Over the past few weeks you might have had the pleasure of meeting one or more of the 10 students visiting Western Washington University from their homes in distant Peru. With wide-eyed enthusiasm they have taken an array of classes during the winter quarter and thoroughly soaked up the Pacific Northwest’s winter splendor.
Although playing in the snow for the very first time – snowshoeing, skiing, throwing snowballs and making snowmen – wasn’t part of their curriculum, the Peruvians made the most of being the first group of students participating in a new program launched between Western’s Mountain Environments Research Institute and the Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina in Lima.
The visitors came as a result of an agreement of collaboration reached a couple of years ago between the two universities to establish a long-term research and education exchange program in which students study conservation, biological diversity and ecosystem management, as well as to hone English language skills.
La Molina students who showed an interest in the program were chosen based on their interest, academic standing and, of course, English skills – they needed a good understanding of the language to take upper-level classes.
With a range of majors that stretched from business and economics to forestry and fisheries science, seven women and three men were selected to form a very diverse group that included rural students and native Quechua speakers.
Student Raúl Pacsi quickly summoned two reasons he chose to participate.
“On one hand,” he said, “The focus of the program is conservation and management of natural resources,” which relates with his forest engineering major. “On the other hand, the opportunity to study in the United States, where there are many conservation programs and experiences and many things can be learned.”
Once on campus, students took two classes as a group: Conservation of Biological Diversity, and Ecosystem Management. They also attended other classes based upon their interests and majors back home, attending as individuals rather than as a group, to gain a more independent view of campus life.
To make the most of their journey to the U.S., the group welcomed an opportunity to take a weekly Intensive English class offered by Language and Cultural Programs (LCP), which offers a variety of English language programs for learners of all ages and levels, including the Asia University America Program (AUAP), Intensive English, International Youth and Custom Language and Culture programs.
Improving English skills was an important drawing card, according to Kateryne Rocio Ccama Mamani. “I’ve been studying English for almost two years and I always had problems with my listening skills,” she said. “So now I have been able to listen more than before I come to the U.S. …Now, as I have taken the IEP (Intensive English Program), I’ve learned a lot of new words to speak in English.”
Supporting the bottom-line purpose of the program, instructors and students took to the road for class field trips to some of the most diverse environments Washington has to offer, including Olympic National Park, North Cascades National Park and three national forests. Park and Forest Service staff spoke with firsthand knowledge of their resource management experiences.
“I enjoyed visiting the lakes, community forest, national parks, and state parks … and putting into practice what we learned in class was really exciting,” said Gina Talina Chuco Sullca. “I also enjoyed hanging out with American students who became very good friends of mine.”
Elizabeth Diaz Carhuaricra, who studies meteorology, also professed her enjoyment of the field trips, because she could make observations and records, identify and count plants species, and take measurements of different aspects such as coverage, height, and slope in an effort to apply everything learned from her more theoretical classes.
Putting into practice what we learned in class was really exciting.
Not only did they attend classes and venture out into the countryside, but they also experienced an exchange of cultural insights with a diversity of WWU students as well as Japanese students attending the Asia University America Program (AUAP), highlighted by what is thought to be WWU’s first ‘Peruvian Culture Night’ celebration.
The idea for the program and its ultimate realization was that of John All, director of the Mountain Environments Research Institute in Western's Huxley College of the Environment.
As a geoscientist, All works primarily in Nepal and Peru, where he first visited in 2009 while on a Fulbright Fellowship. His acclaimed, well-documented studies made in the Peruvian Andes and other high-altitude environments focus broadly on fragile, indicator environments – particularly the world's highest mountains – where changing climate has profound consequences.
Over the years, his annual visits to Peru with WWU graduate and undergraduate students found success in the field and helped to forge important relationships with university administrators and government agency officials within both borders.
“When we would go out in the mountains, I would have Western students with me and I would also take five to 10 students from Peruvian universities with us,” All said, adding “They were getting to know each other, but it was a one-way street.”
Wanting to reverse the norm and bring Peruvians to the U.S., All set out to find interest and funding, some of which the Peruvian government soon provisioned.
“We then looked at the costs and it was still a little beyond what we could afford,” he said. “So I approached the U.S. State Department and we found a program called '100,000 Strong in the Americas.'”
The fund was created to get 100,000 students doing exchanges between the U.S. and Latin American countries. It was exactly what All needed to ascend and get over the fiscal mountain. Approved and funded, mutual cooperation cleared the way for the Peruvians to travel to a place just south of the Great White North.
The collaborative program is designed to enhance the exchange students’ educational, as well as personal growth through a campus experience founded on academic and social interactions.
All noted that they have experienced a lot of different things during their time at WWU, not the least of which is our far-reaching lifestyle. For example, none of them have ever driven nor do they even have a driver’s license – a privilege we have here that requires far more wealth in Peru, so it was completely alien to what Western students experience.
Moreover, some students who attend the university in Lima travel by bus for two or three hours to get to class. Even upper middle-class students have little or no access to a car and cannot afford the cost of rent and high living expenses of living close to campus. It’s a study of perseverance and a high desire to learn.
“For Western students to have this totally different viewpoint of how the world works has been incredibly refreshing, I think,” said All. “It’s pretty cool for them to see how the bulk of the planet lives.”
Taking experiences back home means taking a fresh look at their environments in Peru. Aracely Meza said she learned a way to manage the ecosystem and try to protect the maximum number of endangered species, habitats and ecosystem process.
“I think what I learned here gives a new perspective of managing ecosystems,” Meza said, adding that more research is needed for “good management of the natural and human resource, which my country possesses.”