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UWRF graduates, retired professor teach in Bolivia

March 5, 2009

A retired UW-River Falls professor and two recent graduates have spent the past few months teaching English at a university in Bolivia.

Former communication studies and theater arts professor Pat Hanson retired after last semester and has been in Bolivia since the beginning of February. She coordinated the partnership between the University and the school in Bolivia three years ago.

This marks her third trip to the country, each time bringing students and professors.

“The school is attached to the Catholic University of Bolivia…Unidad Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa (UAC-CP),” Hanson said in an e-mail interview. “I have a shirttail relative who co-founded this school in the Andes 15 years ago to help eradicate poverty through education.”

Getting started

So far, Hanson has not been teaching English and is an unpaid volunteer. However, recent UWRF graduates Andy Engel and Sam Clair do receive a “modest compensation” for their teaching. Instead, Hanson said she does public relations activities and fundraising for the university, as well as assisting with creating a “comprehensive approach to the teaching of English.”

Engel, who graduated from UWRF in 2008 with a degree in political science and international studies, said his decision to go to Bolivia was due to a desire to “do something valuable” and work with the poor.

“I found out about UAC-CP because of Brent Greene [of the Global Connections office] who knew about the connection between the two universities,” he said in an e-mail interview. “Bolivia made a lot of sense to me because it’s so poor and there is still so much racial injustice here.”

Clair, a May 2008 graduate of UWRF with a degree in history, said Greene also helped him discover and take advantage of this opportunity.

“Not having any experience in teaching, and only minor knowledge of Spanish, I felt I had perhaps bitten off more than I could handle,” he said in an e-mail interview. “However, I was already looking for a fast way to learn Spanish, and wanted experience in a classroom…for me, I simply fell into a situation that could not have worked more perfectly.”

Engel said he, Clair and the other English teachers get paid about $100 per month, “which is enough to simply live on.” However, he also noted that a lot of what he does goes unpaid, including planning, extra English classes and project management.

“The money I’m paid roughly equals that of a day-laborer in Bolivia,” Clair said.

Daily life in Bolivia

For Hanson, a typical day in Bolivia consists of eating breakfast with the nuns that live in the convent near the university. She then writes and pitches story ideas to mainstream media back in the U.S., and reaches out to potential donors.

The rest of her day is usually spent doing an array of administrative duties. She also shops and helps students practice their English speaking skills. Every night, one of the volunteers or teachers is responsible for cooking dinner. In the evening, she said, there is not much to do.

“After dinner we might sit in the living room—all huddled around a laptop—watching a movie or TV series,” she said.

Engel said that his schedule is not much different in Bolivia than it was in the U.S.—“wake up and shower, make breakfast, go to work, come home, relax, go to sleep,” he said.

However, the details are quite different.  The shower is heated by an electric coil on the end of the faucet. Cooking is on small gas stoves. His travel relies on mini buses called “movilidad” to the nearby town of Coroico.

“They cost about 50 cents and don’t operate on a schedule, leaving only when full,” he said. “As you can imagine, sometimes we have to wait hours and hours.”

Clair said that when buses are not available, he has a one kilometer walk up the mountain to reach the university.

“It is after this ‘commute’ I can begin to work,” he said. “My favorite mornings are those spent in the school’s garden…I am helping out there this semester where work begins between 7 a.m. and 8 a.m.”

Engel also said he agreed with Hanson that nights can be somewhat dull without a TV or telephone.

“The students spend most of the night kicking around a soccer ball, sometimes Sam and I join in,” he said. “The barracks [like dorms] lock down at 11 p.m. so the town gets pretty quiet…there are no bars and using the term ‘restaurant’ with anything around here is being pretty liberal.”

Challenges

One of the greatest challenges that Hanson has faced since her time in Bolivia is the fact that “three years into our partnership with this school we still don’t have a comprehensive approach to the teaching of English,” she said. “But we’re working on it.”

Engel said that the slow, laid back lifestyles prominent in Bolivia have been hard to adjust to.

“Coming from the U.S. it seemed relaxing at first [slow pace of life] but it’s also horribly frustrating at times,” he said. “It’s all hard but it builds patience, something I have always lacked…coming back to the States I’ll be absolutely ‘unfrustratable.’”

Clair said the greatest challenge he has faced so far has been not having a lot of teaching experience or Spanish language abilities.

“These are classes to learn English, but still a certain amount of instruction has to be done in the students’ native language,” he said. “Apart from this, I had zero materials to work with. With just a blackboard and piece of chalk, lesson plans were dependent solely on me.”

A rewarding experience

Though she will leave Bolivia in mid-May, Hanson said she has had many memorable experiences so far. One of her favorite experiences was a haircutting ceremony that took place in a nearby village two weeks ago. She explained that in Bolivia, there is a ceremony when a child’s hair is cut for the first time.

“We all cut a lock of the child’s hair and placed it on a plate with whatever amount of money we were comfortable contributing to the child’s welfare,” Hanson said.

Engel and Clair have both been in Bolivia since last July and plan on staying until this July, although Engel said he has been thinking about staying an extra six months.

“I could keep working here at the UAC or find something else in the country,” he said. “I left our fine UWRF with some loans that I have to come home to pay off, otherwise I could see myself spending a long time here. One year felt like a long time before I came, [but] I’m already afraid to leave.”

Hanson said the most rewarding part of the job, however, is “watching the young UWRF grads make a contribution.” She also noted that Engel and Clair are the fourth and fifth UWRF students to come here.

“All have taught English,” she said. “All have been extremely well received.”

For Engel, the most rewarding experiences have come from getting to know the students better.

“They all have heartbreaking stories,” he said. “You don’t have to look for inspiration here; anytime I have been foolish enough to think that I am special in any way I meet someone who has accomplished so much coming from so little that I feel like a Senator’s son.”