|About EARTH University
|EARTH is one of only two freestanding universities outside
the United States initially funded with U.S. government dollars.
The other is American University in Beirut.
The university operates on an annual budget of $10.9 million
with 55 percent covered by its $90 million endowment, 12 percent
by tuition, 30 percent by fundraising efforts and three percent
by other income. Current key supporters include corporations
such as American Express and Dow Agrosciences, private family
foundations, NGOs and the governments of Norway and Sweden.
For additional information, contact EARTH University Foundation,
Five Piedmont Center, Ste. 215, 3525 Piedmont Rd. N.E., Atlanta,
describes itself as a private, non-profit institution dedicated
to education in agricultural sciences and natural resources in order
to contribute to sustainable development in the humid tropics by
seeking a balance between agricultural production and environmental
protection. Opened for business just 14 years ago, EARTH has graduated
815 agronomists from 17 Latin American countries and Spain. The
student body in 2003 included 401 students from 19 countries, young
potential leaders who otherwise would not have had access to a university
The journey, from concept to todays thriving educational institution
tucked into the northeast corner of Costa Rica on the Caribbean
Sea, has been neither smooth nor as treacherous as one would expect
the founding of a new university to be. EARTH is a novel educational
model that breaks all the traditional rules by introducing a refreshing
and modern way of instruction that emphasizes learning rather than
teaching. Born of the economic turmoil in Central America in the
early 1980s and of the migration of people moving from the high,
dry land areas to the rain forests, an international feasibility
study for the project was conducted in 1985 with financial support
from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation. In 1986, Kellogg was joined by
the United States Agency for International Development (USAID),
which secured over $100 million in startup funding, and the Costa
Rican government, which enacted a law creating EARTH University.
The goals of the university were set early on when it was decided
that EARTH would place equal emphasis on the development of entrepreneurial
skills, commitment to community and responsibility to the environment.
It quickly became apparent that the structure of a traditional college
would not suffice.
From the beginning, we knew we wanted to do something different,
said Jose Zaglul, EARTHs president since its inception. We
wanted an integrated approach that wasnt based on departments,
but would have people working together from different disciplines.
We wanted to put emphasis on the environment and also on the social
impact of our actionsto teach our students to create jobs
rather than to seek jobs. We felt that, in order to make a difference,
we had to give opportunities to the young men and women that came
from the poorer areas and provide them with a first-class education.
If we do that, they can change the world.
Cultivating an Entrepreneurial Spirit
EARTH is a Spanish acronym (Escuela de Agricultura de la Región
Tropical Húmeda) descriptive of its emphasis on the agricultural
challenges in the humid topics. Its curriculum is rigorous and demandingstudents
receive intensive instruction and conduct fieldwork for 11 months
a year, six days a week for four years. Upon completion, graduates
receive a Bachelor of Science degree in agricultural engineering
though the number of credits theyve taken is nearly equivalent
to a Masters degree in the United States.
The four years of study are precisely defined to incorporate social
commitment, environmental awareness, entrepreneurial spirit and
the development of human values. Multicultural integration is emphasized
from the beginning as students are required to form teams, choosing
partners from different countries, who will work together in one
of the most unique aspects of EARTHs program: the entrepreneurial
Every student has to have run a business in order to graduate,
explains program director Irene Alvarado. First they form
a company to investigate which opportunities they will pursue, and
at the beginning of their second year they present a feasibility
study to a faculty jury. After approval, the team is given a $3,000
loan as seed money to launch its company. By the middle of their
third year, students must close down their business, repay the loan
and present a report on the differences between what had been planned
and what actually happened. Throughout the process they are learning
accounting, administration, team building, time management and marketing
skills. Ninety-five percent of all projects either make money
or break even.
Students will often choose entrepreneurial projects in areas that
are familiar to them such as researching new farming methods or
working on problems specific to agriculture in the humid tropics.
Some will concentrate on product development such as soaps made
from non-traditional spices and other plants, pineapple and ginger
juices, or Thanksgiving turkeys raised for grateful resident Americans.
The campus population of 800 provides a captive market and students
also sell to shops in the surrounding towns and in San Jose.
Some projects, such as the fish ponds, spawn new ongoing businesses
and some have been acknowledged by the multinational commercial
banana growers as making significant contributions to the industryone
of the most important in all of Latin America. Polypropylene twine,
a waste product at banana plantations, has been turned into an energy
source for the cement factory at EARTH as a result of an entrepreneurial
New Ways of Thinking and Doing
Another development at EARTH that has had an enormous impact grew
out of the universitys early commitment to environmental responsibility.
Dr. Zaglul remembers that when the land for the university was acquired,
there were 300 hectares of banana plants. An environmental team
from the United States advised shutting the plantation down because
of contamination from insect control processes. Previously, blue
plastic bags with insecticide inside were wrapped around the vines
to keep wasps from destroying the peels. At harvest, the bags were
thrown to the ground, creating litter and, when the floods came,
watershed pollution occurred that was killing fish and turtle populations.
