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Students present on social change

Robert Singer | Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Barriers to health, education and language, as well as the corrupting influences of racism and sexism, cause economic hardship and social tension in the developing world, according to the 13 Notre Dame students who presented at the “Cultural Differences and Social Change Student Forum” Monday night.

Senior Caitlin Ivester taught English at a high school in the mountains of Costa Rica for two months this past summer. She recalled explaining to her students why it was important for them to learn English.

“As I spoke I realized that my own answer to that question didn’t seem significant,” she said. “Most of them would not travel outside Costa Rica.”

Ivester said that “larger forces were at work,” since, she said, local education initiatives are affected by the global economy. Because Costa Rica is commercially dependent on English-speaking countries, she said, the government mandates that English is a central part of the curriculum.

Many of the students who presented on the international service projects they completed over the summer reported their findings in the larger context of their host region’s cultural history and global economics.

Senior Mary DeAgostino worked for the Global Service Corps’ AIDS education program in Tanzania while also conducting anthropology research. She found that perceptions about gender roles have led to a high infection rate among women.

She proposed gender equality and increased education as part of a solution to the spread of the disease.

“General women’s empowerment can spill over into sexual decision making,” she said.

The problem with one of the major AIDS education programs is its focus on fidelity in marriage as a solution, DeAgostino said.

“Being faithful requires two people and that’s not something you can control as a married person,” she said.

In Sao Paulo, Brazil, senior Casey Engelbert spent time at a prison for female foreigners. He said that many of the women came from South Africa and were imprisoned for smuggling small quantities of drugs into the country.

“A lot of these prisoners are mothers,” he said. “Their motherhood is the number one reason why they decided to smuggle drugs.”

He said they are motivated by “desperation and love of their families” to help make ends meet.

Engelbert said the drug lords employ these women as “scapegoats,” knowing that they will be arrested when they arrive at the Sao Paulo airport. They tip off the authorities so that when the women are arrested, the smugglers who do carry large quantities of contraband escape attention from the police.

Senior Emily Newport focused on “the disconnect between government directives and the local implementation of health initiatives” in Urubamba, Peru that has kept hepatitis-B vaccination programs from working effectively.

Scarcity of resources is not the main problem, Newport said, but rather, programs should attempt to negotiate cultural attitudes and misunderstandings about medicine.

“People didn’t want the vaccine because they were afraid that it might cause their child to die,” she said.

Senior Kerry McGuire worked in Oaxaca, Mexico over the summer to help reintroduce the plant amaranth into the populace’s diet.

High in fiber, protein and calcium, the crop is easier to grow than corn and helps to prevent birth defects, but it was all but eliminated from the region when Spanish colonialists destroyed fields because of the plant’s use in native religious rituals, McGuire said.

Senior Jonathan Kennedy traveled to Bugembe, Uganda to help with a local program that partnered with the Foundation for Sustainable Development.

He criticized development programs of recent decades that have attempted to stimulate growth by providing funds to governments and counting on official leadership to implement policies effectively. According to Kennedy, directly helping the communities and building trust with the people who need help is the best model.

“Empowerment at the grassroots level is the most essential element for development,” he said.

Students Tiffany Nelson, Sarah Miller, Brendan Apfeld, Casey Robinson, Lauren Kummer, Kerry McGuire, Ellen Rolfes and Joe Demott also gave presentations on their summer service projects abroad.