Skip to main content
A college for real life

“We literally started in the streets,” says Myrna Cunningham, recalling the early days in 1995 of one of Latin America’s first indigenous universities. “Little by little, we’ve built our own buildings,” says Cunningham, the university’s president. “It’s been a lot of hard work, but we keep marching on.”

With an annual budget of merely $2 million, the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN, after its initials in Spanish) is training potential leaders for one of the most disadvantaged regions in one of the most impoverished countries in Central America.

URACCAN now has four campuses and six extension centers, as well as a junior college for rural students who need remedial courses. Of the 4,000 students enrolled this year, about 60 percent pay no tuition; the rest pay the equivalent of $30 a year. Nearly half of the university’s 250 teachers were born in the region, which is largely Creole in the south and Miskito Indian in the north. It has four research institutes, supports a network of radio stations, and publishes its own magazine. But most importantly, it has deep roots in its own communities.

The university’s study programs are dictated by the development needs of the region. Nicaragua’s constitution has recognized the Caribbean Coast as an autonomous region since 1987. Subsequent laws have delegated new responsibilities to local governments. But Cunningham says that the local people are not trained to carry out these responsibilities and therefore do not have the skills and experience needed to exercise their autonomous rights.

Cunningham herself is a member of the fiercely independent Miskito indigenous group. The daughter of a banana company mechanic and a homemaker, she was raised in a community on the Coco River, which separates Nicaragua and Honduras. She worked first as a teacher but later moved to the city of León to study medicine. After training as a surgeon in North Dakota, she returned to Nicaragua to practice. Her interest in public affairs dates from that time. “Surgery does not cure all ills,” she says. “There were serious problems related to prevention, so I became involved in public health issues.”

In 1981, the revolutionary government appointed Cunningham as a delegate for the regionalization of health services. In 1984, she became the regional government’s coordinator, and in 1990 she ran a successful campaign for a seat on the National Assembly, where she served until 1997. Along the way, Cunningham found time to marry and give birth to four children.
In 1991, Cunningham and other regional leaders resurrected a long-standing dream of establishing a local university. After securing national recognition for URACCAN’s charter, they established an association with representatives of the region’s indigenous and multiethnic communities. During the following years of preparation, the fledgling university forged strong ties with foreign donors, whose contributions represent about half of URACCAN’s budget.

By 1995 the university had opened its doors. It offered practical courses to meet pressing local needs: natural resources management, forestry, fisheries, nursing, bilingual and multicultural education, public sector and regional autonomy administration and accounting. Its research departments focus on traditional medicine, community development, linguistic and cultural studies, natural resources and autonomy issues. URACCAN students are required to learn an indigenous language if they do not already speak one.

Cunningham underscores the particular advantage of her university’s graduates: they are steeped in the culture of the region and understand the needs of its peoples. “The companies and institutions that hire them are getting a doubly valuable resource. They used to bring in people who were not familiar with the region, who did not speak the languages and who frequently quit because they could not cope with local conditions,” she says.

What URACCAN does not offer are degrees in law, medicine, engineering, psychology, literature and philosophy. “Once in a while our students will say that we are educating them to remain in the region,” Cunningham says. “But we have conducted studies to determine what sort of resources our region needs to develop. We are offering our students what they need most.”

Jump back to top