As a teen-ager in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zumra Balihodzic learned what it was like to go to bed hungry and to live with barely a roof over her head.
Her parents, who worked in a suit-making factory during her childhood, struggled to make ends meet after their country's socialist government came to an end and they no longer had stable jobs.
Still, nothing prepared her for the desperation and poverty she would see during the Bucknell Brigade to Nicaragua, as a participant in March 2008 and as a student-leader in January. During those trips, she saw the best and worst of Nicaragua. The striking beauty of an active volcano lay in stark contrast to scenes at the Managua city dump, in particular, where thousands of families live among heaps of trash, searching for food and items to sell.
"I come from a very poor country. I've seen war, a lot of things in my young life," Balihodzic said. "I know how it is not to have anything to eat. I lived in a house with almost no roof and no heat. I thought I was prepared. It was a shock to see people living like that. I don't know how people can tolerate people living in a dump. It's hell on earth."
A political science major, Balihodzic, 27, came to Bucknell University two years ago as a Jack Kent Cooke Foundation community college scholar from Garrett College in western Maryland. In her home country, she was working three jobs to help support her parents and make improvements to their apartment, which had a roof with no insulation. She is the first child in her family to go to college.
Balihodzic plans to pursue a master's degree in public administration or conflict resolution, a path partly inspired by her experiences in Nicaragua. Although the scenes of desperation can sometimes leave the brigadistas feeling helpless, one of the long-term lessons is that little changes can make a difference, she said. On the most recent trip, the group decided to pursue one project to help the children at the Managua dump. They chose a shoe drive.
"As a group, we came together and said, 'Let's be realistic. Let's go step by step and not forget,'" she said. "This helplessness has a purpose. It's going to shake you up. You better be disturbed. There are really fun things you do. It's a combination. You get to see Nicaragua at all levels, the new stuff, the rich stuff, the disgusting stuff, and normal people getting up and trying to make a difference."