María Laura Pumar Peña, a college student in Venezuela remembers heading back to school in April 2019 and noticing that everything seemed off. There was no music playing, and people weren’t talking much either. Peña stared at the nearby mountaintops silently as she thought about how the day would go.
Peña had, like most college students in the country, take a month off after a countrywide power outage. In her time at home, she wondered how her education and daily life would function moving forward. Now that the Universidad Arturo Michelena had opened again, she was more hopeful about the future.
“It was like an apocalyptic movie,” she said when talking about the blackout. “We depended on the light of day.”
Peña, who majors in “the mother of languages,” a program that teaches her the basics of several different languages, hopes that when she graduates she will be able to tell the story of what’s happening in Venezuela, and college students like her, to others.
Coming back to school Peña was equally excited as she was scared. She was hoping that she, along with the rest of the university members, could look forward and get past their recent hardships. Hoping that all the students could get what they came for, which was an education.
But for many of her classmates, while happy to be back on campus, they were nervous that things could again take a turn for the worst – that the power would go out again or something else would go wrong. They had spent their young lives observing a country in crisis.
Ever since 2014, the country was going through a socioeconomic and political failure. As hyperinflation continued to rise, starvation, lack of medical supplies, and crime continued to grow. As a consequence, electrical maintenance saw a major decrease, and blackouts began to occur. Many believe that the corrupt leader, Maduro, had some sort of hand in causing the blackouts to happen as well.
During the time without power, Peña found herself suspended within a hammock outside to sleep in, as it was much too hot to do so inside with no power. Scattered around her were many family members who made their way to Peña’s house because they had no water source at their own homes.
The return of power brought in a shared realization. This was that time does not wait, and neither could they. They must get back into work and make money to provide for themselves and their families. Peña, who is 100 pounds soaking wet, focused her eyes on a fierce comeback.
Alongside starting school again, she began co-owning a business with her father. They rent out apartment spaces for fellow businesses to work out of. She helps in property management as well as keeping in good communication with the tenants.
The latter half of 2019 and the current year have seen some positive changes. The economy has improved. With this college, classes saw an increase in cost. Peña’s classes doubled in price causing some of her classmates to drop out. This struck a chord in the socially active young adult, causing her and a handful of fellow students to protest the rising prices. It was met with a helpful response from the university as class rates were eventually lowered.
These kinds of actions don’t go unnoticed as she is appreciated and respected by friends and classmates.
“She speaks as if she is telling a story and is always wanting to help when she can,” said 19-year-old Valentina Escobar, who is a classmate of Peña.
Schooling in Venezuela was once among the best in South America, but as the crisis grows, so does the country’s ability to educate. School closures to due power outages are just scratching the surface when it comes to how students are being affected.
It is accompanied by a lack of supplies and food to provide the students with. Many teachers are unable to show up on time because they are having to wait in long lines just to get food to take home. All of this has culminated into a devastating number of students who are no longer enrolled in school. Business Insider reported that more than one-quarter of teenagers do not attend school.
Many young adults have had to give up aspects of their childhood to supply for their family and to focus on obtaining a better future. Pena is not the one one. A friend of hers, Manuel Duarte, also a student, started a business to help bring money into his household. He sells shirts, pants, and several custom hats.
“I am always thinking about how to get money,” he said. “A lot of times I have to ask myself; fix this or buy food.”
As hard times persist and hope builds for Venezuela, Peña plans to keep her focus on education. She is planning to learn more languages so she can continue to connect and learn from other people.
To do so, she is enrolled in the mother of languages major. It is focused on linguistics and evaluates the groundwork and basis of several languages. Through this, students can improve their language development over time and communicate through languages outside of their own. Peña has her eyes on graduating from this course to take her passions to the next level.
“Yes, we all feel like we missed out on a fair childhood. Yes, I get sad about not getting to wear a pretty dress and attending a dance. But I am still alive so I must keep pushing.”
María Laura Pumar Peña