University of Minnesota student wins SIT fellowship to promote sexual health in rural Bolivia

Vanessa Voller named as next Alice Rowan Swanson fellow

BRATTLEBORO, Vermont – SIT Study Abroad alumna and University of Minnesota PhD student Vanessa Voller plans to develop sexual health and reproductive rights training for rural Bolivian youth early next year. Her community project is aimed at confronting Bolivia’s high rates of gender-based violence and teen pregnancy.

Voller is the newest Alice Rowan Swanson Fellow, a program offered through School for International Training (SIT) that returns alumni to the country where they studied abroad to pursue or continue their research. The fellowship was established by the family of SIT Nicaragua 2006 alumna Alice Rowan Swanson, an Amherst College graduate who was killed in 2008. It is a living tribute to Alice’s passion for bridging cultures and helping others, and the role that SIT Study Abroad played in her life.

“I would like to extend my sincerest gratitude to the family of Alice Rowan Swanson for selecting this project for the 2018 Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship,” said Voller. “In the wake of the global #MeToo movement and the increased attention to the pervasive prevalence of gender-based violence and harassment around the world, I cannot imagine a more timely and relevant project.”

Through her project, Voller plans to collaborate with local public health officials, doctors, indigenous healers, women business owners, and community leaders to co-facilitate trainings for young people ages 13-18 about sexual health and reproductive rights. She will also develop a youth-led health fair and radio campaign to raise awareness about gender-based violence and establish a safe space for the youth of Buena Vista, Bolivia to develop their own agency, increase their self-esteem, and develop aspirations for their futures.

As a Colorado College undergraduate in spring 2015, Voller studied abroad on the SIT program Bolivia: Multiculturalism, Globalization, and Social Change. A native of St. Paul, Minn., she subsequently completed an MA in International Development Practice at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, where she is currently a PhD student in Comparative International Development and Education and Global Health Studies.

Starting in January 2019, Voller will work with a women’s group in the rural municipality of Buena Vista. The women had approached Etta Projects, a Washington-based nonprofit that works in Bolivia, for support in developing training for young people in their rural region. Etta Projects is named for Etta Turner, who died in November 2002 at the age of 16 while in Bolivia as a Rotary International Exchange student.

Voller noted the convergence of the values of the two young women who made her project possible. “While Etta Turner and Alice Rowan Swanson never met, their charismatic spirits and passionate commitments to the advancement of human rights are the impetus for this collaborative project between the Etta Projects and the SIT Alice Rowan Swanson Fellowship,” she said. “It is our hope that this project will be an honor to the legacies the young women left on this world before their tragic passing.”

Voller also thanked “the courageous women who initially called for this project. Their stories and aspirations for their children, and specifically their daughters, catalyzed the collaboration between Etta Projects, myself, and the local chapters of Rotary International in Bolivia.”

Heidi Baer-Postigo, academic director for SIT Bolivia, said Voller’s project directly relates to her SIT coursework and research, both of which focused on decolonization, the concept of vivir bien (living in harmony), the role of community in social transformation, and reciprocity, a core value of all SIT Study Abroad programs.

“Vanessa and I had numerous in-depth conversations about social justice issues during her time on my program, and I was consistently impressed that a student of her age had such thoughtful and intellectually rich personal and academic examples to draw from in such discussions,” said Baer-Postigo.  “She possesses a rare combination of academic rigor and ambitiousness and a practical sense of working effectively and sensitively in a hands-on way with real people in rural areas of Latin America.”

Although there are several organizations in urban settings in Bolivia that focus on sex education, women's empowerment, and/or support for survivors of sexual violence, Baer-Postigo said, “I know of very few such projects in rural areas, particularly working in collaboration with local community members who have reached out to ask for such support.”

Voller, who eventually plans to become an interdisciplinary professor of education, gender and sexuality studies, and women's health, added, “I cannot imagine a better to opportunity apply what I have learned in the classroom to a meaningfully and action-orientated project that will impact the lives of youth today and for generations to come.”

The Alice Rowan Swanson Fund awards fellowships twice annually to SIT Study Abroad and IHP alumni to return to their program country to pursue development projects benefiting human rights. Annual application deadlines are March 1 and October 1. Click here to find out more.