Monday, March 26, 2012

germán miranda

"The mission of the UAC-CP, as I understand it, is that you come here to work and that you can later return to the places that are most in need and help those people. The other piece is the moral and ethical component that we learn here. That's the difference between this place and other places; it's the difference between those who graduate from the UAC-CP and those who graduate from other universities."  --Germán Miranda, UAC-CP Agronomy thesis student

Like many Bolivians, I find 22-year-old Germán Arcangel Miranda to be naturally curious; he is inquisitive in a charming and noninvasive way. He craves information in all forms. Which, probably explains how the UAC-CP Agronomy major came across my blog online (he confessed to me one day that he likes to read my blog with the help of google translator).

I'm guessing his genuine curiosity also correlates to the fact that Germán is an exceptional student. During his four years at the College in Carmen Pampa, he has consistently been recognized as one of the top two students in the Agronomy Department (a fact he modestly confirms when I inquire). Professors tell me Germán even attends classes or special workshops that aren't required of him because, in Germán's own words: "I want to take advantage of every opportunity to be here and learn."

Apart from being academically gifted, Germán exudes such pure goodness and gentleness that I can't help but find him incredibly endearing.  He is the type of person you hope only receives kindness in life because he deserves nothing less.

When Germán tells me his life story, shares his passion for learning, and confesses his life aspirations,  I am reminded of why the College in Carmen Pampa exists: to provide aspiring young people from marginalized populations with access to higher education and the opportunity to improve their lives and the lives of their families and communities. Germán is the mission of the College in action.

Germán comes from the rural community of Atén, which is located about 17 hours by bus northeast of La Paz and about one hour by public transportation from the nearest town of Apolo--ie. the nearest high school, hospital, food market, transportation hub, etc. (When I originally asked Germán how far he lives from Apolo, he clarified by asking if I meant by foot, on a bicycle, or in a vehicle. Transportation isn't frequent, so it's common to make the 7-8 hour walk to town or a three hour bike ride.)

Germán estimates that there are about 50 families that live in his home village Atén and most of the inhabitants identify with the quickly disappearing Leco ethnic group.  They are farmers who mostly produce corn, bananas, and sugar cane. Their homes are made of mud and stick and roofs are thatch. Electricity and running water only arrived to Atén within the past couple of years; all of Germán's life prior to the UAC was spent daily collecting water from a waterfall and studying by candlelight at night. ("I never saw a computer until I arrived to Carmen Pampa in 2008," he told me.)

In addition to cash crops, Germán's family also harvests incense. Three times a year, he joins his family and neighbors (who participate in ayni) to make a multiple-day journey on foot, carrying provisions up to 50-60lbs each, until they arrive deep in the jungle where they set up a base camp, of sorts, to collect incense, which is later sold for traditional and religious purposes in Bolivia. Since the age of 11, Germán has participated in the multiple-week harvests. One time, he stayed up to one month in the jungle; he remembered water and food being scarce.

The second oldest of four children, Germán's parents never had the opportunity to study past the 8th grade. Perhaps that is why they place such a high value on their children's education. Germán studied in a one-room school house, which offered no opportunity to study past the 8th grade. Common situations like this force young people, like many of those studying at the UAC-CP, to make difficult decisions: go away to study at a boarding high school or quit school and start working. Germán and his family made the sacrifice to choose the former. He graduated from the high school in Apolo in 2006.

Somewhat surprisingly, Germán didn't go to the UAC-CP immediately after high school. Based on superb test scores, he was one of a chosen few to be accepted to a public Bolivian university in La Paz. But academic, food, and living costs were too much. He was forced to drop out after one month and returned to Atén to work for all of 2007.

The College in Carmen Pampa, Germán said, gave him the chance he could otherwise not afford. "A lot of the universities [in Bolivia]--the opportunities--are concentrated in the urban areas. ...the best high schools, the colleges... Those of us who live in communities really far away...we are left out. Our schools are really poor, we share teachers in one room, we have no access to materials, and the government breakfast program offered in the big cities doesn't find its way to us in the countryside."  

"But the UAC-CP," Germán said, "is a huge exception. Here, they give us so many possibilities."

When I ask him about his thesis project--a requirement for graduation from the UAC-CP--he smiles. It's obvious that Germán loves talking about his thesis. He explained that it's about the vanilla orchid that produces the vanilla bean, which is at risk of extinction in parts of Bolivia. His research is to determine ways to propagate the orchid in laboratories for replanting. To do this, he's looking at key factors to planting new seedlings: evaluating shade levels and two types of pesticides (organic and chemical) that both fight a common fungus that attacks the sensitive orchid. Germán also hopes to help educate people about the economic and social importance of cultivating the unique and quickly disappearing plant. The Bolivian chocolate company El CEIBO, internationally recognized for its products, is particularly interested in Germán's thesis results for business purposes and have helped with limited financing.

Once he defends his thesis project and graduates from the UAC-CP, Germán wants to continue studying. "I would like to get a master's degree in a specialized area; maybe forest systems or the environment."  He hopes to find a scholarship to make this dream come true. (Germán is grateful for his scholarship that financed his education at the UAC-CP.)

Inspired by the mission of the College, Germán also feels called to return to his home community, where he is particularly interested in working to recuperate plant species that are at risk of extinction. "If I have the opportunity, I would like to return to Atén--where they really need my help." His family and other farming families in his community produce in what he calls "inexpert" ways. "[At the UAC-CP] I've learned new ways and ideas about improving techniques," Germán said. "Even when I've gone home over vacation, I have taught people from my community about different ways of farming--organic production, composting, etc."

Gárman hopes his parents will be able to make the multi-day trip to attend the thesis defense. "My parents always wanted me to be someone in life. They are very happy with the education I have received here in Carmen Pampa." Considering the incredible young man that he is, Germán's parents have a lot to be proud of when it comes to their son's accomplishments and vision for the future.

In fact, I think anyone who contributes to the College's success has reason to be proud; you have provided the gift of opportunity for young people like Germán--talented men and women who have the ability to turn possibilities into life-changing realities.