Saturday, November 29, 2008


On Thursday evening I attended the graduation ceremony at the Catholic University in La Paz. As a branch of La Católica, our UAC-CP students are invited to participate in the University's official pomp and circumstance.

Richard Agramont's mother (left) and aunt made the six hour journey from their home in Irupana (South Yungas) to see Richard receive his diploma.  An agronomist, Richard is employed at CARITAS in Coroico where he travels to rural areas to work with coffee farmers.

About 40 UAC-CP students, donning caps and gowns, graduated with degrees in nursing, agronomy, and veterinary science.  Many of them had participated in the graduation ceremony held this past August in Carmen Pampa, but for others it was the first they had heard their name called to stand up before a crowd of more than 1,000 people and receive their college diploma.

It was a pretty proud and emotional moment to watch our students walk across the stage. Graduating from college is a major feat for most anyone, but particularly so for our students who beat incredible odds to make it to that moment.  

Coroico natives Micaela Soliz and her younger sister pose after the graduation ceremony at the Catholic U.  Mica now works for the Carmen Pampa Health Post.

As I rushed around taking pictures and congratulating graduates and their families following the ceremony, one of our recent grads said to me, "Can you imagine where we would be today if the UAC-CP didn't exist?  If Sr. Damon never dreamed to start a college?"  While I've obviously considered the question before, I was caught off guard by it at that exact moment; I didn't know how to respond.  

I don't know where our "kids" would be if they didn't have the opportunity to obtain a college degree.  It's a little disheartening to think about because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't have been standing in front of me, diploma in hand, smile flashing across the face, feeling on top of the world.

Nursing graduate Lucy Cabrera with her parents at a post-graduation meal. An El Alto native, Lucy currently works at a pharmacy in La Paz.  Once she has her paperwork in order, she would like to look for work in the Yungas.

At a small family celebration for one of the graduates later that evening, UAC-CP nursing graduate Lucy Cabrera's relatives sat in a circle in their small living room area and talked about how proud they are that she's the first in the family to graduate from college.  As her dad sat quietly and admired her diploma, Lucy's uncle told her to never give up, to keep on going forward.  "Sigue adelante!" he told her.  

While everyone enthusiastically nodded their heads in agreement, I leaned over and whispered in her ear, "And when you go forward, wherever you go, don't forget to bring the mission of the UAC with you."

Thursday, November 27, 2008

acción de gracias

A tried and true U.S. holiday, Thanksgiving is obviously not celebrated here in Carmen Pampa (our small gringo community non-withstanding--we, of course, plan to have oven baked chicken, mashed potatoes, and green 10am to accommodate a regular, busy school day).

Recently, as I've been explaining the concept of "Turkey Day," I've asked some students that one question we're commonly asked to consider as we're sitting around the dinner table on Thanksgiving: "What are you thankful for?"

A few of their responses:

"I am grateful for the opportunity to study here at the UAC-CP...and I'm grateful to everyone who has given all of us here the opportunity to better ourselves through higher education."

Pre-university students Fernando Mollinedo, Sonia Poma, Amira Luque, and Willy Ramirez pose in front of a series of prayers of thanksgiving they wrote and posted on the wall behind the altar in the Campus Leahy chapel.

"I am thankful for my parents--for their constant love and care."

"I am grateful to all those who have, in some way, helped me economically and morally.  People like Sr. Damon (UAC-CP founder)--who always encouraged me--and Hugh (current UAC-CP vice director)--who, for me, has been like a second father.  I'm grateful to these people."

"I am thankful to God for giving me my life and allowing me to achieve one of my life goals: to get my college degree."

"I am thankful for the friendships I have--especially the people who have come into my life when I needed them most."

So whether we're eating pumpkin pie at grandma's house or sitting in an eco-tourism class on Campus Manning, we all have things to be thankful for on this day.  Happy Thanksgiving from the UAC-CP!

Monday, November 24, 2008

dreaming big pays off

In September, I wrote about my visit to the Brecha B--a rural community located about seven hours from Carmen Pampa where UAC-CP graduates recently started their own business, SIEMPRE-FORJA (Integrated Systems of Research and Education through Ecological Production).   The budding company is dedicated to the education, production, and research of bio-insecticides.

Last week SIEMPRE-FORJA was awarded the grand prize in a national competition: Ideas Emprendedoras ( competition of business ideas and plans.  Out of approximately 2,000 entries nation-wide, their company won the $10,000 first prize for innovation and a $5,000 second prize for biodiversity sustainability!!

UAC-CP agronomy graduates Fortunato Velasquez, Andrez Florez and Jorge Gallardo with UAC-CP education thesis student student Ruth Velasquez outside their company's (under construction) research center.

When I interviewed them in September, the four-some admitted that maybe their idea was a bit "crazy"--they were investing a lot of time, energy, money, and hope in the dream of owning a business that, while being profitable, will also aim to help local farmers increase production and protect the natural environment.  "I know it's pretty crazy," Andrez told me a couple months ago, "but we believe we can make it happen."

