Helping University Students Cope with Economic Difficulties in Argentina

by Zhanna Veyts

It seems that every week there is a new study reporting on the impact our economic downturn here has been having on recent college graduates who are finding their dreams dashed by a troubled job market. Each time I travel to a country with a struggling economy of its own, I’m always interested in speaking to young people to see how their nation’s economic environment is shaping their ambitions and goals.

On my last visit to Argentina, I met Debora, a 23-year-old student at the University of Buenos Aires. “Here it is not common for everyone to go to University. Many people don’t; they go straight to work instead,” she explained.

That’s easy to understand, given the economic crisis that Argentina went through in the past decade and the state of its economy today. Many families continue to face such serious difficulties that even though attending university is free, young people worry about having the resources to cover the out-of-pocket expenses of going to school.

Debora joined JDC’s NET program at the same time that she began university. A joint venture with the Buncher Foundation and Argentina’s Tzedaka Foundation, NET offers a small monthly stipend that helps students like Debora pay for transportation, books, photocopies, and basic meals while on campus. In exchange, students are asked to volunteer in the Jewish community on a weekly basis; they are also mentored throughout the year and offered opportunities to meet with and participate in community-building activities with their peers.

“If it weren’t for NET I would have to work more side jobs to cover my expenses and would have less time for school,” says Debora. “It’s also difficult to find jobs that accommodate a student’s schedule and would allow me to adequately prepare for and pass regular subject exams to move ahead. NET gives us the flexibility to arrange our volunteering commitment so we can still meet the demands of our studies.”

Debora explains that in Argentina, as in many other countries, graduates with university degrees do significantly better in the long term, and this motivated her to pursue higher education. She has always known she wanted to help people and to work with food. And when the time came to choose a career (a decision Argentine students must make when they first enter university),  she decided to become a nutritionist (a five-year program here).

Perhaps her people-focus is what makes her such a good fit for the NET program. Each week she dedicates a few hours to volunteering at JDC’s Baby Help, which assists pregnant women and young children from birth to age five who are in need.

“I love working with the teachers and the kids. They learn so much so quickly,” she told me. Debora is eager to integrate her two worlds. “I think it’s important to teach children to be healthy from a young age and ensure they start forming good nutrition habits when they’re young,” she says.

Debora clearly loves the social element of the NET program, too. “I get together throughout the year with other volunteers, for recreation and to celebrate holidays together.”

Since students in Argentina typically live at home through their university years, this sense of community is very important. “I’ve met a lot of new people through NET. We share the program, issues at school, and the life challenges we face with one another.”

 “I want to study, to have better job prospects, and to be someone in life,” Debora says. “Having the support I need to complete my degree will ensure that I have a chance to do just that.”

Based in New York, Zhanna Veyts is part of JDC’s Global Marketing and Communications Team and recently visited JDC programs in Argentina.

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