Huskers give gift of hearing through humanitarian audiology project in Nicaragua

Huskers give gift of hearing through humanitarian audiology project in Nicaragua

17 Nov 2017    By Kelcey Buck

When Stacie Ray and Hannah Ditmars learned that there was only one known full-time audiologist in the entire country of Nicaragua, they saw a need, and also an opportunity. That knowledge inspired the two faculty members in the Department of Special Education and Communication Disorders to establish a humanitarian audiology project that would help both the people of Nicaragua and the students in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Doctor of Audiology program. 

As Ray and Ditmars prepare for the third annual study abroad trip late next summer, they maintain their original focus of making this project one that will continue to help people for many years to come. 

“The biggest component for us is making sure we’re building a sustainable humanitarian audiology project,” Ray, an associate professor of practice, said. “It’s not just about going there and fitting hearing aids. The most important aspect is to make sure that it’s sustainable – that we can help train technicians in the country, that we can help train people to troubleshoot hearing aids in case something happens once we leave the country.” 

The idea of participating in a humanitarian audiology project was one of the key reasons second-year Doctor of Audiology student Kelly Malcolm chose to go on the Nicaragua study abroad trip last year.

“Humanitarian audiology has always been an interest of mine,” Malcolm explained. “I wanted to experience a different culture and help bring hearing healthcare to an area where it is not accessible. With only one audiologist in the entire country of Nicaragua, there is a large need for hearing services and I knew this trip would be valuable to my education.” 

So far, so good for the mission Ray and Ditmars set out to accomplish. They have taken a total of 10 students on two study abroad trips in 2016 and 2017. The two faculty members also returned to Nicaragua last February to further train audiology technicians and provide follow-up care for some of the individuals the first group of students had helped. 

Since the first study abroad trip in August 2016, Ray, Ditmars and the Husker students have fit 332 people with 225 hearing aids. And as they have turned on those hearing aids, they have been witnesses as the people of Nicaragua experience a whole new layer of the world. 

“The most memorable part was seeing how many people became emotional and grateful for the services we provided,” Malcolm said. “There were lots of hugs and tears as we provided this service to the communities there. We often take our ability to hear for granted, and to see the effects of this study abroad trip on the people of Nicaragua is one of the most rewarding feelings.” 

Malcolm’s classmate Lauren Volzke, who also went on last year’s trip, agreed that people’s reactions left a lasting impression. 

“The most memorable part was seeing the gratitude of people that we served,” Volzke said. “Their thankfulness for little things reminds me to be thankful for all that I have been blessed with.” 

For Malcolm, the trip to Nicaragua wasn’t always easy, but it was certainly worth it. 

“I was nervous about providing services with the use of an interpreter because the primary language in Nicaragua is Spanish. Delivering hearing services and spending time in a country where you cannot speak the language was difficult, but I was surprised at how understanding the people were and how much easier it became throughout the trip. This trip made me a better clinician in both my skills and understanding of people from other cultures.” 

To support the humanitarian audiology project in Nicaragua, Ray and Ditmars created HearU International, a fund established through the University of Nebraska Foundation. Donations to the fund help cover the cost of supplies and hearing aids for the Huskers’ work in Nicaragua. 

In the United States, an average pair of hearing aids costs about $4,600, more than twice the gross national income per capita in Nicaragua. Ray and Ditmars have been able to overcome the income disparity by purchasing hearing aids with simple technology at a low cost through the non-profit International Humanitarian Hearing Aid Purchasing Program. This allows the group from Nebraska to provide each individual in Nicaragua with a pair of hearing aids, a one-year supply of batteries, a care kit with cleaning tools and a listening device for parents to check the function of the hearing aids for just $250. 

When Ray and Ditmars began organizing this humanitarian audiology project, they set out to both positively impact the lives of the individuals in Nicaragua and also enhance the educational opportunities for their Husker students. 

“We want them to be able to think beyond our borders, think beyond a typical paying patient who walks into a clinic, and give them the tools they need to be able to build their own humanitarian program,” Ray said. 

If the experiences of Volzke and Malcolm are any indication, they are accomplishing those goals. 

“This trip was a great way to build audiology skills, have fun experiencing the beauty of the culture of Nicaragua, and grow in an understanding of how audiologists can serve people around the world,” Volzke said.

“Being able to give others the access to hearing healthcare and being part of a bigger purpose is so rewarding,” Malcolm said. “It teaches you to be innovative and patient when working with equipment and clinic settings that are not like what we normally see in the United States.” 

Ray and Ditmars plan to return to Nicaragua again in February to provide more training and follow-up care before departing Nebraska with a third group of students in late July. Anyone interested in donating to HearU International may visit

Special Education and Communication Disorders