Forget Rio - Austin kids headed to Spain

Students to learn self-empowerment and economic development

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By LA RISA LYNCH, Contributing Reporter

Good grades and recommendations from teachers garnered eight lucky Austin Polytechnical Academy students a chance to study abroad. And the country of choice is where Nikki Green, 16, has dreamed about going ever since she was little.

"I always wanted to go to Spain," said Green, a junior at the academy.

Her aunt often traveled to Spain and would bring back mementos from the places she visited. Green hoped her group's nine-day trip would include a stop in Barcelona. But she will have to settle for Madrid instead.

"I'm excited," she said. "I can't wait."

Students embark on their journey today.

The trip to Spain is not your usual study abroad program. The kids will have a chance to learn the Spanish language and explore the country's history and culture while touring Madrid, Segovia and Toledo. But they will also look at how creating jobs in manufacturing revitalized one small Spanish town nearly devastated by civil war.

Students will spend five days in Madrid and then four in Mondragon, located in the Basque region in northern Spain. They'll stay in a local university dormitory while visiting a manufacturing cooperative that contributes to much of Spain's economy. The area of Mondragon is an allegory for the Austin community, said Erica Swinney-Stein, director of community programs at Center for Labor and Community Research, which is sponsoring the trip.

Austin is an economically depressed area with a large minority population similar to Spain's Mondragon, Swinney-Stein explained. However, Mondragon was economically battered by a civil war in the 1930s, she added. Its recovery hinged on economic development and self empowerment, a concept put into motion by a priest in the 1940s.

The priest opened a polytechnical school to train area youth to become engineers as a way to create jobs and reinvigorate the economy.

The school's first graduates started a cooperative manufacturing company that built and sold stoves. Out of that first cooperative, a network of 120 different businesses emerged.

Nearly 60 years later, the Mondragon Cooperative Corporation employs more than 100,000 and has the lowest unemployment in the world at 2 percent compared to Austin's double digit unemployment rate, Swinney-Stein said.

The cooperative's profits are reinvested back into the community, which has created banks, schools, hospitals and other social services that directly support companies, employees and their families. The cooperative is the largest appliance producer for Spain, France and Poland.

The cooperative "single-handedly rebuilt this community [and it] all started from this polytechnical school," Swinney-Stein said, noting that APA is modeled after the Mondragon school.

"Our hope is that Austin Polytech catalyze some positive economic development in the community by having a population of young people who have these high skills that can be applied in the manufacturing technology sectors," she said.

The trip's mission is to let students, who come from an improvised community, know that they too can do this, according to Dan Bianchi of the Center for Labor and Community Research. Bianchi studied at the University of Mondragon where he received a master's degree in business administration in 2008.

Even though the area was devastated by war, "there is this very vibrant economy in an unexpected place which resulted from a group of young people trained in engineering, but had a social vision to use the skills that they learned to help transform and rebuild their community," he said.

Bianchi knows such a transformation will not happen overnight. The Mondragon's polytech school was founded 10 years before the cooperative was started. But the idea is to "expose kids to this history and possibility so that there is meaning behind why they are studying these technical things," he said.

Students' excitement about APA's first study abroad program has been building for more than a year. A series of fundraisers were planned to defray the trip's $33,000 price tag. Also, students took a crash course in both Spanish and Basque, the languages spoken in that region.

Those selected from the program were chosen from a competitive application process that looked at grades, conduct, references and personal interviews.

While APA junior London Hicks, 16, is excited by traveling abroad, she knows there are bigger lessons to learn.

"The future is going to have more engineering jobs more than ever; so it is good to have an engineering school in our neighborhood," she said.

The students contend that Austin could be a hub for biomedical jobs like X-ray and ultrasound technicians, civil engineering and construction jobs.

Alisha Johnson, 16, also a junior, admires the Mondragon students' tenacity to create opportunities to revitalize their community. She said she hopes APA's future alums can do the same for Austin.

"That is why our school was created, to bring some of the goodness back to Austin," Green said.

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