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Educating indigenous students

Most activities at Carmen Pampa are practical: Students raise pigs not far from a computer lab.

“I want to teach the people in my community how to improve their crop production so they can live better on the little land that they have,” said Vladdy Chavez, 21, and in his fourth and final year here. Chavez is from Apolo, a remote town in northern La Paz Department.

Nursing students here study traditional as well as modern medicine, and as part of their training spend time in local communities treating people for malnutrition, teaching them to avoid mosquito-borne diseases, such as malaria and dengue, and other waterborne and bacterial illnesses common to the region. In some rural communities, the Carmen Pampa students are the only medical personnel ever to visit.

Fernando Salazar, 36, is one of Carmen Pampa’s few non-traditional students because of his age. He is from Munaypata, a small community near Coroico, where his family owns a small parcel of land. After graduating, he plans to return home to start a butterfly-growing business, raising them from caterpillars, freeing some, selling others. “I want to be an extensionista,” he said, using the Spanish term for extension agent.

“There is national and international demand for some species from the Yungas,” Salazar said. “There are museums and collectors who want to buy them as chrysalis so that they can hatch them, and also as mounted specimens.” He hopes to obtain formal approval from the national Environment Ministry for his project.

Carmen Pampa was founded by an American Roman Catholic nun, Damon Nolan, who has since returned to the United States for health reasons. Though it operates under a partnership agreement with Catholic University, it receives no funding from them.

Backers in Minnesota have established a nonprofit organization to raise money for the campus. The U.S. Agency for International Development has provided funds for infrastructure and Carmen Pampa has built academic partnerships with several American and other universities.

The estimated cost of educating each student is about $2,000 per year. Students pay less than a fourth of that, with the balance coming from grants, donations, sponsored scholarships and money-making projects run by the college, such as coffee, pork or artisan sales.

One of the most striking successes has been the case of nursing graduate Maria Eugenia Quispe. She recently was awarded a full scholarship to study for a master’s degree in public health at the Austral Catholic University in Santiago, Chile, from where she responded to several questions via email.

Growing up in the Luribay Valley in La Paz Department, an Aymara community about 90 miles from La Paz, Quispe had few educational opportunities, so her mother sent her to live with a friend in La Paz where she had access to better schools. When she heard about Carmen Pampa, she knew she wanted to attend. Arriving in 1996 as a “pre-university” student, at first she was “afraid of all the unfamiliar people,” she said. But she soon came to consider those around her a “family.”

As a student nurse, Quispe worked in nearby communities helping disabled children. Today, a single mother living in a foreign country, she is completing work on her master’s thesis and proudly notes her membership in the nursing honor society Sigma Theta Tau.

Her training at Carmen Pampa has given her a career, she said, and when she returns to Bolivia her focus will be on the medical problems faced by the poorest segments of Bolivian society: infectious diseases, malnutrition, tuberculosis, dysentery.

“The experience I have had at Carmen Pampa has been unforgettable,” Quispe said. There, she said, she received “protection, security, tenderness, and a college education.”

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Andres Pardo Asllani and the name of the Peasant Academic Unit.