Scholarship Students Slip Through the Cracks
When Iván Hernández left Nicaragua in 1983 to study foreign relations in the Soviet Union, he was one of the country's best and brightest. A good student and committed political activist from a poor family in Ciudad Sandino, Hernández is the first of his seven brothers and sisters to finish college. After six years of study he returned to Nicaragua as a Latin American specialist hoping to find work in the Foreign Ministry. Instead Hernández has been unemployed for over a year with few prospects. "My parents are old and need help," explained Hernández, whose family is trying to make ends meet on his father's security guard's pension. "They pinned their hopes on me, instead they're helping me out."
Hernández is one of thousands of young Nicaraguans who received scholarships to study in Eastern Europe during the Sandinistas' 10-year rule. For the majority who came from working class homes it was a chance to study and travel that they never dreamed of. They adapted to Nordic climates and customs, learned Slavic languages and spent vacations traveling through Europe. The majority of scholarships were offered in scientific and technical fields and many students chose to study engineering and agriculture. In the early years many came home to jobs as technicians in industrial and agricultural projects financed by the Eastern European countries.
Others became doctors, teachers and social scientists. But those who have recently returned find they have slipped through the cracks of the rapidly shifting world order. As the new governments in Eastern Europe curtail foreign aid, returning students often find they have been trained for projects that no longer exist in Nicaragua. And the years they spent studying under socialist governments in the Soviet Union, East Germany and elsewhere mean they are viewed as politically suspect by the Chamorro administration.
Scholarships reviewed by all sidesFollowing the Sandinista defeat at the polls in February 1990, both the changing Eastern bloc governments and the incoming Chamorro administration began to reevaluate the scholarship program. The Soviet Union, which has provided the lion's share of scholarships, slashed its program from 300 new scholarships last year to only 50 this year. Bulgarian and East German universities, which offered 50 scholarships annually, have phased out the program altogether and Czechoslovakia cut its new scholarships down to 12. The Eastern European countries no longer offer round-trip airfare and the stipends given to students cover only about half their needs. One scholarship student studying in Moscow confessed that many of his friends looked for Russian girlfriends whose families could help feed and support them. Female students, who tend to date other Latin American students, were at a disadvantage, he said.
According to Nubia Palavicini, who administers the scholarship program for the Ministry of Education, the Chamorro government is in the process of gradually phasing the scholarships out. "We used to be a whole department and now we're only a two-person office that serves as little more than a link between the students and their families," she said.
The Soviet Union has committed itself to allowing Nicaraguans currently studying there to finish their degrees, but the political upheaval, both in the Soviet Union and at home, has made some students reconsider whether it’s worth it. Leónidas Pérez came home for a visit in June for the first time since he went to study textile engineering in Moscow three years ago. While on vacation in Nicaragua he decided not to return to the Soviet Union. He cited the political shake-up there and problems finding a job on his return to Nicaragua as the main factors in his decision. "It would be a waste of time to spend two more years getting a degree that would not be worth much in Nicaragua," he noted. Instead, Pérez hopes to apply some of his credits towards an engineering degree in Nicaragua. He speculates that it could take a year or more for the political dust to settle in Moscow, and that foreign students there could get caught in the whirlwind. "We don't know if some of the universities will privatize, if they'll continue our scholarships or supply airfare home," he worried. During the Sandinista government the drop-out rate for students studying abroad was only 10%, compared to 40% at Nicaraguan universities. Political uncertainty at home following the elections, however, prompted the rate for Nicaraguans studying in Europe to climb to 30%.
