Swarthmore Goes To El Chaco, Argentina

In the Fall of 2011, a group of Swarthmore students studying abroad in Buenos Aires, Argentina took a 20-hour, 789-mile bus ride from the cosmopolitan capital to the rural northwestern town of Miraflores as part of the program’s recently launched Chaco Initiative. There they had the opportunity to directly experience, connect with, and make an impact upon a lifestyle that contrasted sharply with that which they had enjoyed in the capital.Associate Professor of History and Swarthmore in Buenos Aires Program Coordinator Diego Armus extolled the benefits of the Initiative as a means by which students can become “immersed in a very low-income area where they will not be passive spectators of the reality but instead act upon and learn from it.”Miraflores is located in Chaco, the second poorest province in the county, where 49.3% of the population lives below the poverty line and 17.5% of children aged 2 to 5 lack proper nutrition.“[The village] is a more than adequate social environment for students to live in a quotidian reality radically different from the one they experience in Buenos Aires, where modernity, metropolitan rush, and intense academic work mark their lives,” Armus said.The focal point of the students’ visit to the village involved teaching workshops to students attending Secondary School Nº 168. These workshops covered a range of topics, including basic computer skills, English lessons, how to use a library, hygiene, and photography.

In addition to the workshops, students also brought assorted supplies for the school, including bookshelves and books to start a small library and computers for teachers to use. Students also organized outdoor movie screenings for the community and got the chance to connect with the school’s teachers as well as local families, radio stations and political authorities.

Senior Zach Nacev elaborated on his own experiences connecting with villagers and the impact his visit had on the students. “After the workshops were done we went out to dinner with some of the teachers from the school and one gave me a note and a gift from one of the students in the workshop. The gift was a statue of a bird that she told me her family made. The note told me that she loved the workshop and they were lucky to have us come to teach them. She also said that she liked school and wanted to be math teacher when she grew up,” Nacev said.

Nacev further commented on value that his visit as an American held for the students; “I don’t want to overstate what it is we do in Chaco, but I think that the note and gift I got from that girl that I briefly taught a few words of English shows that American student visits are valuable to the students there in Chaco.”

Senior Michael Fleischmann regarded the immediacy and novelty of experience that the visit allowed him as the most enriching aspect of his work there. “For me the real thrust of the trip was going to a part of Argentina that I would otherwise not have visited. In that same vein, I took a lot of value in getting to meet the people there, who also were a group of people I would have never met otherwise.”

Fleischmann further stated that the trip added greatly to his study abroad experience and has influenced him to continue his humanitarian work with other groups in the future. “I felt before the trip I had fallen into a rut in Buenos Aires and the trip really helped me to refresh my perspective on my semester abroad and also on life as a whole as well. It reminded me of the work I do with Pemon Health and motivated me to really get more involved with them again,” said Fleischmann.

While the Chaco Initiative has proved popular with students and fostered many small but significant successes in Miraflores, there is still much more work that can be done there. Thus, the program is looking towards various on-campus funding sources so that it can continue to provide beneficial services for village students and broadening experiences for students studying abroad.

“It is necessary to find ways to improve the resources in the rural schools with the help of funding through the Swarthmore community,” Armus said. “Students who went to Miraflores, as well as Swarthmore in Buenos Aires staff and faculty, have already expressed their intention of establishing an ongoing relationship with these rural schools in hope of improving the education, livelihood, and resources available to this isolated community.”

Senior Erin Curtis, who visited the village twice in the course of her two semesters spent in Argentina, personally witnessed the impact that the program’s work had on the students and believes that the program can continue to positively affect the community.

“It was great to go back and see the library in use, and we hope to get more funding to be able to put more books on their shelves. I’d love to see the program continue in a way that truly benefits the Miraflores community. I think the partnership is a really valuable thing and can bring much-needed resources to the students of the region,” said Curtis.

The Chaco Initiative was started two years ago when students of Swarthmore in Buenos Aires proposed to enhance the highly urban experience of studying in the Argentinian capital with an opportunity to experience and positively affect the country’s less-developed rural areas.

The program’s staff and faculty, many of whom had been heavily involved in Popular Education, a broad movement in Latin American countries encompassing formal and informal educational initiatives in poor urban and rural areas, enthusiastically received this proposal.

The Initiative’s work is done in conjunction with APAER, an unaffiliated Argentinian organization that seeks to solve problems of malnutrition, ill health, deteriorating school facilities, ecological damage, and lack of basic teaching supplies that plague the poorest provinces of the country. The organization provides students with basic needs such as clothing, footwear, and school supplies while supporting teachers in their pedagogical mission and children in their education.

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