Exceptional college students from Latin America will take part in a University of Arizona program that trains future leaders on the history and culture of the United States, as well as environmental sustainability and community leadership.
Students from all over Latin America apply to participate in the Western Hemisphere Institute and are selected by the U.S. State Department.
Assistant professor Alberto Arenas of the College of Education and assistant professor Marcela Vásquez-León of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and Latin American Studies, are the directors of the institute.
They have been awarded a U.S. State Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs grant of almost $400,000 to finance the project in 2008 and 2009.
The students selected for the institute are first-generation college students, are from underserved communities and have shown leadership as university or community organizers. Most of them are also indigenous or of Afro-Latin American descent.
"We found that those who did worst in class did their best work outdoor. Once we knew this, we developed sustainability programs that got these students outdoors and helped raise graduation rates," said Arenas, the institute's principal investigator. He brings a background in environmental sustainability issues, having developed an organic agriculture program for work with at-risk, minority high school students.
"Many of these students are leaving their country for the first time. It's the first time they have been on a plane, or even worked side by side people from other countries," Arenas said.
Community networks also provide an important component to the institute's curriculum, helping the students to build leadership skills and engage in service learning.
Vasquez-Leon's research projects in farming and fishing communities in Latin America have provided a network with universities, communities and students, which she uses to encourage the educational and cultural exchange between UA graduate students and students from Latin America.
The institute fits into her larger mission of improving cultural understanding and exchange through education.
"The institute provides a way for Alberto and I to give back to Latin America – where we are from. The institute offers a unique opportunity for these students to broaden their horizons, create important networks with fellow students from different Latin American countries, and with a variety of local community leaders and faculty and students at the UA," said Vásquez-León.
"As minority community leaders, the institute recognizes their potential as future leaders and contributes with critical knowledge and skills that they can take back. These are Latin America's future leaders, and as minorities, their perspectives are crucial to the building of a more democratic Latin America. They learn from us, but we also learn from them," she added.
Both professors have used their southern Arizona networks to provide the service opportunity for students in the institute. Students have the opportunity to work with organizations such as the Tucson-based Tierra y Libertad (Land and Freedom).
Students from the institute learn about barrio sustainability issues in a southside neighborhood that has engaged community youth in permaculture and tapping into the neighborhood's cultural assets and pride.
The students also learn about alternative construction materials such as rammed earth or papercrete to encourage sustainability and the use of common elements that are more cost effective than cement and are more environmentally friendly.
The six-week institute offers winter and summer sessions that run from February to March and from July to August and accepts over 40 students per year.
"Students in the program leave here as different people, having experienced a new world and seen both the struggles communities here are faced with, along with their successes, but also with a deepened understanding of the U.S., their own leadership skills, and a background in community service that they can apply back home," Arenas said.