Trained for a different worldThe graduates who returned to Nicaragua during the Sandinista administration faced different problems than those who have come home since the elections. Many left when the contra attacks were just beginning and returned to find the country on war footing. "Politically it was disappointing," explained Johany Ríos, who studied agricultural engineering and irrigation in East Germany from 1982-87. "We didn't live through the cruelty of the war years and we expected to return to some sort of political and economic advances. Unfortunately that was not the case. Instead we found the war, the economic blockade and, in some cases, mismanagement," he added. Ríos was luckier than many who have returned in recent years. After seven months of unemployment he got a job at the Chiltepe dairy plant in Mateare. Now, he works at the Victoria de Julio sugar mill in Tipitapa. But he says the transition back to Nicaragua was as difficult as adapting to Germany. He had become used to the comforts of German student housing, German punctuality and work habits that made it hard to adapt to the scarcity and disorganization that often reigned on the Nicaraguan home front. Now he faces another difficult decision. His German wife who has spent the last five years in Nicaragua plans to go back to Germany. He does not know if she will return or who will end up raising their young son.
The highly specialized technical training many students received often clashed with the fly-by-the-seat-of-one's pants creativity needed to cope with Nicaragua's deteriorating wartime economy. Many agricultural experts studied in Cuba, where they were trained for highly mechanized, large-scale projects like those found on the island. When they returned to Nicaragua they discovered their highly specialized training had little application in Nicaragua's small-scale, peasant-based production. Many could not handle the immense pressure of working in impoverished war zones, where they were targeted by the contras, and soon returned to the cities. Others had become used to the creature comforts of city living during their student days and looked for desk jobs in urban areas. Many students who came from peasant families returned with the sophisticated, urban values of their Cuban peers, making it difficult for them to readapt to life in the countryside. One son of a peasant who studied in Cuba preferred to work as a security guard in the city than go back to life on the farm.
The experience of Nicaraguan scholarship students has varied widely over 11 years. When the Soviet Union offered the first scholarships after the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, Education Ministry officials chose students mainly for their political commitment and experience. There was little planning or preparation involved in the early years of the program and many students returned with skills that were hard to apply to Nicaragua's underdeveloped economy. By 1983 the Eastern European countries began to participate in selecting scholarship students, taking into account both academic performance and political participation. By 1987 the Nicaraguan education system had deteriorated to the point where the Education Ministry began to offer remedial science and math courses for students who planned to study abroad. By 1990, however, those courses were eliminated because of budget cuts. Cuba, which has also trained Nicaraguan technicians, educators and health professionals, has dealt with the decline in Nicaraguan education by offering scholarships that begin in high school and continue through college. The Chamorro government is allowing scholarship students to finish their studies in Cuba, but has declined offers of new scholarships. Like some of the Eastern European countries, Cuba is no longer offering airfare.
US picks up the slackThe United States, which provided few scholarship opportunities for Nicaraguans under the Sandinistas, has picked up some of the slack as European scholarships have waned. The Agency for International Development (AID) has renewed its scholarship program after 10 years, financing degrees in education, social and natural sciences. AID has its own office in the Ministry of Education and administers the program directly. Scholarship applicants are required to speak English. The agency has also been actively involved in reforming Nicaraguan education, replacing Sandinista texts with its own textbooks. The US Embassy also offers a variety of graduate and undergraduate scholarships, many of them in education. According to Cultural Attaché Robert Brown, by giving Nicaraguans the chance to study in the US, the Embassy hopes to help the Chamorro administration "avoid the continued indoctrination of their youth in a Marxist vein, which in its view is anachronistic and inappropriate." He lamented the fact that Washington could not offer more scholarships adding that "(the) Gramm-Rudman (balanced budget act) has us by the short hairs."
Meanwhile a generation of Nicaraguan scholarship students is left out in the cold. Many do not regret their experiences, despite narrowing job opportunities. They say they have had their eyes opened by the chance to experience the changes in Eastern Europe firsthand. "I'm less romantic both about the leaders in those countries and my own," observed Leónidas Perez. Others, like Iván Hernández, find themselves consumed with day-to-day survival. He says government officials do not openly discriminate against students who have returned from the Soviet Union, but in practice the door is shut to government service. "They prefer a novice who is one of their own to someone who has studied in the Soviet Union for so many years. We are politically tainted," he said. If he can't find work by the end of the year, Hernández says, he will look for a way to leave Nicaragua and study abroad once again.