History of the Program

“Service-Learning is a teaching and learning strategy that integrates meaningful community service with instruction and reflection to enrich the learning experience, teach civic responsibility, and strengthen communities.[1]

The Global Aging and Health: Enhancing Communities in Nicaragua service-learning program was created by the Institute on Aging (IOA) at Portland State University (PSU) and the Jessie F. Richardson Foundation (JFR), a charitable non-profit organization whose mission is to address the needs of older adults through direct service, intergenerational cooperation, and capacity building.

In 2001, Dr. Martha Pelaez, the former Regional Director for Aging and Health for Latin America and the Caribbean at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), began conversations with Dr. Keren Brown Wilson, president and founder of JFR, about expanding JFR’s  focus to vulnerable elders in developing countries, as well as in the  U.S. In 2003 a call to action by PAHO and the Merck Institute on Aging and Health recommended “immediate action in an attempt to mitigate worsening health conditions and increasing disability among older adults in Latin America and the Caribbean[2].”

In response, Dr. Wilson decided to try to create a program in Nicaragua, due to the country’s extreme poverty, rapidly aging population, underdeveloped social services for elders, a need for expertise in gerontology and geriatrics, and relative political stability. She then approached faculty at PSU including Drs. Nohad Toulan (then Dean, College of Urban and Public Affairs), Margaret Neal (Director, IOA), and Marvin Kaiser (Dean, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences), and jointly they began developing the program. Other partners included PAHO, the Nicaraguan Ministries of Family & of Health, the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in Managua, and Forward Edge International. The result was a six-credit service-learning course that is open to undergraduate, post-baccalaureate, and graduate students and in which are blended service, research and learning within Portland and across international borders.  The course fuses community service projects with academic goals and has been approved as a University Capstone (undergraduate students at PSU are required to complete a capstone prior to graduating).   Each year, students take coursework at PSU in spring term and then travel to Nicaragua for just over two weeks in mid-June to early July.

IOA and JFR both provide faculty, and JFR also leads fundraising efforts for student scholarships. Drs. Neal and Wilson, along with additional faculty and graduate students who serve as graduate research assistants/student team leaders with the program, share responsibility for creating, implementing, and improving the service-learning course and program, and work directly with students in the classroom and in Nicaragua. Dean Marvin Kaiser of CLAS collaborated with the IOA in developing the program and traveled with the group to Nicaragua as a faculty representative during the first two years of the program. He currently contributes through guest lectures and the provision of administrative support.

Dr. Wilson and JFR staff in Nicaragua, including Dr. Milton Lopez, a Nicaraguan geriatrician and advocate for older adults, maintain year-round contact with various national and local government agencies, community organizations, older adults, caregivers, and advocates in Nicaragua to identify potential projects for each year’s program.  Student service-learning projects are selected jointly by JFR and IOA faculty and graduate student team leaders and are shaped both for students, to address community needs and wishes, and by students, with projects taking form based the students’ unique interests and skills.


[1] – National Service-Learning Clearinghouse http://www.servicelearning.org

[2] Pan American Health Organization and the Merck Institute on Aging and Health (2004).  The State of Aging and Health in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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