In 2018, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega appeared on national TV to announce he was overhauling the country’s social security system — increasing the amount of contributions owed and lowering benefits.

In hours, protesters were lining the streets. 

“The police were hitting the old people who were protesting losing their pensions, so the young people, the students, went out to defend them,” recalls Margarita Herdocia, YPO member and founder of Ticos y Nicas: Somos Hermanos which aids Nicaraguan migrants and promotes universal brotherhood. “It was actually very beautiful — the young and old protesting together against the government. And then the cops started shooting at the students, point blank.”

But the bullets didn’t stop them. From 18 April 2018 – 31 July 2019, Nicaraguans young and old continued to protest, with the police killing a reported 355 people and injuring hundreds more. Untold numbers fled the escalating violence, crossing the border into Costa Rica where they sought asylum. 

“I believe migration is one of the most important and misunderstood problems the world is facing today,” says Herdocia. “Migrants are, by definition, brave people, daring to leave behind everything they know to fight for a better life. They are an incredible addition to any society.” 

To Herdocia, there was no doubt the students who had mobilized and fought for their human and civil rights would be a benefit to their new society. The only question was — how best to integrate them?

Paying it forward

An introduction by a mutual friend to Silvia Castro — a YPO member from Costa Rica who is President of the Latin American University of Technology (ULACIT), answered that question. 

“He told us that we should meet because we had a lot to talk about,” recalls Herdocia.

The two women hit it off, their shared passion for the power of education and the plight of the young migrant students taking over their hearts, minds and conversation, long into the night. Soon enough, they had devised a plan to create Humanitarian University Grants (HUGs) — a scholarship program that would send applicable Nicaraguan migrant students to ULACIT.

Migrants are, by definition, brave people, daring to leave behind everything they know to fight for a better life. They are an incredible addition to any society. ”
— Margarita Herdocia, YPO member and founder of Ticos y Nicas: Somos Hermanos share twitter

“We have a fairly sizable scholarship program for talented students from different parts of the world with different talents coming from different conditions,” says Castro. “We’re always happy to help promote social mobility for first-generation students.”

The only private university in the QS World University Rankings, the No.1 private university in the region for 12 consecutive years and among top 20 world-wide for employability, getting into ULACIT isn’t easy. Applicants had to pass rigorous academic requirements, a preliminary interview about their studies, then a second interview about their civil capabilities. 

“We wanted to be certain they were truly in need and the kind of people who were going to pay it forward,” says Herdocia. 

Herdocia and Castro joined forces to cover the entire cost of the HUG scholars. 

“We asked for only four things in exchange,” Herdocia continues. “One was to be model citizens; they have to be good people. The second was to get good grades. The third, they must do community service. And the last is part of the application process — they have to promise that when they graduate, they will pay it forward — with their money, their talent or their heart.”

In October 2021, the program graduated its first generation of students — two received a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering and one, a degree in teaching and English translation.

Sharing, singing and soul

In Herdocia’s estimation, part of program’s success is due to small-group discussion groups of 6-8 students, much like the YPO forum Herdocia participates in with her business peers. In YPO, forum is small groups of members that forge deep, trusting relationships by sharing insights and perspectives in an atmosphere of confidentiality. It is widely considered the most valuable aspect of membership. 

“In our group at the university, I would share a poem or song to provoke conversation,” Herdocia explains, citing David Guetta’s ‘Titanium’ as a particular favorite, then singing a few lines, “You can shoot me but I won’t fall, I’m titanium. Sticks and stones may break my bone, I’m bulletproof, nothing to lose. And then I would ask them, ‘What do you feel?’”

The nine students didn’t hold back. These young people who had suffered extensive trauma, beyond what Herdocia had imagined, opened themselves up to discover that no matter what had happened in their past, their futures now included “soul brothers.” They were committed to each other, promised to always be there if called.

“We all have a treasure inside of us,” Herdocia says. “And when someone dares to share their treasure with us, we have to decide whether we are going to be caretakers or crush them. I believe that by learning to appreciate the treasures inside us and inside others, we become better people.”

Castro, who spent many years as an international student abroad, understands what it feels like to live in a different land, to experience culture shock and rejection from being different. But she also knows that economic instability and the threat of violence is a great differentiator.  

“If you can empathize with what migrants live through — leaving their homes and everything they know behind to make a make a better life for themselves, understanding that they are only doing this to make a better life for themselves, it makes you more grateful for what you have,” she says. 

The heart of the matter

The desire to connect to others on a deep, personal level is something Herdocia does not only with students and her YPO peers, but with every employee and stakeholder in her family office.

“My life motto is the same as my corporate motto,” she explains. “My company t-shirts say ‘Be and make happy. Meaning, ‘Be who you are and who you want to be.’ Sometimes we find ourselves in a job we don’t like, but a company can nurture that, learn where they would be happier and help move them into a position that is better for them, and ultimately better for the company. This allows us to create organizations that don’t just have a labor force, but a force of hearts and minds.”

“I believe we all have a desire to feel fulfilled,” Castro adds. “Which doesn’t mean searching for happiness, but rather, doing a job well and serving a purpose.” 

As for the future of the HUGs program, Herdocia plans on continuing to support what she calls the graduate’s “social capital” and finding diverse universities for the migrant population — both from outside Costa Rica and inside.

“We have a native Indian population that lives in the mountains and still speak their own dialect,” says Herdocia. “For them to come down to the capital to receive an education is also a migration.”

“I believe we all have a desire to feel fulfilled. Which doesn’t mean searching for happiness, but rather, doing a job well and serving a purpose. ”
— Silvia Castro, a YPO member from Costa Rica who is President of the Latin American University of Technology (ULACIT) share twitter

As Castro explains it, “We’re expanding this program to students outside of Nicaraguan, across the Central American region. In this way, we expect to increase our impact.”

As for social capital, Herdocia explains that it is “your skill set, your connections, your education, anything you can use to leverage to get something done. We take our HUG scholars to fundraising dinners, to other foundations and they pass out their business cards,” she exclaims. “They’re technology kids but they made these cards with their names and email addresses and what they want to do and that’s how they’ve grown their social capital.”

This analogue moxie has led to the students winning jobs at multinational corporations like MasterCard and Philip Morris — an incredible feat for any new graduate, must less a new graduate in a new country. 

“It sounds like I’m doing a good thing, but it’s all for me,” says Herdocia with a truly bright, genuine smile. “To get a glimpse inside of people’s hearts and souls is really the greatest treasure.”