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Opening Doors to College in Guatemala

(Photo courtesy of Erik Swanson)

Erik Swanson always has treasured education not only for himself, but for others. The third-year Washington College of Law student soon will begin a career as an attorney, but his life’s true calling lies in increasing educational opportunities for indigenous children in rural Guatemala, an often-forgotten region of the world that captured his heart.

As part of his civil procedure course in 2006, Swanson formalized Roots and Wings International, a nonprofit organization that he founded to provide college scholarships to indigenous Guatemalans.

“The whole idea of education is to promote development, but my goal isn’t to define development, my goal is to promote education so people can define development based on their own culture and life experience,” he says.

Last year Roots and Wings provided 17 scholarships for students to attend local universities. Through tireless fund raising, Swanson, 27, raised about $25,000 last year, money that goes far in a place where the average family subsists on about $2 a day and many live in huts with dirt floors.

“I’ve always been attracted to what I can learn from a poor person’s perspective,” he says. “I think that poverty helps grow a perspective on life that people can’t get in other ways . . . This experience in Guatemala has been both ways. A lot of people constantly thank me for the work I’m doing there, but I’ve learned so much. There’s a perspective of life there that has affected how I live my life and how I will always live my life.”

Swanson first traveled to Guatemala in 2004 after earning a bachelor’s degree in business and public administration from the University of Puget Sound. He wanted to learn Spanish and figured living among native speakers would be the best way.

He planned to stay just a few months, but ended up establishing roots that will last a lifetime. Swanson found his way to rural Xejuyup, about three and a half hours from Guatemala City, where he became director of the academic program at a Catholic parochial school. Funded through a diocese in Helena, Mont., the school had rapidly expanded to more than 500 students, and Swanson was instrumental in implementing structural changes that helped it run efficiently.

“He got involved in the community right away and made a big effort to involve himself with the people,” said Rachel Cope, who taught at the school and now serves on its board of directors. “By doing that he got to see really what the community was like, and the problems the community had.”

During his tenure Swanson started a scholarship program that sent the top achieving boy and girl to college. He raised money to pay for an entire year at a university, about $750 per person.

“Our students were the first generation to ever study past elementary school,” he says. “Most of their parents never went to any school; most were illiterate. I believe that at the university level there’s more of a development of critical thinking skills.”

Swanson’s honing his skills at American University’s WCL, where he enrolled in order to grow Roots and Wings.

“It was a strategic move,” he says. “I wanted to figure out how to make my work in Guatemala work. I could have stayed in Guatemala and been an administrator of a school, but I didn’t have the connections or credibility to convince people to donate to something. I needed to invest in myself to let other people know that I can do what I propose.”

He’s shown tremendous initiative, convincing the Washington firm of Morrison and Forester to represent his organization pro bono, and purchasing a “Lunch with the Dean” package during a WCL auction at which he informed Dean Claudio Grossman of his cause. Grossman, along with others at WCL, like Professor Robert Goldman, now are supporters.

“I don’t think any other indigenous people in modern times have had a worse situation, so doing something that is grass roots like this is extremely important,” says Goldman, a member of Roots and Wings’ advisory board. “He’s very bright, very personable. I know he devotes a tremendous amount of his time to traveling back. I have a very high regard for him and what he’s doing.”

Swanson’s vision for Roots and Wings includes opening a computer lab in Xejuyup, and a prep school staffed by local teachers who received their degrees through Roots and Wings. He travels to the country he’s come to love at least twice a year to ensure the students at his old school, El Instituto La Asuncion, whose dreams his organization funds, are taken care of.

“I try to ensure that the tone of the organization is one of investment and not charity,” he says. “I don’t want to take care of people. The idea is investing in the world. It’s always valuable to invest in kids.” Swanson’s honing his skills at American University’s WCL, where he enrolled in order to grow Roots and Wings.

“It was a strategic move,” he says. “I wanted to figure out how to make my work in Guatemala work. I could have stayed in Guatemala and been an administrator of a school, but I didn’t have the connections or credibility to convince people to donate to something. I needed to invest in myself to let other people know that I can do what I propose.”

He’s shown tremendous initiative, convincing the Washington firm of Morrison and Forester to represent his organization pro bono, and purchasing a “Lunch with the Dean” package during a WCL auction at which he informed Dean Claudio Grossman of his cause. Grossman, along with others at WCL, like Professor Robert Goldman, now are supporters.

“I don’t think any other indigenous people in modern times have had a worse situation, so doing something that is grass roots like this is extremely important,” says Goldman, a member of Roots and Wings’ advisory board. “He’s very bright, very personable. I know he devotes a tremendous amount of his time to traveling back. I have a very high regard for him and what he’s doing.”

Swanson’s vision for Roots and Wings includes opening a computer lab in Xejuyup, and a prep school staffed by local teachers who received their degrees through Roots and Wings. He travels to the country he’s come to love at least twice a year to ensure the students at his old school, El Instituto La Asuncion, whose dreams his organization funds, are taken care of.

“I try to ensure that the tone of the organization is one of investment and not charity,” he says. “I don’t want to take care of people. The idea is investing in the world. It’s always valuable to invest in kids.”