A Lesson in Altruism

While most students spend internships learning skills to help them further their eventual career goals, Erika Linden’s internships have been spent teaching skills to people in underdeveloped countries that help communities improve their living conditions.

Beginning with the summer of 1999 through the summer of 2001, Erika traveled with Amigos de las Americas, first to the Dominican Republic and then to Nicaragua, as the first Fran Brossy Intern, helping locals build desperately needed latrines for their villages.

Working in Nicaragua as a volunteer the summer of 2000, she learned she could apply for a supervisor position the following year. It was an internship opportunity she couldn’t pass up-it was the kind of work experience that fit right in with her self-designed major in culture, development, and social justice.

“I loved working as a volunteer in Nicaragua, so when I found out about being a project staff member, I immediately applied,” says the 20-year-old Scripps junior from Santa Cruz.

As a project staff member for Amigos during the summer of 2001, Erika and her fellow staff members organized a public health project in Nicaragua, supervising 55 high school students who would spend two months living with host families and building latrines. Her internship began in early June 2001, as she and other Amigos staffers coordinated with their host organization, CARE-Nicaragua. Her team also found housing for the volunteers and ordered supplies for the latrine projects.

Once the volunteers arrived, Erika oversaw nine volunteers who worked in four remote villages.

“As a supervisor, I had the job of helping the volunteers through the process of cultural integration, acting as a camp counselor of sorts during periods of homesickness and culture shock,” she says. “I was also responsible for facilitating community discussions-or charlas, as they are called in Spanish-centered on health and preparing the local communities to support a water system that could be built after the latrines were finished.”

In addition, one set of volunteers finished their latrine project early and had time to help the community build a playground for a primary school in one of the villages.

“It was my favorite project of the summer,” Erika says. “It became a huge community project. We spent many hot afternoons painting the swing set the colors of the Nicaraguan flag-blue and white- and painting a mural of two hands interlocked in solidarity on the side of the jungle gym.”

While Erika enjoyed her time working with Amigos in Nicaragua, the summer of 2001 also marked a turning point for her. It was the first time she began questioning the role of foreign aid and of nongovernmental organizations, or NGOs.

“Although I had always wanted to spend my life working with an international public health NGO, my experience in Nicaragua forced me to question the role of western ideology in developing such programs,” Erika says. “I questioned my own role as an outsider, coming in with my distinct ideas and how my ideas were possibly perpetuating a system of dependency in these countries.”

Erika’s revelation in Nicaragua prompted her to spend her 2002 fall semester in Uganda’s School for International Training studying academic theories behind the role of NGOs and foreign aid.

Still, Erika feels good about the work she’s done with Amigos and the opportunity it has given her to visit countries rarely seen by most travelers and to connect with people she would never have the chance to meet otherwise.

But ask her about her sense of altruism and her response may surprise you.

“I don’t feel comfortable saying I have a true sense of altruism because I know my motivations for traveling are inherently selfish,” Erika says. “I hope one day I will be able to say that my actions are completely selfless, but I am not there yet. Until then, I will continue to do the work that I do and hope that even though I have not reached the point where my actions are entirely for others, they can still be positive actions that do more good than harm.”