Niñas Arriba – Changing the World by Educating Girls

 
 

Growing up in a rural Salvadoran community where she shared a tiny home with three older sisters, a hardworking single mother, and her grandmother, Vanne Córdova did not think attending college was in her future. Her bleak outlook, however, started to change when her mother managed to land a job as a cook in the nation’s capital of San Salvador. Although she could not afford an education of her own, she instilled in all her children a strong value in education. The mother enrolled her oldest daughters in school in San Salvador while the younger ones remained in the rural province of San Vicente. Eventually, Córdova reunited with her family and moved to San Salvador as a teenager to attend Salesinas de Don Bosco Hijas de María Auxiliadora--a girl’s Catholic school.

In 2009, she befriended Gina Chavez and Jodi Granado who taught English as part of a mission trip from the United States.

“Gina was always so attentive toward us. We saw her as an older sister,” Córdova said.

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At one point, the women asked the school’s senior class how many wanted to go to college, and every hand went up in the air. But when they asked who was planning on following through by attending college every single hand dropped down. Chavez and Granado were stunned and began looking for a way to help at least some of the girls realize their aspirations to attend college.

They learned that in El Salvador, a country grappling with violence, economic uncertainty and a male-dominant culture that plagues every facet of society, only three in 10 students finish high school. Salvadorans complete an average of only 7.9 years of schooling, and higher education is a luxury few can afford.

Determined to make a small dent in that statistic, Granado and Chavez founded Niñas Arriba, or Girls Rising, an organization that awards college scholarships and offers paid internship opportunities to qualified Salvadoran women. Launched in 2010, the organization awarded its first batch of full scholarships to four women, including Córdova, the following year. Córdova graduated from college in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and was offered a full-time internship with Glasswing International where she remains today and helps tackle San Salvador’s youth unemployment rate issues.

“When (Chavez) told us, they would pay for our education in full everything changed,” Cordova said. “She went above and beyond making sure our tuition was paid for. She ensured we had meals to eat, that we could make copies of our documents and that we could afford school supplies. Our entire lives made a 360-degree turn.”

Chavez, a Texas-based Latin folk musician, with Mexican and European heritage, said she and her now-wife Granado were moved to make a difference after realizing how beautiful the people of El Salvador are.

“They’re complete salt of the earth. I really found out pretty quickly that as much as we wanted to help, we ended up receiving so much more than we gave,” she said.

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Chavez and Granado taught English at Córdova’s school, where they lived in a small boarding school component along with 18 girls. They woke up at 5 in the morning to do chores and pray. They bought hamburger meat to cook later in the day. They sneaked in alcohol for the nuns. They played basketball with the girls.

“What we offered was just kind of being with people, and I think at the same time we just received so much love. It’s hard to even describe,” Chavez said.

That is why when they returned to their state capital of Austin they could not revert to their old routine: the girls had so much potential waiting for nourishment. The senior class they taught was an optional Saturday morning class. The fact that 32 girls even attended an optional weekend class impressed the Austinites.

Monthly college tuition is $300-400 in El Salvador which is a nearly impossible feat in El Salvador. Chavez and Granado began hosting benefit concerts to raise funds for scholarships and their efforts quickly morphed into an organization backed by numerous donors.

Córdova is the fourth young woman to graduate with support from Niñas Arriba. She joins Mary, who graduated from La Universidad de Don Bosco, with a teaching certificate in 2017. As well as, Xiomara who attained her bachelor’s in marketing degree in 2016 and works full time at Glasswing International. Followed by, Rosmery who got her degree in International Business in 2018 and has a full-time internship at Glasswing International.

The organization awarded its first batch of full scholarships to four young women in 2011: Rosmery, an aspiring business owner (left); Vanessa, a budding product designer (middle); and Xiomara, a corporate-climber-to-be (right).

Chavez said the organization is now extending beyond the first cohort of women, whom she met while teaching at the Catholic school in El Salvador, and out into the Salvadoran community. Joining the program is 23-year-old Norma who had to put her education on hold to help her family by cleaning houses. She looks forward to studying food and nutrition at the Universidad Centroamericana José Simeón Cañas this year.

Meanwhile, Niñas Arriba seeks to raise $20,000 in 2019, to support more young women through the Romero Program at the University Centroamericana, one of the country’s leading private universities. The program offers room and board plus a supportive community at UCA. If it reaches its funding goal, the organization will fund one student in the Romero Program in addition to a six-month paid internship for each new graduate.

Niñas Arriba graduates are already moving their country forward by using their leadership skills and innovative ideas in the areas of education, business, and nonprofits. Córdova is one of three employees at Glasswing International charged with leading an impact study to evaluate the effectiveness of the organization’s programs. The group traveled to Guatemala recently to help another cohort complete a similar study.

“Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be in this position. I’m learning new things and better understand the issues that are our neighboring countries face,” she said.

Now, she and all three of her sisters are college graduates. It’s an incredible feat that she credits to Niñas Arriba and her mother as much as her own tenacity.

She said her townspeople were skeptical that college would be worth it for her family. After seeing the successful livelihoods the sisters are leading, professionally and domestically, many others in her town are enrolling in college.

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Córdova wants to help promote Niñas Arriba out in the community through events sponsored by Glasswing International. She said the more women who attain an education, the higher chances for a more prosperous community overall. She is excited that Norma is joining the program.

“We’ve gained a new little sister because this program isn’t a program; it’s a family,” she said. “It fills us with joy to know that lives are being changed. We in El Salvador tend to have little faith. But faith can move mountains. Sometimes we just need evidence of what’s possible and extend our horizon.”

Chavez has a great sense of fulfillment and purpose through Niñas Arriba efforts. She says one of the young women used to be shy and has transformed into a lively and bubbly person. Another woman has learned to speak up for herself and her daughter amid a male-dominant culture; including toward her partner. This woman has made him understand that education is not an option, and he can leave if he doesn’t want to support that.

“That’s what education does for these women. It doesn’t stop with them. Because of their resilience and strength, especially in developing nations, we are the ones really building, uplifting and nurturing communities. That’s what we’re really excited about: You give one woman an opportunity, and you’re shining a light upon an entire community that may be in darkness.”

To Learn more about Niñas Arriba and how to help visit here.

Please note: The interview with Córdova was translated from Spanish to English.

WRITTEN BY CHRISTINE BOLAÑOS

Images courtesy of Vanne Córdov

Documentary by Tania Romero using footage from Sin Retorno Films


 
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About the Writer:

Christine Bolaños is a Salvadoran-American journalist based in Texas who writes about social justice, women's empowerment and Latino issues for numerous national media outlets.