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Growing a Partnership

Students holding a WVU flag

In less than three years, a groundbreaking exchange program between WVU and the Universidad Nacional de Asuncion in Paraguay has already transformed lives. And it’s only just begun.

For Gerard D'Souza, director of the Division of Resource Economics and Management and professor of agricultural and resource economics in the Davis College, Paraguay, a small, landlocked country tucked between Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia in the heart of South America, was more of a vague idea than a physical place he could imagine himself in. “For me it was one of those faraway places I heard about but had no idea what it would really be like,” he said.

But when he arrived in the capital of Asuncion in October 2013 to give a series of lectures at the Universidad Nacional de Asuncion (UNA) as part of the Fulbright Senior Specialist program, the little nation quickly came into vibrant, transformative focus.

“The region is picturesque and full of natural wonders like the Iguazu Falls, which are even bigger and more impressive than Niagara Falls. And there are beautiful rivers and mountains. Even so, the people have a saying that there’s not much to see in Paraguay, but there’s a lot to feel. They really live that example,” D’Souza said.

Although Paraguay just recently emerged from military rule with the fair and free election of their first civilian president in 1993, the country seemed poised to take on a new role in the region. “It’s a young country, but the people are so warm and inviting. They treated me like a rock star. They held native dances for me. I had my own translator. Being in a country where I knew absolutely no one — that made a huge difference. It ended up being one of the best professional and personal experiences of my life.”

After just 15 days in Paraguay, during which D’Souza lectured on everything from economics to sustainability, he returned to WVU with the seed of an idea already planted in his mind. The friends and connections he made there soon manifested into a mission to create a new partnership, an invaluable exchange of ideas and people between the two universities.

“The timing was right and the chemistry was right. They have a great thirst for knowledge and new ideas. When I lectured there, I introduced the idea of Paraguay becoming the renewable energy capital of the Americas by 2020. They liked that idea so much, I started investigating a faculty and student exchange program.”

D’Souza contacted the WVU Office of International Programs to get the ball rolling. And by June 2014 a group of scholars from Paraguay arrived to finalize a Memorandum of Understanding between WVU and the national university in Asuncion. A year later, in March 2015, George Lies, grants administrator in the Office of International Programs, and D’Souza worked together to write a grant proposal for the program.

That proposal would win WVU a $24,888 award for Innovative Ventures for Student Mobility in the Americas, part of President Obama’s 100,000 Strong in the Americas program, an education initiative that aims to exchange 100,000 students between the U.S. and Latin American universities by 2020.

Since then, 19 WVU and UNA students have become part of the program. Each group lives with host families, visits with university faculty, sits in on lectures, and participates in unique cultural activities and sightseeing. And there have been numerous faculty exchange visits and visits by administration to develop curricular and cultural activities both for WVU students who study abroad in Paraguay and students from UNA who come to WVU. Research, Lies said, is another long-term goal.

“Working with the Paraguayan ambassador, we’re trying to lay the groundwork for more research in areas like energy and healthcare. We’re working toward more exchange of faculty and graduate students,” Lies said.

WVU faculty of health sciences and world languages have also visited Asuncion to plan a long-term collaboration. D’Souza said, seeing the life-changing experiences students and faculty get from exploring and becoming immersed in another country and culture are one of the biggest payoffs of his efforts. And he has big hopes for expanding the program’s reach. His current goal is to increase the number of students participating and the length of their stays. “I would like to see our students going down there for semester-long study — at least 10 a year from WVU and 10 Paraguayan students coming here.”

Although currently the grant only funds short-term exchanges, Lies said the long-term goal is to inspire even more immersive, in-depth exchanges for both students and faculty. “We used the short-term approach to show students in both locations what the other place had to offer, and to encourage long-term semester exchanges under the agreement,” he said.

Students like Aisury Vasquez, who traveled to Paraguay with the first cohort in November 2015 as a graduate coordinator assisting D’Souza and fell in love with the country so completely she decided to return to Paraguay as part of the WVU Peace Corps Master’s International program, a professional science master’s degree in sustainable forestry and natural resource management, in September 2016.

“My first experience in Paraguay was beyond fantastic. I was able to stay with UNA professor Lidia Rosa and her family. This allowed me to explore Paraguayan culture on a deeper level. I want to explore more of the countryside, get to know the people and help a community in any way I am able,” she said.

As a farm management extensionist, Vasquez will be working with farm families in Paraguay on everything from soil and natural resource management to income generation and assurance of food availability. “I will identify their needs and assist them in creating permanent programs that can live on after my two years are up.”

And she will act as something of a guide, an inspiration, to U.S. and WVU students who arrive for their own Paraguayan journeys. “My hope is that with already-made connections, I’ll be better able to serve my Peace Corps community as well as be a connecting point for students traveling from WVU to UNA in the future,” she said. “Not many people have the opportunity I have been given. I want to learn as much from my host community as they learn from me.”