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Students lend a hand in Nicaragua with Wildcat Academics on Mission program

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Students from the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences work on a sustainable organic garden for Mision Para Cristo, a ministry run by ACU alumni Travis (’96) and Mindy (Holloway ’01) Stewart. From left are Gerald Zuniga, Grace Russell, Brianna Jaquez and Julie Sauceda.
Students from the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences work on a sustainable organic garden for Mision Para Cristo. From left are Gerald Zuniga, Grace Russell, Brianna Jaquez and Julie Sauceda.

Grace Russell (’21) stepped out of her comfort zone to travel to Nicaragua last summer on a combination study abroad and mission trip. 

“I had always been too nervous or shy to go on mission trips or lacked the resources,” she said. 

But ACU’s Wildcat Academics on Mission (WAM) program put both of those concerns to rest. The program, a partnership between the Halbert Center for Missions and Global Service and the university’s academic departments, provides an integrated missions and academic experience at no cost to students beyond the tuition they pay for their course work.

“With the missions prep class and grants, along with the supportive community I had found with my classmates and professors, I felt like I was finally ready to go somewhere and that I had the background to make a positive impact,” Grace said.

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Hannah Valvano (left) and Grace Russell (center) work to construct a bio sand water filter that will provide clean drinking water for residents of Jinotega, Nicaruaga.
Hannah Valvano (left) and Grace Russell (center) work to construct a bio sand water filter that will provide clean drinking water for residents of Jinotega, Nicaruaga.

Grace, an environmental science major from Round Rock, Texas, was part of a nine-member team of students and faculty from the Department of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences who traveled to Jinotega, Nicaragua, in May. Other team members were Madison Coats of Ponder, Texas; Hunter Hudgens of Lorena, Texas; Brianna Jaquez of Horizon City, Texas; Julie Sauceda of Abilene, Texas; Hannah Valvano of Rockport, Massachusetts; Gerald Zuniga of Clinton, North Carolina; and ACU professors Drs. Jim Carpenter and Kendra Jernigan.

Grace and her classmates worked with Mision Para Cristo, a ministry run by ACU alumni Travis (’96) and Mindy (Holloway ’01) Stewart. The team assisted MPC with ongoing sanitation and water projects, while researching ministry needs for future trips. 

“We mostly traveled in the mountains around Jinotega, the city where Mision Para Cristo was located, and in a few of the surrounding neighborhoods to build bio-sand filters and composting latrines,” Grace said. “For the filters, we went hours into the mountains to a community that had been devastated by two recent hurricanes. We worked alongside members of each family to build filters using large PVC pipes and local material that would allow them access to clear, parasite-free water instead of the polluted, murky, diseased water they had been forced to use.”

Grace was touched by the gratitude expressed by the residents. 

“After we finished the filters and handed out some food, Bibles and instructions on how to use the filters, we prayed over the families there, and all the ladies hugged, kissed and blessed our team. It was very sweet to feel so welcomed and to have been able to give them something as life-changing as clean water,” she said.

The ACU students learned of challenges posed by high levels of arsenic in the soil around Jinotega and began planning for a future project to address that issue. They also began exploring ways to help the ministry by developing a sustainable agriculture program. Both these projects fit with Grace’s passion for protecting and preserving God’s creation.

“WAM is an experience unique to ACU in which students have an opportunity to practically apply classroom learning in a real-world missions setting,” said Dodd Roberts (’86), director of the Halbert Center. “It gives students a true picture of what it means for them to use their chosen field in a way that serves God’s mission, whether they practice their career in a large U.S. city or in a rural area of a developing country.”  

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ACU students distribute food and Bible to families near Jinotega, where Mision Para Cristo is located.
ACU agricultural and environmental sciences students distribute food and Bible to families near Jinotega, where Mision Para Cristo is located.

Not only did Grace earn college credit, but she came home with a richer understanding of the challenges faced by those living in developing countries.

“I realized how important it is to be aware of your perspectives when considering problems or situations in a space that is very different from what you are used to. Our Americanized thinking was something that we had to be very conscious of and adjust a lot on the trip,” she said. 

“The people are trying very hard to do the best with what is accessible. Even something as simple as running to the local store to grab a tool or product is not an option,” she said. “I think this trip really opened our eyes to the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the Nicaraguans we had the privilege of interacting with, and I know in the future I am going to be much more aware of these issues and focus on finding solutions that make sense in the context of the problem, instead of just the best textbook solution.” 

The experience also sparked within her a desire to participate in more mission opportunities.

“Travis and Mindy Stewart and their support and friendship have definitely had an impact on me and inspired me to consider mission work again in the future,” Grace said. “They are fellow alumni, and I am so grateful to them for making this such an amazing experience.”

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