Friday, August 28, 2009

anonymous donor

A couple months ago as I made a late-night check of my e-mail, I found a heartwarming note in my inbox. The message was from one of our UAC-CP graduates...and I think it's worth sharing as it demonstrates, in her own, unsolicited words, how the College is, for many of our students, more than just an institution of higher education that passes out degrees. And why, because of that, she feels so inspired to give back.

Though I'm working to convince her otherwise, the graduate has asked that she remain anonymous. So, without her name, I'm sharing the original e-mail she sent me on May 28th, 2009:*

Sarita, I'm writing to tell you that recently God has shown me grace in different forms, and thanks to that I have learned that each morning I open my eyes it is a new opportunity that God has blessed me with in order to continue breathing, living, and creating.

Until now, I haven't found a way in which I can show my thanks and appreciation for each new opportunity that presents itself in each new day.

I know that the UAC-CP, where I learned to value many things, isn't in the best of financial moments and I would like to return to the College what it gave to me--the opportunity to learn to be a person that feels, thinks, and lives.

I know that I can't help with a lot, but maybe I can support one young man or young woman who has financial difficulty with the ability to pay his/her monthly tuition and registration fees. I know that it isn't a lot, and if you think of a better way that this money could serve others, let me know. I am here to serve you.
At the beginning of this semester, the UAC-CP scholarship committee selected a young man in the Pre-University Program to receive this new scholarship--which the College named the "UAC-CP Graduate Scholarship." (We hope this special fund will continue to grow as other UAC-CP graduates feel called to give back to the College.) When I wrote to tell our graduate about the young man selected to be the beneficiary of her gift and thank her again for her generosity, she responded:*

Dear Sarah, it is with much pleasure that I'm helping to pay education costs. Thank your for the information...

I welcome your gratitude, but to the contrary--thank you for allowing me to continue to be a part of this beautiful family that is the UAC-CP. I think that right now we are in difficult financial times and, just as any other family, we must always be there for each other in the difficult moments--as we will be there on the front lines for one another in the good times, too.

Hugs and don't forget that all of you are always in my prayers,

*I translated her notes from Spanish to English.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

bon voyage

For the past three-plus years, the UAC-CP has been fortunate to be able to select students from the College's Education Department to participate in a 10-month-long teaching internship program at Adams Immersion School in St. Paul, Minn.

This year, two young women from the Education Department were chosen to participate (selection was based on grades, interviews, community service work performance, and faculty recommendation). Maria Elena Alejo, of Miraflores (a small community on the other side of Coroico), and Fabiana Ariñez, of the community of Carmen Pampa, will be working as teaching assistants in the K-8 Spanish immersion school for the 2009-2010 academic year.

Maria Elena, an only child, with her mother outside their home.

Fabiana Ariñez is one of Carmen Pampa's native daughters.

They have a lot of new, exciting experiences ahead of them--some of which, they admit, seem a bit intimidating at the moment (e.g. traveling on a plane for the first time and navigating their way through customs in Los Angeles). But they know that this is an opportunity of a lifetime.

"I almost didn't apply to go when they announced it last year," Fabiana admitted. The idea of leaving behind the home she has known all her life was a scary thought. But her boyfriend/classmate, Uber Mamani, encouraged her to try--to see how far she would get in the process and make her final decision later. Fabiana opted to go when offered and now she's filled with what she calls an appropriate mix of excitement and nervousness. She's most excited to share her culture with her host family and students at the school, she said.

Safe travels to both Maria Elena and Fabiana as they make the long journey today. And special thanks to all the people at Adams School in St. Paul (especially host families and the internship coordinators, Beth and Merri) who make this experience possible!

Saturday, August 22, 2009

half the sky

Tomorrow's New York Times Sunday Magazine, "Saving the World's Women," is a special edition that focuses on the theme of Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife Sheryl's new book: Half the Sky.* I can't speak much to the book, but I am endorsing the magazine.

Yes. I am a self-described Kristof groupie, but that isn't why I'm making his article a weekend homework assignment. It's because the message of this particular article/magazine makes a perfect case for our work here at the College. Kristof writes: "there's a growing recognition that if you want to fight poverty and extremism, you need to educate and empower women and bring them into the economy." That, quite simply, is what we do.

Kristof argues that it is the abilities and potential of women that offer the most promise for healthy global development. "In many poor countries," he writes, "the greatest unexploited resource isn't oil fields or veins of gold; it is the women and girls who aren't educated and never become a major presence in the formal economy." Here at the UAC-CP we are changing that...albeit poco a poco.

