Reaching New Summits With SENA

Matt Clausen, Vice President, Partnerships and Leadership Programs; Senior Director, 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund

Mountain climbers often speak of false summits; those hills you see that you believe represent the culmination of your voyage, only to find that there is another steeper climb to follow. For Partners, I want to tell you about one first summit that, as real and amazing as it was, was indeed false with respect to the slow and gradual process of building a multifaceted international partnership.

In 2010, as we cultivated interest in the 2nd World Summit for Youth Volunteering that we were planning to hold in Barranquilla in 2011, two key Partners’ informants from Manizales told me: Approach SENA (Servicio Nacional de Aprendizaje) – they will want to participate. But the suggestion came with a strong word of advice: Propose something you can do well, because if it works, SENA can bring your plans to a scale that nobody else can. I worked with Carolina Escobar, a Partners’ alumnus and volunteer-turned-consultant in Colombia, and longtime Colombia Partners’ Chapter Member Raaida Mannaa to follow up on this suggestion.

The next day we met with the SENA director in Bogotá and proposed engaging SENA’s students – aprendices as they are called – at the World Summit. He said they would think about it, and we left optimistic, hoping for a delegation of 25 or 50 students. When we reported back to Partners’ President and CEO Steve Vetter, he was thrilled. As it turned out, our connection was deeper and longer than we thought – Steve, a dual citizen of the United States and Cucutá, Colombia. served in the Peace Corps with SENA in the late 1960s and followed them over many years through his work with the Inter-American Foundation. Unknown to us at the time, Steve was also trying to convince our A Ganar team and the Inter-American Development Bank to fund a program to scale-up A Ganar with SENA Colombia. Families reunited, we forged onward.

SENA was the first major organization to respond to our invitation to the World Summit. They proposed sponsoring not 25 or 50 students, but 200 from every region of Colombia, later becoming the largest single delegation at our global event of almost 900 young volunteer leaders. Following the event, we joined with a leader of the Building Bridges Coalition to write about this convergence in a blog with the Brookings Institution.

On the heels of the World Summit, soon-to-be staff member Carolina helped us strategically cultivate a bigger relationship with SENA. Our event plans were designed to use the moment to build a long term partnership with key allies.  Through meetings, proposals, relationship-building, visits by Steve and other staff, we built trust with SENA and a macro memorandum of understanding that put forth our general priorities of working together.

Over the next several years, SENA would become a major strategic partner, implementing programs as diverse as YouthLeadFarmer to Farmer flex volunteering programming, and Senior Energy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) Fellows. SENA also sent 25 aprendices to our 2013 PartnersCampus Convention co-hosted by the Antioquia Partners and EAFIT University. Our work with SENA would soon become among the largest of Partners’ Non-Traditional Strategic Partners. These programs would have been joined by a major A Ganar – SENA program had other partners in the effort decided to support the ideas shared by Partners and SENA around youth workforce and life skills development. We have not given up hope on that connection.

At the end of 2013, SENA proposed a new programming area – English language teaching – as part of Colombia’s national bilingualism plan. Bolstered by the expertise of our volunteers in Colombia, Oregon and the numerous participants in our Education and Culture Teacher-in-Residence program from across the Partners’ network, the Teach English in Colombia (TEC) program was born. A very challenging program to implement because of its new model to Partners – long-term volunteering in oft unfamiliar places with global English teachers who came with very specific expectations – we were still able to fulfill our commitment to SENA. As the PartnersCounts data for 2014 indicate, Partners’ TEC volunteers contributed 23,750 hours of volunteer English language instruction to SENA students valued at nearly $1 million USD. While the current design of this program proved too challenging for Partners to continue implementing with SENA in 2015, it gave birth to the Teacher Match program we now implement with the U.S. Embassy in Panama and with the Panamanian government.

Now, nearly halfway through 2015 and on the heels of the Summit of the Americas in Panama, we are thrilled to announce that SENA has committed up to $250,000, to be matched by the CAF Development Bank and other private sector supporters, to support the 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund. SENA’s and the CAF Development Bank’s contributions will soon lock in an amazing “first” – a United States-Colombia specific innovation competition designed to fund pilot projects that increase study abroad between U.S. community colleges and the 117 SENA centers throughout Colombia. Our 100,000 Strong in the Americas partnership – Partners, the White House, NAFSA and the U.S. Department of State – could not be happier, and it is all the result of taking the long view on building relationships.

As an international cooperation partnership, Partners of the Americas has contributed more than 50% of the total cost of the projects, demonstrating the huge capacity and potential of our network to provide counterpart to public and private investment.

Multifaceted international partnerships are not easy relationships, and they take their surprising turns, but partnership really does change everything. Who knows how high the tallest peak is, where the summit truly lies, but I suspect that it is much higher than we imagine. We hope to continue to expand our relationship with SENA, and with other institutions that are similar to SENA throughout the Americas.