A Lesson in Poverty for USF Leaders

On day five of their week-long retreat focusing on poverty in Nicaragua, deans and vice presidents from the University of San Francisco waded into the municipal dump in the capital city of Managua, stepping around stagnant water and rotting food. From that vantage point, they glimpsed the life of the 1,500 people who live in the dump and survive by eating discarded scraps of food and collecting recyclables.


“It was a heartbreaking experience,” said Tracy Schroeder, vice president for information technology.

“Steam and toxic gasses such as methane rise from the heaps of trash, and cows whose milk will later be sold at the market graze on the garbage. Children and adults alike search through the garbage for items of any value.”

USF President Stephen A. Privett, S.J. said such experiences are intended to help guide his leadership team in making decisions that are in line with the university’s mission of educating students who will create a more humane and just world.

“This is how two-thirds of the world lives,” he said, referring to the impoverished conditions they witnessed in Nicaragua, the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. “If we are truly educating with a global perspective, then students need to know what the globe looks like. The best place to see the world’s inhumanity is in a dump where people live on garbage. These are the kinds of inequalities we hope our students will address.”

The trip to Nicaragua in June marked the third such retreat for university executives. Previously, the group has traveled to El Salvador and Tijuana. Funded by a private gift to the university, the trips are similar in style to undergraduate immersion experiences currently offered by University Ministry in Mexico and El Salvador, among other locations. As with those trips, the leadership retreat is not intended to be a time for detailed planning, but rather, an opportunity for participants to better understand the USF mission of fostering a global perspective.

Fr. Privett said it is his hope that the experience “cultivates a shared set of sensitivities that might allow the leadership team to see opportunities for students where others might not.”

To that end, Fr. Privett signed a formal agreement with the Universidad Centro Americana (UCA), the Jesuit university in Managua, to explore future collaboration in student programs.

The group met with their counterparts at UCA and learned about the university’s social outreach projects. One afternoon was spent with local artisans, including a leather craftsman and ceramic artist, who are being assisted by UCA students in exporting their wares. USF leaders are now investigating the possibility of having the university’s leather diploma covers and ceramic coffee mugs made by the artisans they met that day.

The group also met with Fernando Cardenal, who runs grammar and high schools for the poor and served as ministry of education under the Sandinista government, and other social, economic, and government leaders working to alleviate the plight of the poor in Nicaragua.

“I don’t know of any other university that does anything like this with its leadership team,” said School of Nursing Dean Judith Karshmer, who joined USF last year. “It impacted me at every level, from the personal to the professional, in terms of bringing back ideas for giving more students the opportunity to have a similar immersion experience.”

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