Fulbright Scholar Sara Brells to research Ecuador's intercultural education system

2011 alumna will examine the complexities and effectiveness of Ecuador's system as it relates to the nation's numerous indigenous populations.

Sara Brells, a recent graduate of Pacific University with a bachelor's degree in political science, has received a Fulbright Scholarship to research Ecuador's unique intercultural bilingual education system that serves the country's many indigenous populations.

Brells will depart for the South American nation in September and spend 10 months to a year at two sites: a small Amazonian Shuar village, and a public school in Quito.

The trip follows her senior thesis in which she explored how modern land rights issues and natural resource exploitation in Ecuador spurred the unification of formerly disparate indigenous peoples.

She then examined how indigenous Ecuadoreans balance citizenship and the self-autonomy necessary to preserve their native identity. 

In her thesis, Brells applied Social Movement Theory to explain how the resulting Confederación de Nacionalidades Indígenas del Ecuador (CONAIE) achieved unprecedented success in indigenous citizenship claims and the establishment of an intercultural, bilingual education system model (MOSEIB).

"Indigneous populations often do not want the same things," Brells said. "My intent is to evaluate the success and accuracy of MOSEIB's stated goal of sustaining indigenous populations' unique identities and cultures while also introducing them to modern culture."

Brells' initial research suggests that the education model is not what indigenous populations had hoped it would be. 

"MOSEIB aims to give natives a choice to live traditionally or integrate into a more modern lifestyle,” Brells said. “The program right now appears to just be a standard translation of standard Ecuadorian education.”

Through her experiences and research, Brells hopes to put together a document that delves into the deeper complexities of turning the indigenous populations’ visions and goals into reality.

She will have access to Fulbright-affiliated resources and professors at Universidad San Francisco in Quito, and will present her findings to the community members next summer.

Brells would like to present at Pacific upon her return.  "I am interested in bringing my observations to light here, and perhaps one day fulfill my own desire to start an intercultural bilingual school here in the U.S."

During her time at Pacific, Brells gained the respect and admiration from students and faculty alike for her willingness to take on the role of change agent, even during a time of personal adversity. 

She spent more than a year successfully advocating the University to wean itself off bottled water consumption in favor of the tap.

Months of petition preparation, signature gathering and presentations through various University governance levels resulted in Pacific's food service provider, ARAMARK, agreeing to halt sales of bottled water.

On the surface, it might appear that sustainability was at the heart of the issue. For Brells, it is much more than simply reducing waste.

"Water rights and land access issues worldwide are coming into focus, and the poor will be adversely affected by the growth and influence of the privatized bottled water industry," she said. 

The policy change at Pacific is even more impressive given that Brells was fully engaged in her thesis and spent much of Fall Semester in her hometown of Tacoma, Wash. to care for her mother who underwent a successful lung transplant procedure.

When Brells was five years old, her mother was diagnosed with an extremely rare disease - Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) - that affects only about 2,000 women worldwide, most of whom have never smoked tobacco.

Early onset symptoms include collapsed lungs, and shortness of breath as commonly found in those with emphysema or asthma. The primary long-term effect is severe reduction in lung function, and at the time of the transplant procedure, Brells’ mother had a function of just 17 percent normal lung capacity.

Brells would travel regularly to Tacoma throughout her time at Pacific, both before and after the transplant, to care for her mom.

On Halloween weekend last fall, while attempting to complete the initial draft of her thesis due two days later, Brells learned that her mom had finally received the call for the transplant.

"She tried to call me for 20 minutes, but I had my phone turned off to work on the thesis," Brells said. "As soon as I checked my phone, I rushed to Seattle for the procedure."

Though the procedure went well, Brells spent much of her mom's 10-day hospital recovery with her, followed by continuous travel between home and campus on weekends.

In addition to providing moral support, Brells cooked, kept house provided bedside care among other things. She is cautiously optimistic about her mother’s long-term health.

"The risk of a fungal infection is fairly high following any transplant because of the immunosuppressants recipients must take or their bodies to accept foreign organs,” Brells said. “My mom developed an infection and recovered, but the risk of recurrence and possible rejection of the lung will always exist.”

Nevertheless, Brells marveled at her mother’s new lease on life. “She is doing things I never saw her do when I was growing up,” Brells said. “She has always been a very optimistic person and that has had big effect on me."

Perhaps Mom's spirit for appreciating the little things is partly responsible for Brells' commitment to community service.

During her time at Pacific, she served as a SMART Reader at local elementary schools, and also worked with first and second graders at the Forest Grove Community School on reading initiatives.

Brells also spent countless hours working with Adelante Mujeres to establish a language exchange program between Pacific students and Adelante members in an effort to breakdown cultural barriers.

Her compassion for underserved populations epitomizes the Fulbright mission pillar of promoting international cooperation for education and cultural advancement.

Posted by Joe Lang (jlang@pacificu.edu) on Aug 29, 2011 at 11:21 AM

Edited by Stephanie Haugen (haug7381@pacificu.edu) on Apr 3, 2012 at 1:28 PM

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