Victoria Yuan '07 and Melyn Heckelman '08 want to help Chinese high school students talk openly and honestly about sex. Christine Avena '08 is intent on reintroducing more eco-friendly alpacas and llamas to the rugged highlands of Ecuador.
Both projects will begin this summer thanks to grants from 100 Projects for Peace program initiated by philanthropist Kathryn Wasserman Davis on the occasion of her 100th birthday. The two proposals were among 22 submitted by Colby students -- and hundreds prepared by students at colleges and universities in the Davis United World Scholars Program. The 100 most promising projects were awarded $10,000 each, to be used in the summer of 2007. Each project must bring "new thinking to the prospects of peace in the world," Davis said.
Yuan and Heckelman see a clear link between better understanding of sexual issues and a more peaceful society. Citing the unrest in China after the government's confused handling of the SARS epidemic, they hope to encourage discussions to reduce HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases in the southern provinces. Sexual responsibility will prevent unwanted pregnancy and also will promote communication skills that can be applied to other topics, they argue.
They know that all Chinese will not embrace the idea of peer sex education. "There’s still this huge taboo about conversations about sex between adults and children," said Yuan, a New Yorker whose parents were raised in Taiwan.
Some who work in China already have advised that high school students may be too young to have these discussions. But Yuan and Heckelman respectfully disagree, and they have connected with You-Li Sun '84, who runs a university exchange program in Beijing. Sun has established contacts with high schools where the pair will introduce their peer-based curriculum.
Yuan said she and Heckelman hope to work with Chinese educators, not against them. There is a Chinese saying, Yuan said, that is good advice. "Be like the water," she said. "Don’t flow against it. Flow around it."
Avena returned from a semester in Ecuador inspired by work being done in the mountainous highlands to replace cows and sheep with indigenous llamas and alpacas. In fact, she was so inspired she wrote her grant proposal the day she arrived home in Connecticut.
"I was literally getting home the day [applications] closed at midnight," Avena said. "I said, 'I've got to put in a proposal.'"
She did, explaining that cows and sheep require non-native grasses, forcing Ecuadorian farmers to burn the paramo, or high altitude grassland. Cows carve paths on the steep hillsides, increasing erosion.
Alpacas and llamas, on the other hand, can live on native vegetation and navigate the mountainsides without scarring the hills. In addition, the fine alpaca fiber is 10 times more valuable that sheep’s wool.
Avena, who intends to become a veterinarian after Colby, worked with the primary proponents of the alpaca and llama reintroduction, Jorge Yepez and Stuart White of the University of New Mexico. The project had been funded in part by the Roman Catholic Church, but that money dried up, Avena said. Part of her grant will go toward purchasing more animals and training farmers to raise and breed them, and she intends to explore funding sources that will make the llama/alpaca project sustainable over the long term.
In addition -- and perhaps most challenging -- Avena said, is her plan to step into an ongoing dispute between farmers and officials of the expanding national park system in Ecuador. Farmers with traditional grazing rights in what is now park property find themselves at odds with environmental efforts. Replacing cows and sheep with llamas and alpacas will reduce environmental damage, she said, but first the two sides need to come together.
"I'm hoping to be the extender of the olive branch," Avena said, "to be the mediator between the two."