-story by Kaitlyn Sewell '15
A strong desire for change sparked the idea for Randolph-Macon College student Valeria
Vargas-Brenes’ SURF (Schapiro Undergraduate Research
Fellowship) project, Free Trade Agreements: The Costa Rican Example. SURF
offers students the unique opportunity to conduct 10 weeks of full-time, original
research during the summer months, under the guidance of a faculty mentor.
An International Undertaking
A native of Costa Rica, Vargas—a sociology
and political science major and film studies minor—is researching the
effects of free trade in Costa Rica and surrounding areas.
“I’m conducting an exploration on the negative effects of neoliberalism and, more
specifically, neoliberal policies in Costa Rica,” says Vargas. “I concentrate my
research on evaluating the DR-CAFTA (Dominican Republic Free-Trade Agreement), which
was ratified in 2009 in Costa Rica, and its implications and consequences politically,
socially and economically.” She is also exploring the social consciousness forming
from anti-CAFTA campaigning. “There is a loss of domestic sovereignty in Costa Rica,”
Vargas explains. “The free trade promises economic advancement on a national level,
but takes power away from the people. Laborers produce money, but gain none of it.
The country is going into debt.”
With the help of her SURF mentor, Political Science Professor
Richard Meagher, Vargas hopes to eventually translate her research report
into Spanish. Vargas declared her major at an
R-MC Majors Fair during her freshman year. After taking Meagher’s American Government,
Social Movements, and Political Theory classes, Vargas realized he had helped her
improve her writing skills dramatically.
“Professor Meagher always gave me such great feedback on papers and exams,” she
says. “As a result, my writing is now more sophisticated and organized.” Meagher
cites many advantages to the intensive SURF program.
“The research that students do for class assignments is important,” says Meagher,
“but they rarely get to really sink their teeth into a topic, and really understand
it in any depth. SURF lets students like Valeria take the initiative and direct
their own learning.”
Vargas is the co-founder and board advisor representative for Nourish International,
an on-campus program that supports the empowerment and enablement of impoverished
communities. Nourish International organizes Hunger Lunches on campus, selling meals
of beans and rice to students and faculty. Vargas is also a member of Students for
Justice in Palestine, a campus program that intends to raise awareness of oppressed
Palestinians and Palestinian refugees through non-violent means.
“I went into college thinking it was me against the world,” Vargas says. Because
of the R-MC community, Vargas has gained a new perspective. “It is easy to react
against something, but there are positive alternatives when it comes to taking action,”
she says. Vargas encourages students to focus on changing a negative outlook into
progressive advancements. “Together, we can make things better,” she says.
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben ’64
and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes
scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.