Spring Break Service Trip Broadens Student’s Horizons

By Shaiann Frazier

Shanel Spence and Lehman L.I.F.E on first day of the trip before heading to the community of San Jose de Garcia in Nicaragua to volunteer. All photos courtesy of Shanel Spence.

“I’m more appreciative of the small things I took for granted. This experience humbled me,” reflected Shanel Spence, 22, a biology major and Lehman senior on her seven-day trip to Nicaragua. Born and raised in the Bronx by parents originally from Jamaica, Spence interns at Cavalry and Mount Sinai Hospitals with hopes of becoming a pediatrician. She also mentors incoming freshmen through Lehman’s SEEK Program which provides assistance to college students in need of academic and financial support.  

Spence with three doctors, Lucelia Quiroz (right), Dr. Karelia Torrez (middle) and pharmacist Carmen Pineda (far left) on the last day of volunteering in the community Santa Teresa in Nicaragua.

On Apr. 2, Spence boarded a plane to Nicaragua with 25 peers on another aid mission, this time to help people without access to adequate medical care. The trip happened in collaboration with an organization known as Global Brigades, an international non-profit organization that uses holistic models to meet communities’ health and economic goals. 

Shanel Spence on day three of volunteering before arriving to the community of Santa Teresa, in Nicaragua, for the first time.

Spence’s spring break trip to Nicaragua happened through a stroke of luck. “I actually planned to go to Florida,” she said. However, through Lehman Life, an organization that provides service opportunities to Lehman students, she was able to attend the trip.  To afford the journey she had to raise roughly 2,000 dollars to cover her expenses. “I didn’t have difficulty in raising the money,” she said, “because I had a lot of support and people who wanted to donate.”

Spence and her team volunteered in San Jose de Garcia and Santa Teresa, two communities in Nicaragua. There her day began at six in the morning, with breakfast by seven and a bus that left at eight for the “compounds,” which she first found overwhelming. “I was nervous, I didn’t know how to feel because it was a new experience for me.” 

Spence learning how to detect a UTI in female patients while shadowing one of the doctors, named Dr. Ramos. 

Spence was not used to the lack of basic services she found in that part of Nicaragua. There was little to no water or access to sufficiently sanitary bathrooms. “When I got there, it was a whole cultural shock for me. We had to use hand sanitizer every time we went to the bathroom. And at one point there was just a brick and wooden stall outside.”

Spence quickly learned how to appreciate how easy her life was compared to what locals were enduring. “It was a tough situation to adjust to, because where I come from I’m used to having hot and running water.” 

At the compounds, she worked with a team of eight doctors to assist roughly 400 patients. The compounds were divided into six sections: the GYN, physical therapy, the pharmacy, triage, consultation, and the dental area. “My favorite part was the triage because that’s where the most interactions with people happened,” said Spence. 

Her patients were a variety of ages with numerous ailments, the most common of which were UTI’s, meningitis, and hypertension. “Observing the GYN doctor changed my mind about what path I wanted to pursue in the medical field,” she explained.

Spence also developed an unexpected friendship with a 7-year-old girl who arrived at the compound for dental issues. “She was so mature for her age. I wondered to myself how does a little girl have such a good mindset. And then I realized that they’re raised differently,” said Spence. 

Spence’s day ended at five with dinner at the hotel, where she and her peers reflected on their day.  Spence made two close friends on the trip, “Binto and Alimata. We always checked on each other, [and] all of us who went on the trip together got a chance to learn about each other.” 

Spence with a young girl in the triage, who wanted to know how the sphygmomanometer works. And Spence allowing the young girl to test the instrument on her. 

When it was time to go back home, Spence said, “I was actually sad about leaving.” The trip made Spence want to revisit the compounds in the summer. She is also thinking about pursuing a career as a doctor serving similar communities. The youngest of two children, Spence will be the first college graduate in her family. After graduation, Spence plans to take a gap year to study for the MCATS and apply for medical school. 

“I appreciate what I have more than did I before,” she said. “These people don’t have much, but they still appreciate the life they have and they live. And I feel like we take that for granted every day.”