José Miguel Aguilar Berrocal founded the Fundación Acción Joven (Foundation for Youth Action), a Costa Rican citizen organization that allows university students to fulfill required community service hours through specially designed projects in public secondary schools.
The New Idea
Fundación Acción Joven (FAJ) is turning obligatory community service for university students, known as TCU, from an under-utilized resource into an opportunity for Costa Rican youth to help improve public secondary schools while gaining awareness of social problems. While the TCU requirement has existed for years, until the creation of FAJ many university students—with tacit participation by their universities—volunteered for their families or their universities rather than for needy communities, the intended beneficiaries of the requirement, or simply never completed the requirement at all. Through FAJ’s carefully structured, high-impact volunteer projects, Jose is teaching students to view the TCU requirement as a rewarding way to gain practical skills while helping underachieving secondary schools.
Jose has approached the Ministry of Public Education with a formal plan for matching the TCU requirement with the needs of public secondary schools. After seeing the overwhelmingly positive results of FAJ’s one-year pilot program, the ministry has agreed to reform TCU standards nationwide. Not only is Jose completely reengineering the way that Costa Rican universities administer the TCU requirement, he is also changing young people’s attitudes towards social responsibility and civic culture. One of FAJ’s guiding principles is sensitizing university students, who often come from more comfortable backgrounds, about growing socioeconomic inequality in Costa Rica and its consequences. Jose believes that working with young people is the most effective way to ensure that Costa Rica’s future leaders understand the country’s social reality.
As FAJ moves into a new phase of growth and expansion, Jose’s goals are to begin working with public as well as private universities—a task that will present new and different challenges—and to open discussions with government officials, universities, and the public school system in other Central American countries for future replication. Panama, which has a similar socioeconomic and educational profile to Costa Rica, is the likeliest candidate for an international pilot program. Jose has planned a year-long feasibility study in Panama for 2009 and is also collaborating with educational leaders and citizen organizations (COs) throughout Central America to explore how FAJ’s model can help improve youth involvement in other countries.
Both public and private university students in Costa Rica are required to complete a certain number of hours of community service in order to graduate; for private university students, the requirement is 150 hours. The TCU requirement is meant to benefit local communities while exposing university students to the country’s social needs and allowing them to develop practical as well as academic skills. However, lax standards on the part of university administrators and public education officials and dismissive attitudes on the part of the students have rendered the TCU requirement largely toothless. Some universities have willingly overlooked the TCU requirement for their students; others accept work done on university premises or for family members or even fabricated hours. In many cases, the volunteer work that is performed is not regulated, there is no official support system for volunteers, and there is no verification or reporting process to measure students’ impact on local communities. At the same time, the National Council of Private University Education the branch of the Ministry of Public Education responsible for ensuring that private university students are fulfilling graduation requirements, has failed to allocate sufficient time and funding for the development of formal university volunteer programs.
As a result, many university students view the TCU requirement as an irksome formality rather than as an opportunity to broaden their education. By failing to enforce the TCU requirement, universities are squandering thousands of volunteer hours every year that could be directed towards improvements in local communities. For example, though considered impressive within the Central American context, Costa Rica’s public school system is riddled with problems, particularly at the secondary school level. The average student is unable to complete a five-year secondary school course on time, and less than a third of students who enter primary school go on to complete secondary school. Studies that have revealed correlations between educational level and future income show how much public secondary schools stand to gain from the systematic, pertinent use of steady volunteers. Improving secondary school education is critical to combating poverty effectively.
Unused or misused TCU hours also represent a missed opportunity to educate university students about social reality in Costa Rica in a hands-on fashion. Although Costa Rica’s GDP has continued to grow at a steady rate over the last several years, reductions in poverty have not kept pace. Consequently, increasing income inequality has fueled greater social divisions among Costa Ricans, who are more likely than ever to live among those of similar socioeconomic status. University students, who come disproportionately from middle- and upper-class backgrounds, are less likely to have interacted with peers from disadvantaged backgrounds. This growing social rift will have implications for the next generation of Costa Rican leaders and policymakers.
Jose is the Founder and Executive Director of Fundación Acción Joven, a CO that provides Costa Rican university students with structured volunteer projects to improve public secondary schools. Since 2006, FAJ has helped university students complete their TCU requirements while exposing them to the growing inequality in their country and simultaneously equipping them with the necessary tools to fight social problems. Currently FAJ receives its funding from socially responsible businesses and this year started its own department of Communications.
Given bureaucratic hold-ups in the public university system, Jose has chosen to launch the FAJ model with private universities first. The first step in the FAJ process involves signing individual contracts between the FAJ and participating public secondary schools and private universities. In the beginning, many school administrators resisted change, but FAJ was able to form relationships with enough schools to launch a pilot program in 2006. Since then, Jose has used the results of his pilot program to convince the Ministries of Public Education, Health, Energy and the Environment, and Youth to provide government support for various FAJ initiatives. Support from the Ministry of Public Education in particular, which last year approved a reform to restructure obligatory TCU service nationwide with the help of FAJ, has proven especially invaluable. In the last year lawmakers have changed the standards for TCU verification to require a signed and sealed letter from the beneficiary in order for the hours to count. As this new requirement has come into force and even prevented some students from graduating, more and more students and universities have sought out FAJ.
