- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 21, 2003

The mountains of Bolivia hide more than poverty and drugs. In one of them, young indigenous people have set up a university, hoping that education will ensure them better salaries and help solve their communities’ problems in nutrition, health and agriculture.

The United Nations Subcommittee for the Eradication of Poverty recognized the initiative this week as one of three top projects to fight poverty anywhere in the world.

Located about 100 miles northeast of La Paz, the Bolivian capital, the Peasant Academic Unit of Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP) was opened by the group Franciscans International 11 years ago and now has about 600 students, mostly Aymaran and Quechuan Indians from rural areas.

The project began when American missionary Mary Damon Nolan went to teach in Bolivia in 1980. She soon realized that high school education was not really making a difference for the locals because, after graduating, they went back to the same old jobs for which no education was required.

University education was not a possibility for them, either.

“The families knew they didn’t need an associate diploma. They needed a bachelor’s degree. … The biggest struggle was to convince others of the importance of educating peasants,” Mrs. Nolan said in an interview.

It took years to do the necessary fund raising and obtain the approval of the Catholic University to recognize the degree. Finally, in 1994, the first 54 students started in a room with plywood divisions that has turned into several buildings.

Now the education they receive at UAC-CP empowers indigenous women to challenge their families’ beliefs that women must dedicate their lives to raising children. Instead, some of them are becoming nurses or veterinarians and participate in the decision-making process that affects their communities.

It also opens doors for young men who normally would not make more than $200 a year. Now, not only are they better off financially, but they also possess skills the members of their communities usually lack.

Mrs. Nolan said these efforts are particularly important for a country like Bolivia, where weeks of protests left more than 80 people dead and resulted in the resignation of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada.

Mrs. Nolan, who visited Washington last week, said she was hardly surprised after years of corruption, injustice and poverty.

“Education is the key — it will take care of corruption and injustice,” she said. “But there is no real interest in rural education. Teachers are not prepared and classes are not continuous.”

To fight these restrictions, the university provides scholarships and cheaper tuition to its students. In exchange, they work in projects of public benefit, and their theses must address real problems in their neighborhoods, she said.

So far, 16 students have graduated and another 80 already defended their theses, Mrs. Nolan said.

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