This week: fabulous friend and international activist Dr. Monica Paulson Priebe! And, oh yeah, it’s her birthday tomorrow too! (I swear that is not my selection criteria for this column!)
Hi Monica, what are you up to these days?
Hi Tara. I am teaching ecology classes at Portland State University in Portland, Oregon. I love teaching as it allows me to couple my passion for education with the environment. This coming fall I am hoping to also be teaching at Mount Hood Community College.
Do these ecology classes build off of what you did in Peace Corps?
It does. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in El Quiche, Guatemala. I was there to help develop ecotourism projects that were sustainable on the environment yet gave locals a way to earn an income off the land without de-foresting or degrading it. It was challenging to get people to commit to tourist revenue 10 years in the future when the community had such pressing needs in the present. El Quiche is in the area of Guatemala most severely affected by the 36 year civil war and, needless to say, it is still extremely impoverished. Rural villages suffer the most as they have the least amount of access to infrastructure like roads, clean water and schools. That is what started the idea of a scholarship program.
Wow! You started a scholarship program?
Public school is not free in Guatemala like it is in the United States and the $120-$250 yearly fees are an unobtainable goal for many rural Guatemalan families that earn the equivalent of $5 US a day. Together with a dear friend and a teacher in Guatemala at the time, Sherry Miller, we started a scholarship program that gives merit-based scholarships so rural youth without financial resources can continue their education.
The program is helping over 70 students with full ride scholarships this year alone. It is going so well, in fact, that we are now looking to expand it to University students. In Guatemala, the public university is only about $500 a year, unlike here in the States, so this is an obtainable goal.
Do any particular kids stand out in your memory?
Absolutely. Many times these students are helping raise their siblings, helping with the planting and harvesting and getting up before dawn to do their daily chores before leaving for school. One of our scholarship recipients used to make the tortillas for her three siblings and her mother starting at 4am. She would run the 5 miles to school in order to be there in time for morning classes. After school let out, she would run all the way home to be back in time to prepare the dinner for the family. She became so accustomed to running that when the town of Uspantan held a foot race she won by a wide margin. The race organizers had thought that she might win because they knew she ran so much and so the grand prize that year was a bicycle. Now she bikes to school and home every day and has more time to help her family and to do her homework.
There are other stories that bring tears to my eyes, like a father that was on his death-bed and told his family that he was waiting to hear if his daughter had received the scholarship she had applied for. The awards were announced that day and she had earned and been awarded a scholarship. She ran to the hospital to tell her father and he smiled and smiled and thanked the heavens and then passed away with tears in his eyes. This memory makes me tear up to this day. This program changes lives–I have seen it happen. It is helping raise the average level of education in these rural communities one student at a time.
How can people get involved and help out?
People can visit our website: www.becasuspantan.com to find out more and learn how to donate. There are many more stories and lots of pictures of students on there. One of my favorites is of a mother signing for her son’s scholarship with her thumb as she is illiterate and cannot sign her name. She is giving her child an opportunity that she never had.
Donations can be made in any amount and people can team together to get a scholarship. These actually make great gifts for Father’s day or for birthdays or even weddings for people who value education. There is no overhead, as we are volunteer-run, and every dollar donors send goes directly to students.