By Laura Mast
Andrea Ardiles followed the path of many School of Civil and Environmental Engineering students after graduation: she walked out of the classroom and straight into a job in her field. In her case, the job was in her native Peru, designing and building hydropower plants for MWH Global.
And one day, she gave it all up.
The best plans are a long time in the making, and Ardiles wasn’t simply walking away from her civil engineering job. She was diving into a cause she’d been dabbling with for years.
“Even when I was at Tech, I was thinking about these ideas of, what can I do to improve the education system in my country?” Ardiles said recently from her office in Lima. “It was very hard to figure out how to do it, so I just kept going with my regular engineering path.”
Then, one day, she realized she could start to have impact by going back to the beginning, to the very foundations of education: the classroom.
So that’s exactly what she did.
The ribbon-cutting in Ventanilla, Peru, for the first classroom Learning Goal built. (Photo Courtesy of Learning Goal.)
Ardiles, B.S. 2012, founded Learning Goal along with Jorge Ramirez, M.S. 2012, and Edgar Escalante. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to improving the lives of Peruvian children by building or renovating classrooms and schools at the outskirts of Lima and in rural areas.
“Education is the cornerstone for progress,” she said. That’s why Learning Goal believes, “[education] should be valued as the best investment to ensure sustainable human development,” according to the group’s mission statement. “Education is a vehicle for social mobility that allows access to better jobs, higher incomes, welfare of households, and is particularly important in countries with high levels of inequality and poverty.”
The organization finds Peruvian communities that need significant upgrades to their schools — or that need new schools altogether — and firmly establishes a relationship with them to build a sense of ownership of whatever project they choose. Ardiles and her small team of 15 (half in Peru and half in the United States) meet with school directors, local government officials, and families to assess what the community needs. They draw up plans for an ideal learning environment, accounting for ventilation, natural light and technology. And then they help build or renovate the school or classrooms.
“These aren’t our schools,” Ardiles said. “They’re the communities’ schools. We really have to be hand in hand with the community, shoulder to shoulder, working with them, and showing them how important it is to prioritize education.”
Important might be an understatement in Peru, where the educational system fares poorly compared to the rest of the world: according to the World Economic Forum, Peru places 141 out of 144 countries in math and science and 138th in primary education quality.
But Learning Goal is chipping away at it: In the year they’ve been working, the organization has built two classrooms, and on March 8 they will officially open project No. 3: their first entire school. Development of a fourth project, another school, is already underway, and Ardiles said requests from communities around Peru are pouring in.
The organization is hoping to expand and tackle 10 new projects to serve 750 kids in 2015.
Kids in the first classroom Learning Goal built in Colegio Villa del Mar, Ventanilla, Peru. (Photo Courtesy of Learning Goal.)
In the future, Ardiles said Learning Goal will reach beyond the physical trappings of education: she envisions implementing teacher training and designing new programs to improve learning. She also hopes to expand deeper into rural Peru, where there are even greater poverty and educational challenges.
Having the courage to take on these enormous issues is one thing; having the skills and the perseverance is another. Ardiles credited her Senior Design Capstone course with helping her develop the practical skills and entrepreneurial spirit to start a nonprofit.
“The experience taught me how to start an engineering entrepreneurship, from registration, vision, mission, and how to solve real problems that appeared quite impossible for students,” she said. “I observed how taking action and being fearless could achieve the objectives. I was learning to change my mindset [so that] lack of experience is not a constraint.”
That mentality helped spur Ardiles to take the first leap of faith in leaving her job to dedicate her time to Learning Goal.
“The first school classroom built by Learning Goal in March 2014 was financed with my work savings. We had to develop the process and build our first prototype,” Ardiles said.
It was an enormous risk, but she said she knew she had to commit to make the impact she knew was possible.
“I truly believe that great decisions should be taken with our heart and small ones with our mind.” And Learning Goal, with its mission to transform the lives of children throughout Peru, embodies just that.