Graduate student applies his own experiences to help educate girls in Peru

Katie Kavanaugh
May 18, 2015

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — What started as a favor for a friend quickly turned into Joseph Levitan’s passion: the Sacred Valley Project.

Growing up in Baltimore City, Maryland, Levitan always had an interest in academics and involvement in learning outside the classroom. He was able to combine his interest in education, activism and development in the Sacred Valley Project. “The idea came from one of the students who was the first member of the project,” said Levitan. “She really wanted to go to school so she asked her godfather, who is a friend of mine, and he asked me to help out, so we started this small project.”

The Sacred Valley Project, founded in 2009, began in Peru in a small village where education, especially for girls, was difficult to attain because of economic and safety issues. Levitan and his colleagues began working on a way to change that. They created a comprehensive, culturally responsive educational approach, which included on-site living, to cater to the developmental challenges facing each student.

The program focuses on the needs of each individual student, whether that is addressing language barriers, creating access to the school system or supporting student learning. The Sacred Valley Project was designed to help students mentally, 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.

The project works to bring students up to the same academic level as their peers as well as providing other nonacademic opportunities to learn so that students can define success for themselves and reach their goals.

“I’m not saying it’s 100 percent,” said Levitan. “There are still students who are struggling in certain areas, but we’re really seeing that this kind of engaged, culturally responsive curriculum with caring adults really makes a big difference.”

“I have a very activist or impact mission for community-grounded change. Growing up in Baltimore City, experiencing what I experienced, seeing what I saw, feeling what I felt, there’s a mission for me to actually do something, so I didn’t want to just study.”

— Joe Levitan, educational leadership and
education theory and policy doctoral student

When Levitan was accepted to Columbia University Teacher’s College, he began studying international development, education, social justice and peace education. After completing his master’s degree, he taught for a year in Baltimore City, all while working on the Sacred Valley Project.

After the year he spent teaching with Baltimore City School District, the Sacred Valley Project received a grant to complete the building of the dormitory, which led him to spending a year in Peru to develop the project.

“I have a very activist or impact mission for community-grounded change,” said Levitan. “Growing up in Baltimore City, experiencing what I experienced, seeing what I saw, feeling what I felt, there’s a mission for me to actually do something, so I didn’t want to just study.”

While working in Peru, Levitan also began applying to doctoral programs, which is how he found Penn State. According to Levitan, “Penn State came up because they have a comparative international education dual degree title and an educational leadership and educational theory and policy Ph.D. And, I thought that the combination of all of these things matched my background.”

Now, Levitan is exploring research comparing parents’ aspirations for their children to the aspirations of teachers and principals for their students in order to better understand the role of culture and background in a student’s education. He is working with professors John E. Roberts, Davin Carr-Chellman, Gerry LeTendre and Deb Schussler looking to understand how different identities and cultural backgrounds in the classroom influences learning for children and communities.

His next project will examine larger-picture issues and implications from his experience in working with the Sacred Valley Project and these rural communities. “It’s a very student voice-oriented look at what learning means to indigenous girls and what it means for them to be in school,’’ Levitan said.

“And hopefully tying that to larger issues of educational leadership in terms of democratic learning, how to work with students instead of working for students or working on students, and how to create the structures in which the content can be collaboratively produced with the students.”

  • Joe Levitan

    Levitan, right, spends time with locals in a Peruvian village while working with his nonprofit, Sacred Valley Project.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • Joe Levitan

    Levitan joins two Sacred Valley Project students for a walk through a Peruvian village.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated May 19, 2015