Amanda Foster recently joined the EcoViva team as our International Programs Intern. She is a graduate student in Sustainable International Development at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. She will be working alongside EcoViva and the Mangrove Association until the spring of 2016 while completing her graduate work.
Waking up to the predawn sounds of roosters, cows, and blasting bachatas in rural El Salvador may trigger culture shock for some people. For me, despite the adjustments inherent to a new routine in a foreign place, the sounds, sights, and smells feel more like a homecoming. Although I’m new to the Bajo Lempa, I’m thrilled to find myself back in El Salvador, where solidarity, compassion, and strength of community seem to be stitched into the fibers of this beautiful country.
In March of 2013, while working with service-learning in higher education, I had the opportunity to coordinate an alternative spring break trip to El Salvador for undergraduate students. After thorough research into grassroots organizations and numerous dead ends, I discovered a tiny gem of a local nonprofit that agreed to partner with us for the trip. CRC (El Comité de Reconstrucción y Desarrollo Económico Social de las Comunidades de Suchitoto) was established by former combatants of the civil war in order to facilitate the reconstruction and development of communities affected by the conflict.
Outfitted with grungy work clothes, plenty of sunscreen, and endless enthusiasm, my team landed in a small rural community outside of Suchitoto, where we assisted with the construction of a community center. After a week spent laboring under the scorching Salvadoran sun, living with local families, learning about the devastating effects of the civil war and enduring development challenges, and enjoying countless pupusas, it was evident the experience not only transformed the student participants, but left its permanent mark on me as well. The following spring, I brought a second group of students to continue our collaboration with CRC, another incredible experience that confirmed my interest in international development.
Although I had done a fair amount of travel and international service at the time of my first Salvadoran adventure, those experiences working with such a resilient community left a lasting personal and professional impression on me. While the enduring economic, social, and political legacies of the civil conflict as well as persistent poverty and underdevelopment are evident, they failed to conceal the remarkable strength and perseverance of the people. More importantly, what I discovered in El Salvador was a wealth of local knowledge, passion, and unwavering determination which overwhelm the country’s unfortunate reputation for violence and instability. My time in El Salvador, combined with other short-term community development projects, left me with an unsettling mix of frustration and urgency. Drawn to the dichotomy between rampant underdevelopment and local opportunity for change, I soon decided to pursue a master’s degree in Sustainable International Development, with hopes of igniting this local potential and facilitating grassroots development in Central America.
Now here I am again in rural El Salvador, a graduate student at the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. For my second year of the program, I am completing a practicum that requires students to spend at least six months working for a development organization while writing a culminating master’s paper. What better opportunity, I thought, to contribute to positive change in the country that stole a little piece of my heart. My interests in participatory rural development and community-based conservation led me to EcoViva and the Mangrove Association, and I’m thrilled to be spending the next several months working alongside and learning from such exemplary organizations.
My time with EcoViva and the Mangrove Association has been wonderful so far. As I get to know the staff, programs, and partner communities, I’m continuously impressed and humbled by their work. I look forward to contributing to their efforts within the region, and to learning about participatory approaches to development from the folks that do it best.
Beyond the work, I’m excited to immerse myself in the community as I get settled with my host family in El Mono. Coming from a small, reserved family, living with a houseful of boisterous women has been a fun transition. As I acclimate to the rhythm of life in El Mono, predawn bachatas and all, I find my solace in early morning runs as the cows head out to pasture and afternoon “hot yoga” practice. Can’t wait to see how the rest of this adventure unfolds!