NYU Wagner Capstone Team works with alumna to improve education in Nicaragua coffee fields

Project Alianza Founder with Capstone team member
From left: Project Alianza Founder and NYU Wagner alumna Kristin Van Busum, Capstone team member Mery Arcila, and Project Alianza Country Director Amalia Castellanos

For school-aged children growing up in the isolated coffee lands of Nicaragua, educational opportunities are scarce. Poverty and lack of access to schools in these remote, rural areas keep close to half a million children from going to school. As a consequence, an estimated 320,000 children are illegally involved in child labor to support their families.

NYU Wagner alumna Kristin Van Busum (MPA-PNP 2010) founded Project Alianza to bring life-changing education to children at risk of child labor in rural coffee communities. “Alianza” in English means “Alliance,” and it is core to the organization’s mission. The dedicated Project Alianza team collaborates with estate farms to build new schools or improve existing infrastructure. They gather crucial resources to create safe, quality primary schools to encourage students to stay in school and to prevent them from working in the coffee fields with their families. 


Child in Nicaraguan Coffee Region

This year, Project Alianza enlisted an NYU Wagner Capstone Team to help figure out how to continue their programming while simultaneously expanding their reach. With the guidance from Adjunct Assistant Professor of Public Service Kathleen Apltauer, the team—consisting of Julia Einhorn, Mery Arcila, and Carlos Sosa Lombardo—spent six months working with Project Alianza to create a logic model, evaluation toolkits, and strategic program recommendations. In January 2018, the team spent two weeks in Nicaragua conducting on-site interviews and observations to understand the organization and its needs better.

“It's motivating and inspiring to learn from colleagues who are committed to improving standards of education on a global scale and enjoy the intellectual challenge of affecting positive social change,” said Van Busum. “This was an opportunity to reconnect with Wagner by working with Mery, Carlos, and Julia as they advise us on creating impact-driven programs and evaluation tools to better fulfill our mission at Project Alianza.”

The team members said NYU Wagner’s courses, especially Program Analysis & Evaluation, equipped them with the skills needed to succeed with this project. "It has been empowering to see that my Wagner coursework has prepared me to be able to address the needs of our client. I have been able to draw on what I have learned from many different classes to fully comprehend Project Alianza's organizational model and to be able to offer effective recommendations,” said Einhorn.


Project Alianza Scholarship Recipient and Mother, Capstone Team, Nicaragua
Project Alianza Scholarship recipient and mother with the Capstone team in Nicaragua

Van Busum’s skills and knowledge as an NYU Wagner alumna and the impact of her work as an international nonprofit founder, have been a perfect complement to the team’s research and experience.

Arcila describes her Capstone experience being on the client’s side of things as “exciting, refreshing, and practical, as we are creating tools that the organization will be able to use in the future.” She continued, “My experience at Wagner has come full circle, proving to me the value of our education and strength of our network.”

Similarly, Kristin states that this experience has “affirmed that the Wagner community remains as critical to my professional and personal growth today as it was as eight years ago,” highlighting the interconnectedness of the Wagner experience even beyond graduation.


Capstone team at La Aurora School in Jinotega, Nicaragua