Provost issues response to petition from CASA alumni
THE SANTA CLARA
March 31, 2016
After more than 15 years of operation, Santa Clara has suspended the study abroad program CASA El Salvador for summer and fall 2016 due to the country’s increased homicide rate.
CASA El Salvador, which is based in Antiguo Cuscatlán, El Salvador, is designed for students to be in solidarity with the El Salvadorians, many of whom lack access to safe drinking water, electricity and housing. Students study at the Universidad Centroamericana, known as UCA.
“Our presence in the community does not offer much physical support or assistance to the Salvadorans, but what we do offer is a friendly presence and a demonstration that we care about them as individuals and as people,” said senior Alyssa Crooke, who participated in the program in fall 2014.
Junior Yesenia Veamatahau applied to the program for fall 2016 because she wanted to live and work alongside the Salvadoran people in solidarity—something she felt that no other study abroad program could offer. However, as study abroad acceptances rolled in early winter quarter, Veamatahau heard no word about whether or not she was going to El Salvador.
She finally heard the news the first week of March. The university announced that the summer and fall programs were suspended. A total of 10 Santa Clara students had applied to the summer program, while three Santa Clara students and one non-Santa Clara student had applied to the winter program.
“It’s not a service trip—it’s to be there and share in people’s realities and stories,” Veamatahau said. “It concerns me that we have built up the partnership over the years to show we care for them and now we are pulling out.”
In March, several CASA alumni launched a petition on Change.org calling for Santa Clara to put forward a timeline to assess the safety in El Salvador for the program to be reopened. In addition, the petition also states that Santa Clara has a responsibility to support the CASA program staff and Salvadoran communities.
“By removing the students from these placements we are telling the communities that we are more concerned about ourselves than about them, and that we can no longer stand in solidarity with them in their greatest time of need,” Crooke said.
Provost Dennis Jacobs issued a response to the petition on March 30, saying that Santa Clara would form a team, potentially from an outside organization specializing in risk assessment, to go down to El Salvador and determine the conditions under which the program can operate. Jacobs added that Santa Clara would continue to financially support CASA.
In January, the U.S. State Department issued an updated travel warning for El Salvador, and the U.S. Peace Corps also suspended its program in El Salvador due to increased crime and violence.
After these announcements, the Crisis Abroad Task Force, the Global Engagement Office and the co-directors of the CASA Program met and decided to suspend the spring 2016 CASA program on Jan. 15. A total of 13 non-Santa Clara students had applied to the spring term.
The groups then met multiple times to discuss the summer and fall programs, and and decided to suspend them.
“Steady increases in levels of violence in the country since August 2015 were the most significant cause for concern,” said David Wick, director of Study Abroad.
In El Salvador, less than 45 homicides were recorded per 100,000 people in 2012 and 2013, according to Wick. However, the homicide rate climbed to 104 homicides per 100,000 people in 2015, the highest point in fifteen years. In January 2016, the homicide rate increased by an additional 33 percent compared to El Salvador’s homicide rate in 2015, Wick said.
Howard Cotto, El Salvador’s National Police director, reported that homicide rates went up 118 percent from the same two months last year, according to an article in the New York Times.
“To the World Health Organization, a rate of 10 murders per 100,000 people is an epidemic,” Wick said.
The decision to suspend the program has garnered significant outcry from the Santa Clara community and CASA alumni. Although they acknowledge that Santa Clara has the right to asses the violence and potential risk to students, CASA alumni have objected to the decision.
“The U.S. Government specifically stated that even with high levels of violence in the country, there is no apparent threat to U.S. travelers in El Salvador,” Crooke said. “Those who are most in danger are the Salvadorans themselves, who, by suspending this program, we are leaving behind.”
Junior Elleni Hailu, who participated in the CASA program in summer 2015, said she never encountered a dangerous situation during the program, since the violence is mainly taking place in San Salvador, not in the city where the program is located.
“I felt safer there than I do now. I felt truly at home,” Hailu said. “Antiguo Cuscatlán is a very protected community.”
The program coordinators accompanied the students wherever they went and were extremely knowledgeable about the surrounding areas, Hailu said. Certain measures were taken to ensure student safety. Program participants were not allowed to ride on public transportation.
Veamatahau said she thinks that the decision has to do with Santa Clara’s climate as an institution, which she claims is geared towards business and engineering, unlike CASA.
“I feel as though the majority of the study abroad programs we are partnered with cater towards the demographic that is prioritized at this school,” she said. “I feel like this is being used as an opportunity to discontinue (the program) indefinitely.”
CASA alumni are also concerned about the livelihood of the employees who run the program, which includes guards, cooks, teachers and drivers. Crooke said she thinks it will be “nearly impossible” to keep them all on staff without the study abroad students and the finances they provide.
Wick said that the university will remain committed to CASA El Salvador, and mentioned its other ties to the country, including faculty work related to the country’s immigration crisis and research initiatives at UCA. Santa Clara also funds the Romero Program, which provides room and board for Salvadoran students from impoverished communities.
“At this point Santa Clara has not made any changes to staffing and infrastructure in CASA El Salvador,” Wick said. “Without students, we are looking to see how that infrastructure can engage with the community.”
However, Veamatahau and other students and CASA alumni still have questions about how the university will support the program without student funding.
“The study abroad office said they aren’t going to diminish their commitment to the El Salvadorian community but that doesn’t really make sense to me if students aren’t going on the trip,” Veamatahau said. “I want to know what they are going to do in absence of the program.”
The future of CASA El Salvador remains up in the air.
“This is a very challenging situation and there are a lot of uncertainties,” Wick said.
Since the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning for El Salvador in January 2013 due to increased violence in the country, it has been more difficult for the study abroad office to recruit Santa Clara students to apply to CASA El Salvador, Wick said.
According to Wick, CASA El Salvador has accommodated as many as 38 students per semester. The highest enrollment in a single academic year was 73 students. However, enrollment has declined—a total of 58 students participated in the program in the 2014-2015 academic year.
In the summer of 2015, 11 Santa Clara students studied abroad in CASA El Salvador. In fall 2015, five Santa Clara students and 10 students from other institutions participated in the program.
The Study Abroad Office has been working with students who applied to the program to help them find alternative accommodations. In the meantime, Wick said that the violence in El Salvador will continue to be monitored.
“U.S. Department of State Travel Warnings do not have expiration dates,” Wick said. “Given this, we will continue to review a variety of sources and to examine the situation on the ground in El Salvador. We are looking for a reversal of the current trends and greater stability in the country.”
Contact Sophie Mattson at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4849.