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El Salvador students earn rare opportunity

SARATOGA SPRINGS A fledgling organization started by a group of local people has managed to change the life of some Central American students. Kevin OBrien, psychotherapist and owner of Abanakee in Warrensburg, has traveled to El Salvador and has seen first hand the difficulties in which most of the population lives. In January of 2006, he started Nueva Esperanza del Norte, or New Hope from the North, to help identify and bring students from El Salvador and other Central American countries to this country to provide them with educational opportunities that they otherwise couldnt afford. Last fall, the organization brought Marta and Samuel Cuellar and Maribel Torres, all from San Ramon in El Salvador, to the area where the two girls attended Adirondack Community College this year. Samuel went to another school to better learn English. Marta and Maribel both made the Deans List at ACC, OBrien said. These two brave souls have endured many cultural barriers. They are really pioneers, and it has not been easy. OBriens organization tries to establish connections with area colleges to try and secure scholarships for the girls and future Central American students. He met Sasha Diamond-Lenow, a social work student at Skidmore, who was looking for a project in her major, while OBrien needed a liaison to the school. They worked with the college and recently learned that the two girls had been accepted with scholarships that would pay for about 95 percent of the cost of their education. Part of the deal is that Skidmore will pay for them to go home to El Salvador twice each year during school vacations, he said, OBrien said. Our organization is still quite young but what weve done here is nothing short of a miracle. He said that colleges are responsive to the idea of educating students from poor countries so they can return and help raise the economic and social levels that they come from. As for the girls, Cuellar, who is 19, is very excited about her opportunity at a college education. She wants to take her education home and work with Nueva Esperanza del Norte and other organizations to raise the bar in education in her country. Both girls miss their families and friends at home, and are looking forward to a visit this month. Theyll return to work at the Hole in the Woods Camp this summer to earn some spending money. They have both lived with host families, Torres with Tony Manganos family in Saratoga and Cuellar with OBriens family in Lake Luzerne. Torres wants to major in biology and go on to medical school. I would like to become a pediatrician and go home and help the children, she said. This is incredible, it is very big. The girls have worked hard to adjust to their American counterparts as well as the ever-changing weather of the North Country. It took a long time to know how to dress for winter, Torres said. At first, I went outside without a coat and I froze so I didnt want to go out of the house. I shoveled, Cuellar said. After the big storm, the car was buried and I shoveled it out. But I dont like wearing heavy coats, its so uncomfortable. Diamond-Lenow is also fluent in Spanish and converses with the girls in their native language from time to time. It gives them a break and I get to practice, she said. Theyre amazing women. Both said that the culture of American college students is very different than in their own country. We dont fit in too well, Torres said. When the other kids talk, its hard to understand, and we are more reserved at home. She said that the slang and subject of conversations are hard to understand and they dont want to ask for a translation. They were invited to stay at Skidmore for a weekend recently and met some other Latino students, and also went to a party. I didnt like it too much, Cuellar said. I didnt really like the dancing. She said at home, young people do salsa dancing, merengue or cha cha at home. OBrien praised Skidmore for offering the girls large scholarships. Theyve earned it, the scholarships are based on merit, he said. Skidmore works hard to increase its diversity and this is a great opportunity for the college as well as for these girls. He said his organization is looking into new ideas for getting Central American students here for educational opportunities as well as raising awareness about conditions there. If you are an exchange student, you are probably from the mid to upper classes of your country, he said. About 65 to 70 percent of the world lives below that level and never gets the opportunities. This organization is trying to create systems to find Central Americans to go to school here and perhaps create an emergent program for our college students to visit there. His goal is to create opportunities for students and others in dire economic circumstances to receive an education that will enable them to improve conditions in their countries.

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