Caracas native Roddys Gil grew up loving geoscience. She lived near the Cajigal Observatory and enjoyed visiting the seismic museum, viewing models and listening to lectures.
Now in her eighth semester studying geophysical engineering at the Central University of Venezuela, Gil serves as president of the Geophysical Students Association and works to coordinate technical talks and scientific events on campus.
She hopes to have the opportunity to work in Venezuela, to continue her studies and to give back to the university.
For now, she focuses on finishing her degree, a feat easier said than done in a country in crisis. Universities closed the first six months of 2017, and when classes resumed, skyrocketing inflation made it impossible for some students to return.
“The situation for geoscience students in Venezuela is getting more difficult. We have had say good-bye to classmates who could not finish their studies because the money they earned working didn’t cover anything, not even their basic needs, because they lived outside the capital and the cost of bus tickets, student residences and food are extremely high right now,” she said. “All of these factors have made student enrollment go down.”
Ana Gabriela Jaramillo became president of the AAPG Student Chapter at UCV in February this year.
“AAPG gave me the opportunity to learn more about one of my favorite areas of geology, petroleum geology,” she said, adding that her future plans include going to graduate school and working at an oil company.
She lives at home and takes public transportation to get to class. A route that should take an hour can last up to three hours each way.
“I’m tired when I get to school. When I get home, it’s hard to study because I am very tired from the hours lost on public transport,” she said.
While at the university, Jaramillo makes the most of her time, and she has been involved in several student organizations.
“I like to be involved in a lot of activities at the university,” she said. “I’m not the kind of person who just goes to class.”
Jaramillo described the situation facing geoscience students as “complicated and uncertain.”
She said the country’s situation makes it very difficult for students to take field trips outside the city.
“Field trips are some of the important activities for our studies, but it’s very difficult to organize them, mostly because there’s no budget to pay for them,” she said.
UCV geoscience students have organized fundraising campaigns to finance their three-week field trip, which is required for graduation.
Gil noted two other challenges for geoscience students in Venezuela: infrastructure and technology.
“The most serious situation is the infrastructure of the buildings where we have class. We can see leaks, and the roof on the School of Geology, Mines and Geophysics auditorium is falling down. Classrooms don’t have good lighting anymore. Air conditioners don’t work, and the computers have been without maintenance for a long time. It’s impossible to install the new programs,” she said.
Jaramillo said a shortage of professors requires students to take their education into their own hands.
“If we are interested in a topic, we should be self-taught and learn it on our own. We have few teachers at the university, and those we have teach the mandatory core subjects, not electives,” she said.
She said that the lack of funding for infrastructure, technology and teachers illustrates a larger issue in Venezuela – a limited emphasis on the importance of education.
“In recent years ... our country has been given very little value to knowledge,” she said. “It is challenging to study, knowing that when you graduate your work will be very poorly paid, and what you earn won’t be enough to meet your basic needs unless that you choose to go to another country.”
Students like Gil and Jaramillo are determined to move toward the future, regardless of what happens in the short term.
“Despite everything that happens in our country, we young people are willing to help and promote our education, doing everything possible so that the School of Geology, Mines and Geophysics remains active with various activities that motivate new and future geoscience students,” said Gil.
“Despite not having any resources, we are committed to helping where we can, from repairing power outlets to cleaning our classrooms. We cannot let the rooms be empty, we have to continue promoting geosciences in Venezuela,” she added.
Professors – Low Salaries and Uncertainty
Geoscience education in Venezuela continues through the efforts of professors who keep their eye on the future despite day-to-day sacrifices.
One such professor is Rafael Falcón, a 38-year veteran professor at UCV and Simon Bolívar University. Falcón supplements his teaching income with consulting, working outside Venezuela because the opportunities in-country are no longer available.
“Those of us who are professors make great sacrifices because we do not see our economic and social needs met. It is a very personal decision tied to the love we have for teaching and transmitting all the knowledge acquired in life so that the new generations will be able to continue the work building our country’s future,” he said.
