Times of war can bring out the best and the worst of the human race. In 1989, in a war torn Central America full of ideological tensions and injustices, a seed of peace and prosperity was planted in the heart of the humid tropics. For those involved with the University at the time, EARTH’s first admissions trip was much more than simply an effort to find its first class of students: it was about delivering a message of hope for the future of the region.
For two weeks, Jim French (EARTH’s first Dean) and José Zaglul (EARTH University President) traveled throughout Central America to find the first group of promising young men and women who would be instrumental in establishing EARTH as an institution. “The only way to find them was to go out and look for them because they never would have come on their own,” says José. He and Jim were practically the entire academic department of the University at the time, making them the ideal (and only) pair for the task.
They first visited Nicaragua, a country that had been immersed in armed conflict between the Sandinistas and the Contras for years prior to their arrival. José and Jim (Costa Rican and U.S. citizens respectively) ran the risk of being confused as sympathizers for the Contras, but managed to cross the unstable border with little more than a change of clothes and a stack of hastily printed informational pamphlets in the car they shared for the journey. They were hosted by the Nicaraguan Minister of Education, who helped them locate students in the most remote schools around the country. From there they continued their journey, traveling through Honduras and finally, Guatemala.
“We felt that if we used traditional recruiting methods, we wouldn’t find the students we wanted, as generally those methods favor people with resources and contacts,” explains José. Their trip opened their eyes to harsh realities of some of the more remote areas in Central America. “I had been in poor, isolated areas before, but this was the first time I saw these areas under the conflict of an armed struggle. We felt, and still feel, a great responsibility, because when you decide to accept one student and not another, you are changing both of their lives,” says José.
Armed teenagers perched on top of tanks, dried blood in the bed of a borrowed pickup truck and faces marked by suffering and war- these were the images that Jim and José had to deal with during their passage through Central America. These same images were an unforgettable validation of EARTH’s mission to make a tangible impact on these countries through education. “At the time I thought: If we could create leaders who promote peace and sustainability, maybe there would a little hope,” said José.
Although almost 25 years have passed since that first expedition, José is still a firm believer that changing the world begins with education and the creation of ethical leaders. “We know that we can’t educate everyone in the world ourselves, but we can help to create leaders who will work for better futures in their countries,” he says. It’s been 10 years since he has gone on an admissions trip, but he admits he misses it and doesn’t rule out the idea of venturing out again.
“Making a choice is always difficult because every single applicant has a truly moving story. Some of the first Nicaraguans at EARTH were students who had lived through these conflicts, and for them it was painful to leave their country and their families in that situation. At EARTH we feel the profound responsibility to make sure our students are successful and we try to choose them in the most unbiased way possible: basing our decisions on values, leadership and social commitment,” concludes José.
To see EARTH University President José Zaglul’s talk entitled “Between peace and chaos” from TEDx Pura Vida 2014, click here.
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