While on co-​​op in Nicaragua, third-​​year North­eastern stu­dent Colleen Kelly helped women and chil­dren hurdle social bar­riers on every­thing from gender equality to domestic vio­lence, both by talking about these issues and engaging the entire community.

It ulti­mately resulted in a pro­found expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­nity she later described as “one of the most chal­lenging and exhil­a­rating expe­ri­ences of my life.”

Kelly, an inter­na­tional affairs and polit­ical sci­ence com­bined major, worked from March to June at Mujer y Comu­nidad (Women and Com­mu­nity) — an NGO that pro­vides health care and other vital ser­vices to women and youth in the small, rural town of San Fran­cisco Libre.

She worked along­side one of the organization’s psy­chol­o­gists, who led group therapy ses­sions for women throughout the town that focused on a range of issues, including gender equality, phys­ical and emo­tional domestic abuse and HIV/​AIDS aware­ness. Kelly said it was incred­ibly grat­i­fying to see strong women making progress in the country’s male-​​dominated cul­ture of “machismo,” and the expe­ri­ence strength­ened her own appre­ci­a­tion for the rights women enjoy in the United States.

In addi­tion, she helped orga­nize meet­ings with local net­works of women and youths that would gather reg­u­larly for themed dis­cus­sions. Women would talk about domestic vio­lence and employ­ment, while youths would learn about teen preg­nancy and gender equality. The ses­sions, Kelly said, empow­ered these women and youths to become com­mu­nity leaders who could later inform their neigh­bors about what they learned.

It was very far-​​reaching, and it did a great job of edu­cating so many people with so few resources,” she said.

Kelly was also present for the start of a sig­nif­i­cant research project the NGO was run­ning to survey com­mu­nity groups on their knowl­edge of a range of social issues related to gender, vio­lence and sexual health. Par­tic­i­pants will be sur­veyed again in five years to assess the impact these edu­ca­tional pro­grams are having.

Toward the end of her co-​​op, Kelly said a youth cel­e­bra­tion called El Día de los Niños helped her put the entire expe­ri­ence in per­spec­tive. As she inter­acted with the chil­dren and watched them laugh and dance, Kelly real­ized how close she had become to the com­mu­nity, and the impor­tance of her orga­ni­za­tion to its people.

They just play a huge role in the com­mu­nity as a group that can create (social) action,” she said.