Falcon said his greatest day-to-day struggle is trying to maintain a minimum of level of comfort and security for himself and his family in terms of hygiene, health, food and housing.
“I do not get a good and continuous economic and social retribution because of limited work opportunities,” he said.
Despite the personal struggles, Falcón remains committed to teaching and helping fellow Venezuelans prepare for the future.
“There is great opportunity, particularly for Venezuelan geoscientists who have been trained for many years in the national energy industry and who today are spread around the world providing enormous benefit to the companies and countries where they work,” he said.
15 Years of Disaster
José (Pepe) Regueiro, a Venezuelan native who received a bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate at Colorado School of Mines, worked as a researcher for PDVSA for seven years then taught full-time at Simón Bolívar University from 1991 to 2006.
He continued teaching through e-learning and created an online teaching company after retiring from the university. Now he lives on Margarita Island, a short airplane ride away from the turmoil in Caracas.
He described the past 15 years in Venezuela’s energy and educational sector as “a complete disaster.”
“As university professors in a public university like Simon Bolivar, we have experienced all kinds of impairments: lack of incentive, ‘obsoletization’ of equipment and infrastructure, political harassment and of course, miserable salaries. On the other hand, as a consultant to the national oil company … well, they stamped me, as they did to many other professionals, as ‘not suitable,’ because we were not part of their political plans and ideologies,” he said.
He noted how Venezuela’s political situation has had a dramatic effect on all basic industries related to geosciences: oil, gas, mining and environment, and on people who work in those industries.
“The diaspora of Venezuelan professionals is increasing every single day. Those who have not left yet are looking for a place to go. Students are trying to get a degree to have a better chance in the international market, and very few are looking to stay,” he said.
When asked about the biggest challenge he faces day-to-day Regueiro said he has two: uncertainty and lack of motivation.
“Yes, I could have started by saying lack of security, lack of first necessity items (food, electricity, water), miserable salaries – a full professor with 30 years’ experience earns 100-200 dollars per month – but it is the lack of a clear, prosperous future for our new generations, which becomes the biggest challenge,” he said.
For Regueiro, addressing this uncertainty and lack of motivation is one of the most important tasks for professors in Venezuela today.
“Besides teaching and providing our students with the technical know-how, we have to encourage them to keep dreaming, to move forward in their professional lives,” he said. “Unfortunately, the message has to be sincere and broad, and that includes the possibility of leaving the country, in order to fulfill those dreams.”
Preparing for Change
Despite the challenges, professionals, students and professors express hope for the future. Falcón encouraged his colleagues to be ready.
“Soon the political situation in Venezuela will change, and the way of doing things will change as well. Pay attention to the news and the future, and soon you will be called to participate in the reconstruction of Venezuela. Your participation in the industrial, economic, academic and scientific recovery is indispensable,” he said.
Jaramillo said these messages provide great inspiration to her and her colleagues.
“Venezuela still has a lot of human capital trained in geosciences who, day after day, struggle to do research despite the limitations. Our university professors who give their all in every class in order to transmit their knowledge and train excellent geoscientists,” she said.
A Sustainable Future
Gil and her university colleagues recognize how optimism, hard work and education can help Venezuelans maximize their country’s potential.
“We are known for being cheerful, committed and responsible people, and that can be seen in these times where many of the students only get to eat twice a day and make sacrifices to get to the university and prepare ourselves,” she said. “We know how important a university education is, and how our education can help us improve the country in which we live.”
Gil encourages young geoscientists and students to think beyond traditional hydrocarbons and look toward Venezuela’s sustainable future.
“We as geoscientists have the dual task of working both with society and with the environment, fostering the national geological culture, talking with people about the importance of our resources, where they are located, the proper way to take advantage of them, avoiding mistakes of the past and practicing responsible geology,” she said.