The Colgate Scene
July 2003

Global chamber player
Marisol Pérez '92 plays the music of hope

Pérez came to campus in early April, to share her experiences at a "Doing Well by Doing Good" career exploration talk in the COVE. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

"There will be those times where you have the spotlight on you," said Marisol Pérez '92 of the principles of playing chamber music. "Other times, you have to know when to back off and support, and sometimes when to just be quiet. For me, it's a nice analogy of how I work."

Pérez, who helped found the Colgate Chamber Players during her years on the hill and still plays the cello whenever she can, is one of three education specialists with the international relief and development organization Save the Children.

Save the Children operates programs in more than 45 developing nations in Africa, South America, the Caribbean, the Middle East and Eurasia as well as in 19 states across the United States. Pérez supports all aspects of project management through the organization's "Strong Beginnings" global education initiative, which reaches poor children, especially girls, through early childhood development, primary education, youth development and adult literacy programs. She provides technical assistance and staff development for 18 projects in 12 countries in the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, southern Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean sub-regions.

Although she's based in the organization's Westport, Conn. headquarters, Pérez is out of the country more than half of the time.

"My job is to go to our different project sites and help with a spectrum of our staff's needs," she explained. She is responsible for program implementation, documentation and assessment, including whether and how well children are learning and finishing school, and whether teachers are able to succeed using new or more child-centered techniques. She also assists with identifying funding sources and proposal writing and has been responsible for helping secure close to $23 million for new programs.

"Many times, my colleagues in the field just want an outside perspective," she remarked. "I have the privilege to be able to see many countries. One of the things that is key in my job is to spread better practices, and share the experiences of another country's projects, both effective and challenging."

That's much of the appeal to the job, said Pérez. "There is a lot of focus on working with teachers and parents to be more involved and creative with children and their learning." Often, she explained, parents and others in the communities carry around the misconception that there is no place in education programs for those who are not themselves educated. "That's the biggest barrier to parents becoming involved in their kids' learning. We try to tear down that barrier -- the thinking that, `I don't know how to read or write; how am I supposed to help my kids learn to do things?'"

In Mali and Malawi, Pérez mentioned, schoolteachers bring trades people into the classroom to talk about their work, which makes classroom learning come to life. "They don't have to read, they don't have to write, but they are sharing a wealth of information," she said. "They realize that they have something to offer. For example, people working the fields know what insects are good and which ones are bad, and what the life cycle for each one is. That person can say, `We come across this particular insect all the time, this is the way it works and this is what we do to prevent it from destroying the sweet potato crops.' That's a real-life example that benefits the kids, the adult and the community as a whole, and the teachers realize that lacking resources doesn't mean a lack of knowledge or human resources."

Pérez was also attracted to working for Save the Children because of its grass roots, community-based approach.

"We are writing a book about the Save the Children community schools. The idea is that it's not really about the schools -- education is both the means and an end -- but that in fact, you have greater civic participation and foster the ability of communities with their own indigenous ways of organizing. We aren't saying `you have to do it this way,'" she explained. "We help them to identify and make visible those things that they use to organize themselves and those qualities that may effect change not only in education, but in health, or even generating money for economic opportunities in their communities. And that really is what, at the end of the day, will help us with sustainability."

After a school assessment visit to the village of Chilipa, Malawi in Spring 2001, Marisol Pérez '92, center, and a Save the Children colleague, far right, visited with the village chief, second from right, and his family at their home. The woman next to Perez is the chief's wife, and the man on the left is a village deputy chief. [Enlarge] [Photo courtesy Marisol Pérez]

In addition to conducting workshops to improve staff capacity at different levels, Pérez said that her job takes her to Capitol Hill. For example, "I recently presented to Senate staff the success stories of what we are doing with HIV/AIDS education in Malawi," she explained. "Such presentations help give legislators a better understanding of the critical issues facing the education sector, and ultimately the children in it. In the end, I'm only supporting and sharing the work of my colleagues in the field, who are the ones who really make it happen."

The route Pérez took to Save the Children, which she joined in 2000, was a circuitous one, yet teaching and an international bent have been common threads throughout. At Colgate, where she was a frequent recital and orchestra performer in addition to co-founding the Chamber Players, she majored in international relations. After graduating, she worked in operations for ABC News' Political Unit in New York City, did software training and project management in corporate financial and legal firms, and was a literacy tutor for youth and adults while playing in various orchestras. She earned a master of science degree in development management, with a focus on education and training, from American University.

A key experience in her professional development, she said, was her service in the Peace Corps, in the West African nation of Guinea, from 1994 to 1997. She taught English, worked with the Ministry of Education to develop and revise the English curriculum and trained incoming volunteers in West African countries. Pérez also worked in community development, writing grants for local women's groups. She was selected to extend her service for a third year to become a regional coordinator, and then served as head technical trainer and master trainer in Guinea and Burkina Faso.

Following her Peace Corps experience, Pérez helped co-found the Minority Peace Corps Association (MPCA), an affiliate organization of the National Peace Corps Association.

"We felt that the face of the United States was under- and misrepresented overseas, so our goal is to try and get more people of color interested in and joining the Peace Corps," she said, "support them while they are there, and to provide a larger, immediate network for when they return.

"As a Latina in an African country, I found there was surprisingly much more that was similar to my own Ecuadorian heritage than the U.S. lifestyle in which I grew up, which was a hybrid of U.S. and Ecuadorian traditions," noted Pérez. "In addition, it was a challenge, as a first-generation American, to `sell' to my parents -- and even myself -- the idea of me going to work, basically for very little, in a less developed country for two years. We hope that the MPCA will support the unique experiences of Peace Corps volunteers of color within the larger context of supporting all volunteers."

Pérez has continued her involvement in the arts, including recently playing cello on a friend's CD release, and she has also been pursuing West African dance and drumming. Overseas, she is exploring the history, similarities and differences of various music forms during her trips to Africa.

Reflecting on the ties between her musical experiences and her job today, Pérez said, "I enjoy being in positions of leadership and realize a big part of that is knowing when you need to just step down and let others shine, and promote them and support them," she said. "That was very key to my experience at Colgate. I'm interested in how to use the learning process, drawing from music and culture to make it a creative experience that lasts beyond the classroom and make it a lifelong learning. How do we learn every day and how do we maintain that curiosity? That's my passion."

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