Magazine / People

Alumnus builds schools in rural Nicaragua

Espen Haugen unpacks schoolbooks with a teacher in Nicaragua

DU alumnus Espen Haugen has provided schoolbooks for more than 2,000 children in rural Nicaragua. Photo: Courtesy of Espen Haugen

A 25-year-old ski instructor from Anchorage, Alaska, seems an unlikely champion for schools in Nicaragua. But Espen Haugen (BA international studies and geography ’08) is unusually determined.

He first went to Nicaragua in 2007 as part of a geography course taught by Associate Professor Matthew Taylor. Haugen knew that although the Sandinistas valued education, the Contra War (1979–90) had hampered the country’s social efforts. Schools were dilapidated, textbooks were outdated, and economic pressures prevented many students from attending secondary school.

“I realized this was an actual place where I could implement what I had been learning in international studies and geography,” Haugen says. “It’s like a frontier country. There are huge rural areas where people are living a subsistence lifestyle and the education system is suffering.”

He returned to the Tola municipality near Nicaragua’s west coast five times as Taylor’s teaching assistant. Each time, he became more convinced he could make a difference.

So he founded a nonprofit, Proyecto Remedios Educativos (PRE), with a mission to provide a remedy for community and educational needs in Central America.

In fall 2008 he returned to Nicaragua, where he investigated the community’s needs and willingness to participate. In 2009 PRE donated materials and the community provided labor to bring 13 schools up to working standard. PRE recently has begun construction of an additional two-classroom school and is taking on more schools in Tola for reconstruction.

When Haugen learned that schools were equipped with 1980s-era textbooks, he spent a year tracking down current book lists. PRE purchased books for each subject — one for every four students and guidebooks for teachers.

More than 2,000 schoolchildren have benefited from his efforts.

“It’s something they never had before, and it’s a huge benefit. I am really excited about that because I think that is really benefiting the quality of the education,” Haugen says.

Taylor credits Haugen’s success with PRE to his knack for translating book knowledge into real-world knowledge, and for listening deeply to locals rather than coming in as an outsider with all the answers.

“Espen has proven himself. He went from not speaking Spanish to speaking Spanish pretty fluently. The people of Nicaragua, the people that I know in that region, they want him to be there. He’s been invited to official government events as an honored guest. So the government is recognizing his work as well,” Taylor says.

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