A recent state department travel warning threatened the livelihood of La Ceiba, the student-run microfinance institution operating under the Students Helping Honduras (SHH) umbrella, due to the University’s concerns over liability issues.
Jose Sainz, director of the Center for International Education and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, Richard Finkelstein, decided to retract the $10,200 grant awarded to La Ceiba for travel.
“In accordance with UMW’s policy regarding Adherence to U.S. Department of state travel warnings, the University of Mary Washington strongly discourages and does not in any way support travel to Honduras at this time,” said Sainz.
Plane tickets, which cost $540 each, have already been purchased for the trip and cannot be refunded. Students tried to fundraise on their own by buying the tickets back from the university, but were denied. Purchasing new tickets at this time would cost $1,000 per ticket. As a result, La Ceiba cannot afford to travel to Honduras.
The administration will also not allow economics professor, Shawn Humphrey, the program’s forerunner, to travel to Honduras, as he is an agent of the university, and the school would therefore be liable if an incident were to occur.
This poses an enormous threat for La Ceiba. Without this trip, they will not be able to disburse new loans, teach business classes or meet with clients.
Students in La Ceiba work over the course of the semester to operate the loan program, create financial literacy curricula and maintain contact with clients. Since 2008, La Ceiba has given more than $20,000 in loans.
Senior La Ceiba member Laura Dick acknowledges that UMW has a responsibility to clients in Honduras. Face-to-face contact is necessary for building the relationships needed for the program to continue to run.
Recent UMW graduate Ashley Cameron traveled with La Ceiba three times.
“Going to Honduras puts everything into perspective,” said Cameron. It is a meaningful experience to meet the people you’ve worked so hard for.”
The travel warning issued on Nov. 21 by the U.S. State Department questioned the country’s safety. However, several non-profit groups continue to travel to Honduras.
Public Affairs Officer Stephen Posivak, speaking on behalf of the Honduran Embassy, said that the warning was not related to a specific incident. Travel warnings are designed to provide context so that people can make informed decisions when traveling. The warnings are issued when a country has a chronic pattern of crime.
Tens of thousands of Americans visit Honduras safely each year.
“People should not feel as though they cannot travel to Honduras,” said Posivak. “There are no specific threats directed towards American citizens.”
Co-founder of SHH and UMW alumnus Shin Fujiyama has lived in Honduras for the past five years.
“The media tends to blow things up, as the safety risks for foreign volunteers working in Honduras is quite low,” said Fujiyama.
Many UMW students have traveled without incident to Honduras over the past eight years, both with SHH and La Ceiba.
“I have never felt my life was at risk. We are always well taken care of,” said Cameron.