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Cornell partners with Latin American groups to lift youths out of poverty

In many parts of the world, young people in poverty are running in place as they try to advance toward adulthood. Their parents cannot provide financial support. Higher education is out of their reach. If they find work at all, it pays low wages and offers dim career prospects.

College of Human Ecology researchers have initiated an action research project in Latin America to understand how exemplary local programs put such youth on a more promising track. With Opening Career Paths: Youth in Latin America, four organizations are partnering with Cornell to explore how to enable impoverished youth to become productive workers, active citizens and nurturing family members.

The research team -- Stephen Hamilton, professor of human development; his wife, Mary Agnes Hamilton, senior research associate and director of the Cornell Youth in Society Program; Davydd Greenwood, the Goldwin Smith Professor of Anthropology; and three bilingual graduate research assistants -- is also examining how to reverse "structural lag," how schools and other institutions have not kept pace with the needs of those they serve.

"In many cases, these young people have not finished high school, and if they don't do so by age 18, it's all over in these countries. After that, there's nothing for them," said Mary Agnes Hamilton. "Through these programs, they can go back and get their diplomas or learn trades and skills that get them on course."

The 18-month project, funded by a $400,000 grant from the Jacobs Foundation in Switzerland, includes partners in Argentina, Mexico and Colombia whose local programs reach out to marginalized youth, typically between ages 18-27, from modern cities like Buenos Aires to the forgotten slums of Cali, Colombia.

Some of the programs help young adults get high school degrees and acquire vocational skills; others encourage community service and restoring relationships with family members and introduce adult mentors.

"In these countries, it's called life projects -- working with young people expressly on the future of their lives," Stephen Hamilton said. "It's not as simple as asking what you want to be when you grow up. It's determining your aspirations and then laying out a realistic pathway for how to get there and what resources are needed."

In prior research, the Hamiltons have identified three assets that are critical for poor youth to advance in society: a sense of purpose, human capital and social capital. They also found six common structural features among successful youth-oriented programs that help nurture these assets, ranging from strong public-private partnerships to opportunities for leadership and civic engagement.

The Cornell team reviewed more than 20 programs and visited about eight sites before selecting four partners that demonstrate many of these structural features. At a conference in January in Colombia, teams from each of the partner organizations met and created a plan to help youth bridge the gap between adolescence and adulthood.

"We asked the programs to explore the questions that matter most to them," Stephen Hamilton said. "A one-size-fits-all approach wouldn't work because each group has its own issues of local concern."

The partners, with support from the Cornell team, are now moving forward with the action research process. This fall, the parties involved will convene to share their results and publish their findings in a book about strengthening institutions for young adults.

"In this project, we hope to test our conceptual framework for youth development, to see how it applies in different contexts and whether it can become a model for building youth programs in other places," Mary Agnes Hamilton said. "It's possible that the outcomes will be of interest to local policymakers in the United States and many other countries who are striving to give youth the support they need."

Ted Boscia is assistant director of communications in the College of Human Ecology.

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