I wonder what it would feel like if educated people I met in nearby countries in this Hemisphere had no recognition of New England, the place where I was born and grew up. How would I feel if they looked at me as if New England – its seafaring history, the Tea Party and Native American Tribes – was pretty much irrelevant.
In meeting with several groups of high school and college students in Honduras last week, during a tour of the country’s growing global services industry, one of the first things we talked about was how much these students understood about the United States, its influence in Latin America and the model of democracy and transparency it represents. But as they talked about their own personal encounters with Americans, they uniformly described instances where people had no idea where Honduras was – or simply, that it was another stone-age third-world country that didn’t matter.
It’s surprising in a way that these students show little to no anger about this wide-gap in awareness. They are accepting of the way things really are, showing a maturity that is well beyond what you might expect from typical 16 and 17-year-old youths, all of which have Facebook accounts through which they often learn about the larger world beyond their borders. As highly fluent English-speakers, developed in most cases through English exposure and practice since age 5, these students talked openly about their personal hopes and the transformative dreams they have for Honduras, which in recent months has been a target of worldwide condemnation because of the coup to replace a president (Mel Zelaya) who was, according to countless Hondurans, moving the country down a dangerous path away from democracy.
One student from Del Campo School in Tegucigalpa, called for more sustained planning to build a broader economy, where young, well educated people have an industry to go to when they finish schooling. “I hope we can find more ways to bring money to our country besides remittances from the US,” said another student, commenting on the $2.7 billion sent annually from the Honduran nationals living in the US, which accounts for roughly 20% of the country’s GDP.
Ruben Sorto, marketing and new projects director for the ambitious Altia Business Park development project, in a lush and well manicured section of San Pedro Sula, said during our meetings that one of the core reasons the Altia project is is in place – potentially providing thousands of professional jobs for Hondurans – is to continue strengthening a nascent industry where educated people have the opportunity to stay in their home country.
Like bright, hopeful students anywhere, these groups of young people see education as critical to their future. One aspiring journalist hopes to enter Cornell University next year; another recently accepted a five-year scholarship to study bio-chemistry in Arkansas. (Both attend Valle De Sula in San Pedro Sula.)
Honduras has over 400 private schools and English is a core requirements at virtually all of these schools as children enter into Kindergarten. It is safe to say that most of the students attending these schools are from middle to upper class backgrounds, enabling their parents to pay between $1,500 and $4,500 a year for students to study there. The majority of Honduran youth however don’t have that privilege and instead study at public schools which are noted for frequent teacher strikes and short school days.
Several of them stressed that education needs to form the foundation for the future emergence of Honduras. “The brains have to come back (from the US),” said one student, candidly.
Maybe when that happens, the rest of the Hemisphere will notice and, even better, respect this small country struggling to become more relevant to the rest of the world.