Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?
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.
Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!
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.