Usually, it comes after they help install solar panels in a village that has never used light bulbs.
"At the end of the day, the students can turn on a switch and families have electric light instead of kerosene lamps," says Caitlyn Peake, Green Empowerment program coordinator in Nicaragua for 3.5 years who studied environmental science at PSU.
Green Empowerment helps Third World villages in Central America, South America and Southeast Asia gain access to clean water and electricity through renewable energy. When it started in 1997, its use of sustainable resources was unique. Now, solar, wind and hydro power industries are growing, as are the college programs that fuel them.
For the past five years, PSU's programs have supplied Green Empowerment with a knowledgeable volunteer base as students in the environmental management and MBA programs travel to Nicaragua to help build projects with Asofenix, a nonprofit that uses renewable sources to bring water and electricity to rural areas.
"For a lot of students, the experience is a practical application of what they learn in theory in their studies," Peake says. "They can design, implement and develop technology that works ... so people are able to use it and want to use it."
Students stay in rural villages and work with community members to build projects, part of both Asofenix's and Green Empowerment's community-based models. Short trips take nine to 15 students to the country for 10 days, and long trips with up to four students last six to 12 months.
Most challenges lie in language and culture, officials say. Knowing Spanish isn't a requirement, and most rural Nicaraguans do not speak English. And students sometimes struggle with the 5 a.m. wake-up, which is when women in the villages start grinding corn to make breakfast tortillas.
Jaime Muñoz, founder of Asofenix, says "creating a good relationship" with Nicaraguans, getting to know people in the homes, schools and clinics that will use the water and electricity, is important for volunteers.
"It gives students a whole new appreciation for how precious resources are," says Anna Garwood, executive director of Green Empowerment. "It's part of opening their eyes to what reality is like."
For instance, from their studies students know clean cook stoves are better for the environment and for human health than firewood. But in Nicaragua, they see firewood-powered stoves in action.
"The kitchen was so smoky we could maybe grab a cup of coffee and then had to flee because the smoke burned our eyes so badly," Peake says of one PSU group's trip. "When students build that first stove and see it work, see a kitchen where 90 percent of the smoke is removed, it's amazing."
Green Empowerment for the past three years has also taught a PSU course on the basics of renewable energy, says Aaron Liss, the organization's technical program manager. It teaches how to apply renewable energy on a small scale; in America, it could be for a community garden, for Nicaragua, it could be for a village.
"Integrating the trip into the curriculum adds to the quality of the students' contribution in-country and to the quality of the experience," Liss says.
In June, Muñoz traveled to Portland for the first time to meet with PSU professors whose students volunteer in Nicaragua and to check out Portland's use of renewable resources.
"We have great natural resources, but little infrastructure," he says in Spanish. "We help connect households that live far from the national (power) grid. Otherwise, they wouldn't be able to get electricity for 30 or 40 years."
Exposing students to the realities of Green Empowerment's mission also helps the organization: Along with Peake, other PSU graduates who have traveled with it have later lent their expertise, Garwood says. Over the past three years it has worked on expanding to Africa and received a $1.4 million federal grant to help get clean water to parts of the Philippines
As the organization continues its rapid growth, Garwood says transformative moments that build interest in its work will become ever more important.