In March I went to a friend’s graduation from the environmental engineering program at the university in my site. Already, other Peace Corps volunteers are saying What!? There’s a university in your site?! There is an environmental engineering program in your site?!
Neither of those things are typical of a rural site, and those two things have a marked impact on the culture, economy, and nature of my town.
The university here offers just three degree programs – elementary education, environmental engineering, and agricultural engineering. Because of this, Oxapampa has some well-educated, hard-working environmental engineers, agricultural engineers, and elementary school teachers, who work in the schools, in the municipality, in the health centers, and in agriculture and tourism. It helps with progressive policies and mindsets that you don’t see in nearby towns. It also brings students from nearby towns who want to study (like my friend whose graduation I attended, who was from a town 2 hours away.)
A lot of families value education so they want to send their kids to university. Lucky for those who live here and want to study one of those areas, there is a university in town. However, if they want to study something else, they will probably have to go to Lima, which means not only paying higher tuition, but also having to pay living expenses in Lima.
Now, I studied in a far-away city from where I grew up, and it wasn’t a big deal – I took out some loans and lived and studied comfortably (and then worked on paying off those loans in the following years). My mom had done the same thing (I still remember the happy day she paid off her education loans), so I was lucky to have her to guide me through it.
Unfortunately, here that doesn’t seem to be an option. It seems to be really tough (maybe impossible) for the average person to get an education loan. If your family doesn’t make enough money to be able to pay for your higher education, (or if they just don’t value higher education – which is rare but does happen), then you’re screwed. You do not have the option to take out a loan and fund yourself.
And without a university degree here, (similar to the situation in the US and many countries around the world), it is increasingly harder and harder to get a good-paying job in something you are good at and generally want to do.
Many times I have found myself in conversations on this topic, which has made me realize how incredibly lucky I was to have access to education loans.
For example, my host family has three children (two females, one male) and my host parents paid for all of them to get their degrees. By putting all their funds towards their children’s degrees, they were not able to save during the majority of their working life and they are still living paycheck to paycheck, without a retirement fund.
Then there’s my friend who didn’t have interest in the degrees offered by the university in town (this was before the environmental engineering program was offered), and her family didn’t think it was worth the investment to send her to Lima to get a degree in something she liked and was good at. She is having trouble finding work without a university degree and would love to go to university, but doesn’t have the means to pay out of pocket and can’t take out a loan. (There are so many inspiring stories of people in the US going to college after working, and then deciding they want to fulfill their dream, change careers, and/or advance their education…but that seems to be really difficult/nearly impossible here, without easy access to education loans.)
I can see from the environment that I live and work in here that having a workforce of many young people with higher education is a real benefit to the town – its economy, its culture, and most importantly the quality of life.
On a personal note, I know that my higher education experience not only helped me find good work that I love doing, but the experience itself helped me grow as a person. I believe that every person deserves the opportunity to learn more and advance themselves through higher education, and it is clear to me that society will be better off if we encourage and do what we can to help people achieve that.
These conversations all happened at a time when the current president of the United States proposed his budget for the next fiscal year, which includes reduced funding in education and reduced funding for grants and loans for higher education (with a side of empty rhetoric claiming it will be better for low-income students). While congress is preparing their budget resolution this month of June, I encourage you to let your representative know the importance of investing in our young people and offering them more opportunities instead of less.