EARTH grad leads change at Guatemalan ag high school

Filed Under: EARTH Stories
Date: June 16th, 2017

Since its founding in 1921, the Escuela Nacional Central de Agricultura (ENCA) has been the educational gold standard for young Guatemalans interested in studying agriculture and forestry. An autonomous institution since 1986, ENCA was awarded the Order of the Quetzal – the highest distinction conferred by the government of Guatemala – in 2011 for its academic excellence.

Last week, ENCA celebrated its 96th anniversary – nearly a century of forming environmental-minded agricultural specialists.

For EARTH, ENCA has long been a partner. In our 27-year history, we’ve welcomed 61 ENCA graduates and prepared them to become EARTH graduates. That includes Vinicio Arreaga (’01, Guatemala), ENCA’s current principal.

We recently spoke with Vinicio to better understand his job, his belief in educational diversity, and his life at EARTH and beyond.

“I was motivated to study at EARTH because I’m from Izabel – a region in the humid tropics of Guatemala. I first heard about EARTH when I started studying at ENCA in 1994. Once I had learned all about what it meant to study there, I knew it was where I wanted to be. I applied to EARTH in 1997, and I studied there from 1998 through 2001, thanks to a scholarship from the government of Norway.”

How were your four years at EARTH?
“It was a formative experience in my life because, even though I had previously studied agriculture, it’s very different at EARTH. EARTH is a very positive experience for people because it doesn’t just immerse you in agriculture; it teaches you things that are interdisciplinary and inspires a different way of life. For example, the mere fact of separating waste [as is done throughout the entire campus] was something new, culturally speaking.”

What did you do after EARTH?
“After graduating in 2001, I returned to Guatemala. For two and a half years, I worked with communities in Petén for an NGO that installs clean water systems. The problem with the tubed water systems was that they were very expensive to maintain due to almost nonexistent surface water. In the majority of these communities, water extraction was done at a well. When we installed the new drinking water system, we soon realized it was unsustainable for them to pay the electricity bill or for the oil to run the pump. That was when we came up with ideas about how to make the issue of drinking water more sustainable.

Later I went to work at the Atitlán Water Authority, a gratifying experience in terms of lake conservation: residual water treatment, waste management, environmental education, etc.

Since leaving there in 2005 and to this day, I administer my own entrepreneurial project that offers me professional flexibility. It’s called EMTEC, and we work in the areas of topography and environmental sanitation, using efficient microorganism technology.

In addition to that, in 2012 I started working with the Ministry of Agriculture, where I served in various roles.”

Vinicio at the 2015 graduation ceremony in ENCA. At the moment he was the at the Agriculture

Vinicio at the 2015 graduation ceremony in ENCA. At the moment he was at the Ministry of Agriculture

How did you arrive at ENCA?
“One of the positions at the Ministry took me to be an ENCA board member. During my time on the board, the office of principal became vacant. I withdrew from the board and applied for the job. In February 2016, they gave me the opportunity to direct the institution. We’ve been trying a lot of new things at ENCA – the institution’s very traditional but, to our advantage, very independent as well.”

What are a few of the new things you want to implement?
“The changes we’ve made have been more in the sense of making more psychopedagogic support available to our students and trying to curb dropouts by providing more study techniques and time management ideas, and constant review of their records. This way we can better detect dropout cases before they occur. Our team is also in constant contact with students. [As a result of] hearing their concerns, we’ve made tutors available, giving our students the options to talk with someone whenever they have trouble understanding a teacher’s lesson.

Another change is that teachers leave more time for homework exercises. What regularly would happen is one student would do the homework and the others would copy. To correct that, we’ve been implementing specific, supervised “homework hours” at school. This way each student can work out the exercises independently or with the help of tutors. When students copy, it’s more difficult to detect who’s falling behind. The tutors not only assist the students in their studies; they also help us to know who’s having trouble with the content. It’s a dual role.”

What about the teaching system?
“The traditional vision of education has always placed the teacher at the center of everything – the axel of the teaching process. It’s as if the knowledge process happens by osmosis: ‘My teacher is brilliant, thus I too am brilliant because I’m learning from him or her.’ We know that’s not true. There has to be a process for transferring this knowledge. That’s the change we’re trying to make: Put the student at the center and allow the rest to spin around his or her needs. This way, our students become people who build knowledge and transmit it to others, not necessarily through traditional teaching by teachers, but rather through day-to-day work and interactions with others.

I’m an auditory learner, whereas others learn by watching or doing. There are some who say they learn by assigning colors to everything. For our many differences, we cannot standardize a single teaching model; rather we must diversify them.

I’m not saying the conventional system is bad because education has, for the most part, functioned that way for centuries and from that system many notable people have emerged. Nevertheless, it is an exclusive system. When a teacher instructs in the traditional way, only the students who connect with that style will learn; the others will be left out and deemed fools. They’ll be told they can’t adapt, they don’t study enough, or they should start working somewhere and stop wasting their time in school. I, as an educator, must adapt to each and every student. Diversifying education allows us to expand our impact without reducing quality. That’s a ‘secret’ that should be better known to the world.”  

Arreaga with a group of students that helped to put out a forest fire.

Arreaga with a group of students that helped to put out a forest fire.

What is the primary purpose of these changes?
“Our objective is to reduce the dropout rate. It’s currently very high for a number of reasons. A zero percent dropout rate is unattainable, as there will always be kids who either don’t like the area of study or desire something different for their lives, whereas others may not like being in the field and would prefer studying agriculture from a desk. Still, some may not be able to handle living away from home and leave for that reason. As it pertains to academics, however, we are putting forth our best effort.”

Have you been met by challenges in implementing a new system?
“We are celebrating 96 years of academic tradition and it can be challenging to achieve changes. They must be made slowly. You have to convince people who think ‘this is done this way because it’s always been done this way.’ Innovation doesn’t move quickly.”

How can you define what you’ve done since you left EARTH?
“Looking back on my life so far, I can say it’s been about service. It’s been trying to make changes that, no matter how small the community one impacts, are big for its people.

Life has taken me to serve many people, from my role in the Ministry of Agriculture, working with rural populations, to my service in education. We’re making education revolve around the student. We’re trying to transfer knowledge from class to class, and in a way that’s dynamic and inspires them to use it in the fields.”

Vinicio at the inauguration of ExpoENCA.

Vinicio at the inauguration of ExpoENCA.

What message do you have for students who want to continue studying agronomy in college?
“If they feel it’s their vocation, then I hope they encourage themselves to do it! EARTH is interesting and allows many to come study. More than that, it will change your life, not necessarily economically but in how it transforms you as a person – through an integrated learning system that is not purely technical but also is very humanistic and equips us to leave the planet better for future generations.”

One Comment

  1. Cristian Méndez says:

    Muy agradecido con ustedes por compartir esta entrevista con el director de nuestra gloriosa ENCA, y también animando a quien se decida estudiar en EARTH… Buen trabajo…

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