Tuesday, November 27, 2012

sister chris

I first heard of the legendary Sr. Chris Cullen nearly 10 years ago when I arrived to Carmen Pampa. Local high school graduates, UAC-CP students, Carmen Pampa community members, former visitors and volunteers, and members of the Franciscan community often told stories of a tough Irish nun who was a mainstay in Carmen Pampa. She contributed in many ways to education in Bolivia's rural area several years before the College existed. She loved sports, driving her tractor, and putting students to work.  She was tenacious and sharp, they said.

Sr. Chris pictured with UAC-CP Veterinary Science thesis student Raymundo Semo.
Though I officially met Sr. Chris (or Hermana Christina, as locals call her) for the first time a couple years ago when she briefly visited Carmen Pampa, I didn't really get to know her until she returned to the College last November 2011 and ended up staying for a year...nine months longer than she originally planned.

In the past 12 months, Sr. Chris dug in deep and took on some big projects at the College.  In fact, the same morning she arrived to Carmen Pampa (after an overnight flight from Miami and 6 am arrival to La Paz), Chris had a quick cup of coffee and was off to do repairs on the church.  Her knowledge of plumbing and electricity and general maintenance--not to mention her ability to manage student workers--launched her into a position of welcome authority at the Campus Manning physical plant. (Sr. Chris even helped move along a couple construction projects in the nearby town of Coroico--organizing UAC-CP students to complete road work that was severely behind schedule).  She also quickly became a member of the UAC-CP team--helping with dorm checks, participating in staff meetings, etc.

Sr. Chris managed students doing community service work around campus.
Observing her and her interactions with other people throughout the past year, I can confirm that the things I had always heard about Chris were true: she is tough and she does love to drive (her infamous yellow tractor has since been retired, but she gladly manuevered the Toyota Landcruiser pick-up truck around the mountainous country roads of the Yungas). She is also a sports fanatic (this past Saturday she somehow got out of the group Thanksgiving photo because she had already snuck up to see the soccer game).

But what I had never gleaned from the stories before is that Chris is unassuming and more quiet than loud--she never yells; she respectfully disagrees; she listens closely--even when you think she isn't.  Never quick to make a decision, it's obvious that she mulls things over in her head. She may seem serious and stern--and can hide smiles well--but she has a fabulous sense of humor and a gregarious laugh.  And based on the stories she told of the days when she lived through Bolivian dictatorship in the early 1980s, I also think she is brave. Her commitment to social justice and her ability to work with people is inspiring to me.

Last Friday night students and staff hosted a surprise farewell party for Sr. Chris on the College's lower campus.  Words of appreciation and admiration were shared from all sides. The College's Veterinary Department presented Chris with a vest that was signed with messages from all of her students. The most common messages? "May God bless you, Sister." and "I will miss you." I think the goodbye party was just as important for Sr. Chris as is was for the students; it allowed students to show their gratitude and admiration for a woman they dearly respect... precisely because she loves and respects them.

This morning Sr. Chris boarded American Airlines 922 bound for the U.S. unsure if she will return to Carmen Pampa sooner or later. The only certainty we have for the moment is that she will be truly missed. "Sr Chris left," a UAC-CP volunteer texted me, "I feel like the campus is empty without her voice and truck engine sound. So sad."

Monday, November 12, 2012

the great give together

What has been dubbed the Great Minnesota Give Together is the fourth annual Give to the Max Day. But it's not just for Minnesotans; it's an opportunity for people from all over the world to make donations in a 24-hour period to support Minnesota-based non-profits...like Carmen Pampa Fund.  

This year our goal is to raise $20,000 – the amount required to provide 10 full scholarships to students at the College in Carmen Pampa who demonstrate outstanding academic acheivement and extreme financial need. One full scholarship, which covers the cost of tuition, housing, and membership in the Food Cooperative Program, is $2,000 per year (or, approximately $6.50 per student per day). When you consider the cost of higher education in the U.S., the UAC-CP is providing an amazing investment in the life of a young person....and their family, community, and country.

And yet, the price is far beyond the reach of many UAC-CP students who come from subsistence farming families who struggle to meet basic needs and have no access to student loans.  For many aspiring young people, even the College's heavily subsidized tuition and food costs prohibit them from studying in Carmen Pampa...or at any other university. "If it wasn't for my scholarship," graduates frequently tell me, "I would not have been able to stay in school and graduate."

