Undergrad Spotlight: Ross Kirshenbaum

At the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS), our students bring all sorts of backgrounds and interests—in and out of the classroom—and you’d be hard-pressed to put an easy label on any two of them, let along the whole bunch. But if you had to pinpoint a common thread or shared passion, you could pretty safely assume that most of our students come armed with a healthy sense of adventure.

Ross Kirshenbaum

After a year-long internship in Nicaragua, Ross Kirshenbaum is back in Seattle for his final quarter of undergraduate study.

That spirit of exploration, of testing comfort zones and extending boundaries, is definitely a driving force for Ross Kirshenbaum, a senior Environmental Science and Resource Management major at SEFS.

Kirshenbaum, who grew up in Bellevue, recently returned from a year-long internship in Nicaragua. He kept a detailed blog, called “Aventurero,” of his projects and travels, including one of the highlights of his experience—a solo bus trip home through Central America. He’s back in Seattle with one more quarter to go before graduating, so we caught up with him a couple weeks ago to learn more about his time abroad! (You can catch him yourself this Thursday, October 17, at 2:30 p.m. in Anderson 22, where he’ll be giving a presentation about his Nicaragua experience.)

How It Started
“I knew I wanted to study abroad, and I’d always wanted to travel and learn Spanish,” says Kirshenbaum. So one day during his junior year he walked into the UW Study Abroad office and met with one of the advisors, Shannon Koller, for a drop-in meeting. The first position she showed him, as it happened, was for an internship working with two non-governmental organizations: AsoFénix, based in Nicaragua, and Green Empowerment, based in Portland, Ore.

Ross Kirshenbaum

Except for when he was in the office in Managua, Kirshenbaum spent most of his time in rural communities, working hands-on with small-scale farmers.

The internship would place in Kirshenbaum with AsoFénix in Nicaragua for up to a year. He wouldn’t take any classes; it would be largely self-directed, and he’d be diving right in to projects in local towns and villages, or working in the office in the capital city of Managua. “That’s how I learn, hands-on, so much more than in the classroom,” he says. And the more he learned about the program, the more he was hooked.

Through technology assistance and education, AsoFénix works in rural communities around Nicaragua to help them develop renewable energy sources without sacrificing the environment. These projects, ranging from building solar-powered irrigation systems to installing a wind turbine to provide basic electricity to a small village, have a strong empowerment angle. AsoFénix provides materials, initial costs and technical training, but the community decides which projects they want to implement, and they elect leadership to manage and maintain the infrastructure afterwards. Also, the community eventually pays back the cost of the equipment and investment, so they end up owning and having a full stake in the project.

“This is perfect,” Kirshenbaum thought. He kept looking and considered a few other options, but it didn’t take long to realize he was sold on Nicaragua. Koller then pointed him to several scholarship opportunities that could help cover the expenses for the internship, which would actually be cheaper, he learned, than most study abroad programs. He applied for three scholarships—and ended up getting awarded all three—and together they funded his full year, including his flight, lodging and even Spanish immersion (he would end up coming home nearly fluent).

In Country
What he discovered in Nicaragua—from the people to the culture to the work—truly captivated him. “It was a dream job,” says Kirshenbaum. “I was working more than I would for a job here, but I absolutely loved what I was doing, and I just felt like that was such a good way to immerse myself in a culture.”

Ross Kirshenbaum

Kirshenbaum says it was an incredible experience to make friends in a different country, and in a different language and culture.

Thanks to strong guidance and support from his mentors at Green Empowerment and AsoFénix, Kirshenbaum says he was able to maximize his opportunities and tackle all sorts of projects. “Half the time I was in rural Nicaragua working with farmers, making compost, planting, sowing, weeding—very physical, manual work,” he says. “The other half, I was in the office in Managua, developing partnerships with other organizations teaching organic agriculture, and developing a curriculum with an agronomist to organize workshops with farmers. If I got stir crazy in the office, I’d go out to the countryside. If I missed taking a shower with running water, I was back in the city.”

One of the biggest challenges of being so immersed and isolated in a foreign culture, though, was the separation from friends back home—and having one personal relationship fall apart while he was abroad. “It was hard to be away from friends and family, and it made it so much more intense when you have no support network,” says Kirshenbaum. “But again, I felt like the connections and friendships I made with friends in Nicaragua really helped me through it. That was a really beautiful experience, to call on friendships you’ve made in another language, in another culture—and people are there for you. It made me want to be a kinder person, here and there. You really see the value of going out of your way to make someone feel comfortable, that there’s somebody there for you.”

From those friendships to all the time and projects in rural communities, Kirshenbaum says it’s hard to quantify everything he gained from the internship. “I don’t where to begin,” he says. “It was one of those experiences where the whole time I was thinking, ‘I’m doing the right thing.’ This is what my life needed, and I just feel so fortunate to have this opportunity.”

Ross Kirshenbaum

Kirshenbaum is organizing a return trip to Nicaragua for this spring, when he hopes to bring a group of UW students down with him for an intensive week of work in the field.

Not all of his takeaways were so intangible. Kirshenbaum also came home with a few bottles of the famous Nicaraguan rum, as well as a real taste for buñuelos, which are basically friend dough balls made from yucca and grated cheese. “You mash them up and fry these little dumplings,” he says, “and you dump them in a honey you make from water, brown sugar and cinnamon, and you boil that until it turns into a syrup. It has a distinct smoky flavor, and you have this savory and sweet combo. It’s so good!”

What’s Next?
“I’ve been asking myself that nonstop,” says Kirshenbaum. “Ultimately, I want to farm, and this experience drove that home. I want to produce food for people, and I’d love to have educational components around it. I kind of have a dream of starting a nonprofit around that concept in a city. The next step for that professional goal would be to intern on some farms and start learning the ropes really well. I have a lot of hands-on experience now, but I need to spend a couple years working on a farm in the United States.”

Kirshenbaum also wants to do more traveling in the next few years. But he knows that as soon as he starts working on a farm—and especially if he has his own farm—that’s where he’s going to be, and straying too far will be a lot more difficult.

In fact, he’s already angling for a return trip to Nicaragua this spring. He’s hoping to organize a group of 10 to 12 other students to spend about seven days working with small-scale farmers in the rural communities he got to know during his internship. It would be an intensive cultural learning experience out in the rural communities, and Kirshenbaum has been working with the study abroad office to try to get some course credit attached, and possibly some help with fundraising and scholarships for interested students; you can send Kirshenbaum an email for more information.

After that, he says he might spend a few months with his sister in Brooklyn. She has a young daughter, and Kirshenbaum says he’d love to babysit his niece in exchange for free rent in the spare bedroom—at least until he nails down his next move!

Photos © Ross Kirshenbaum.

Ross Kirshenbaum