Thursday, December 8, 2011

alejandro mamani

A couple weeks ago, Carmen Pampa Fund sent out its 2011 Annual Appeal letter to sustaining donors in the mail. The letter featured UAC-CP Agronomy student Alejandro Mamani, a 22-year-old visionary and leaders who is currently in his last semester of studies at the College. He hopes to finish his thesis and graduate from the College by the end of 2012.

His life story is pretty typical for a student at the UAC-CP. Like most of his classmates, his is the story of a young person who, despite great odds and many challenges, is studying at the college level--a great achievement for any person, but a particularly huge milestone for a young person from Bolivia.

"What does it mean for a young person from Bolivia with scare resources to have a college degree?" Alejandro said, repeating the question I posed to him. "It's a huge significance. It's the door of success for one's family--for the family and for that young person." Alejandro continued, "Me, for example, I am the hope for my family. In my family, they tell me that and I believe that.  I am studying at college so that we never have to experience the things that we have lived through again. I think that is what it means for a young person--the doors open and provide a new, distinct future."

Alejandro pictured with UAC-CP Vice Director Hugh Smeltekop was chosen to participate in the U.S. State Department's Winter Institute for Young Indigenous Leaders Program in the U.S. in 2012.

Alejanrdro was born in 1989 in a small town in Bolivia's barren altiplano. His mother, just 17-years-old, was an orphan who grew up living with a family who fed and sheltered her in exchange for her work as a sheep herder (but prohibited her from studying in school). Alejandro has never known his father--who left the family before Alejandro was born.

Alejandro's life seemed destined to be a lot like his mother's, but when he was 6-years-old, his mother moved them to El Alto, a poor, but rapidly growing city poor perched above La Paz on the high plain. "My mom felt that moving to the city was the best chance I had for a better life--better than the very sad life she had."

In El Alto, his mother met a construction worker who would become Alejandro's step-father. Together, they all lived in a small, simple room with a dirty floor and one straw mattress. While his step-father worked, his mother stayed at home with her children (Alejandro has two younger half-siblings).  "My mom didn't really get out much--she wasn't really familiar with the city and it was intimidating. She was willing to work and did some cleaning jobs, but was mostly expected to be at home and had to wait for my step-father to give her money." There were many times, he admitted, when food was scarce and his mother's tears were frequent.

But his mother made sure that Alejandro had opportunities that she never had--like access to education.  Once they moved to the city Alejandro started his educational career. Though not without its challenges. "I was teased a lot because I was tall...and because I was from the countryside, kids knew I was different." He also wasn't able to participate in the snack time during recess because his mother could only afford to give him 10 cents, which didn't buy much of anything.

The challenges never deterred Alejandro--perhaps because his mother wouldn't allow that to happen. "She would say, 'I don't care if there is nothing to eat. You will study,'" Alejandro recalled. "She would always tell me crying: 'Do you want to live like me? Do you want to have this life?"'  Alejandro's answer is what kept him in school: 'no.'

Little by little, the family's economic situation improved. Eventually, his mother and stepfather separated and his mom started to work. Since 2005 she has kept the same job working as a cleaning person at the UPEA (the university in El Alto). As she made more money (approximately $200/month), she was able to provide more for her family.

Alejandro also started working to help support his mother and his younger siblings. Since the age of 14 he has worked for privately owned buses calling out neighborhood names to passengers and collecting bus fares. "I worked every weekend," he said, "I would get up at 5am and I would get home around 7pm. In total, I earned about 60-80 Bs. for whole weekend [approximately $10 US]."  It's a job he kept throughout his time at the College--working in El Alto during summer and winter breaks.

In 2007 when he graduated from high school, he wasn't sure what to do with his life. He had his hopes set on entering the military--but he couldn't afford the fees. His mother encouraged him to go to college--though she hadn't considered he would go as far away as the Yungas, which is a solid 4-5 hour trip from the El Alto.

"I wanted to pursue my goal of being a professional. Before, in high school, someone had told me about the UAC model and it sounded like the right option for me," he said.  Four years later, he remembers when he first came to Carmen Pampa to register for classes at the College. "The secretary at the time told me that there were scholarships--and that is something that really spoke to me. I decided in that moment that this was the place for me; a place where I could make it."

Though his mom was worried about costs, Alejandro said between his mother's support and his weekend work in coca fields, he has been able to cover the subsidized costs. And then two years ago he was awarded a scholarship, which has allowed him to really focus on his studies and have the money necessary to pay for additional things like: school supplies and bus fare. The scholarship, he said, has allowed him to stay in school and stay on track.

His goal? Alejandro says he will achieve the dream of changing the future for his family...and his own life. "Thanks to the College for opening the doors to me--everything it's offered to me--I am going to change!" He said that in a few years from now when he is "making decent money" he looks forward to the giving back to the UAC-CP. "I'd like to look for a young person like me who I could help sponsor--you know, someone like me. My goal is that within three years from now, I'll be helping other people like me to study."

He also hopes to help other people living in the rural area by providing them with technical assistance necessary to improve their own lives. "I'm here [at the College] so that I can learn how to teach people how we can improve lives--through better agricultural systems and practices." Though he spent most of his short life in the city, he wants to live in Bolivia's rural area.

"The situation that life has presented me has only given me more desire to keep going; more desire to survive and be successful in the future. I'm most grateful to my mother for making me keep my promise to be the future for our family. And I'm grateful to the College for giving me the opportunity to be something in my life."

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