Unfortunately, the demand is great and scholarships are too few. That is why this year we decided to dedicate our Give to the Max Day to our Scholarship Partners Program Fund. All funds raised on Thursday, November 15, will be used to fund student scholarships at the College. 

Please take the time to make a donation to our Scholarship Partners Program. Gifts of any size help students--who eventually become graduates--succeed! (We have LOTS of examples--I've written about a handful of them on my blog:  Concepción Huanca, Germán Miranda, Gabriel Paco, etc...)

For more information about our Scholarship Partners Program, please read our most recent newsletter available online.

Friday, November 9, 2012

welcome back paco

It's always fun when graduates return to Carmen Pampa for a visit. But it's an extra special treat when UAC-CP graduates return on a professional basis to share experiences with current students.

Gabriel Paco is a 2007 Agronomy graduate.

Gabriel Paco, a 2007 Agronomy graduate, is back at the College this week as part of a special workshop about biodigesters. Gabriel said he's expecting more than 100 people (students, faculty, and local community members) to participate in the 3-day course, which is sponsored by CARITAS, Catholic Relief Services (CRS), and the German Agency for Development (GTZ).

The workshop is part of an on-going project, which Gabriel has been contracted by CRS to design. He will also oversee the building of the biodigesters and train people how to construct, manage, and use them.  

Gabriel explained that the biodigesters are something that can be constructed for a total cost of approximately 2,000 Bolivianos each ($300 US), which is a sizeable up-front investment for many Bolivians, but over time is a money saver.  Gabriel set up an outdoor learning lab at the College, where he constructed a model biodigester for the workshop and future use. Nestled in the ground, the giant plastic pouch measures approximately 13 feet long and, according to Gabriel, has the capacity to process approximately 20 kilos (44 pounds) per day of organic waste, which in turn will produce 2-4 hours worth of gas. The sample biodigester is currently being fed kitchen scraps from the College's food cooperative and three additional food kiosks where students, faculty, and staff on Campus Leahy eat. (An additional biodigester on the College's lower campus is being constructed that will process waste from the UAC-CP's hog farm.)

Gabriel demonstrates how the biodigester produces gas. The gas can be stored for later use.

As part of the project, Gabriel has also been contracted to revive the College's recycling center, which he originally helped to develop in 2002. (He laughed when I reminded him that people called him Mister Garbage--a nickname he was proud to have, he admitted.)  His vision is for the College to have a recycling program that serves as a regional center for education on the topic of waste management and recycling.

Gabriel originally left his position at the UAC-CP as coordinator of the recycling center six years ago. "I always said, since the very beginning, I have to learn more things in order to be able to teach students here. I would have loved to have graduated from the UAC-CP and immediately come back to teach here, but with what kind of experience?"

A sign for the biodigester workshop that was posted on campus.

Since he left, Gabriel has had a lot of different professional experiences. He's worked with the Italian Development Agency and later he did consulting work for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) on a project for Lake Titicaca (both Gabriel and his brother Juan Carlos, who is also a UAC-CP graduate, are originally from a small community near the world-famous lake). For the past five years, Gabriel has worked primarily with the German Development Agency (GTZ).  Most recently, Gabriel has been teaching classes at the public university in El Alto and colleges on the Altiplano. He also does consulting work for smaller NGOs. "Next year," Gabriel said laughing, but with all seriousness, "I want to return to teach here!"

For now, the married father of three who lives with his family in La Paz, works as a consultant; he is primarily focused on projects related to water and the environment, like composting and biogesters.  Currently, he is working in the Department of Potosi, south of La Paz, with the GTZ as a technical advisor on projects related to maintenance of water use and the installation of water pumps. "I go around on a motorcycle to all areas to be able to reach communities that need our help." It is, Gabriel said, a great way to learn about and get to know his country and the people who live in Bolivia. He's happy, he said, to have the experience.

As always, we're happy to have Gabriel back at the UAC-CP to share his experience. "I come here with so much love and care for this place," Gabriel said of his alma mater. "As a graduate, I'm proud to be here; I'm here to help the UAC-CP move forward."