Research project changes lives in remote communities in Peru

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For Joe Levitan and Kayla Johnson, their research quite literally has become their life’s work. What started as Levitan’s research has expanded to include Johnson’s area of expertise, and it has been life-changing for both of them, as well as for the indigenous people in rural communities in Peru with whom they are working.

The two graduate students, who earned their doctorates from Penn State this past semester and will marry this summer, are part of a larger group that is making an education available to residents of rural regions of Peru, which in turn is making a real difference in their lives and the lives of their families.

The Sacred Valley Project (SVP), founded in 2009, provides access to secondary school for Quechua or indigenous girls, in the Peruvian Andes. While Levitan and his colleagues initially thought that the main issue preventing these girls from receiving an education was the distance between these rural communities and the nearest school, they quickly discovered there were bigger issues to overcome.

“Students coming from the rural communities have linguistic differences from the kids in the town because students from rural communities are bilingual but primarily speak Quechua, and students in towns primarily speak Spanish, although many town students understand Quechua,” Levitan said. “Secondary school (in the larger towns) is taught only in Spanish, but primary school in the local communities is mostly taught in Quechua, so students from rural communities are developing second-language learners, even within their same region."

There also are academic differences because the rural students go to school for only two or three hours a day. “They need to herd animals and help on their family farms,” Levitan said. “The town kids usually go to school for four, five or six hours a day in elementary school. So, we learned that we needed to offer a lot more academic and linguistic support for the students.”

Girls have additional barriers to overcome. If parents must choose to educate only one child, which is a common dilemma in the area because of material poverty, boys are much more likely to be chosen, because they are seen as having greater economic opportunity. Also, it is common for boys to stay with families in town who have businesses, and work while they go to school. “However, parents see this practice as more dangerous for girls, so it is not a common option for them,” Levitan said.

“Research shows that educated girls have a more profound and positive influence on the well-being of communities in terms of health, economics and social justice.”

— Joe Levitan, Penn State doctoral student and co-founder of the Sacred Valley Project

In response, the two created a comprehensive, culturally grounded educational approach, which included on-site living, to cater to the developmental challenges facing each student. The Sacred Valley Project was designed to facilitate students’ healthy growth cognitively, socially-emotionally and physically, to provide young women the opportunity to grow into powerful leaders in their communities, better their academic success, and engage them in a stimulating educational environment.

“Research shows that educated girls have a more profound and positive influence on the well-being of communities in terms of health, economics and social justice,” Levitan said, citing another reason the project’s primary focus is on educating girls.

The project expanded in 2015, with a new dormitory opening in another region. “The new dormitory is doing great,” Levitan said. “The 16 new students in Calca have been working hard, and are learning a lot. They have been doing well in school, and Gladys, the dorm director, says that the girls are wonderful to work with — diligent in their chores and homework.”

They also opened a new learning center for any Quechua student. This new project — Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu (CEPA), or Pallata Community Education Center — is located in the small community of Pallata, about two hours (walking) from the original SVP dorm, in Ollantaytambo.

“CEPA has about 30 regulars and about 45 students signed up. The ages range from 4 to 30, and we teach computer skills as well as health, literacy and English classes,” Levitan said. “The community elders also lead lessons on plant identification and traditional farming practices. This project has been a real partnership with the community as we have worked collaboratively with Quechua teachers.”

It was through CEPA that Johnson became involved with the project. She visited Peru with Levitan in 2015, as CEPA was being launched.

“We were talking about their desire to build a new education center that would be open to the general public. I taught English as a foreign language in France and have worked with kindergarten through adult learners, so Joe and his friends asked for my help in creating the curriculum and assisting with pedagogy for this new project,” Johnson said. “Now I am directing the curriculum for the Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu and building up the educational repertoire of the project.”

Johnson, who with Levitan spends about three months a year in Peru, also teaches English as a foreign language to the students, and has held conversation classes where she teaches the students English and they teach her Spanish.

Since 2010, Levitan has taught a wide variety of courses as well, from experiential science classes such as physics and astronomy to leadership skills, geography, English and computer science.

“Early secondary school science is probably my favorite subject to teach because learning can be best facilitated with low-cost or no-cost, easy-to-run experiments that show really exciting and cool properties of the physical world,” Levitan said.

He also regularly facilitates Socratic seminars that foster philosophical reflection based on students’ current questions or issues that they want to discuss, including friends, school, their aspirations, life in general, or culture.

“Educators should not only concern themselves with the ways in which students are impacted by their experiences abroad, but also how locals are impacted by the students who live and learn with them.”

— Kayla Johnson, Penn State doctoral student 

“My pedagogy while in Peru is mostly based on an idea of a teaching exchange, in which the students teach me something, and I teach them something,” Levitan said. He also usually tries to make teaching experiential and grounded in students’ background knowledge. This way he can help foster students’ recognition and appreciation of their own knowledge.

The work Johnson is doing with CEPA is not part of her dissertation, which is focused on what college students learn in study abroad programs. However, her experiences in Peru have driven home to her that outcomes should be reciprocal.

“Educators should not only concern themselves with the ways in which students are impacted by their experiences abroad, but also how locals are impacted by the students who live and learn with them,” Johnson said. “I have learned so much from the SVP and CEPA students, their parents, and local project staff, but as a researcher, I need to remember that I am impacting them as well, in one way or another, for better or for worse. It is my responsibility as a researcher to investigate the ways in which my presence and the presence of students studying abroad are impacting the host culture and the people who inhabit it.”

The schools in Peru are a living laboratory for Levitan. “I have learned that my research benefits from continued interaction with the community and vice-versa; that my reflexivity is one of the most important aspects of learning what information is important and useful for sharing with the larger population of education scholars,” he said. “I have begun to examine how to incorporate minority opinions within the community so that all are heard and can contribute to educational decision-making,” he said.

Levitan said being involved so deeply in a project of this magnitude both personally and as a researcher has enabled him to gain a more nuanced understanding of the strengths and struggles within the community, among other issues.

“The new education center also allowed me to expand the group of people I work with, and to gain new perspectives on culture and education, as well, which has added significant depth to my dissertation topic, which is about democratic leadership, identity and social justice,” he said. “The dissertation writing process has allowed me to reflect upon what my colleagues and friends say in a deep way, as well as my own position within the community and the work we do.”

For Johnson, her experience in Peru has underscored for her the importance of recognizing and respecting different cultures and ways of life. “I cannot travel to Peru every summer and expect to live life my way,” she said. “The Quechua-speaking people I have come to know and love do things differently than I do, and I must always remember that my culture — and all the comforts it affords me when I’m home — is not their culture. And that’s OK.”

Levitan and Johnson both have jobs lined up at McGill University, an English-language university in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Levitan will be an assistant professor of international leadership, and Johnson has a postdoctoral appointment.

“We both also will continue to work with the Sacred Valley Project and Centro Educativo Pallata Ayllu indefinitely,” Levitan said. “It’s important work.”

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Last Updated May 05, 2017