Beating the Odds With the Help of Vittana
—Marlene is one of the Vittana students I interviewed this summer. After completing a degree in education, she found a teaching position that allows her to provide a better future for her children.
How would you feel if you lost your mother during your first semester of college? Then how would you feel if, after your mother’s death, your father abandoned you and your siblings? Add to that a generous uncle who, crippled by disease, lost his health and income shortly after taking you in. Situations like these drive young people to lives of vice—or at least of resignation. Which is why the response of one young woman was so surprising.
Esperanza is a Vittana student who lived through these daunting circumstances.* Inspired by her mother who felt that “education is the greatest inheritance I can leave for my children,” Esperanza always planned to complete university studies. “It’s the greatest treasure […] without education we would be nothing, really” said Esperanza.
Just before she began a degree in nursing, her mother was diagnosed with cancer. By the end of the semester the disease had claimed her life. Esperanza had to drop out of school while her family adjusted to the loss. Apparently unable to adjust, her father abandoned Esperanza and her two siblings. An uncle stepped in to support Esperanza and pay for her education.
Within months, however, the uncle had to leave his family for a hospital hundreds of miles away. He had a life-threatening bone disease that left him unable to work. Esperanza was forced to drop out of school. Again.
Determined to honor her mother and complete her education, she found a job and started looking for a way back to school. After a couple years of saving and searching she found a kinesiology program that offered evening classes. She could keep her job, and with the help of a Vittana loan, she would be able to finish her degree!
When I asked her what she planned to do with her education, she said she wanted to pursue physical therapy. Because Paraguay’s public healthcare system doesn’t provide physical therapy, only the wealthy can afford such care; the majority of patients never recover their mobility. I want to “rehabilitate them, to return them to their surroundings… So that they don’t feel discriminated against, or that they don’t have any value anymore, you know?” said Esperanza.
When I think of what Esperanza has overcome, I struggle to relate. How can I possibly empathize with someone who has faced so much so early in life? But when I think of her desire to salir adelante or move ahead, I see how much we have in common. She wants to contribute to society, just like me. She needs education and training to achieve that goal, just like me. And now, thanks to Vittana, she has access to financial resources to make that possible, just like me and other students in the U.S.
As I complete my fellowship with Vittana, I’m grateful for the increased understanding and empathy I’ve gained. It has strengthened my commitment to this field and tempered my enthusiasm with patience and a bit of wisdom. I’m grateful for the Show Me Campaign and the voice it gives to important issues in education and development. And I’m grateful to you, the reader, for participating in my adventure this summer. I hope you’re inspired to take action and help a student today!
*Name changed to protect privacy
Last week I had the opportunity to collaborate with a professional filmmaker and Vittana’s Vice President of Marketing on a documentary about the students we serve. We interviewed several students and their families in four different cities throughout Paraguay. From nurses and physical therapists, to teachers and graphic designers, I noticed a common thread—all are using their education to uplift their families.
“Education doesn’t start in school. It starts in the family, with the parents.” —Francisco Rodriguez, Vittana Student. Pictured here with his father.
Take Francisco and his father Valentin, for example. From an early age, Francisco dreamed of being a soccer star—the national
pastime obsession in Paraguay and most of Latin America. But as too often is the case, reality got in the way. Francisco began working in his father’s tire shop at the age of eight. It was hard and dangerous work, not the kind you would wish for any child—and not what Valentin wished for his son. He worked, sacrificed, and saved money to put Francisco through grade school. They couldn’t afford the private universities close to home, so he worked and saved some more to send Francisco to the capital city of Asuncion. There he could attend a more affordable public university.
With a $650 loan from Vittana, Francisco purchased the study materials he needed and finished his degree in Physical Education. He now works as a P.E. teacher for several schools in the region and as a coach for the local soccer club.
I asked him how education had changed his life. He said, “My life is different. Very different. My father has been doing manual labor for forty years… I saw the sacrifices he made since I was very young. Now it’s my turn to help them.” He went on to explain how his increased income makes it possible for him to pay his mother’s medical expenses. He is also using his income to help his siblings, nieces and nephews. I was impressed to find serving others, not himself, at the top of his priority list.
When asked what inspired him to persevere through challenges, family was the answer again. “My father is always number one because of the love he has for his family. He is a real warrior.”
Vittana aims to “Graduate A Generation Beyond Poverty.” But after speaking to Francisco and dozens of students like him, perhaps we should be speaking of generations—in plural form. When you lend to a Vittana student, you may think you’re helping an individual. And in a big way, you are. What often goes unseen, though, is the way that these students leverage their education to lift their whole family out of poverty. How’s that for a return on your investment?
Hola! Vamos a Cambiar el Mundo
Every day on my way to work I pass by walls covered in graffiti. Most of the graffiti is colorful—symbols and slang that mean little to most who see it. But one message stands out from the rest. Sprayed black onto a white brick wall it reads, “Hola! Vamos a cambiar el mundo,” or, “Hello! We’re going to change the world.”
I’ve thought about the irony of this piece of graffiti. To community members, it no doubt represents a violation against their property—probably carried out by some rebellious youth. Their reaction represents a more widely held attitude about young people; too many adults have negative perceptions of youth.
For me, the graffiti represents something very different. It’s as though the anonymous artist is speaking up for his generation. “Hey! Over here! We have the potential to change the world.” He seems to be calling out for a bit of attention and an opportunity to do something great.
Vittana provides such opportunities to students (usually young people), by helping them finance higher education. In what the Economist calls a “hotbed of innovation”, Vittana is finding new ways to fund poor students in the developing world. Through our online platform, anyone can browse through our students and find one to support. With as little as $25, you can help them toward graduation. 100% of your loan goes to the students, which is then repaid as they graduate. The impact of these microloans has been astounding. 99.8% of loan recipients repay in full, increasing their income by 2.8 times on average. These numbers buck the conventional wisdom about loaning to the poor and the behavior of young people.
As a Vittana Fellow in Paraguay, I’ve had the opportunity to witness these results first-hand. Part of my job includes interviewing loan recipients in person. We talk about facts and figures of their loan amount, graduation dates, and changes in income. But I also get the opportunity to witness how access to education transforms their lives. One of my favorite examples is Claudia. After seeing the impressive work of her friend, Claudia decided she wanted to become a graphic designer. She found a good program, took out a Vittana loan, and got to work. Now that she has graduated, she’s been able to triple her income and start her own design firm.
More important than the economic benefits, however, is the dramatic improvement Claudia has experienced in her self-worth. “Before, I felt like I was nobody. Without education you don’t have many opportunities. But now I have more confidence—I’m more social….I think I’m an example to my family.”
Claudia is just one of many stories I’ve encountered during my work with Vittana. She is living proof of one of Vittana’s core beliefs: by empowering young people, we can unlock the potential of an entire generation. And with that potential, I believe that they will change the world.
Announcing our 2012 Show Me Campaign Fellows
Congratulations and a warm welcome to our 2012 Show Me Campaign Fellows! Visit the Fellows page to meet these 10 amazing students and learn about the organizations they will be supporting this summer. From Philadelphia to Paraguay, they will be working hard to improve education and alleviate poverty using innovative solutions.
Follow this blog all summer to read about the Fellows’ unique experiences and gain new insights into how YOU can help change the world for the better.
The Show Me Campaign Team