Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs

“This class has been a great opportunity to not only explore Nicaragua, but also to explore Providence itself, as we have had several assignments that got us off the Hill and into the community.”

Tomas Navia ’16

Not Your Average Spring Break

Dispatches from Nicaragua

March 23, 2015

Imagine you’re a Brown undergrad who dreams of becoming a foreign correspondent. Imagine you discover a new course called “International Journalism.” Imagine the course is taught by a seasoned, award-winning journalist who has covered conflict throughout the world, from El Salvador to Rwanda. Imagine the course includes the chance to spend a week in Central America reporting on the topic of your choice. And then imagine knowing your article will be published in two major online news outlets. 

That’s the case for the group of aspiring foreign correspondents who will spend this week in the college town of León, Nicaragua, under the tutelage of Stephen Kinzer, journalist in residence at the Watson Institute.

Kinzer, New York Times bureau chief in Nicaragua from 1983 to 1989 and the author of Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua, conceived of the International Relations course in part as a way of combining his expertise in history, politics, and American intervention with his experience in journalism. This is the only course of its kind at Brown, and interest is high: for 10 spots he received nearly 40 applications.

Why Nicaragua? Location, for one thing: the destination had to be neither too distant nor too dangerous. “Nicaragua has the lowest crime rate in Central America,” Kinzer says. “Plus, there’s a lot going on, so there’s plenty to write about.” Fluency in Spanish was a requirement; about half the students are native Spanish speakers.

But before leaving for León, the students had to practice their craft closer to home. According to Tomas Navia ’16, who plans to write about volcano tourism and Nicaragua’s Grand Canal, “This class has been a great opportunity to not only explore Nicaragua, but also to explore Providence itself, as we have had several assignments that got us off the Hill and into the community.”

On a cold March afternoon a few days before they departed, students sat around a conference table in the Watson Institute and Skyped with Alex Leff, senior editor for the Boston-based GlobalPost, and Tom Rogers, who in 2011 launched Nicaragua Dispatch, an independent online English-language news website. The student had written story pitches on topics such as adolescent suicide rates, social perceptions of developmental disabilities, León’s indigenous Sutiaba community, Nicaraguan poet Rúben Darío, and the quesillo, a form of street food that originated in León. The editors, having reviewed each pitch, advised the students on how better to research or frame their stories and gave them tips on local sources. 

Bringing his considerable experience in the region to bear, Kinzer has arranged for the students to meet, among others, major novelist Sergio Ramírez Mercado, who served as vice president of Nicaragua under Daniel Ortega from 1985 until 1990, and Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who runs the weekly newsletter Confidencial and who is, according to Kinzer, “the leading independent journalist” in Nicaragua. 

Armed with rented cell phones, digital recorders, and notepads, the students will spend their days in the field – some of them enhancing their reporting with photos or video – then return to their hotel each night, where they will write up their notes and take turns blogging about the day’s adventures. Kinzer says that before they return to the States, on March 29, all will have completed drafts of their articles, which he will then edit with them in intense one-on-one sessions over the following three days. After a final class of group editing, the students will present their work at noon on April 8 in the Joukowsky Forum.

Kinzer sees the course, which is supported by a Global Experiential Learning and Teaching (GELT) grant, as providing valuable – and rare – on-the-job training. Marina Do Nascimento ’15 agrees. “We learn by doing,” he says. “It's extremely enriching.”

 “The purpose of the academy is not just to preserve and transmit the sum of human knowledge, but to add to it,” says Kinzer, whom the Washington Post has described as “among the best in popular foreign policy storytelling.” “So here’s a chance to bring something new.”

Watch the webcast of the student presentations

Follow the students’ blog at http://vagabondmagazine.org/brown-nicaragua/.

View student articles published in Global Post