EXT. CREEK – MORNING
Twenty international college students descend upon a creek bed snipping away blackberry overgrowth and snatching up litter blown in by the road traffic above.
From California …
FELLOW STUDENTS, also singing
To the New York island …
This land was made for you and Me. [LAUGHTER]
It could be a scene from a movie, but it’s just a rainy Saturday morning in February at Beaver Creek in Troutdale.
These students are part of the final class of a 15-year long program providing scholarships to youth from Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean to study for two years at colleges and universities in the United States. The program, Scholarships for Education and Economic Development, is ending this year after losing its United States Agency for International Development funding.
This crew will be the program’s last students to graduate from the Mount Hood Community College SEED program where they study natural resources and environmental technology.
“It’s sad, a legacy is gone that has many years working with different organizations. Some students from other countries need this scholarship,” said Jose Jimenez de Leon, a participant from the Dominican Republic.
On a recent morning, the crew worked to clean up Metro’s Beaver Creek area, and root 100 new native plants in partnership with Metro’s volunteer program. Fifteen years ago this natural area had just a handful of old trees. Most of the vegetation visitors see today, from western red cedars, Douglas fir and cottonwood, to rose, ninebark and sword fern, has been planted by SEED participants.
“This is the international student forest in my opinion,” said Kate Holleran, a natural resources scientist at Metro. “It wouldn’t have happened without the students coming to me 15 years ago and saying we want to do our community service here, to give back to the college.”
Not only do the students participate in extensive community service work in their host cities, as part of their studies they develop their own Community Action Plans to implement when they return to their home communities.
“Each program adds a rich global perspective that goes beyond the campus and communities they work in, building life-long relationships, trust and benefits that transcend borders.” – Rep. Earl Blumenauer
After graduating, Glenda Alfaro, runner-up at the Clinton Global Initiative while studying in the MHCC SEED program in 2013, returned to her home country of El Salvador and implemented a community composting program called De la Basura al Jardin, “From Garbage to Garden,” which improves the nutrient quality of the soil in local farms and gardens.
Henry Vasquez, MHCC SEED class of 2005, has gone on to work for the Guatemalan Department of Agriculture and World Vision, serving hundreds of thousands of people in his career.
“I just got an update from a student who’s doing composting toilets in Honduras; a young woman from Guatemala who built 20 efficient wood burning stoves, and another student who’s got a whole composting project in place,” said Nikki Gillis, SEED program coordinator at MHCC.
When de Leon returns to the Dominican Republic he plans to start a program to improve the water quality in his community. Fellow student Jorge Isai Vasquez Lopez wants to head a recycling program in his hometown of Marcala La Paz in Honduras; by 2017 Margoly de Leon Herrera plans to empower 100 youth in her community of Chiapas, Mexico by providing workshops in environmental studies, English language, computer education, sports and art.
“I am going to share my experience with them,” Herrera said. “Empower them by networking with some partnerships to look for jobs and to help those students continue with their studies.”
Alumni from four different SEED programs across the United States now hold political office or are running for election in El Salvador.
Of this year’s 132 SEED students nationally, 42 have been invited to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative University.
“These students receive hands-on work experience with local governments, non-profits, businesses, and state and federal agencies – expertise they bring home and share long after their scholarship ends. Each program adds a rich global perspective that goes beyond the campus and communities they work in, building life-long relationships, trust and benefits that transcend borders,” said Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., in a letter from March 2014 signed by ten members of Congress to the administrator of US AID in a successful plea to fund the program for one final year.
After commissioning an independent review of its programs, US AID has announced it is cutting funding for SEED. Despite determinations that it is successful and cost effective, said Paul Silva, director of the SEED program at Georgetown University, it is still expensive compared to different scholarship programs for students in their home countries.
US AID has yet to request proposals for the program’s successor, but it’s a loss that will be felt by the leaders who have been involved for so many years.
“It’s going to be sad because a lot of organizations count on our volunteers,” Gillis said. “You get volunteers, but how often do you get 19-40 people who are like in it!”
“We’re going to finish the work started 15 years ago, because really, after we’re done today … we’re just going to let it grow,” Holleran said to the students. “You are the finale, the grand finale.”