November 8, 2018

Peruvian studentsFor three weeks this past spring, Erin McGuigan lived without electricity or running water in the Amazon jungle. The Phi Sigma Pi National Honor Fraternity Member spent her time observing a handful of students in Lucerna, a tiny remote settlement in the Madre de Dios Region of Peru. She was one of the first education students from Radford (Virginia) University to travel to this location.

“It’s primarily hard sciences,” she said of the research students who take the trip each year to study plants, animals and soil, but she and another education major changed that in May. They lived with the science students at Las Piedras Biodiversity Station, surrounded by more than 17,000 acres of rainforest reserve.

Each day, McGuigan, a 25-year-old early childhood-special education senior, and the other student left the station and boarded a boat to travel 30 minutes to the school.

The village, in existence for only about 15 years, McGuigan said, is populated by about 100 residents who settled in the area after escaping the dangers of the drug trade in the Andes Mountains. Only about 15 of the inhabitants are of school age, attending from first through sixth grades.

“The teacher was very welcoming,” McGuigan said, noting that her first day was spent communicating with students by teaching each other English and Spanish words for objects around them.

“My mom is a Spanish teacher, but I know very little,” McGuigan said, chuckling.

The Peruvian students, she said, love to learn. “They want to be there; there is a passion about learning that you don’t see here very much.” No matter how impassioned, however, the students’ formal schooling ends at sixth grade. “If they wanted to finish their education, they would need to go two hours away, and they would have no family to live with.”

The hardest part, of the experience for MGuigan was the disconnect from her family, she said. Even with an international cell phone plan she was “cut off from the world. … I had to send messages through a satellite phone.”

Aside from the feeling of isolation, however, she deeply enjoyed her work with the students.

One of her most memorable lessons was a STEM project that challenged the young students to build a tower from Popsicle sticks, McGuigan said. “They couldn’t do it. They had never observed a tall building.” But what started as a bit of lesson failure ended up as an excellent learning/teaching experience.

She contemplated the situation at camp that night and came back the next day, asking the students to construct a tall tree. Not a problem. The alternative lesson was a success.

Though school time was “amazing,” the highlight of McGuigan’s trip came outside the class room when she visited a wildlife rehab center, she said. She had an opportunity to hold a baby Howler Monkey and accompany some of the science students as they searched for and caught snakes. “It got dark around 4,” she said. “We had to search with headlamps. You could recognize them by their reflection.”

McGuigan said she was prepared in a small way for what to expect on her trip to Peru, because her mother had lived there for several years, and, in 2017, the Alpha Xi Chapter Member had traveled to Malawi in southeastern Africa for a previous three-week research trip.

The Malawi trip was actually what led her to join Phi Sigma Pi, McGuigan said. “I traveled with two Brothers; they told me all about it.” When she returned to campus at Radford, she looked into joining. The Phi Sigma Pi experience, in turn, has helped McGuigan with her confidence level, she said. “I was never very good at going up to people and talking to them, but I am getting less shy.”

She also has appreciated the support from the Members. “I was going through the initiation process while also doing research and preparing for Peru,” she said. “They’ve been super supportive, and I surprised myself by being able to do it all.”

Though never considering a leadership position, she said, McGuigan was elected as alumni committee chair after pitching an idea she had.

This spring, the senior will have just one week of downtime before starting grad school --“most of the classes are in the summer and then I student teach full time in the fall” – but is hoping she will return to the Peruvian jungle after graduation.

“I’d like to see Lima” she said.