Millennials showing the world they can change it

Connor Eliff

Connor is an activist who works to create opportunities for college students to travel and implement water solutions in communities in Nicaragua.

Q: Give me some background of what you’re doing in Nicaragua.

A: I’m here with Global Brigades as a program associate where we work with volunteer groups in college that fundraise to participate in the programs that we offer. We’re doing a lot of work in communities here. I specialize in the sustainable development area, like public health programs for example. We provide sanitary stations to more rural homes that might just have a latrine-type system to use the restroom, simple holes in the ground, or black tarps to give them privacy. We offer an alternative that is basically cinderblock-based outhouses, porcelain toilets that they can flush, running water systems as well as a shower and a system where they can wash clothes or acquire water. Right now we’re working on a water system and we’re working between five communities. Our organization has partnered with a number of other organizations, so we have played a small role in this group of hands working toward getting these five communities water. In total, that would be about 220 families and just under about 1000 people who would benefit from clean, consistent water rather than going down to a contaminated river where other people upstream are using the restroom, washing their clothes, bathing in the river and things like that. Not to mention parasites, diarrhea and other things like that are very common within the communities as far as non-chronic illnesses go.

Q: It sounds like you have a very comprehensive view of how the whole system works through your direct involvement.

A: I think one of the things I like most about it is that although this position is very much in the office, it gives you a very strong idea of how operations like this work from the logistics, the budgeting it takes, and communally working together in different departments. We have groups that go into communities and do rapid-needs assessments where they give out surveys and we go out and retrieve them to assess which communities are in the most need or which ones we can make the most impact on based on the programs that we can implement. It’s a lot of seeing where we can fit in and how they differ in what we can do and how we can do our best to make an impact.

Q: It’s cool how through your work you’re creating opportunities for others to become activists.

A: It is incredible because we have groups of students coming in every other month. I think one of the most incredible things is that for many of these students, it’s their first time out of the country or going to a developing country with rural communities where culture may be very different. So we get to see the differences and how very different the ways of life are in comparison to their own. There are also those refreshing similarities between personality that engage and break the barrier of language despite perhaps not being able to speak Spanish, like breaking those barriers through play or witnessing something in the community that made us all laugh. We’re all here on this rock together and I think that’s the thing that has made me gravitate toward this kind of work so much. We have so much to learn from each other.

Q: It seems like that’s something you’re only able to get through abroad activism.

A: I think so in a lot of ways. In some instances, the curiosity of a new culture and new language is something that is very intriguing to people. In a lot of ways it sets the tone differently. That’s not to say that the same impacts would not have been bestowed upon a volunteer in the United States. The fact of the matter is that you can look at it as a global community, and just because someone speaks Spanish or you’re crossing a border, it doesn’t make them any more different or less human than someone in your own country. It is refreshing to be able to speak with someone with your same language, but over time I think you break that social anxiety and culture shock when you dive in. You really get to see that with the volunteers we work with and that is something that I really enjoy.

Q: Despite having those language barriers and obstacles that you had to overcome to make this happen, how your Nicaraguan situation come to be?

A: For me, I have always been interested in the idea of working internationally, whether that is just working in the United States where I’m from or elsewhere. I like being connected with people in other countries and actually creating progress within the humanitarian field. Of course, the idea of working in another country and exposing myself to different cultures and lifestyles was always something that appealed to me. But what really got me into this was, because I didn’t have Global Brigades at my school, I had friends who were doing Global Brigades at different schools and it was always something that I really wanted to do. I was lucky enough to talk to a friend of mine who was in the position that I am now, only in a different country. They were telling me that they had positions open and asked if I would like to try to get the position, and I said that I would love to. The process was long, but I ended up getting a job. It’s just so incredible because it opens so many doors. When I first came here, I didn’t know any Spanish at all. I probably knew, “hola,” “adios,” “hasta luego,” and things like that. So for me, I knew there were going to be things that came up that I’m not used to, so I might as well dive in. I was talking to one of the coordinators and I said that I was looking for a way to do a host stay with a family here in Nicaragua and I asked if he knew of anyone with an open room. His aunt agreed and after three months I ended up being able to comprehend more than I ever imagined I could in that amount of time. Now I can communicate just fine and get around from city to city with very little worry about if they can understand me. It has been a huge growing process just in living in a different country, growing as a person, developing these skills and learning how to interact in cultures that are different from mine.

Q: I like your approach in that you reached out about your concerns and ended up fully immersing yourself in the thing you were nervous about, and it ended up working out better than expected.

A: I think a lot of times we can be so afraid of what can go wrong that we oftentimes forget that if we can manage to shake that off, so many things can go right. With that, if I were to give any piece of advice to someone looking to do this sort of work, you can’t be afraid to make a fool of yourself and don’t be shy. Whether it’s in public or asking a question, who can blame you for asking a question like that? That just shows initiative and you have to take charge and try to develop a vision for yourself. I didn’t even think it would be possible, but I just blurted it out, “do you know anyone with an open room who would like to help me out with Spanish?” and it ended up working out. You can never predict the future, so I would say never get hung up on the fear and anxiety of failure.

Q: It’s so cool to hear how passionate you are about this way of life and it sounds like you’ve immersed yourself into this pursuit of activism. I’m curious about how you balance this professional activism life with your personal life.

A: It all kind of blends together in a lot of ways. My work is very busy and very demanding, but we have translators that work within our group so occasionally we’ll all go out and talk and hang out in the city where we live. It provides an opportunity to be social and learn new things, and at the same time it gets you out of work and you can talk about random stuff like music or anything that comes up. I’ve always been a very social person, so it’s almost effortless to step out and try to meet new people. Like I said before, no one can blame you for trying, asking, and learning.

Q: It sounds like business is a pleasure.

A: It really is. It’s really nice working in this field, but I don’t think you’re going to last long if you’re just going to do it as a resume builder. Everyone within this field is very passionate and they know why they’re doing it. They have that vision and that understanding that we’re all people and we all laugh and we all cry the same way. That in itself for a lot of people is reason enough to stay in this line of work.

Q: I appreciate how despite all the odds, potential “what-if’s,” and doubts that come with radically changing your life, you made it a priority and you chose to actively pursue this.

A: The way I see it is that when we have our day-to-day, there is very little time and incentive and it’s very difficult to make a change. I feel like a lot of times, self-reflection and looking within yourself to see how you can improve or how life could be better depends on changes that occur in your life or some sort of difficulty that may pop up. With that being said, this whole opportunity has been a way for me to look within myself, to self-reflect, and to see what my strengths are and what I can build from and learn not just about other people but also myself. You have to be smart and you have to be knowledgeable about yourself to take these experiences and grow from them rather than just take from them and make these experiences a default picture on Facebook; it’s more than that. With that being said, that’s the reason why I try to make it my lifestyle because face it, I might only be here for a year or two, but who knows? I might be here longer. But if I do end up leaving, at least I will have had a learning experience. We’re in school for such a long portion of our lives, and speaking as a millennial who just got out of college a couple years ago, being in a learning experience for one or two years is not a long time. To really take advantage of it in all aspects of your life is the least you can do.