Zaglul, as the new president of the only educational institution
in the world that had a commercial banana plantation, resisted closing
the operation and committed instead to finding ways to make banana
production sustainable. Working with the producer of the plastic
bags, EARTH changed the way the bags are manufactured and developed
a recycling program. Others in the industry are now using the same
methods or protocols that were pioneered at the school. In addition,
the stalks and stems of the plants are being recycled into banana
paper at EARTHs own factory.
In December 2003, Austin, TX-based Whole Foods Market Inc. announced
that it will be the exclusive sales agent in Southern California
for bananas grown at EARTH. EARTH University has taken a leadership
role in the banana industry through its environmentally friendly
production methods, says Michael Besancon, South Pacific regional
president for Whole Foods. After visiting the campus it was
clear that the universitys mission and curriculum mirrors
Whole Foods Markets commitment to demonstrating workable ecological
solutions for the world. For example, EARTH Universitys use
of fertilizer made from banana stalks has influenced the production
methods of major international fruit growers in Central America.
This sort of recognition will likely grow as EARTHs graduates
return to their home countries equipped to effect positive change.
All receive outreach training during their third year through EARTHs
community development program followed by internships abroad. Designed
to raise social awareness for the students and to contribute to
improving the quality of living in rural areas, these programs teach
students to apply the knowledge learned in fieldwork and in the
classroom and become role models for others. EARTH students are,
for example, working closely with a struggling co-op of 140 hearts-of-palm
farmers in a neighboring town by helping them take advantage of
the Fair Trade agreement. In bringing this knowledge to the farmers,
students are becoming more aware of the social impacts should the
co-op farmers fail, 80 percent of which are single mothers working
very small farms.
Role Models for the Future
EARTHs recruitment process is as rigorous as its program.
The university accepts one of every 10 people that apply and the
graduation rate is 86 percent. Eighty percent of its students receive
either full or partial scholarships that cover all their expensestuition,
travels, medical, books and incidentalsand provide educational
opportunities to kids who would never make it otherwise even to
public universities. Students who have the capacity to pay, full
or partial, do and EARTH is diligent about insuring a level playing
field for all. Students seem to be universally complimentary about
the universitys high ethical standards. One from Uganda singled
out EARTHs insistence on teaching respect for humanity. At
home, he said, the schools are strictly academic.
A visit to EARTH is invigorating and inspiring. Randomly select
any student in the cafeteria to interview and quickly become engrossed
in their stories. Lester Muralles, from Belize, who is working on
the biological control of white grubs through microorganisms as
well as waste management, says that hes become more social
since arriving at the school and more environmentally aware. He
believes that EARTH grads are well regarded in Belize, can be found
in policy-making positions and collectively make Belize more globally
competitive. Julius Mbuga, a second-year student from Uganda, was
recruited when an EARTH professor visited his high school. The two
things he most values about the university are its respect for the
environment and the entrepreneurial program. Hes much more
aware, he says, of the similarities and differences between students
from different countries and has found it very easy to make friends.
Gladys Anguti, also in her second year from Uganda, is involved
in a feasibility study on the potential of a business in livestock.
One of eight children, she appreciates the family feel of EARTH,
especially the close professor/student relationships. She echoed
the sentiments of many when she expressed her goal to reach greater
heights than she ever believed possible when she returns home to
her country at the conclusion of her education.
Many, many examples of achievement and success can be found among
EARTHs graduatesthose who create their own businesses,
offer consulting services, lead both government and private agencies
and teach others. Becky Castle, the former executive director of
the EARTH University Foundation, stated, Theyre graduating
as experienced entrepreneurs. Ive met a lot of students who
have never considered the idea of starting a business, yet when
they graduate from EARTH, they have that entrepreneurial bug. Its
just incredible to see the types of things they do when they graduate
because they carry with them the whole EARTH mentality of incorporating
the economic, the social and the environmental component into everything
that they do.
Dr. Zaglul enjoys telling the story of one young Mexican boy from
a very poor rural town who caught his eye during an interview and
was admitted despite very low test scores. The interview process,
although it should be objective, relies a lot on perceptions,
Zaglul states, and I had a good feeling about this young manabout
his attitude and honesty. He struggled and in his third year
flunked out, but instead of returning to Mexico, he stayed in the
community, continued interacting with the faculty, and worked. Eventually
he was readmitted and finally graduated and went home to Mexico.
The next time Zaglul heard from him, years later, he had become
the vice-mayor of a poor small city, had implemented a waste disposal
program and other environmental initiatives and had persuaded the
citys government to sponsor a young girl with a scholarship
I feel so proud, Zaglul continues, because this
guy, in spite of his academic limitations, in spite of the hard
life that he had, never gave up on his social commitment and on
his commitment to the environment. He wanted to be a leader, and
there he is in an influential position. This is worth everything