Once Jose has formalized an agreement with the schools, FAJ pinpoints the needs of the secondary schools through a diagnosis of each school’s problems. Using a methodology that Jose has developed, FAJ analyzes infrastructural, academic, administrative, and psychosocial variables within the context of each school. Teachers and student organizations hold a strategic planning workshop with FAJ to identify their school’s main problems and design specific proposals to produce concrete results at the end of each school year.
This year, by an explicit request from the Minister of Education, FAJ started to work on a model to combat the truancy and drop-outs in public high schools. The leading cause of school absenteeism is the lack of interest among youth in the educational system—rather than any economic factor—so FAJ’s work is focused on a "Integrated Model to Fight Absenteeism” which includes:
• Support and encouragement for students at social risk through the project: La voluntad al servicio de los sueños (the will to serve the conquest of dreams). Through playful and participatory workshops, this project helps raise awareness of the issues the implications of drug abuse, unwanted pregnancy, self esteem, motivation, resilience. Furthermore, the workshop gives youth opportunities to consider and create life projects which encourages them to think, about their dreams and gives them the courage to make those dreams into realities. Exchanges between teachers encourage a discussion about educational issues from their perspective. These dialogues which are supported by the psychoanalytic method “Grupos Operativos”, allow the teachers to develop extracurricular projects and activities to dissuade students from dropping out of high school.
• Although the projects supported by FAJ are specifically developed for student volunteers who have studied psychology, social work and education students; FAJ also has smaller ongoing projects with other students in subjects such as photography, journalism, public relations and production.
To improve the students’ impact and build a sense of civic responsibility, FAJ organizes an induction for all participating university students. Since many of these students initially perceive the volunteer work as a bureaucratic formality, the induction process is designed to teach them about social exclusion, current poverty rates in Costa Rica, and the direct relationship between education and social mobility. The induction process creates awareness so that the students develop strong commitment, energy, and a positive attitude and see their volunteer work as an opportunity to improve the lives of less fortunate Costa Ricans.
During the actual execution of the volunteer projects, FAJ offers the volunteers support and actively coordinates the projects while verifying the performance of the university students. Before the end of each project, FAJ updates the original secondary school diagnosis to define the volunteer work that needs to be done the following year. A closing workshop with the university students allows the students to reflect on their experience, and each participant receives a certificate of achievement and a signed and sealed letter recognizing their TCU work.
Since 2006, FAJ has work with over 348 university students from 11 different universities. They have also expanded from working from 1high schools in San Jose to 6 high school and extended their geographic range of involvement by opening an office in Guanacaste (rural area of north Pacific Costa Rica), where last year they worked with 2 public high schools and this year grew by 200 percent.
In 2008 alone, FAJ benefited 1432 high school students, of whom 97 percent in ninth grade and 96 percent in tenth grade stayed in school. In Guanacaste 100 percent of the students participating remained at the school and passed to the next grade. This year FAJ is working with 1,880 high school students from 12 public schools in the country.
Jose is currently focusing his energy on expanding FAJ’s reach within Costa Rica while exploring possibilities for regional replication. The incipient communications arm of the organization will plan different events to promote poverty awareness and raise money for FAJ’s activities. Jose has also begun to establish relationships with the more bureaucratic public universities, which are larger than their private counterparts, require twice the number of TCU hours, and tend to have a more socially aware student body. In terms of international expansion, Jose has laid the groundwork for a feasibility study in Panama, after which he will begin searching for hard-working staff to run the program there and in other Central American countries. FAJ plans to work closely with the Panamanian government from the beginning and adapt its model to specific needs within Panamanian society and its schools.
Growing up as the eldest son on an affluent farm, Jose’s childhood was comfortable and mostly free from want. Even though Jose’s family employed many workers, his parents would invite their employees to share the family’s dinner table. His mother taught him the importance of solidarity and generosity, values that were cemented when he moved to San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica, to attend a private boarding school. It was during these years studying among wealthy peers who were largely indifferent to poverty that Jose began developing a personal sense of social responsibility.
As the eldest among the cousins in his family, Jose was a natural leader throughout his youth. He often organized soccer matches, tree house building projects, and expeditions to the river for his siblings, cousins, and friends, and in sports he was always named team captain. His childhood changed significantly in 1988, when the El Niño weather phenomenon brought severe storms to the region, damaging his family’s crops and sending his family into serious debt. During this trying period, Jose’s parents taught him the importance of persistence and optimism in the face of adversity.
Jose’s initial inspiration for FAJ came during college while he was searching futilely for a way to fulfill his own TCU requirement. He realized that there was a dearth of structured volunteer projects that had a real social impact on local communities. At the same time, he saw how his classmates perceived the TCU requirement as a bureaucratic annoyance rather than an opportunity to help relieve social problems. Upon graduating, Jose worked for a CO called Fundación Curridabat that provided computer and technical job training. When the CO began running out of funds to purchase computers and hire teachers, Jose negotiated an agreement with an Internet café for the use of their computers and recruited university student volunteers as teachers. From this initial experience, Jose began building the foundations for what would eventually become Fundación Acción Joven.