Sunday, June 15, 2008


I said goodbye to Juan Carlos yesterday. Nearly one and a half years after he first arrived (on a freezing cold Minnesota day) to work as an intern at Adams Elementary School, a Spanish immersion school in St. Paul, he is returning home to Bolivia.

It’s obvious his presence will be missed by the Adams School community; he acquired a pretty loyal fan club during his teaching tenure. And for good reason: he has been an amazing ambassador and educator! With pleasure and pride, he shared his culture, languages (Spanish and Aymara), dances, music, food, etc., with children and adults alike. Through his stories and pictures, we all received the amazing gift of knowing not just someone from another country, but knowing Juan Carlos--a kind, humble, and wise friend.

I can’t say enough good things about the support and love Juan Carlos has received from Adams School families. I have been, and continue to be, humbled by the overwhelming hospitality and generosity they have extended to him. They opened up their homes to him and shared their families with him. They offered him odd jobs and the opportunity to earn extra money to send home to his family. They coordinated transportation for him to make sure he could attend evening English classes. They took him along on family vacations and outings. And, perhaps most notably, they eagerly welcomed and encouraged Juan Carlos to share himself with them.

As the first UAC-CP student to participate in the Adams intern program, Juan Carlos has set the bar high for all future interns who come from the College and follow in his footsteps. Visas pending, two more UAC-CP education majors will arrive in August to work at Adams. I’m thrilled that they will be able to meet some of the same wonderful people who embraced Juan Carlos. And, like him, they will be able to share themselves and their culture with people who are excited to learn about Bolivia and its people.

While I know Juan Carlos really misses his family and friends in Los Yungas and he is anxious to return to Bolivia, I don't think this will be an easy goodbye for him. In fact, when I picked him up for our farewell breakfast, he confessed that he will miss the people he has met here. He recognizes it was an amazing cultural exchange. “Sarita, I will have so many wonderful memories of this experience…for the rest of my life.”

This Fall, Juan Carlos will begin his final semester at the UAC-CP, start work on his thesis project for graduation, and gear up for the next adventure in his life.

Chau, JC! Q' te vayas bien.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

dream in action

This past Thursday night, nearly 150 people gathered at Augsburg College to listen to Sr. Damon Nolan, founder and former director of the UAC-CP, talk about how she dared to dream of building a college in rural Bolivia.

She explained that when she first arrived in Carmen Pampa in 1980 to teach at the local high school, she encountered bright and talented young people whose opportunities were severely limited because they were denied access to higher education. With unwavering assistance from Dick and Ann Leahy (who later founded the Carmen Pampa Fund), Sr. Damon started the UAC-CP—a college for poor, indigenous Bolivian youth.

The college first offered classes in the early 1990s to a group of approximately 50 students. Today, under the direction of Fr. Freddy de Villar, the UAC-CP educates approximately 750 students and offers five areas of study: agronomy, primary education, veterinary medicine, nursing, and eco-tourism. When students graduate, they receive a diploma that is recognized by the prestigious Catholic University in La Paz.

As Damon spoke about her experiences in Bolivia and the importance of empowering people through education, my friend leaned over and whispered, “Does this make you excited to go back?” I looked at him and nodded my head: yes.

Last month, after much discernment, I accepted an offer from the Carmen Pampa Fund to return to the UAC-CP. I will begin working at the Fund’s St. Paul office in July and then move back to Carmen Pampa in early August where I will help with grant writing, program management, and the coordination of trips through Augsburg College’s Center for Global Education.

Obviously the decision to pick up and move my life back to Bolivia doesn’t happen without a bit of nervousness and apprehension, but Thursday evening’s event was a wonderful reminder for all of us living and working at the UAC-CP that we can count on the love and support of those who share their time, money, and professional talent with the Carmen Pampa Fund. I feel blessed to be part of such an amazing group!

Earlier in the day during a conversation I had with Sr. Damon, she marveled at how love sometimes grows in very unconventional ways. She mused at the notion of blind love. And I couldn’t help but consider this on Thursday night as I looked around at all the people gathered together to celebrate our common cause of improving the lives of Bolivians through education. It’s overwhelming to realize that so many individuals and families here in the U.S. are able to love so many wonderful, young people in Bolivia whom they've never met. Love is blind!

Sunday, June 8, 2008

uac-cp: reflection of hope

The Unidad Académica Campesina de Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP), a college dedicated to providing higher education for Bolivia’s poor, rural population, does not match the stereotypical image of poverty in the developing world. Located in the second poorest country in South America, the UAC-CP surprisingly feels like most any other college—it’s filled with young, energetic students aspiring to obtain their college degree, find a decent job, and make a difference in the world.

The presence of UAC-CP has spurred positive economic and social change for all who live in the small village of Carmen Pampa. Locals enjoy the basic, yet relatively recent addition of electricity, indoor plumbing and one shared telephone. Students have access to books, computers, television, a copy machine and, on sunny days, the Internet. The ongoing construction of new classrooms and dormitories indicates a growing number of Bolivianos who are improving their lives through education.

Because of Carmen Pampa’s relative prosperity, it is hard to imagine that a majority of students come from families whose annual incomes rarely exceed US $300. The quality of life in Carmen Pampa does not reflect the true reality and standard of living for the majority of people who live in the Bolivian countryside.

Curious to discover more of Bolivia’s daily realities, I traveled during summer vacation to the hot and dusty parts of Bolivia’s interior region that many UAC-CP students call home. My goal was to find 16 USAID scholarship students in seven days and verify where and in what conditions they live. I was equipped with two items of very important, yet highly inaccurate information: a hand-drawn map scribbled in pencil on a piece of scrap paper and a list with the names of the 16 students I needed to find. Noted beside each name was their major area of study at the College and the name of their hometown.

