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Six months in Guatemala gives Elon professor insights into challenges facing at-risk youth

Professor Carmen Monico's work in Guatemala was funded through a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award. 

For the first half of 2016, Elon Professor Carmen Monico was deeply embedded in communities in Guatemala, talking with at-risk youth who likely considered the same trek to the United States that Monico made years ago. 

Elon Professor Carmen Monico, second from the left, with some of the young people she met during her six months in Guatemala. (Courtesy photo)

Monico, assistant professor of human service studies at Elon, immigrated to this country as a young college student to escape the violence and terror that was gripping her home country of El Salvador. She knows the role that violence can play in driving immigration to the United States, and in recent years has focused her research on what's behind the waves of unaccompanied minors who journey from Central America to this country. 

And thanks to a Core Fulbright U.S. Scholar Award that she received last year, Monico was able to take a closer look at efforts in Guatemala to address the root causes of violence and gang activity in Guatemalan towns that drive youth there to flee their communities and their country. 

"Unlike those of us who fled El Salvador because of the violence from a civil war, these kids are leaving because of a lack of opportunities, because of violence in their homes, and because of violence provoked by gangs," Monico said. 

Monico sought to assess the effectiveness of programs in place in Guatemala to help provide these youth with more socioeconomic opportunities, largely through intensive vocational training that would help them gain a financial foothold. At the outset, Monico planned to focus on a program launched by the Universidad del Valle de Guatemala, financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development and implemented in Central America by RTI International, a North Carolina-based organization. 

The program was located at the university's Highlands campus, with youth from the city of Cobán relocating to the university to get technical skills in the fields of sustainable agriculture and sustainable tourism. Monico planned to interview participants and graduates of the program to gauge its impact. "Part of the experience I was trying to look at was what worked and what didn't (in that vocational training program)," Monico said. 

As it evolved, the program adapted to the needs of the youth involved, such as shifting the participants from living in university residences to living with local families. They received academic as well as emotional support, Monico found. Among a cohort of 10 recent participants, eight graduated, and four have gone onto seeking higher education. 

"I was trying to get multiple perspectives of the program from the eyes of the administrators, the faculty as well as the students themselves," Monico said. 

But Monico's focus quickly expanded when she realized that while there were other programs underway in Guatemala to provide more opportunities to this group of disadvantaged and at-risk youth, there was little effort to share best practices or collaborate across organizations. 

"I ended up generating information for 10 case studies to do more of a comparative analysis," she said. She has concluded that these organizations running educational programs for youth at risk "all face a lot of challenges." She is trying to draw upon the lessons these programs have learned and to help provide the youth with the voice they deserve in the policy arena. “Ideally this research will inform those who are directing these programs, as well as those who are financing these programs," she emphasized.

Monico's time in Guatemala was spent collecting extensive amounts of data that will be used to help produce recommendations to the 10 individual programs she studied, as well as a larger overarching report that can help a broad range of organizations targeting at-risk youth in Central America to help them thrive in their home communities. 

"The reality is that once these youth have these opportunities, once they find a place within their family unit, within their community, and within society at large, they have no deed to go anywhere," Monico said. 

Along with teaching advanced qualitative methods to doctoral students in applied psychology in Guatemala, Monico organized three seminars to help experts in programs targeting at-risk youth to learn from each other, and enable a community of practice and reflection.

Back at Elon now, Monico is continuing the process of sifting through the data and experiences she had while in Guatemala, and is working on a Winter Term course that will focus on at-risk children and youth.

In addition, Monico will be presenting about her work in Guatemala in October at the Latino Social Workers Organization annual conference in Chicago.



Owen Covington,
8/24/2016 3:40 PM