Views From The Mountain Enriching Lives Through Education And Agriculture In Nepal

Tiara Sandoval walks to a village meeting on a cool Saturday morning. Her host family’s village in Nepal’s Middle Hills Region, in the district of Syangia, is located along the side and top of a hill. Far to her left she can see tropical forest and to her right on the other side of the small village, yellow-green terraces of millet lead down to a river. The millet, which was planted between stalks of maize soon after the summer’s harvest, is thriving in this monsoon season. This morning the sky is clear and Sandoval can see the Annapurna Mountains and, on a hilltop a few hours away by bus, the World Peace Pagoda in the city of Pokhara.

Sandoval, 24, completed her bachelor’s in animal science and international agriculture at Iowa State in 2012. Later the same year, she and 19 other Peace Corps volunteers arrived in Nepal to receive training and be assigned to a local community at risk of food insecurity. The volunteers teach community members about agriculture, nutrition, hygiene, sanitation and how food preservation can be used to generate income.

“Over 70 percent of the population in Nepal is involved in agriculture, but the food produced is often not enough to fulfill nutritional needs of adults and especially children,” says Sandoval. “Farmers often have limited access to improved seeds, new technologies and market opportunities.”

In her village community, Sandoval has provided trainings on mushroom cultivation; off-season vegetable production, using nurseries and plastic tunnels; and post-harvest practices with use of solar dryers, including how to construct the dryers with natural materials at hand. She encourages families to create small kitchen gardens to produce their own foods for home consumption and to sell the excess for additional income.

Sandoval also convenes a weekly youth group at the local primary school, where she has provided health and hygiene training, created a world map mural on one classroom wall and is now teaching English to 12 youth, ages 9 to 16. Resourceful and attuned to the needs of others, when Sandoval saw the school had no library, she contacted the Asia Foundation’s book donation program in Nepal and asked them for a donation. The school now has a library with 188 English and Nepali children’s books and textbooks.

“I was moved by a documentary I saw at a Peace Corps meeting, called ‘Girl Rising,’ about how educating girls can break cycles of poverty in just one generation,” Sandoval says. It inspired her to take on her largest project to-date – a weeklong GLOW (Girls Leading our World) camp for girls in three Nepal districts. Thirty-six girls participated in the sessions and games, covering the topics of empowerment, gender roles, women’s health, and career and life skills, such as budgeting. Sandoval says opportunities like this make a difference.

“Girls don’t have an easy life in Nepal. Some may never again leave their village. It’s rewarding to see them get excited about meeting other girls, see a new city and learn about life’s possibilities,” says Sandoval.

Sandoval’s own support system in Nepal consists of other Peace Corps volunteers, whom she can reach by phone, and her host family’s grandmother. “She is one of the most active people in the community, is the mothers’ group president and is so involved in agriculture that she is known as The Vegetable Mother,” says Sandoval.  “She introduced me to the community members, helped get community members involved in my projects and has taught me a lot.”

Sandoval says her Iowa State course work provided the agricultural knowledge base needed for her work in Nepal. Her study abroad experiences enhanced her knowledge and gave her the personal skills essential to successfully navigate new situations and cultures very different from hers. These included short programs of study in China (agricultural globalization) Brazil (agricultural engineering) and Ecuador (tropical crops and soils). She also spent a semester in Brazil studying at the Federal University of Viçosa.

“Having studied abroad, I know how to figure out how to communicate when I don’t know the language. I learned to be flexible and patient when something goes not as planned or is done differently. And after being exposed to a variety of cultures and situations, I was prepared for living for an extended period abroad,” says Sandoval.

“Iowa State produces mature, service-oriented graduates well-suited to Peace Corps service,” says Jessica Mayle, public affairs coordinator for the Peace Corps. “Tia and other Peace Corps volunteers in Nepal are making a difference in a variety of ways, big and small, both in the work they’re doing and the friendships they’re building in their host communities.”

Sandoval would like to get a master’s in international development with a focus in agriculture and continue working abroad. “I have gained a huge appreciation for working abroad and on projects at the grassroots level. I can see myself enjoying this type of work all over the world in the future,” says Sandoval.

This morning, Sandoval is listening in on a meeting of the farmers’ and mothers’ groups who have recently finished developing and installing a waterline system to bring water to every home in the village. Conversation revolves around budget, working with the district agricultural office and dividing up the work that remains.

“I would like to think I am helping my community,” she says. “I’ve had an amazing experience here in Nepal and can’t imagine being more fulfilled or feeling more at home in any other Peace Corps post.”