Opportunities are scarce… painfully scarce… for Haiti’s brightest, most ambitious young people, for graduates in Mozambique who have excelled in their coursework, and for students in Liberia and Sierra Leone who have mastered science and math and foreign languages. Applicants scramble for the few positions in local medical and law schools and other faculties. Admissions decisions are often tainted by corruption. Foreign universities are impossibly expensive.
Over the past three decades, George Soros and the Open Society Foundations have funded university scholarships for thousands of young people living in developing countries or societies in transition. The aim has been to increase the pool of educated, committed young persons willing to apply their skills and knowledge to advance the development of truly open societies and to foster economic growth in their homelands.
In August 2009, the Open Society Scholarship Programs turned toward the development of specialists in agronomy from several of the world’s poorest, most hunger-stricken countries, by awarding EARTH University—the Escuela de Agricultura de la Región Tropical Húmeda, a private, nonprofit institution in Costa Rica—a $2-million grant to bring 20 students from Haiti and Mozambique for four years of undergraduate study. The first cohort, five students from Haiti and five from Mozambique, began course work in 2010. A second cohort, including five more Haitians and five students from Liberia and Sierra Leone, began in 2011 after completing Spanish language classes. The scholarships cover tuition, transportation, meals and housing, and other expenses.
The scholarship winners have an experience of life that extends beyond academic credentials and extracurricular activities. They have experienced war and suffered disease, and natural disaster. They know the damage done by rampant official corruption. They can recognize the telltale signs of hunger, and some have endured hunger themselves. They know that—with the introduction of better production methods, a reduction in corruption, and the elimination of counterproductive aid programs—their countries have the potential to produce sufficient food to feed their people and to generate export revenues that can help fuel broader economic growth and a significant improvement in living standards.
There may be no place on Earth better than EARTH to acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to improve the yields of family producers in countries where most people survive by subsistence farming. The university engineered its academic program to serve a highly diverse array of students—some wealthy, some poor, some from big cities, some from distant rural areas—with a curriculum that is anchored in hands-on experience, work in the community, and projects that encompass everything from trimming the leaves of plantain trees to preparing business plans for marketing fruit juice.
EARTH spreads out over an idyllic, modern campus on a working banana plantation that is carved out of a rainforest situated below a volcano. The lawns are manicured to perfection. Golf carts ply the roads, which are lined with colorful tropical plants. The cafeteria serves fruits, vegetables, yogurt, and fruit juices produced on the campus. A network of covered walkways enable the students to move from their dormitories to classes without getting soaked during the torrential rains.
The students are required, among other things, to work with poverty-stricken peasants, to undertake internships and study abroad, to learn to use simple techniques to produce cooking fuel from animal manure, to raise fresh vegetables in urban gardens, and to prevent soil depletion, all of which can help overcome decades of clear-cutting forests, soil erosion, and counter-productive farming methods. EARTH provides its 400 students, about half of them women, with tutoring support and one-on-one contact with professors. A significant percentage of EARTH’s graduates return to their countries of origin. Almost 96 percent are employed or pursuing advanced degrees; 10 percent have their own business; and another 7 percent are working for family enterprises.
In our EARTH Scholars blog series, you will hear from some of the students we support and how they think their home countries might benefit from their education at EARTH.
Scholarship Recipients from Haiti
Haiti has little mercy for youthful enthusiasm. The wishing and hoping and dreaming and scheming of Haitian high school and college students runs head on into the realities of rampant unemployment, much of it the result of political instability and government corruption that throttles economic investment, and a foreign aid machine that leaves people hungry and bereft of economic incentives and motivation. Too many sharp-minded, hard-working young people—many of them polyglots schooled in the sciences—find themselves cast into a scrum of illiterate peasants earning less than a dollar-a-day wage that barely enables them to feed themselves. Many of them wait for something to come along. Many of them wait in vain.
One of the top students in her high school class, Carina Theodore had few choices as she was preparing for the matriculation exam at the end of her senior year. Her options were to wait and see if she might land one of the few places at one of Haiti’s universities. She could take a job with the Red Cross distributing information about HIV/AIDS for twenty dollars a month. Or she could join two of her friends, Lynhe Demesyeux and Edryne Pepjy Michèl, each of whom had also distinguished themselves in high school, and comb the foreign embassies in Port-au-Prince to collect applications for scholarships to far-off universities.
Carina’s father, a carpenter, and her mother, who sells cosmetics from a street stand near the family’s home, could never afford to send Carina abroad for schooling. They already had one daughter studying to become a doctor and a son who was in junior high school. She and Lyhne and Edryine sent out applications. So did Amos Montruil Jean and Marie Santa Auguste. Most of them had never dreamed of studying agriculture. Each took EARTH’s entrance examination, in Spanish. Each had an interview in French with an EARTH faculty member. Each received an acceptance letter in September 2009.
Scholarship Recipients from Mozambique
A million people died during the decades of war that ravaged Mozambique. The violence severed contacts between entire regions of the country. Subsistence farmers were driven from their land and recruited to fight. Animals and crops were plundered by roving gangs of soldiers. Huge swaths of the country went fallow as peasants refused to risk venturing far from their homes to till their land. The result was suffering on a vast scale.
In our blog series, you can read the stories from Sergio Augusto Quiroz, Rui Leonardo Madime, Sergio Mabasso, and other students who hope to take the skills they acquired at EARTH back home to their countries.