Where higher education is a tool for tackling poverty

As a child growing up in Villa Nueva, Guatemala City, she used to help her grandmother sell meat or cheese and bananas from her car to survive.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

At one point she had to leave school and work a six-day week in a tree nursery, earning US$250 a month, to keep herself fed and pay for her younger sister’s education.

Sindy's mother died when she was 13 and when her sick father was unable to support her she had to enter a grant-aided boarding school

“There is too much poverty in Guatemala – 50% of the population are poor, a lot of them are indigenous, and 20-30% are in extreme poverty.

“They can’t buy food or other basics, it’s very difficult. It’s very hard for poor people to find work, especially for women. Many survive on US$2 a day and they have to try and support six or seven children on that," she explains.

Now, as the first of four siblings to enter university, she is nearing the end of a four-year undergraduate programme in agricultural sciences and natural resource management in Costa Rica, and is simultaneously heading up a ground-breaking project to enable poor women to establish their own independent businesses in that country.

“I wanted to help people. I have always had that dream ever since I was a little girl; I wanted to make a difference," she says.

Sindy has been supported in that journey by a scholarship from The MasterCard Foundation, which covers all her costs to study at EARTH University, Guácimo, Limón, in Costa Rica.

Sindy was 17 and studying agriculture when a representative from the university came to her college to tell the students about what they could offer.

She had never been out of Guatemala but set her heart on studying at the institution. "I filled in some forms about myself and there was a face-to-face interview where they asked me about my home and a lot of other things to see if they would give me a grant. There were also two exams in maths and two in communications that I had to pass," she says.

In November 2012, Sindy took her sister to an Internet café where she first saw the email that confirmed her place on the course, and a full scholarship. "I hugged my little sister and shed a tear because I never thought they would give me the grant. Never. My sister and I really celebrated together that night," she says.

Established in 1986, EARTH University is a private, international, non-profit institution with two bases in Costa Rica. It aims to enable young disadvantaged people from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa and Asia to contribute to the sustainable development of their countries and 'construct a prosperous and just society'.

Attitudes, values and an ethical entrepreneurial spirit are as important as technical and scientific knowledge in the curriculum.

The university boasts world-class technological and scientific facilities and has approximately 423 students from some 42 countries, 60% of whom receive full scholarships, with the remaining receiving significant financial aid.

Motivating each other

Studying at EARTH University has given her an understanding of the value of being able to work with other people. "For example, in my first year we had to use discarded plastic items like bottles to make something artisanal. We made a chair out of the plastic bottles and we all motivated each other to make it stronger and more attractive. It was a better strategy."

She put into practice her university research and team-working skills when she developed a project to enable unemployed women to establish their own businesses using banana stalk fibre – a waste material in plantations – to create arts and crafts for sale, to benefit local women from rural communities.

"I saw an advertisement in the university for a competition to win US$10,000 to implement a project. I was trying to think of an idea and I thought about bananas, because in Costa Rica bananas are everywhere!”

She remembered that it is possible to make paper from banana residue and thought that was a good idea, but was worried that if she did that all the money would go in investment in machines etc.

“So I started to explore on YouTube and I found a group of people making artisanal items like hats, wallets, handbags, wristbands, pencil cases, everything, from banana residues, and I thought: ‘Wow, that would be a good idea for the competition!’"

Realising that she had to find someone to teach the women how to make things, she researched and discovered the Association of Women Crafters of Ecuador, or AMA, and then convinced the founder to travel to Costa Rica.

"However, the founder needed €1,500 [US$1,700] to cover her flight and other costs, and I felt frightened at that moment because I didn't know how I was going to get the money," she says.

A university lecturer suggested she speak to the Grameen Association, an NGO that helps poor people who have no collateral obtain credit to help generate income. "Specifically they support projects that work with women, and fortunately they agreed to give me the money," she says.

Initially she decided to offer training to a group of 35 women in the central area of the province of Limón, a region well known for its banana production. In order to do that she had to bring at least three women from Ecuador to provide the training.

"I had to buy three plane tickets. The rector at my university paid for one flight and then told me that the mayor of the town where AMA is based was an EARTH University graduate – I never would have believed it! I called the mayor and he offered to pay for the remaining tickets."

Sindy's university provided free accommodation and food and The Mastercard Foundation gave her US$800 for transport. "As a result, the teachers from Ecuador were able to offer all their experience on how to obtain the leaves, how to dry them, make them into artisanal products and even how they could be exported," she says.

But the project was soon thrown into jeopardy because only five of the 35 women who participated proved motivated to continue working on the idea after the training.

This presented Sindy with a significant challenge. She decided to turn the situation around by identifying markets in, for example, hotels and tourist locations and to sell the products that she had, and then pay back the producers.

“In effect, to begin with, I will act as an intermediary. I think that will be a great motivator for them."

The medium-term plan is to provide disadvantaged Costa Rican women, who are housewives, with an independent income so that they can help their families, but if Sindy wins the competition in December, she will use the US$10,000 to develop a brand and spread the idea to Guatemala.

The goal is for the women in the project to turn their knowledge into their own small businesses and provide financial stability to their families through ecological and sustainable products and practices – to lift them out of the kind of poverty trap that Sindy experienced when she had to drop out of school to earn a meagre income, foregoing achieving educational progress.

Sindy has been helped along the way in the development of the concepts behind her project by what she has been learning about transformative leadership – as well as learning technical issues.

Deconstruct knowledge frameworks

Transformative leadership covers concepts such as the need to deconstruct knowledge frameworks that perpetuate inequity and reconstruct them in more equitable ways, as espoused by Carolyn Muriel Shields, professor of educational leadership at the College of Education at Wayne State University, United States.

The university convenes meetings of MasterCard Foundation scholars every month – Sindy says that around 20 students normally meet together, with a foundation representative – where such concepts are discussed.

"From those meetings I have had a lot support from both The MasterCard Foundation representative and also a Colombian student, who is now considering transferring the same idea to Colombia," she says.

On the technical side she says she has learnt how to break down costs, identify where she is going to sell, assess the markets and apply it to my project.

“However, the environmental side is as important because we need to help people, but do it in a sustainable way. We are giving added value to a banana husk, something that would otherwise be waste," she says.

"My project challenges inequality because women are able to take charge of the whole process themselves. It is giving independence to women who otherwise would not have the possibility to work," she concludes. "And I know that's what I want to do in the future.

"The transformative leadership approach has helped me because my ideas are now being put into practice.

“I used to dream but now I can see changes," she says.