Thanks to a combination of several helpful strangers and a lot of suerte, I located five students within the first three days of my trip. In addition to the UAC-CP students I was required to find for the USAID report, I coincidentally met many other students who were not on my list. I accepted every offer to visit students' casas; at each household I was truly humbled by the overwhelming generosity and hospitality with which I was received.

Siblings Eva and Tatiana Cruz provided me with a memorable visit to their family’s home in Illimani, a small community of coffee farmers in a mountainous region on the outskirts of Caranavi. After providing me with a quick tour of their tiny, one-room adobe house and small outdoor kitchen, I was offered a seat on their only piece of furniture: a wheelbarrow lined with a deer pelt that sat in the grass-less, muddy yard. While their mother prepared lunch and their father sharpened his small collection of machetes, I watched the younger children play soccer (barefoot) with a deflated ball. The game ended abruptly when we responded to shouts from the cafetal—that one of the siblings had found and killed a five-foot snake. This, I caught myself thinking as I instinctively joined their father and we ran through the trees with machetes in hand, is just another day in the Bolivian campo.

Eventually sitting down to feast upon rice, plantain, and chicken (considered a delicacy reserved for only special occasions, the chicken was served in honor of my visit), I asked the Cruz family questions that were part of my routine investigation at each home visit: Do you have running water? Electricity? Bathroom facilities? How do you bathe? How do you cook your food? What is your typical diet? How do you earn money? What is your estimated family income? Do you own land? Do you have animals? While conversing with students and their parents, I also made mental note of their physical living conditions so I could write it down later in my official report for USAID.

After only four days of home visits, I was beginning to notice subtle, yet significant differences that indicated which families had a little money and which families had even less. Some families lived in homes with cement floors, while others had only dirt. Some families had doors and windows; others had blankets to cover the entryways. Some families had homes made of brick; others were made of the more affordable adobe or bamboo. Some families had propane tanks sitting in the kitchen indicating they had gas stoves, others cooked over small fires contained in adobe pits. Some families had electricity, running water and an outhouse, but most households I visited, like that of Eva and Tatiana, lacked all of the "luxuries" that a gringa like me considers basic necessities, if not basic human rights.

After each visit it was easier for me to understand how UAC-CP students share one giant dorm room with 20 of their classmates; it made sense that students never complained about the College's ice-cold showers or the erratic water supply. Compared to their living conditions at home, students enjoyed many amenities at UAC-CP. “I never had electricity until I came to Carmen Pampa,” admitted 25-year-old Donato Albeline, whose family still lives life dictated by the rising and setting of the sun.

Unlike Carmen Pampa, transportation in most small villages is limited to one day per week. Generally, the only mobilidad is available on Saturday when people take their products to market. Unfamiliar with the area and on a tight schedule, I opted for the guilty pleasure of private taxis when public mobility was scarce. Of course UAC-CP students, I reminded myself, who are paid an absolute maximum of US $3.80 for one day of hard, physical labor, would never consider a US $10 taxi ride. First-year education student Juan Carlos Mamani told me that when he comes home to visit his family, he always has to walk the last part of the journey. “It’s a two-hour walk,” Juan Carlos said matter-of-factly. “It’s not bad…except when I have many things to carry or when it’s really hot.”

Riding in the back of open-air camiones or squeezed into the far back seat of windowless minibuses, I marveled at the great distance students travel to attend school. The farther away a student lives from the College, the greater their cost of travel and the more difficult it is to communicate with their family. The distance, it seems, also prevents visits from parents. “I would really like to visit my daughter,” the mother of one nursing student said. “My husband has visited Carmen Pampa only one time in four years. It is such a long trip and we don’t have the money.”

Parents, for many of whom Spanish is their second language, bombarded me with questions. “How are my son’s grades?” one mother asked. “Is he behaving himself?” a father wanted to know. I explained to all the parents that the reason I was visiting them was because their children are USAID scholarship recipients. I told them that this speaks highly of their son or daughter’s grades and character. They have good reason to be proud of their child.

Through tears, first-year agronomy student Gladys Jahuira’s father told me that he is extremely proud of his daughter. “I never had an opportunity to study,” he told me while his wife sat quietly at his side and their four children stood around the room that serves as both their kitchen and living room area. “We need a professional agronomist in our area who can teach the people how to care for the Earth,” he said. “Many people don’t know that they are hurting the natural resources. They don’t understand why it is important to protect the water supply or to have a system for maintaining waste.” He shared his hopes that his daughter might specialize in environmental problems and, one day, return to help their community.

Many parents, while initially shy and reserved, eventually shared with me the importance of his or her child’s education. Everyone talked about the day when their son or daughter will return home to serve their community. “My daughter will graduate in one year,” Sonya Tintaya’s mother said. “And then she’s coming home and our village will have a nurse!” her father added. I was happy to tell the Tintayas that their daughter will not only come home to serve her community, but she will be guaranteed a yearly salary according to the provisions of her USAID scholarship.

My eight-hour ride home in the back of an empty cargo truck provided plenty of time for reflection. During my week of solo traveling, I had met some wonderful people whose daily lives exemplify the reality of life in the Bolivian countryside. I was touched that so many people had shared their most personal thoughts and feelings with me. I was inspired by their determination to provide educational opportunities for their children. I was encouraged by their dreams to improve lives through education. From our candid conversations, I ultimately discovered that while the standard of living in Carmen Pampa does not reflect the reality of the Bolivian campo, UAC-CP does reflect the hope that someday its prosperity will be the reality for all Bolivians.

*This piece was written for USAID and the Carmen Pampa Fund in January 2005.