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EARTH University goes global

From the print edition

GUÁCIMO, Limón – Timothy Ayankojo watched the yams begin to sprout in late February. He will observe the shoots develop into the sweet and creamy tuber before the end of the year. Ayankojo, 24, already has made an arrangement to have a Costa Rican company export the yams to the United States.

The EARTH University sophomore understands the process well. He and a few other classmates might even make a profit off the business venture.

They see opportunity in the yam sprouts – chances that go beyond earning revenue. Two years ago, Ayankojo left his seven siblings and parents in Nigeria to accept a scholarship at a university specializing in sustainable farming in the small, muggy Caribbean slope town of Guácimo.

He trusts he’s made the right choice.

“Every day I started to show more and more interest in agriculture,” Ayankojo said. “What we see in agriculture, maybe on a superficial level, it seemed something very dirty, but when I get into it I see something more interesting.”

He’s a long way from Nigeria, and a long time from returning home. When he goes back, after two more years of study, internships and hands-on experience on modern and cost-efficient crop-growing techniques, Ayankojo believes that his homeland will benefit.

The scope of EARTH University’s curriculum is expanding. Ayankojo represents one of many non-Spanish-speaking students to join the program in recent years. The school is striving to attract a wider range of applicants that arrive from lands and cultures much different than what’s found in Latin America.

The comprehensive focus goes hand-in-hand with a host of new tools and programs at the school, including a second campus, an urban garden and the inauguration of the first renewable energy lab in Central America.

Members of the country’s admissions process began conducting interviews in rural villages in Africa and other developing regions outside of Latin America in the past decade. They gage a candidate’s interest in agronomy and sustainable living and search for leadership qualities. If the applicant fulfills expectations, the school makes use of scholarships to ensure the student can afford to attend.

When the university started in 1990, admissions pinpointed Spanish-speaking students from developing countries in Latin America. Ten years later, EARTH brought in its first African enrollees, two students from Uganda. In 2012, 17 percent of 405 enrollees come from non-Spanish-speaking countries including Lebanon, Haiti and Jamaica. Eight percent of students arrive from African countries such as Sierra Leone or Mozambique.

The majority of freshmen still come from Central and South America. Those who are not native Spanish-speakers arrive months before the semester begins to take intensive courses in the language and participate in a homestay with a Costa Rican family.

The school’s mission statement reads: “Prepare leaders with ethical values to contribute to the sustainable development of the humid tropics and to construct a prosperous and just society.” However, an administrator said the institution plans to drop “humid tropics” from its motto as the school broadens its ambitions. EARTH University wants to transcend those traditional boundaries and reach a grander audience.

In 2010, EARTH University opened up its second campus, called La Flor, in the northwestern province of Guanacaste. The campus property in a dry tropical region gives undergraduates a chance to study in an environment distinctive from the Caribbean.

On the Guácimo campus, Manuel Romero oversees the flourishing “periurbano” garden at EARTH University. The urban garden focuses on eco-friendly and agile farming techniques that function in compact or urban spaces.

Leafy green veggies pop up from the dirt-filled centers of deflated rafts. Flowering heads of lettuce grow out of plastic tubes in a hydroponics system, a method for growing plants using water and mineral solutions, in place of soil. Natural fertilizers, like carbon or rice husks, feed bio-intensive gardens that grow basil and parsley.

Apparatuses that look like punching bags, known as salchichas colgantes (hanging sausages), sag down from dwellings. Green stems bud from the punching bags’ white surface. The use of substances is limited. Caretakers often spray the plants with a chemical to combat mushrooms, but pesticides are not utilized.

Overall, the system is not only healthier, but also cheaper and faster. Romero said, for example, he grows lettuce in four to five weeks instead of nine or more weeks.  

 “In the same time other people produce one harvest, we are doing two,” Romero, 42, said. “And it’s of excellent quality.”

Romero said the three-year-old program draws 3,000 foreigners a year who are interested in learning about innovative cultivation systems.

Classes at EARTH continue to experiment with new cultivation techniques. The old rafts, donated by carbon-neutral rafting company Ríos Tropicales, were turned into mini-gardens in the spring. The urban garden highlights the do-it-yourself, do-it-anywhere (not just Latin America) that highlights EARTH University’s own development.

The school’s shot to go more global seems apparent in the renewable energy lab inaugurated last November. The building is the first of its kind on the isthmus.

Solar panels on the roof support electricity in the classroom. Inside, various gizmos and models whirl under the watch of professor Bert Kohlmann.

The lab came together through the persistence of Kohlmann and the Renewables Academy of Berlin, Germany. The German government funded some of the equipment for the workshop.

“The idea was to build the first regional Central American center for renewable energy,” Kohlmann said. “[And] also to spread the gospel about different technologies regarding renewable energy.”

Miniature wind turbines and solar panels let students carry out experiments. Other devices demonstrate photovoltaic, solar thermal, biomass and hydraulic energy. Kohlmann is constructing a stationary bike that when pedaled provides power to the lab.

The center will host German professors for three consecutive years, and also serve as a space to host renewable energy seminars. The first one, set for May, will involve professors from throughout Latin America.

Kohlmann hopes the classroom and assemblies will have an immediate and practical effect.

He most anticipates the operation of a small hydraulic turbine from New Zealand. This type of turbine powers small houses and farms in New Zealand fields near mountains and rivers, “which is a similar situation to Costa Rica,” the professor said. He wants to see machines like the cost-efficient turbines incorporated into Costa Rican homes in the future.

At this moment it’s too early to judge the success of the recent technology in the community. The same goes for measuring the accomplishments of recent graduates. Even as a more diverse population studies in EARTH University’s state-of-the-art campus, knowledge alone does not translate into achievement back in the graduate’s homeland.

Students must learn to be leaders and entrepreneurs to have their credentials – diplomas – noticed and to find capital for starting up more sustainable practices. The yam project or the homemade hot sauces sold around the campus underline the business side of sustainability.

Nevertheless, officials said figures show EARTH University grads end up creating jobs after 10 years. One of the original African grads heads a successful non-profit in Uganda.

Ayankojo has learned to take on challenges in his short time at the school. Visa issues forced him to miss the Spanish-immersion program. He arrived two days before classes began, and only spoke his native English.

“For the first seven weeks, I was just like, ‘what are they talking about?’” Ayankojo said. “I didn’t understand anything.”

Professors accommodated his limited Spanish ability until he showed fluency in the language. He soon picked up agriculture skills.

The move across the world to Costa Rica has been a strange adjustment. Ayankojo is the seventh of eight children. He remembers his sister crying as he left for Central America, and the confusion and frustration the visa matter caused for him and his family. 

He talks to his parents through Skype when he has free time. He’s become so comfortable in Spanish that, out-of-habit, he responds to questions from family members with a “sí.” But Ayankojo keeps any troubles or concerns he has to himself. He feels they shouldn’t have to worry when they are so far away.

He tells them, “Just let me make this sacrifice to go somewhere where I can get this knowledge,” Ayankojo said. “And of course I’ll always be with them.”

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