If you are fortunate enough to receive a scholarship in the Sisters of Providence Beca program in El Salvador, no one hands you a check and says “Good luck! See you when you reapply next year.”
This evolving program not only seeks to put access to education within the reach of young Salvadorans from villages in the Bajo Lempa/Jiquilisco region; it aims for much more.
“This is education in its broadest sense,” Sister Kathryn “Kitsy” Rutan, one of the founders of the scholarship program, said in a recent interview. “This is education put into action by becoming engaged citizens.”
The first scholarships were awarded in the mid-1990s, but the program was re-energized in 2015 to more clearly focus on the mission of the program and on the active engagement of the students and their families in improving quality of life in that little corner of El Salvador through education and collaboration.
Today the Sisters of Providence who are part of the Torogoz local community (named after El Salvador’s national bird) are uniquely suited for this ministry role. Sister Marita Capili, president of the Council of Administration for the Providence Beca Program, has a professional background as an administrator in an international hotel chain. Sister Marcia Gatica, a student in social psychology at the Jesuit University of Central America, brings an understanding of processes of motivation and evaluation for personal and group projects, including their impact on the person and on the community.
Two former scholarship recipients, Delmi Ayala, PA, and Tulio Mancia, PA, contribute their personal and cultural experience as well as administrative and technical expertise.
Together, they walk students through the application process and the required criteria, which include a cumulative grade-point average of 7 (the equivalent of a C-plus or B-minus), and passing in all grades. Those who receive a scholarship – 120 in 2015 – still have hurdles and challenges to overcome, evidenced by an attrition rate that took that number down to 84.
“There are risk factors in this program,” Sister Kitsy explained. “Students drop out because their life situation changes.”
For a young woman, that could mean having a baby or being needed at home to care for siblings; for a young man, it could mean being needed to help in the fields or being encouraged by a parent to cross the border into the United States, find work and send money home. Occasionally, a door that once seemed closed remains open. That could be the case for a scholarship recipient who left to take care of her newborn but who plans to reapply, or for a young man who returns home after being deported.
The Beca program is more than a check to pay tuition and buy books and supplies, Sister Kitsy said. It is a commitment to the required monthly scholarship meetings at the sisters’ house in La Papalota, and to supply the required documents: an official report of current grades, a voucher from the school or university, and a detailed report on the scholarship program’s most important component, the Amor Solidario project.
“Amor Solidario is love in action in solidarity with others,” Sister Kitsy explained. “It is mutually giving and receiving; sharing with others and working together with others for the common good.”
Projects are the heart of the program
Having met these requirements, the students receive an envelope with money to pay for the next month’s schooling and a blank voucher for the coming month. High school students who are minors get a check made out to an adult, usually the mother. If any of the prerequisites are missing, there is no check and the student has one week to come back and supply what is missing.
The students’ Amor Solidario projects are the heart of the Beca scholarship program. The questions developed by Sister Marcia dig deep to guide the process: What is the name of your project? What is your plan? Who will be impacted/transformed and how? How will you be impacted/transformed and how?
Early in the school year, the plans for the projects are approved, progress is monitored, and the project sites are visited two or three times. Students are instructed to write their project reports on a computer, to use Font 12, to post information and photos on the program’s Facebook site, and to include any words of affirmation or support they have received from others.
The project can be done by one student or by a group of no more than six students. Collaboration and networking with local officials, neighborhoods and community groups are encouraged. “This networking helps the youth to understand that they need to work together,” Sister Kitsy said. “In the process we are changed, and the community is changed because of working together on a common cause.”
Examples of student projects make it clear why this Beca scholarship program matters. In Linares, a poor mountain village, students determined to do something about garbage being dumped on a riverbank where people bathe and women wash clothes. They wanted to do more than just clean up the garbage, but to also help people learn not to throw it there, Sister Kitsy explained. What was needed was a place to collect the garbage and take it elsewhere. The solution was to get a big metal barrel, cut it in two and place it in a turning stand on top of a concrete platform. The barrel can be emptied by tipping it. Are those students’ proud of their efforts? The sign painted on the barrel – Providence Beca Program – Amor Solidario – says it all.
Diplomacy was involved in another student project to stop the flow of water from the back of a house into a waste dump. The students were careful not to interfere with the resident’s privacy and home life, but to encourage working together with the Beca administration, the water service and the local community officials to clean up the site.
Still another project involved two students collaborating with a local grade school to build an orchard on the school grounds and seeking donations to fund it. That fit nicely with one of the students’ program of study in agricultural economics. Sisters of Providence from the local Torogoz community helped with money from their alms fund and through the loan of a pickup truck.
Not every project is on that scale. Some students have chosen to tutor others, including one who offered to teach a man in his 60s to read and write. The goal is change at some level, whether the end result is short-, medium- or long-term. Sister Kitsy said Beca students are required to post photos documenting their projects on the scholarship program’s Facebook page. The most effective projects are recognized, shared and applauded at the monthly meetings.
“I’m proud to say that in 1½ years, the Beca scholarship program has grown along with the young persons who are participating in it,” Sister Kitsy said enthusiastically. “We are seeing progress even as we are growing together.”
Program tracks students’ progress
Sister Marita, president of the program, Administrative Assistant Delmi Ayala and Technician Tulio Mancia have developed a statistical program and a data bank that lists every applicant and scholarship recipient, along with their family information, age, income, school, field of study and educational progress. It offers a vital tool for measuring results over time and for writing references for jobs and/or further education.
This year, the Beca Program is adding a goal of reaching out to young people and their parents in the department of Jiquilisco’s most rural areas, where many young people do not go to school beyond the ninth grade. Sister Marita said they will visit schools and families to encourage students to at least stay in school until they earn a high school diploma, which will give them a better chance to find jobs. They also will visit the mayor’s office to encourage officials to collaborate on meeting the students’ transportation expenses due to the travel distance.
This year, the Beca program has 22 high school students who are graduating and are interested in pursuing technical and professional higher education opportunities. Sister Marita said the program is helping students choose technical and university schools to enroll in and encouraging students to take a free vocational test given by Gerardo Barios University.
One of the first questions people in the United States ask when they hear about the Beca program is how they can help and support it, Sister Kitsy said. The answer is simple: DONATE.
“Mother Joseph Province has been very generous” with the Beca program, she said, funding capital expenditures to improve the meeting space and office by renovating and enlarging the house, supplying a computer, adding air conditioning, and providing a new cement floor and roof.
“When you donate, your contribution ensures that we will have the necessary equipment to serve students and enroll them in school,” she added. The program’s annual budget is funded by the province, and donations to the ministry in El Salvador are recognized as designated for the Beca Program.
In addition to the actual scholarship assistance and other program needs, donations help to provide the sandwiches and the natural fruit drinks that are served to the students at the monthly meeting, an idea from Sister Marita that brought a new glow to the students’ eyes.
“You contribute to all that,” is Sister Kitsy’s message to donors to the Beca program. “Providence of God, we thank you for all!”