more job opportunities and a higher status for women," second-year student Halley Epstein said.

The JPC team working on the radio program includes Duke, who is majoring in sociology and studies in women and gender; Epstein, who is studying history at the College and also plans to pursue environmental thought and practice; second-year College student Nicole Dompke, who hopes to major in global development studies; and second-year nursing student Erin Thorpe.

— By Laura Hoffman

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