Tuesday, June 29, 2010

all school reunion

Last Saturday, about twenty UAC-CP graduates and former students gathered for an informal reunion in Caranavi--a hot and dusty town located three hours from the College where many students call home and many graduates have settled in their post-collegiate lives. It was the first of what I hope will be many more gatherings of a recently formed (and in-the-process-of-developing) alumni association.

UAC-CP graduates, former students, their kids, and me gather in Caranavi.

Sitting around the patio of a local hotel as their children splashed and dashed in and out of the pool, old UAC-CP friends (and new!) did what all people do at college reunions--they reconnected. They updated each other on their lives and reminisced about the past. Two things were particularly on peoples' minds: UAC-CP founder Sr. Damon Nolan and the College.

"How is Sr. Damon?" everyone wanted to know. It created a way for me to pull my visiting, non-Spanish-speaking friend Stacy Rooney into the conversation, as she had recently seen Sr. Damon at Carmen Pampa Fund's Fiesta de Ayni in May. "Sr. Damon sends her love," was the message we share...along with her e-mail address.

Former UAC-CP Education students catch up on life.

And people asked about the College. Graduates wanted to know about the new advanced-degree program, former students wanted to know more about the business plan alternative to the thesis requirement for graduation, and everyone wanted to know about student life, in general.

I found myself in several conversations with people talking about the mission of the College. "Apart from knowing the mission and understanding the mission, it's important for us to live the mission," UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Leyla Yujra told me. "That's what I learned. And, I think, more than anything, that's what sets the College apart from other institutions."

It was also an optimal time for me to hand out graduate surveys that we are circulating to gather more information about UAC-CP post-graduate work. The surveys, which collect basic information like phone numbers and e-mail addresses, also inquire about graduates' work. "We need to evaluate how UAC-CP graduates are responding to the mission," I explained.

UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Juan Suñiga with his two sons (not pictured: his wife is UAC-CP Agronomy graduate Leyla Yujra).

"My life would have turned out very differently [had I not studied at the UAC-CP]," wrote one graduate in the comments section of the survey. "At the College I learned so many precious and valued things--life lessons that were imbedded in the mission and vision of the UAC-CP. It's with pride and joy that I give thanks for everything that I received at the College." She also said it's thanks to her education that she is independent and able to look for and find work to support the rural area.

I hope the reunion is the first of many to come as they will serve as informal ways of keeping our graduates connected--across the generations--and it will keep those of us who work at the UAC-CP close to the lives of the people we have shared a part in watching grow. Their work, I remind them, reflects the success of our work here in Carmen Pampa.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

the feria 16 de julio

Without fail, every time I visit the "16 de julio" I find myself in awe. The feria is an immense and open-air market held every Thursday and Sunday in the city of El Alto--a large and fast-growing settlement of primarily indigenous people who have come from the countryside in search of a better life.

A woman dressed in traditional clothing, looks upon a pile of what I would call "junk." One man's junk is another man's treasure comes to mind often at the infamous El Alto market.

Assuming you can find it in the misaligned and tightly packed streets, you can buy just about everything you could ever need or want at the 16 de julio. There are cars, construction equipment, clothing, books, furniture, electronics, live animals, restaurants, kitchen supplies, sporting goods, barber shops, etc. And more than things to buy, there are also things to see: soccer games, live music, and, once, I think I even saw a dead person.

Treasures are definitely out there, but it sometimes takes patience to find it. On Sunday, I immediately found the bedspread I wanted, but it took more than an hour of asking where I could find an energy stabilizer before I decided that I didn't want to spend that much money. Things are somewhat organized according to sections. So, when I needed to purchase an "H" emblem for a Honda I started in the car section. And when I needed a plunger, I went to the plumbing area. But even then, you can often find single vendors hawking off whatever they can of their randomly assembled inventory. On Sunday one woman was selling oranges, old newspapers, and sad looking baby dolls.

The market is above the city of La Paz. In this photo, you can see Mt. Illimani across the distance.

Quality of items vary, as well--items are new and used...and stolen and illegal. Hanging out alongside vendors with more permanent stands, young men hold cell phones that I know used to belong to people who are now missing them. Some vehicles, brought in illegally to the country from Chile, come with false paperwork. And famous brand clothing are commonly marked with fake tags. Not keen on the idea of buying another pair of cheap, junky headphones, I sucked up my usual "don't buy stolen goods" rule and bought a pair of "original" iPod headphones to the replace the ones I lost (were stolen?) the previous week.

It's a rat maze, for sure. And, at more than 14,000 feet in altitude--the lack of oxygen and intense rays of the sun don't make for ideal browsing conditions after a couple of hours. But it's worth the visit to see the creativity that goes into making a buck...or, in this case, a Boliviano.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

pomp & circumstance

Technically it's just a piece of paper. But here in Bolivia a college diploma is a pretty big deal.

It is, of course, a big deal to have a college degree in the U.S., too, but here it means something even more--particularly for young people who have grown up in the rural area. One can kind of understand the miracle of the achievement when you consider that Bolivia is a country where, according to a 2005 World Bank Report,* it was reported that in the year 2000 barely 15% of the population ages 15 and older had attained their high school degree.

Dona Panchita, a beloved cook on Campus Leahy and motherly figure to many of our students (and volunteers!), is pictured with her two daughters: Agronomy graduates Rosemary and Maria Ester Gutierrez and their two daughters.

There is also the use of the word "professional," which is used to indicate a person who has found their professional calling and received their college diploma. Whenever I ask parents of UAC-CP students what they want for their children, they tell me that they want them to be "professionals." And on the survey we are using with UAC-CP graduates, when asked how the UAC-CP made a difference in their lives, the most common response is: "It allowed me to be a professional."

"To be a professional," explained my co-worker and former UAC-CP student Gladys Rivera, "it means a lot to the people who struggled for the right to be educated. Until the agrarian reform of 1952, many of the poor and indigenous people of this country were banned from going to school. But today, that's different." Today, Gladys said, young people are better able to live lives of dignity and justice because of access to education.

Former classmates turned husband and wife, UAC-CP Veterinary Science graduates Dany Chambilla and Fico Carrizales show off their diplomas following graduation ceremonies. They are pictured with their children Daniel and Kristia.

On Wednesday as night I sat in a packed auditorium at the Catholic University of La Paz for commencement ceremonies** staring out on a sea of navy blue and gold colored caps and gowns, I couldn't help but imagine what the 10 UAC-CP students sitting out there in the mix were feeling and thinking as they waited for their names to be called so they could walk across the stage, accept their college degree, turn the tassel on their cap, and walk back to their seat...a professional.

*World Bank Report: Expanding Opportunities and Building Competencies for Young People: A New Agenda for Secondary Education

**UAC-CP students technically graduate once tey successfully defend their thesis. However, because the thesis defenses happen on an individual, rolling basis there is generally no commencement ceremony here at the College. Our graduates do have the option to participate in the official pomp and circumstance at Catholic University where, donning cap and gown, their names are called to walk across the state and accept their diploma.