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Training Young Leaders to Effect Change Abroad

  When he was nine years old, Guillermo Ojedo and his mother moved nearly 200 miles from their hometown of Veracruz, Mexico, to Colonia Del Valle, a neighborhood outside of Mexico City, so he could get the education unavailable to deaf students in Veracruz

Now 22, Ojedo has again relocated to further his education, this time to St. Louis Community College where the Cooperative Association of States for Scholarships (CASS) program is teaching English, American Sign Language and computer technology to deaf and hard of hearing students from Central American countries.

CASS is a partnership program between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Georgetown University and 18 colleges and universities in 11 states that offer two-year scholarships to underprivileged students from Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America. These students are brought to the United States to learn English and specialize in a field of study that will prepare them to effect change in their home countries. CASS students have studied subjects such as agriculture, education and technology.

Ojedo is learning about computer technology at the Florissant Valley campus of St. Louis Community College with 13 of his fellow CASS participants. This year’s class represents six countries: the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Mexico and Nicaragua. All 14 students are either deaf or hard of hearing, a first for Florissant Valley.

After they complete the program, CASS participants are required to return to their home countries for at least two years. “We are training young leaders to go home and be agents of change,” says Susan McKnight, Florissant Valley’s CASS coordinator. “It really is a scholarship for their community.”

McKnight says the students will take with them a “community action plan” to put in place in their home countries, detailing their vision for how they will improve their communities. This year’s CASS students are excited about being able to go back to their communities and contribute, McKnight says, especially because many services aren’t available to the deaf community where they are from.

 “I want to take back an ability to teach,” says Ojedo. “For the deaf that live in Veracruz, I’d love to share all that I’ve learned here in America.”

A 2004 CASS report revealed that over the past four years, 97 percent of participants successfully completed the program and 99 percent returned to their home countries to serve their communities. The report also showed that of the more than 5,000 CASS alumni, 91 percent are employed in their home countries.

Marie Edel Baptiste recently graduated from the CASS program at Florissant Valley and is working as a business analyst for the clothing company, Gildan Activewear in her native Haiti.

“I am capable of helping my family, supporting myself and improving my community with what I learned in America,” Baptiste says. “I am back in my community to share what I have learned in America and use my knowledge to improve the lives of people.”

Although Baptiste is not hearing impaired, she and Ojedo share the CASS experience of living in a foreign country for the first time and the frustration of learning a new language. Learning a common language works to unify CASS students who otherwise would have difficulty communicating with one another. For this year’s CASS participants, learning American Sign Language has enabled them to break down communication barriers among students who previously signed in different languages. At least 80 percent of CASS students come from rural areas, and the majority of them have had limited exposure to computers and other forms of technology, making Florissant Valley’s engineering/technology curriculum especially challenging.

But students say learning English was probably the most challenging of all. Yet, even with the language barriers, CASS students are active on the Florissant Valley campus. They host their own campus events, including “Sharing Our Culture,” where they represent their home countries through native dress, dance, food, poetry and drama. They also attend campus functions such as the recent Black History Month events held at the college. “They are well-known faces in the campus community,” McKnight says.

Baptiste says that it was important to her not only to learn from the CASS experience but also to teach others.

“The main reason I came to the United States was to pursue my studies and to share my culture as an ambassador of friendship for my country.”

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