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Story | 05/22/2020 11:20:33

Building stronger communities through local education in Uruguay

Jorge Ashby and Ernesto De Los Santos have a passion for education. When they are not working at UPM’s Fray Bentos pulp mill, the two can be found in the classroom of the local university and high school. By sharing their knowledge and experience with local students, they are educating the next generation of Uruguay’s workforce.

Since its inception in November 2007, UPM’s pulp mill in Fray Bentos has integrated into the community and helped transform it, both socially and economically.

The local authorities have estimated that the plant has generated 70 new companies alone in the Rio Negro department. Based on impact studies conducted by external research firms, the mill, together with plantations, forestry, wood supply and logistics operations, generates 7,000 jobs in total and annual wages of USD 180 million in Uruguay. 

However, away from its significant economic impacts, UPM also brings a far less tangible benefit to the community: the large influx of highly qualified professionals, which has had a lasting impact on the education system.

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Cultivating a culture of education

In 2015, UPM, among others, provided funding to help launch the local Technical University (UTEC) in Fray Bentos. The project was mainly possible because of the influx of professionals to the region, who were willing to become the university’s first teachers.

Jorge Ashby, an electrical engineer who helps maintain the technical equipment at UPM and works for Andritz at the Fray Bentos mill site, was among the first generation of professionals who went to teach at UTEC.

“In 2015, the first generation of students entered UTEC and most of the teachers worked at the pulp mill, either at UPM or at one of its contractor companies located at the same mill site,” he says. “UPM was very important in this sense.”

Ashby was interested in teaching at a university in the interior of the country, in part, because of his own experience. He left home at 18 to study in Montevideo because there were few alternatives for those who wanted to enter a university profession. 

“When the UTEC proposal began, it was very striking to me. I found the idea of a university in the interior of the country very interesting,” he says. “The proposal was very good. I like to teach. It is something that is always difficult and challenging but also something that motivates me.”

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UPM Foundation’s programmes offer students educational opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise experience. Photo credit: Ernesto De Los Santos, Fundación UPM

The revolving door effect

Ashby currently teaches one course that meets twice each week. Along with the material, he tries to incorporate actual problems that he is facing at the pulp plant into the curriculum.

“The idea is that students can see what the world of work is like and are more prepared for work later,” he says. Ashby believes that the high quality and safety standards set by UPM are a great example, to which his engineering students should aspire.

“For students, it is very important to have UPM as a reference because people who live in the interior do not have much contact with high-quality professional careers,” says Ashby. “They are studying with the expectation that someday they will be able to work near their homes, in the areas where their families are.”

Along with training new potential workers, the proximity to UTEC also provides current employees with the chance to continue their studies.

“There are many operators at the plant who are currently studying mechatronic engineering in Fray Bentos,” says Ashby. “Also, in my case, it serves to have a university in such close proximity. I am studying a master's degree through UTEC that is otherwise impossible.”

Starting in secondary school

However, the contribution of UPM professionals to the local education system is not limited to UTEC. Professionals from the pulp plant also teach in secondary schools, fostering an interest in science and engineering from a much younger age.

One of these teachers is Ernesto De Los Santos, a pharmaceutical chemist who works in the research and development department of UPM and began teaching in 2015. At UPM, he helps to improve the raw material used by the plant along with its industrial processes.

“Teaching is a task that I liked,” says De Los Santos. “I even enrolled in a teaching programme to learn techniques related to pedagogy and didactics.”

He adds that among the benefits of UPM’s proximity is the opportunity for students to learn in the company’s state-of-the-art laboratories.

“After having done the practice in the school laboratory and then doing it at UPM’s, they have a fairly large point of comparison in terms of technology,” he says.

These kinds of activities not only give students the chance to learn with the latest technology but has also inspired some to study at the university level with the hope of one day returning to the lab as a UPM employee.

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Students gain an interest in science and engineering at a young age thanks to teaching from Fray Bentos’ experts.Photo credit: Ernesto De Los Santos, Fundación UPM

Creating a new kind of community

UPM’s presence in Fray Bentos has created an invaluable opportunity for these generations to live, study and obtain a well-paid professional career in the interior of the country.

“Now, with this decentralisation, there are more opportunities for people from the interior,” says De Los Santos. “Having a chance to study in or near your city is much better and cheaper.”

Along with economically strengthening the community, it also enriches the intellectual makeup of Fray Bentos and helps stem the haemorrhage of talent to Montevideo.

“For Fray Bentos, it is very good that UTEC grows and develops along with UPM,” says Ashby. “More people are coming to Fray Bentos. It is becoming a university city. It is a stronger community, and this will greatly help the growth of the area.”

 

Text: Daniel Dawson