Thursday, October 4, 2012

Honduras assignment gives grad student new perspective

Benjamin Rance (left) shares a laugh with Tony Gasbarro, who helps coordinate Peace Corps programs at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Rance presented a talk Sept. 28 about his time in Honduras.

Peace Corps service changed Benjamin Rance’s world view. “It takes time and an open mind,” Rance said of how one learns to deal with the challenges of being a Peace Corps volunteer. Rance, a SNRAS Master’s International student, served in Honduras.

“The lessons I learned can apply to other situations,” Rance said. “What I learned in Honduras I can apply here.”

His advice to other PC volunteers is “Don’t worry about numbers and projects and reports. Don’t lose focus on the community integration.”

Rance said if he had it to do over again, he would spend more time drinking coffee with the locals and getting to know them better. “They are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. They are very open.

“Every single person had something to offer,” he said. “I knew a man with three teeth and six kids. He lives on $1 a day in a clay house. He was one of the happiest guys in the community. Everyone has something to offer.”

Rance explained that the Master’s International program partners with 60 universities. Students are able to coordinate PC service with graduate work to earn a master’s degree. “You get two years experience in the international arena,” Rance said. The PC has placed 210,000 volunteers in 139 countries. Currently, there are 9,100 volunteers in 76 countries.

His work focused on management of protected areas, including environmental education, natural resources management and income generation. He was first based in La Jagua, Olancho, which Rance described as “the wild, wild west” where people carry machetes to the market.

La Jagua has a population of 400 and relies on corn and beans to eat and sell. Rance’s initial goal was to listen to people. “You have to do that up front to earn their respect and trust.”

One of his projects was a gender equality promotion group which 15 women joined to work on income generation, education and development activities. Using a recipe Rance got from his mother, the group made homemade pizzas and sold them, using the profits to take students on field trips.

He also worked on improving the water source. “Stomach problems were rampant in the village,” Rance said.

Planning was underway for the construction of 55 new latrines and improvements to six existing ones. “We were all set to do the latrine project when there was a safety and security issue,” Rance said. The problem occurred at another PC site in Honduras and he was given one week to relocate to El Dorado, Santa Barbara.

“I inherited my projects from the volunteer who was leaving,” Rance said. He helped train guides, find host families, planned dining and sanitation services and constructed and maintained trails.

Water quality and quantity were also issues in the new location. Opening a community library with a computer lab was a success story. “It was really good to see the fun output from this project,” Rance said.

In January there was another safety issue in another part of Honduras and all volunteers were pulled from the country. Rather than getting to serve his two years, Rance was sent home after 18 months. “I had an unconventional Peace Corps experience,” he said. “I kind of felt like a failure. I would start projects, get going and have to leave.

“I wish I had had the opportunity to serve two years but sometimes that’s not how the world works.”

Looking back, Rance said he learned the value of understanding cultural, social, political and economic realities in a community. He observed that monitoring, evaluation and followup are virtually non-existent in the PC, at least in his experience. And he worries that sometimes the program might create dependence on outside help.

He plans to complete his graduate work by December and hopes to find a job in community development where he can incorporate what he learned in the PC. He plans to return to Honduras as a private citizen next summer.

“I will always remember the people I met.”

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