International academic exchange program at Penn State promotes peace, research

Amy Duke
March 01, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Growing up in rural Colombia, Aristides Noriega has witnessed the large-scale, rapid growth of mineral and crude oil extraction, an industry that now has claimed about 40 percent of the country’s land.

Unfortunately, he’s also seen the significant consequences of this exploration on the country’s ecosystems and rural communities. During a recent visit to Penn State, the senior mining engineering major at Fundación Universitaria del Área Andina in Bogotá, Colombia (also called Areandina University), lamented that his country's water, air and soil have been impacted negatively.

"That has caused lung disease and digestive problems, creating community unrest and poor quality of life,” he said. “Using scientific knowledge, we can develop good (mining) techniques that can solve those problems and make Colombia healthier, safer and stronger.”

Noriega understands that tackling those challenges will take a team — a global one — and that is why he wanted to take part in an international academic exchange program called “Academic Mobility Program for Scientific Knowledge Transfer to Rural Communities for Peace,” a collaboration among his university, La Universidad de Bogotá Jorge Tadeo Lozano (UTADEO), and Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences.

The goal of the initiative is to develop sustainable partnerships and knowledge sharing among Colombian research groups and U.S. students, according to Paige Castellanos, assistant research professor in the college’s Office of International Programs.

The program included a weeklong workshop in rural and community engagement, held in January at Penn State, and will continue with a two-week exchange set for May in Colombia for Penn State students. During the recent workshop, Penn State graduate students in rural sociology, food science and the International Agriculture and Development dual-title degree program began interdisciplinary collaborations with students from both visiting universities.

“This exchange allows our students and faculty to learn from the context-specific knowledge of the in-country partners,” Castellanos said. “Together, we are sharing experiences that will build strong research projects across the natural and social sciences, exploring the critical issues of climate change, decreasing biodiversity and the impact of mineral extraction in the post-conflict areas of Colombia.”

Helene Hopfer lab at Penn State

Helene Hopfer, Rasmussen Career Development Professor in Food Science, center, discusses research in her lab with students and faculty from Colombia who visited Penn State in January as part of an international academic exchange program.

IMAGE: Penn State

The group took part in discussions on gender inequality in agriculture, international agriculture and development, and community engagement, and toured several laboratories, including those in food science and Penn State’s Center for Pollinator Research. In addition, they explored the research facilities of Mark Guiltinan, J. Franklin Styer Professor of Horticultural Botany, and Siela Maximova, research professor of plant biotechnology, both of whom are widely known for their cacao research.

The students also learned about Cacao for Peace, a five-year USAID-USDA international development project that joins experts from the U.S. and Colombia with the United Nations and the Peace Corps to promote the cultivation of cacao as a sustainable alternative to growing coca and marijuana. Penn State, a world leader in cacao research, is a key partner through its Cacao and Chocolate Research Network.

Castellanos said the tours and the forums served as a springboard for the students to brainstorm research proposals, all aimed at supporting the well-being of rural communities in Colombia.

The talks on climate change and the ecosystem were of special interest to David Castro, an environmental biology major from UTADEO, whose research goal focuses on climate change and its effect on plant germination.

“The connection with Penn State and its great knowledge about international agriculture and the need for strong rural communities is very important for our research,” he said. “Through this experience, I have gained insight on the impact of conflict, which is a big problem in Colombia.”

Faculty advisers traveling with the students, including Luis Ernesto Beltran, associate professor in the Department of Environmental and Biological Sciences at UTADEO, spoke of the value of the experience for the students.

“This exchange has provided them with the opportunity to experience a larger university, hear different perspectives, and grow their confidence in solving social problems,” Beltran said. “This is a good starting point for future research collaborations.”

To make the experience complete — and because this was the first visit to the U.S. for most of the students from Colombia — Castellanos planned a few sightseeing and social outings for the group, including an afternoon of ice skating at Pegula Ice Arena on campus. One thing that she didn’t plan, however, was a snowstorm on the first day of the visit, which transfixed her guests, many of whom had never seen a snowflake before.

“This was our first time playing in the snow, and we just kept throwing snowballs at each other when we went outside,” said Noriega. “This experience has been wonderful, and everyone at Penn State has been kind and interested in our work. It’s my personal wish to come back and study here; it’s a big university, yet it feels small.”

Funding for the workshop was provided by the Office of International Programs Ag2Americas initiative and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund, a public-private sector partnership between the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies, Partners of the Americas, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, corporations, and foundations working together to stimulate connectivity and collaboration between higher education networks throughout the Americas.

Participating Penn State faculty included Kathleen Sexsmith, assistant professor of rural sociology; Leif Jensen, distinguished professor of rural sociology and demography; Leland Glenna, professor of rural sociology and science, technology, and society; Noel Habashy, instructor and adviser of international agriculture; Abder Ouarghidi, research associate in the Office of International Programs; and Carla Snyder, agriculture entrepreneurship and marketing educator, Penn State Extension.

Also involved are Helene Hopfer, Rasmussen Career Development Professor in Food Science; and Margarita López-Uribe, assistant professor of entomology and Lorenzo L. Langstroth Early Career Professor, among others. The principal investigator is Julian Prieto Barrera, director of the Foreign Affairs Office, UTADEO.

  • Students ice skating at Penn State

    College students from Colombia who visited Penn State enjoyed an afternoon of ice skating at Pegula Ice Arena.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 01, 2019