Lifting Latin American youth out of poverty.
Subject: Youth services (International aspects)
Universities and colleges (United States)
Universities and colleges (Public participation)
Pub Date: 05/01/2010
Publication: Name: Human Ecology Publisher: Cornell University, Human Ecology Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health; Science and technology; Social sciences Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 Cornell University, Human Ecology ISSN: 1530-7069
Issue: Date: May, 2010 Source Volume: 38 Source Issue: 1
Product: Product Code: 8220000 Colleges & Universities NAICS Code: 61131 Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools SIC Code: 8221 Colleges and universities
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 0LATI Latin America; 1USA United States
Accession Number: 230063980
Full Text: In many parts of the world, young people in poverty are running in place as they try to advance from adolescence to adulthood.

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Their parents cannot provide financial support. Higher education is reserved for the elite. If they find work at all, it pays low wages and offers dim career prospects.

In Latin America, College of Human Ecology researchers are partnering with four local organizations to understand how exemplary local programs put such youth on a more promising track. Through the action research project Opening Career Paths: Youth in Latin America, they are exploring how to build or enhance social institutions to enable impoverished youth to become productive workers, active citizens, and nurturing family members.

Members of the Cornell research team include Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development and associate director of the Family Life Development Center (FLDC); his wife, Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program; Davydd Greenwood, Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology; and three bilingual graduate research assistants. They are also examining how to reverse "structural lag," a term to describe how schools and other institutions have not kept pace with the needs of those they serve.

"In many cases, these young people have not finished high school, and if they don't do so by age 18, it's all over in these countries. After that, there's nothing for them," said Mary Agnes Hamilton. "Through these programs, they can go back and get their diplomas or learn trades and skills that get them on course."

The 18-month project, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland, includes partners in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. The local programs reach out to marginalized youth, typically between ages 18 and 27, in urban and rural areas, from modern cities like Buenos Aires to the forgotten slums of Cali, Colombia.

The programs take different approaches: some help young adults finish their high school degrees and acquire vocational skills, while others encourage community service, restore relationships with family members, and introduce adult mentors.

"In these countries, it's called life projects--working with young people expressly on the future of their lives," Stephen Hamilton said. "It's not as simple as asking what you want to be when you grow up. It's determining your aspirations and then laying out a realistic pathway for how to get there and what resources are needed. Young adults have ideas about what they want to accomplish, but usually little input and advice on how to get there."

In prior research of youth organizations, the Hamiltons have identified three assets that are critical for poor youth to advance in society: a sense of purpose and agency, human capital, and social capital. They also found six common structural features among successful youth-oriented programs that help nurture these assets, ranging from strong public-private partnerships to opportunities for leadership and civic engagement.

The Cornell team reviewed more than 20 programs and visited about eight sites before selecting four partners that demonstrate many of these structural features. At a conference in January 2010 in Colombia, teams from each of the partner organizations met for the first time to network and learn about the action research concept, through which each organization created a plan to help youth bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood.

"We asked the programs to identify and explore the questions that matter most to them," Stephen Hamilton said. "It would be imperialistic for us to come into their countries and lay out the research questions we want to answer and to have them sit still and answer them. A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work because each group has its own issues of local concern."

The partners, with support from the Cornell team, are now moving forward with the action research process. This fall, the local teams, along with Cornell scientists and other outside experts, will meet at a synthesis conference to share their results, with the findings to be published in a book about strengthening institutions for young adults.

"In this project, we hope to test our conceptual framework for youth development, to see how it applies in different contexts and whether it can become a model for building youth programs in other places," Mary Agnes Hamilton said. "It's possible that the outcomes will be of interest to local policymakers in the United States and many other countries who are striving to give youth the support they need."
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