When Sr. Damon Nolan founded the College 16 years ago, her principle goal was to ensure that higher education was available and affordable for the rural poor and she put special emphasis on the importance of educating women. Today, women compose slightly more than half of the UAC-CP's student body (which averages 700 students a semester). Last I did the math, 52 percent of our graduates are women (and a handful are working on master's and doctorate degrees). Frankly, that's a stunning number when one considers that many of our students' mothers are illiterate; they never had the opportunity to attend school.

The other morning on my walk to work I stopped to talk with a couple Carmen Pampa Community members--both men, both in their late 70s. When the topic of conversation turned to the UAC-CP, I tossed out some numbers--current number of students, numbers of graduates, etc. "And the majority of them are women!" I added with emphasis. Having read Kristof's article the night before, I then launched into some of the arguments he presents, highlighting the importance of education for women.

Don Emilio agreed that it's been a long time in the making--providing women with equal opportunity. "Not long ago," he said, "there was the idea that women were only good for working at home--cooking, cleaning, taking care of the family. But that just isn't true." Now, Don Emilio said, one of the greatest barriers isn't trying to convince people of the importance of education, it's the ability to afford it. "Sometimes it's just too much to get food on the table."

I don't think Kristof would like the excuse that "there just isn't money." He quotes Larry Summers, former chief economist at the World Bank: "Investment in girls' education may well be the highest-resturn investment available in the developing world." It makes too much sense to invest in women now.

Of course we have a lot of work to do here. We still have unfortunate incidences of young women having to drop out of school because of unplanned pregnancies. I also know of cases of women in unhealthy relationships--within their family, with boyfriends, and with themselves. But we also have women who have stood up to alcoholic parents, left abusive boyfriends, and obtained post-UAC degrees with children in tow. I firmly believe that this is part of the College's role as an educator--to teach our students to be confident and independent, to give them the tools to realize their full potential.

In interviews, I always ask our students and graduates where they would be today had they not had the opportunity to study at the UAC-CP. Last December, I blogged about UAC-CP graduate Mauge Quispe. She asked herself that very question and then followed it up with her answer: "I know that I would be working in the field with my parents. I would be so far from where I am today...Will people every know how grateful I am for what they did to help me become who I am today? I'm indigenous...I'm Aymaran, I'm a woman. Look at me!"

*Kristof explains that the name of their book comes from a Chinese saying that "Women hold up half the sky."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

opportunity for my bolivian peeps

You can take the Bolivian out of Bolivia, but you can't take Bolivia out of the Bolivian.

During my recent visit "home" to South Dakota and the Twin Cities, I spent a few days with Dr. Martin Morales, Director of the UAC-CP's Veterinary Science Department, and Carlos Vergara, UAC-CP Projects Coordinator and a 2007 graduate of the College's Agronomy Department. Both Martin and Carlos spent 2 1/2 months at South Dakota State University in Brookings, S.D., where they participated in an exchange project.

As we ventured along Minnesota's Highway 10 on the rural route bound for the Twin Cities, I inquired about their experience in the U.S. They shared some of their observations and I found myself really excited to see my homeland through their Bolivian eyes. At the first sight of the glowing skyscrapers in downtown Minneapolis, Carlos confessed that his trip to the USA was a "dream come true."

Carlos Vergara looks out over the Mississippi River in Minneapolis. He would love the opportunity to obtain his master's degree in the U.S., but in the long-term, his heart is in Bolivia.

"So," I asked Carlos cautiously, "are you ready to go back to Bolivia?" He took no time to respond. "Yes!" In his polished English, he confessed, "I miss my gente." Gente. Carlos capped the end of his sentence with the Spanish word that, translated word for word, means "people," but carries a bit more feeling. And then he added, using his Hugh Smeltekop-influenced English vocabulary: "I miss my peeps."

I think there is a grand misconception that everyone wants to go to the U.S....and stay forever. But what I have seen as more and more of our students and faculty travel to the U.S. for academic exchange programs is that, while they are absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to visit the U.S., they also desperately look forward to coming home--to Bolivia. (Even my Somali cab driver last Saturday night told me: "This is a great country and I'm happy to be here...but as soon as I can, I'm going back home!")

In the ongoing immigration debate, I think people forget to ask themselves or fail to understand why people come to the U.S.--why they choose to leave their beloved family, friends, language, and culture behind to find their way, often at life threatening costs, to come to the U.S. Simply, it's for that one word: oportunidad. They come in search of opportunity that they can't access in their homeland.

So, along the same line of "Books not Bombs" thinking, I have to wonder if we invested less in building walls to keep people out of the U.S. and invested more in projects like the UAC-CP that provide opportunity for a better life in people's native lands, maybe the immigration debate would cease to be such a "problem."

