Counseling supports at-risk youth striving for education in Nicaragua

By Gretchen Robleto

September 11, 2018

BLUEFIELDS, Nicaragua – Heidy María Elvir, 25, tends to her small store, assisting customers while simultaneously keeping an eye on her two daughters, ages 2 and 7.

Elvir has been growing in her role as a business owner through classes at Bluefields Indian and Caribbean University, where she is studying business administration with help from a scholarship from the Aprendo y Emprendo program. The program is funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented by Creative Associates International.

In a region with high levels of poverty, Elvir’s shop is a lifeline for her and her children. Her education is building her technical knowledge and ability to market her business, set goals and develop plans, helping ensure her family will have a steady source of income.

Heidy Elvir runs a small shop while taking care of her two young daughters. Photo by Melvin James.

“They’re teaching us about money management, time management, customer service and knowing if our products are going to satisfy consumers,” she says.

Recently, she came close to abandoning her studies after she experienced a personal conflict and struggled to keep her good grades, on top of her daily responsibilities as a mom and entrepreneur.

Aprendo y Emprendo’s youth counselors were there to support her and keep her education on track.

“I decided to talk to the counselor because my personal situation was affecting my studies and performance,” Elvir says. “Although my personal problems persist, I have learned to focus on my two girls and on my career. That is what helps me stay focused and determined to complete my education.”

Keeping students on the path to graduation

The Aprendo y Emprendo project seeks to increase the quality and access of technical education and vocational training in Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast, where less than a quarter of young people in the workforce have completed high school. The project places emphasis on serving at-risk youth and ethnic minorities, who often face additional barriers to education and employment.

Aprendo y Emprendo has offered scholarships to more than 500 youth so far so they can pursue their technical degrees, with plans to award 500 more scholarships before the project’s end. But despite their motivation to further their education, many students face personal, family, financial and societal difficulties that can put up hurdles in the path to graduation day.

Counselor Melvin James speaks with automotive technician students from Fe y Alegría. Photo by Sergio Cantero.

The project uses a tool from USAID’S School Dropout Prevention Pilot Program, which was implemented by Creative, to alert teachers and counselors of the warnings signs of youth who are at risk of abandoning school and puts in place measures to prevent dropouts.

Across four campuses in the region, Aprendo y Emprendo has established a network of support for these students. In addition to the project’s full-time youth counselor, five focal points – each from a different degree program – provide follow-up to students who receive counseling. This approach is complemented by the project’s ongoing focus on developing life skills.

”We have given counseling to 280 at-risk youth, all of them from different ethnic groups and with unique situations,” says Youth Counselor Melvin James. “In most cases, young people and adolescents come from a family circle where they’ve experienced different magnitudes of violence, drug consumption and social problems like discrimination toward ethnic minorities such as Mayanga, Miskitu and Rama.”

James explains that many students are under immense pressure at home to provide financially or care for children – many of the female scholarship recipients are single mothers. Often these expectations can lead students to leave their long-term education goals in favor of short-term work.

“At-risk youth assume multiple roles within their families, mainly to be providers. And to talk about providing is to talk about earning an income through an informal job,” he says. “Therefore, in youth counseling we must not only approach youth, but also work closely with the family.”

Support through difficult times

Roberto Guzmán, 27, is a scholarship recipient studying industrial electricity at the Victoria Foundation in the country’s capital of Managua, a long way from his family in the Southern Caribbean Coast city of Nueva Guinea.

“It is complicated to be separated from your family, it’s a constant struggle to know that your family is going through a very difficult situation and you are not there to help. It makes you doubt yourself,” he says.

James stepped in to encourage Guzmán to continue his education so he can better support his family and himself in the long run.

“These emotional crises that arise make me feel off-balance,” Guzmán says. “The advice that [the counselors] have given me has helped me manage.”

Students at Fundación Victoria in their industrial electricity class. Photo by Jillian Slutzker.

After completing an internship in Managua, Guzmán is now set to graduate and will be return to Nueva Guinea, where with his degree he will be better suited to find steady, full-time employment in the busy agribusiness sector there.

When Elvir finishes her studies in Bluefields, she and her two children plan to join her father in Managua, where she intends to get a business administration job in the construction industry.

She says that counseling has helped her keep focused on that goal and persevere through challenges.

“It’s not easy to avoid being negative, but we can learn to control our thoughts,” she says. “Every sacrifice has its reward, and we must keep going while making time for our kids, because children are not an obstacle. We must keep moving forward and be someone in life.”

With editing by Evelyn Rupert.

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