Educating indigenous students

Photo caption: The Carmen Pampa campus. (John Enders/GlobalPost)

CARMEN PAMPA, Bolivia — Some come from nearby villages just over the next mountain ridge. Others must walk or ride a bus for hours over frigid Andean mountain passes. Regardless of their origin, they have one thing in common: they are rural indigenous students looking for a high-quality, low-cost college education.

Here at Carmen Pampa residential college (it’s formal, somewhat Soviet-sounding name is Peasant Academic Unit-Carmen Pampa) they find just that – a campus housing 700 students and about 50 faculty members and administrators specializing in agronomy, horticulture, business, nursing and teacher training. Except for summer vacations, this will be their home for the next four or five years.

Carmen Pampa’s goals are simple: to teach students to grow better crops, raise healthier animals, serve the medical needs of their communities and train better teachers — and if they start their own businesses, more power to them. Because of its proximity to Coroico, a burgeoning, internationally known center for adventure bicycling, the school recently added eco-tourism to its curriculum.

“If it weren’t for this place, lots of these students would still be working on farms,” said Andres Pardo Asllani, Carmen Pampa’s education director. Pardo himself comes from the Alto Beni region of Bolivia, a remote part of the country where rivers, not roads, are the main thoroughfares.

The government of Evo Morales, himself an Aymara Indian, has pledged to construct several new universities that will offer classes in indigenous languages and teach culture, humanities and some of the same sciences as Carmen Pampa.

The Casimiro Huanca University in the town of Chimore in the central Chapare region will conduct courses in the Quechua language, the Inca language spoken by a majority in that part of Bolivia. The Tupac Katari University, in Warisata near La Paz in Bolivia’s altiplano region, will teach classes in the Aymara language, the largest language group in the country. And the Apiaguaiki Tumpa University in the Chuquisaca province in southeast Bolivia will teach in the Guarani language, the third-largest language group.

Though the plans have been announced, Morales’s socialist government so far has made little progress in getting the new universities off the ground. In a notoriously politicized environment, that may be no surprise. The country’s education minister, Roberto Aguilar, has said the indigenous universities will be “an expression of the democratic and cultural revolution” that Morales and his government are carrying out.

Meanwhile, the country’s public schools and teaching institutes are undergoing a nationwide reform to include native languages in their curricula. Teachers will be required to learn one native and one foreign language, in addition to Spanish. At Carmen Pampa, teachers are versed in Aymara and teach English, but most classes are in Spanish.

The idea is for advanced education to be available to the long-excluded indigenous majority in Bolivia. Carmen Pampa has been doing that for years. Virtually all of its students are indigenous because of its emphasis on rural and poorer students. A United Nations committee report in 2003 cited Carmen Pampa as one of the leading examples around the world of how best to eradicate poverty.

Most activities here are oriented toward the practical. Students raise pigs in a shed not far from one of the computer labs. They bake bread in a massive brick oven within hailing distance of an entomological lab that is partly funded by a major American university. A coffee-roasting operation offsets the cost of operating classrooms, its income dependent on market conditions.

In addition to its four-year curriculum, Carmen Pampa offers applicants who are not yet ready for college one year of “pre-university” remedial courses. Most students receive financial aid and work on campus or in nearby Coroico to offset tuition costs.

On any given day, young male and female students jam into cramped dorm rooms to cram for exams — or goof off a bit if they’re done with their day’s work. Soccer and American-style basketball are popular and students are free to walk the five miles into Coroico if they have money to spend or families to visit. Students speak easily about why they’ve come to Carmen Pampa and the discussion always revolves around the concept of service, which is key to the mission of Carmen Pampa.

“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.