Cover Image: Ian and his buddy Les show off their muscles in Cruz Roja. Winter 2018. Source: Ian Lesnick
Ian Lesnick is a third-year student in the Foreign Languages Teacher Education Program for Spanish and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL). He is also a Resident Assistant in Toscanini College, Co-President of Stony Brook’s Students Helping Honduras chapter, President of the Honors College Student Advisory Board, Student Ambassador for the Office of the Dean of Students, Assistant to the President of USG, and Director of Diversity Affairs for USG.
Ian acts as an inspiration for many student advocates at Stony Brook, including myself. When The Advocate was first created, I knew I had to interview him. Fortunately, he took time out of his very busy schedule to answer a few questions about his work on campus and in rural Honduras.
(Audrey Farrell) You’re one of the presidents of the Stony Brook Chapter of Students Helping Honduras. Can you describe SHH’s mission?
(Ian Lesnick) Students Helping Honduras (SHH) is an international organization whose mission is to alleviate extreme poverty and violence in Honduras through education and youth empowerment. There are about 1000 villages in Honduras that lack access to educational resources. Most commonly, these communities don’t have the resources to build schools, so many of these rural communities are forced to hold classes in houses, chicken coops, and other unsafe or unpractical locations. The long-term goal of SHH is to construct 1000 schools in these rural villages to provide access to education to all Hondurans, regardless of where they are born.
You’ve now been to Honduras 5 times during your 5 semesters at Stony Brook. Can you describe a little about what you’ve done in your time there?
In Honduras, volunteers are able to help build schools in the different communities we partner with. The Stony Brook chapter has helped fund and construct two schools in Potrerillos, Cortés, and broke ground on a third this past January . Overall, SHH has constructed 42 schools across Honduras and is breaking ground on 10 more this year. Of course, very few of our volunteers are actually professionally trained in construction, so we work alongside a team of trained masons and help them in whatever they may need, typically mixing cement, passing and stacking bricks, and putting together rebar. In addition to the work we do, we focus on developing relationships with the communities we work with, so we may play a pickup game of pelota [soccer] with the masons and community members and we are often invited into community houses to prepare a meal together. We also focus on the learning aspect of the trip. Every night, we have a reflection discussion on different aspects of Honduran socio-political issues that affect everyday Hondurans and Americans. We discuss immigration issues, gang violence, current Honduran events, voluntourism, and more!
How do you think these trips have shaped you throughout your academic career?
I have learned so much from my trips to Honduras and have been able to bring that knowledge back to Stony Brook and the people I talk with every day. Personally, these trips have also encouraged me to continue working towards my TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) Certification and continue seeing how important education is in the daily lives of citizens across the world.
What do you think is the biggest challenge that the people of Honduras face today? What can SBU students do to help?
One of the biggest challenges Hondurans face is a lack of jobs and institutional support from the government. This causes extreme poverty […] and also gives power to the gangs in Honduras. Unfortunately, there’s no simple, one-step solution. The best way to combat these challenges is through education. By taking a long-term approach and providing educational opportunities to students in Honduras, children will be provided with more opportunities, given more power, and become empowered to make positive change in their country. As Nelson Mandela said, “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world.”
Stony Brook students can definitely help in these efforts! Every year, we aim to raise $20,000 for the construction of a school in Honduras. Whether it’s attending our GBMs and learning more about certain issues or supporting our fundraisers, any support is greatly appreciated. Anybody can join or donate to our Stony Brook Fundraising Team at my.shhkids.org/SBUCruzRoja!
You’re also the Director of Diversity Affairs for USG. How has your role there tied in to your work in Honduras, and vice versa?
These two roles certainly connect on multiple levels. At the most basic, both roles have allowed me to use my privilege as an upper-class white male to help others in a multitude of ways. On a deeper level, they have allowed me to continue learning more and more about different issues people face here on campus and across the world. The experiences I have and people I meet in Honduras translate into knowledge I can share in discussions on diversity back on campus.
What do you think the biggest challenge is for students who want to advocate for social change and human rights around the world?
Staying active in social justice and advocacy work is an intense time commitment. Of course, there are different levels of involvement when it comes to advocacy, but they all require a whole lot of effort. You start off by staying up to date on current events then you attend different rallies or gatherings and you have to find the energy to remain optimistic and continue fighting even though it seems that there are an endless number of issues around you. You need to do all of that while balancing a full school schedule, staying healthy, and having a personal life. I don’t think anybody would describe standing up for others as easy work. However, when you know you need to stand up for what’s right and you have a deep-seated passion, it’s worth the energy and the effort you put in.
In what ways do you think the Stony Brook community has a positive social culture, in terms of supporting equality and diversity, and in what ways do you think it needs to improve?
Stony Brook is full of passionate students and the administration of the university is listening to their voices. The student population is diverse and inclusive and always finding more ways to improve campus life for all students. There’s always more work to be done, but with the implementation of the Diversity Plan, the university is getting more and more checked off. I think one area to improve on is the University’s relationship with the outside community. If you look at the demographics of the university population versus those of the two surrounding towns (Stony Brook and Setauket-East Setauket), there are great disparities on race and SES representation. Of course, this isn’t something that can be fixed overnight, but being able to build those bridges between students and community members would be of great value to students and faculty on campus.
What advice would you have for Stony Brook students who want to participate in international aid and activism but feel like they don’t have the means necessary to make a difference?
Everyone can make a difference. You don’t have to spend every minute of every day fighting for what you believe in. It’s okay to take an off day. It’s okay to not attend every event. But do what you can. If you see something on campus or in your community that is wrong or unjust, speak up about it. Share your experiences and lift up those around you so they can share theirs. Start by learning more about what’s going on in the world and sharing that information with friends and family. Most importantly, support and listen to others. We’re in this together. Our combined efforts can make this world a better place.