Today, in addition to the fact that their recent award will help to ease some of the financial burden they are experiencing with initial start-up/capital costs, it's also an important and nationally-recognized vote of confidence and an example to other UAC-CP graduates and students of how they can implement the mission of the College:  make an honest living and serve the people of rural Bolivia.   Our UAC-CP familia is very proud of Fortunato, Andrez, Jorge, and Ruth!

To read my September blog entry about SIEMPRE-FORJA, click here

Monday, November 17, 2008

more than a thousand words

They say a picture tells a thousand words.  But tonight, as I look through the photos I've taken in the past several months (and posted online:, I'm afraid that my pictures really don't even begin to tell the full story of our students here at the College.

Behind the the smiles, the pensive looks, the posed group shots, and the beautiful faces are the stories of awe-inspiring young people who have, and continue to, amaze me as they beat incredible odds.  Each picture, each face, each name has an extraordinary story to tell...and there are so many!

I see the face of Alvaro who, his first year at the College, gave up his coveted spot in the food cooperative because he realized that one of his classmates, who wasn't eating, needed it more.

I see the face of Christina, a confident, tough (she plays futsol barefoot!) young woman who, when her mother died unexpectedly in a car accident four years ago, moved off campus to raise her two younger brothers while continuing her studies at the UAC-CP.

I see the face of Andrez, an agronomy graduate, whose wisdom, insight, idealism and commitment to fulfilling the mission of the UAC-CP both humbles and inspires me.

I see the faces of young men and women that I feel so fortunate to know and wish others could know them, as well.

A few of the faces I've photographed and posted online in the past few months...

UAC-CP Agronomy graduates Hector Espejo, Vladimir Torrez, and Aldo Estevez.   We recently had lunch (and shared many laughs) at one of the Campus Leahy food kiosks.

UAC-CP agronomy student William Nova is working on his thesis.  William is from the Afro-Bolivian community of Tocaña, located approximately 15 km from Coroico.

Rosa Quisbert is an eighth semester education student at the UAC-CP.  Her parents own a small store in Coroico.   Formerly one of my very shy students in the Pre-University program, Rosa is now an outgoing, vibrant young woman.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

my fried chicken has a face

For as many times as I had eaten a banana, I hadn't really ever considered where it came from or how it arrived at my breakfast table...until I lived in Carmen Pampa.

Bananas grow abundantly throughout the Nor Yungas.

I come from a country where I don't have to think too much about where things come from or where things go.  In the U.S., my garbage was hauled away every week and I never had to see it again.  Almost magically, natural gas always arrived to my kitchen stovetop and oven.  And there was never a doubt that (hot) water wouldn't come rushing out of the faucet at whatever moment I decided to take a shower.

Coffee trees loaded with the red and green beans hug the trail that links the College's two campuses.

In Bolivia, it's hard not to consider the source of each and every thing that I use.  Here, I've picked and roasted the coffee that gives me my morning boost. I've ground and seasoned the sausage I put on homemade pizza.  I've squeezed several oranges by hand in exchange for a full glass of juice.  I've nearly escaped bee stings extracting honey from the hive.  I've hoisted the heavy, grimy gas tank up onto the public mobility and, later, dragged it into the kitchen and attached it to the stove.  I've stepped across the mountain spring that feeds water to our kitchen and bathroom faucets.  I've seen the feet, feathers, and face of my fried chicken.

A UAC-CP veterinary student prepares a chicken to be sold at market.

Yes, there are plenty of days when it would be nice to just pull a bag of frozen, pre-cut veggies out of the refrigerator or not have to see and smell the community's mounting garbage at the local "dump."  I'd rather not recall that cute little piglet at the exact moment I cut into a UAC-processed pork chop.  But, as they say here, "asi es"--that's just how it is.

And truthfully, I do feel more grateful of where things come from...and I like that feeling.  In fact, this morning as I watch and listen to the rain fall down, I'm not just loving it because the campus looks like a lush, subtropical wonderland, but also because I know and appreciate that ample rain makes way for a shower and a cup of coffee in the morning. 

Saturday, November 8, 2008

by foot

Whenever asking a Bolivian to measure distance with time, it's always important to ask the clarifying question:  "A pie o en mobi?"  (By foot or public transport?)

In the U.S., if someone told me that they lived three hours away, I'd never consider asking if that meant a three hour walk or a three hour car ride.  But here, our students tell stories of walking multiple hours to arrive at school, work, or home.

A UAC-CP student walks along a path wearing his abarcas--simple, yet sturdy sandals made of used tires that are commonly worn by people in the countryside.

Students who work at the College's Coroico Viejo Goat Project, for example, walk more than 2 1/2 hours round-trip (rain or shine, up hill both ways) to earn about $4 for a day's worth of hard, physical labor.  Those who vie for the coveted jobs at the Goat Project walk over every Monday and use their salary to pay for their monthly food cooperative dues.

Though Carmen Pampa continues to see an increase in the number of minibuses offering daily service to nearby Coroico, most other rural, Bolivian communities only have access to public transportation once-a-week.  In these remote areas, people often have no other option but to call upon "Taxi number 11"--their two feet.

Something to keep in mind, for me at least, the next time I'm circling the Target parking lot looking for a spot closest to the door.  Suddenly the empty spaces at the far corner of the lot don't seem so far away.