The question I'm concerned with is what affects the well-being of people in a particular place. I'm most concerned with people who are the most marginalized or disenfranchised, who are the poorest.

For most viewers, the movie "Slumdog Millionaire," which depicts life in the slums of Mumbai, India, was a moving, but transient, glimpse into the world of desolate poverty. Students enrolled in Paul Susman's Bucknell in Nicaragua course, however, have experiences with poverty they may never forget. || Ask the Experts: Paul Susman on relief efforts in Haiti

During the intensive, three-week service-learning class offered every other summer, students have helped build a cooperative factory, assisted in rural health clinics, and visited with U.S. and Nicaraguan officials. They have also visited La Chureca, the Managua dump where entire families make their living hunting through stinking, burning piles of trash for food, recyclables and reusable items.

Susman, professor of geography and Latin American studies, was inspired to create the course after participating in the Bucknell Brigade, which has traveled to Nicaragua over winter and spring breaks every year since 1998. Former Bucknellian Jamie Cistoldi Lee '99 started the volunteer effort after Hurricane Mitch ravaged the country. In a decade, students have helped house refugees from the hurricane, raised money to build and supply health clinics, and more.

"It was an extraordinary learning and teaching experience, probably the best I've ever seen," Susman says. "In one week, students would be transformed and would suddenly realize that what they had been studying has very real meaning and consequences for people in Nicaragua, among other places."

Like the Brigade participants, summer school students help with community service projects. In 2009, the class helped make rebar forms for the concrete floor of a factory that will house an organic yarn-spinning cooperative. Unlike the Brigadistas, students earn academic credit for the summer school course. They read Nicaraguan authors and then meet them in person, study policy issues and visit with government officials and opposition leaders, and examine trade agreements and talk to economists and the organizers of organic farms.

The Bucknell in Nicaragua course ties in closely with Susman's research interests as a professor of geography. "The question I'm concerned with is what affects the well-being of people in a particular place," he says. "I'm most concerned with people who are the most marginalized or disenfranchised, who are the poorest."

In studying different models of economic development and trade policy, Susman has seen many failures, and, in Nicaragua among other places, one possible solution. In a series of papers on trade theory, Susman asked how the strategy of attracting multinational corporations to invest capital in new communities affects people on the ground.

"Does it give them meaningful and well paying jobs? Does it reinvest in the area? Does it provide a stable, sustainable means of livelihood?" he asks. "The answer is typically no. The companies often close down when cheaper alternatives arise."

The development model that shows great promise is for local people to organize themselves into cooperatives to build their own factories and health clinics, sometimes with outside assistance. Helping them do so continues to be a powerful and humbling lesson for students who may want to solve the problems of poverty, but discover that the challenges, and the rewards of success, are often greater than they ever imagined.

Posted Aug. 31, 2009