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Research in Guatemala explores migrants, money

Sun., Feb. 10, 2008, midnight

You wouldn’t call Nathan Rodland’s last summer break a vacation.

A Whitworth University senior, Rodland spent most of last summer in Guatemala helping manage a research project on the effects of migration on the families left behind. He and another undergraduate, Emily Warren of Stanford University, had undertaken an ambitious, independent project – winning a $10,000 grant, devising a survey to be used for a population that speaks various Mayan dialects, and hiring and managing a team of interviewers spread all over the country.

“We got home, and we were so tired,” Rodland said. “But there was just a feeling of satisfaction.”

The research project aimed to measure the effects of “remittances” – money earned by migrants in other countries and sent home – on families in Guatemala, and particularly on whether it affected the schooling of children left behind. The students conducted interviews with more than 750 families, and Warren is preparing a paper on the work.

The research found a complicated picture regarding the connection between remittances and schooling, with small effects in some families and none in others. The interviews reinforced the fact that money earned in other countries – mostly the U.S. – is a big part of the impoverished Guatemalan economy.

About one-tenth of native-born Guatemalans live abroad, mostly in the U.S. Of the households surveyed that had a family member sending money from another country, there was a median monthly remittance of $235 – more than the country’s monthly minimum wage of $190, according to Warren’s research.

It’s a hot topic in some economic circles, as the subject of immigration gains importance worldwide. Some estimate that 10 percent of the world’s population receives remittances, totaling hundreds of millions of dollars annually.

Whitworth economics professor Richard Schatz, who didn’t work on the research project but has taught Rodland, said remittances are a significant part of many economies, especially in Third World countries.

“What we used to look at as kind of a trivial number, a trivial issue, has become huge for a lot of countries,” he said.

Warren developed the project at Stanford, and Rodland became involved through a friend. While many universities have been trying to expand undergraduate research, this project had a rare degree of independence, with students developing and carrying it out largely on their own.

Rodland said he learned in Guatemala that immigration is complex – it may provide some economic benefits for families, but it also has unforeseen effects and doesn’t always work out for migrants.

“When they’re dealing with migration, they’re basically taking their lives into their own hands,” he said. “Several things can happen. You can die before you get to the United States, which does happen. You can get to the United States and not find a job. You can get to the United States and find a job that doesn’t pay enough.”

They spent 2 ½ months in the country and called off the project a little early after they were robbed on a bus. Rodland counts that as part of his education.

“It was good for me to be robbed, actually,” he said. “It really was. It makes you more aware of poverty, for one, and what people are willing to do.”

Rodland, who’s from Kirkland, is getting ready to graduate in the spring with degrees in economics, computer science and international business. He plans to pursue graduate degrees in law or business. He’s also an outfielder on the Whitworth baseball team.

Schatz said Rodland’s range of interests distinguishes him as a student.

“He’s an eclectic guy, a provocative guy who marches to the beat of his own drummer,” he said. “He’s got wide interests, and I love that about him.”

Rodland’s interest in remittances runs so deep that he has difficulty pinning down what he finds fascinating about the subject. “It’s like saying what I find interesting about baseball,” he said.


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