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NMSU hosts Colombian students through 100,000 Strong Innovation Fund Grant

From the jungles of Colombia to the fields of southern New Mexico, agriculture students who were once victims of the drug trade will visit New Mexico State University April 7-22 as part of its Partners of the Americas and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund Grant.

Group of people, some standing, some kneeling
NMSU group visiting student crop research plots at the University of La Salle – Bogotá Agricultural Campus; led by La Salle professor Santiago Saenz (kneeling right). The NMSU group includes (standing L to R) Dan Smeal, irrigation scientist; Jimmy Maynes, student; Blair Stringam, NMSU agricultural engineer; Sativa Cruz, student; Megan Stovall, student; James Fuller, student; and Mick O’Neill NMSU agronomy professor (kneeling left),shaking hands with Saenz. (Photo by Lolita Rueda)
Group of people in a field
Utopia project students at the Utopia campus in Yopal, Colombia with NMSU participants: Blair Stringam (left), Jimmy Maynes (fourth from left), and Mick O’Neill (center in back). The students are part of the horticulture group which starts their day at 5:30 a.m. to work in the fields before classes with the horticulture crops, including passion fruit (pictured), banana, plantain, pineapple, coffee, and cacao. (Photo by Dan Smeal)
Man holding a yellow filter
Blair Stringam, NMSU Plant and Environmental Sciences agricultural engineer, explained the function of a disk filter to one of the students at the Utopia project campus in Yopal, Colombia. (Photo by Mick O’Neill)

“This project Utopia is a rural campus designed for youth who have been adversely affected by the drug industry,” said Cornell Menking, NMSU associate provost for International and Border Programs. “We took our team down there for two weeks, as part of the grant they bring their team up here for two weeks.

“This program is a rising star in South America, they won the UNESCO Peace Award and an award from the president of the country.”

NMSU partnered with Universidad de La Salle in Bogota, Colombia, to win an Innovation Fund Grant last year. NMSU’s Office of International and Border Programs spearheaded the grant “Leaders Innovating for the Reinvention of an Agricultural Sustainable Region in Peace,” which proposed the exchange between students and faculty at NMSU and La Salle’s Utopia campus.

Since its inception in January 2014, 38 Innovation Fund grants have been awarded to teams of 109 higher education institutions from 12 countries in the Western Hemisphere.

As part of the reciprocal exchange, a group from NMSU visited the Utopia campus in Yopal, Colombia, last November to address irrigation issues.

“These kids at the Utopia project have to go out on a daily basis, starting their day at 5:30 in the morning, to go in the field and water the banana trees, the coca trees by hand with only a bucket,” said Mick O’Neill, an agronomy professor at the Agricultural Science Center at Farmington, who led the NMSU group’s visit to Colombia. “It’s an amazing challenge these kids have. So our job was to develop an irrigation design they could use to minimize that work and have a chance to do other things on the campus.”

La Salle President Hermano Carlos Gabriel Gomez, also known as Brother Carlos, created the program, which carefully selects disadvantaged young people to attend the Utopia campus who otherwise might never get a college education. The first group of students graduated from the university as agricultural engineers last year.

“What he wants is to give these students who have just really been victims, is to give them a chance,” said Menking, who has known Gomez for five years. “By design this campus was put in this area of Yopal, a hotbed of narcotics industry at one point. The land itself is the story of this region because it was a family farm, then it was taken over by rebel forces for many years and somehow it ended up in the church’s hands and Brother Carlos managed to convert it into this rural campus.”

Menking described the novel nature of the college program, which seeks to educate the students and return them to their villages to promote sustainable improvements for their home communities.

“In their third year, they go back to their village to do a preliminary visit, feasibility study and they come back in their senior year preparing the feasibility study and then when they graduate they go back and implement the project,” Menking said. “That is one of the main things. They go back to where they’re from and they serve those areas and they develop the area in legitimate ways through agricultural economics.”

President Barak Obama created the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative is to encourage a globally competent work force by creating new or building on existing partnerships which increase study abroad opportunities for students going to and from Latin America, the Caribbean, Canada and the United States.

The goal is to increase the number of students from the Western Hemisphere studying in the U.S. by 100,000 and to have an equal number of U.S. students studying in those countries by 2020.

Menking points to NMSU’s exchange with the Utopia campus as a model for university partnerships that can make a significant difference.

“The real exciting thing will be five or 10 years down the road when we can look back and say ‘look at this entire industry that’s grown up in this random little remote village’ and it all started with choosing a student who had potential and now look what’s become of it,” Menking said.

The Utopia students’ activities at NMSU during their two-week stay will include classes in irrigation, plant pathology, soils and livestock, among other things. The team also will visit the Elephant Butte irrigation district.

O’Neill explained the NMSU students who made the trip to Yopal are eager to show the Colombian students the NMSU campus and to treat them to some southern New Mexico hospitality.

“Our students and the Utopia students that are coming here have been in regular communication with each other,” O’Neill said. “There will be both academics and cultural activities to introduce them to the United States and to NMSU.”

Menking described the partnership with Universidad de La Salle and its president as inspirational. The visit to NMSU is the next step in what he hopes will be an expanding relationship between the two institutions. “We hope this is just the beginning and that’s the intention of the Partners of the Americas grant. This is just seed money to see larger partnerships flourish.”

Inspired by President Kennedy and founded in 1964, the mission of Partners of the Americas is to connect people and organizations across borders to serve and to change lives through lasting partnerships.

The 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund is a public-private collaboration of the White House, U.S. Department of State, Partners of the Americas, and NAFSA: Association of International Educators.