International Student Leaders Learn, Grow at UA

The UA offers an institute twice annually for student leaders from Latin American countries. The intent is to help students build skills and relationships to improve sustainability efforts back home.

By La Monica Everett-Haynes, University Communications July 6, 2010

Twice annually, international students from Latin America visit the University of Arizona to network and improve their social and environmental justice-oriented leadership skills.

Students accepted into the UA's Western Hemisphere Institute are already engaged in cultural, political and environmental activities, "but benefit greatly from additional education and training," said Alberto Arenas, an associate professor of teaching, learning and sociocultural studies.

"What we are doing is providing them with theoretical and practical tools to help them to either keep on doing the wonderful work they are already doing back home or to start a new line of community work," Arenas said, noting that the institute supports 40 students annually.

Arenas co-directs the institute with Marcela Vásquez-León, an associate professor with appointments in the UA's School of Anthropology, Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and Center for Latin American Studies.

In July, both will welcome the next group of students for the institute, which is entering its third year with funding from the U.S. Department of State.

Students spend five weeks at the UA learning about the history and culture of the U.S., non-governmental organizations, the arts, environmental sustainability and American Indian communities. The group's visit concludes with an academic and cultural tour, which includes visits to Boston, New York City and Washington, D.C.

The UA program is geared toward Spanish-speaking students, many of whom are Indigenous or Afro-Latin American. Previously, the program has accepted students from 10 countries, including Bolivia, Guatemala, Mexico, Paraguay and Peru.

As the institute prepares for another group of students, here are some of the stories of its alumni:

Renata Távara Rodrich, Peru

Távara Rodrich, a University of Piura student when she applied to the institute, was working on a project teaching leadership skills to youth from a small, rural village and is involved in an effort to connect youth from various countries in Peru.

She graduated last year after studying history and cultural management and is now working on her thesis, studying museums and networks in Peru and in other parts of the world.

Távara Rodrich said she was especially drawn to teachings on democracy, education, immigration, conservation, tourism, museum management and the work of non-governmental organizations.

"This experience helped me to learn skills as a leader, and specifically on what I was studying," said Távara Rodrich, who plans to pursue graduate studies. "The development of our culture and tourism in Peru needs new professionals with planning and strategy vision and that won’t work without training."

When she returned to Peru, she became involved with a non-governmental organization improving access to full-length movies and short films.

"As a result of the program, I discovered that even if I am a young person, I should get involved in the development of my city, and as a leader I have a sense of duty to encourage other people to be part of it," she said. "Participation is the way to get things changed."

Carlos Cortez, El Salvador

Cortez, who has long been working to help preserve and revitalize the Nahuatl language among the Pipil population, took a keen interest in the UA program.

The university student, who is currently in the third year of an engineering program, has been working to help develop a translator that would convert Nahuatl to Spanish. He also is helping to develop a linguistic database of the language.

Cortez said he was especially drawn to the program at the UA and in learning about members of the Tohono O'odham Nation – their history, political structures and social systems – feeling that their experience paralleled the lives of his own people.

"I want to be able to help the people of my country," said Cortez of Santo Domingo de Guzmán, noting that social awareness is crucially important.

"I want to be able to interact with people in situations around the world to improve acceptance of many cultural expressions," he said, "and to know more completely about the culture and diversity that exist in the United States."

Luis Toledo, Dominican Republic

Toledo said the future trajectory of a country is in direct correlation with "the character and conviction of its people."

Hence his reasons for taking advantage of the institute.

"I love working for my country. If we empower communities and focus on common projects, it is likely that, over time, we will get extraordinary results," Toledo said.

Over the past year, Toldeo has been working on a project that serves to improve the quality of maternity services for migrant women. Currently, he is working with a network of organizations to improve the rights of young people and to ensure "the visibility of the subjects of youth in different agenda in national tasks."

The institute helped hone his leadership skills and improve connections, he said.

"The moments at the UA were unforgettable," Toledo said. "The acquired knowledge, the fantastic and permanent interpersonal relations with young people of different parts from America and the world – there were simply extraordinary people."

Edwin Francisco Aguirre Allen, Nicaragua

Aguirre Allen has long been involved in a range of youth activities but most recently became actively involved in those focused on cultural, social and environmental development.

"I want for my community and region a focus on bettering conditions of life," he said.

"The experience at the UA was wonderful, and I learned about the history, education, law and culture of the United States," he said.

Today, he trains youth to be leaders and also serves as a human rights activist. In particular, Aguirre Allen encourages youth to avoid dependence on drugs and teaches them about sexually transmitted diseases.

He also helped initiate a project to plant orange and lemon trees in Kukra Hill, his home community, and to teach people about sustaining culturally relevant natural resources.

"One of the fundamentals of this project is the contribution to rescue, restore, sustain and preserve natural resources," he said, adding that his motive is to contribute to the socioeconomic and cultural well being of the municipality.

"I got to understand many things about the United States and also about the skills needed to be a great leader," said Aguirre Allen, who is studying accounting.

"It helps me a lot to become a better person," he added. "You should never been discouraged in your efforts to help others. The people with a dream are more powerful."