Last night, as we ate Julia's Never Fail Chocolate Cake in honor of my homecoming, Sr. Jean reminded Hugh and I that UAC-CP founder Sr. Damon Nolan used to say that wealth isn't measured by money, so much as by the amount of options that we have. And that's what we do here at the College--we provide the poor with options, with opportunity. It's this opportunity that empowers our students so they don't have to leave behind the people and culture they love just to improve their lives...and, as Carlos would say, the lives of their Bolivian peeps.

Special thanks to the people at South Dakota State University and University Wisconsin-River Falls for the genuine hospitality you showed to Carlos and Martin. We are grateful for your partnership and the opportunities you provide for our faculty and staff.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

julia child bolivia style

What do Julia Child and Bolivia have in common?  Nothing, as far as I know.

But last night as I sat in a sold-out movie theater in Roseville, Minnesota, watching the newly released Julie & Julia (based on the book by the same name that I devoured a couple months ago when it found its way into my reading repertoire), I couldn't help but feel that had Julia Child ever come to visit us at the Volunteer House in Carmen Pampa, she would've been proud of how well our group of gringos embraces the joy of cooking; the way we have mastered the art of adapting and introducing international cuisine to the Bolivian campo.

Sushi night at the Volunteer House. Not a lot of seafood to be had in our landlocked country, so we make due with steamed veggies, smoked trout from Lake Titicaca, and tubes of wasabi brought from the States.

As Americans, we're a bit obsessed with food. We have books, festivals, magazines, and entire television networks dedicated to cooking and eating. This obsession is particularly intense for those of us who live overseas--as it is in food that we often find comfort on those days when we miss home the most.  

Re-creating those comforts of home can often be cumbersome considering the limited availability of ingredients.  But it's amazing what a generation of young people who grew up on macaroni-n-cheese, ramen noodles, and frozen burritos can whip together when faced with a hankering for mom's homemade tuna casserole or a favorite curry dish from the neighborhood Indian restaurant. 

Vegetarian lasagna--filled with all sorts of organic goodness fresh from the College's garden.

In the U.S., we are a people accustomed to meals coming pre-made in bags and boxes and pouches. (I often wonder if my native country folk realize that baby carrots are not a natural phenomenon and that egg refrigeration is not widely practiced throughout the rest of the world.) But cooking from scratch in Bolivia, we come to know our food. We watch it transform from starting pieces to finished product. Joined for dinner around the kitchen table each night, we celebrate the miracle that transpires when we loosely follow recipes to create divine culinary results that satisfy our homesick palates!  

Of course, chocolate is one of the most delicious of these "miracles." One of the most popular recipes at the Volunteer House is for Julia's Never Fail Chocolate Cake. It's the all-around favorite dessert that makes frequent appearances at birthday celebrations, visitor welcomes, UAC-CP potlucks, and volunteer goodbye parties.  I have absolutely no idea whether the recipe is connected with Julia Child, but I can attest to the fact that it never fails. Ever. (And if you have ever used the oven in the Volunteer House you'd know the magnitude of that testimony). 

So the next time you're tempted to reach for a box of "Just Add Oil!" Betty Crocker cake mix and a plastic tub of pre-made Pillsbury frosting, try mastering the art of baking yourself. Make Julia proud: discover the joy of cooking...from scratch!

Julia's Never Fail Chocolate Cake

2 1/2 c. Flour
1 1/2 c. Sugar
2/3 c. Cocoa
1 1/2 tsp. Baking Soda
1 tsp. Baking Powder
1/2 tsp. Salt
1 tsp. Vanilla
2/3 c. Shortening
1 1/2 c. Water
4 Eggs

Mix and sift dry ingredients three times. Add vanilla, shortening, and water to dry ingredients. Beat three minutes. Add eggs. Beat three minutes. Grease and flour tall tube pan. Pour batter into pan. Bake medium heat* in oven--about 40 minutes.

Mocha Frosting
3 Tbsp. Butter
3 c. Sifted Powdered Sugar
5 Tbsp. Cocoa
1 Tbsp. Instant Coffee (I use regular ground coffee produced at the College)
5 Tbsp. Cream (In Carmen Pampa, we generally don't have cream, so I use thickened powdered milk)
1 tsp. Vanilla

Cream butter with cocoa and coffee. Add cream/milk alternatively with powdered sugar until thick enough to spread on cooled cake--as demonstrated in the photo above of my godson Daniel who is a fan of helping me bake...and lick the spatula.

Bon Appétit! ...or as Julia dubbed in Spanish would say: Provecho!

*The gas oven in the Volunteer House essentially has just two settings: On and Off. But for those of you who prefer a more well-defined number--I'd say: 350 degrees.