Humans of TCGMC: Hugh Smeltekop
This week, Josh spoke with Hugh Smeltekop, who has spent the majority of his life working with a small college in Bolivia, which empowers its students to pursue careers in public health, agricultural development, education and ecotourism. He was Director of that college, and now serves as the Executive Director of a nonprofit that supports the same work. He also spent two years in Benin, West Africa as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer.
Josh: IF YOU WOULD, PLEASE TELL ME A BIT MORE ABOUT YOURSELF AND WHAT YOU DO FOR A LIVING.
Hugh: I run a small non-profit that raises money and finds human resources for a college in South America – it’s called “Unidád Académica Campesina-Carmen Pampa.” It is a satellite of the Catholic University of Bolivia, which was founded to help rural young people get an education where they normally wouldn’t be able to. There are five of these campuses right now; the one I worked at was founded by a Franciscan nun in 1993. She wanted to help the high school graduates she’d been working with to have more control over their own lives – more opportunities. With a high school degree, you basically don’t have any agency, except to go back to farming. That isn’t what most of the young people aspired to.
Josh: AND PLEASE GIVE ME A BIT OF CONTEXT. COULD YOU TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR EDUCATIONAL AND PROFESSIONAL BACKGROUND?
Hugh: I graduated from Michigan State and joined the Peace Corps. I was assigned to Benin in West Africa for 2 years as an environmental volunteer who worked with Beninese farmers to improve their farming methods for greater profit and sustainability. I studied microbiology, but worked in a soil science lab during my last two years of college.
Josh: THE TWO YEARS YOU SPENT IN BENIN – WHAT WAS YOUR LIFE LIKE? YOUR LIVING CONDITIONS? HOW WERE YOUR INTERACTIONS WITH THE LOCALS?
Hugh: When you go, you think “I’m going to help all these people – I’m going to change the world.” My whole first year, I realized I couldn’t teach anyone anything. I didn’t know the culture, I couldn’t speak the language. I also had a very poor misunderstanding of who I was. What is empowerment? What does it mean to be white? What does it mean to be American?During my second year, things really blossomed. I taught farmers basic skills they could benefit from, that they wouldn’t have had the opportunity to learn elsewhere.
Josh: AND WHAT WERE THE END RESULTS OF YOUR 2 YEARS?
Hugh: The biggest result was the transformation in myself, what motivated me, and the incredible friendships I developed – how I learned to be in the world and be productive. When we did our reports, we reported how many mango grafting seminars we did, or how many school gardens we did, cashew plantations… There were physical, tangible things that I accomplished, but the personal growth and my friendships were my greatest accomplishments.
Josh: HOW DID THAT PERSONAL GROWTH THAT YOU CULTIVATED TRANSLATE TO RETURNING TO THE STATES?
Hugh: When you live somewhere a while where you’re defined as an “American,” you have a way of thinking about the world that most of the people around you don’t share. So I quickly became friends with people from other countries and returned Peace Corps volunteers. I landed in South Dakota, where I was doing a master’s degree. I worked on that for 3 years. There was a relationship between South Dakota State University and this little college in the Andes of Bolivia. They offered to send me there for a year to organize some of the projects SDSU had going on. I wanted to go back to West Africa, but they were willing to pay for me to go, and they had exciting projects going on. It was an opportunity to get to know a new part of the world.
When I was working with the Peace Corps, I was basically dropped off in a village and told, “Do your thing!” As an individual, you can accomplish neat things, but when you’re working with a team of really dedicated people towards a common goal, you can get so much more done. I felt inspired and effective working with the Bolivians and the Franciscan nun who founded it.
JOSH: WHAT WAS THE TRAJECTORY FOR YOU?
Hugh: I was a volunteer, then stayed on for four years. I taught English and coordinated extension projects and a research station. Then, I came back to Michigan State for 3 years where I earned my PhD, working with bean farmers in Honduras. I went back to the college for 8 more years working as the Assistant Director – and then the Director – of the College. There were only about 800 students, and all the students lived on campus. I was involved in every aspect of their lives. We worked to help them succeed in technical areas such as nursing or animal science or education, but also to help them grow up. For most of the women, it was the first time they had lived outside of their family’s home. For almost all the men, it was the first time they’d lived outside their home, except for a year of military service, where they were often mistreated. There was so much self-discovery.
You don’t approach it from the perspective of someone who has all the answers. The nun who founded the college said that your first job was to listen – “witness.” You live alongside them and listen and tell your own stories as a way to transmit your values and aspirations for them. It’s a beautiful and amazing thing.
Josh: THERE’S A TERM THAT’S SOMETIMES ATTACHED TO THE PEACE CORPS OR MISSIONARY WORK – THE WHITE SAVIOR COMPLEX. HOW DID YOU COME TO UNDERSTAND YOUR PLACE IN THE WORLD RELATIVE TO THE PEOPLE YOU WERE WORKING WITH? HOW DID YOU AVOID THE “SAVIOR” TYPE RELATIONSHIP?
Hugh: There’s an idea when you join the Peace Corps that you’re the helper, and that they are the recipients of your largesse. You quickly learn that it’s not the case. You can’t build authentic relationships with people if you view yourself as the helper, or the “transmitter of information.” You can’t think, “I know more than you, you need to benefit from my knowledge.” You have to be honest and genuine with people, which allows you to learn from their experiences. You become more aware of who you are and how you can be in the world in a way that is constructive. I’ve always benefited from being open and genuine with people and learning from them.
Josh: WE’VE DISCUSSED THE POSITIVE OUTCOMES, BUT CERTAINLY THERE MUST HAVE BEEN TIMES OF SELF-DOUBT OR DESPAIR AT YOUR ABILITY TO POSITIVELY IMPACT THEIR LIVES. WHAT WERE YOUR DARKEST MOMENTS?
Hugh: I wouldn’t say it’s untrue that people in physically impoverished areas find joy in their own lives, but it makes me crazy when people say that poor people are just more full of joy and happier than those who have more physical resources –more material wealth. Along with not having enough to have a dignified life comes a lot of stress, and that stress is expressed in really painful ways like alcoholism and mistreatment –especially in families, with women. There was a lot of pain that manifested itself in terrible ways as these students grew.I’ve had a few students who committed suicide, and some who drank so much that they couldn’t continue to study. You feel like you don’t want to enable people, but there were moments when you had to tell students they couldn’t continue to study because the ways they were living their lives was hurtful to everyone.
And the students who committed suicide, it was tough to know that they believed things were so bad in their lives that they couldn’t continue to live, and you felt that you were partly responsible because you didn’t see their pain, or that you might’ve said something to them when you were angry… Those were my darkest moments.
Josh: WHAT COMPELS YOU TO CONTINUE?
Hugh: I left the college 5 years ago. I trained a priest to take over for me as director, and I moved to the Twin Cities to take over the fundraising piece of the college. The mission is so compelling that even though I don’t work with the students anymore, I visit and see them succeeding in the same way they did when I was there. I hear their stories about what they do when they graduate. I’m part of something that is so incredibly productive and beautiful in the world.
Minnesota is one of the most generous states in the country in terms of their giving in churches and to nonprofits. People really want to see the lives of fellow humans improve. My work is to connect people to this incredible college and help them be a part of that process – co-facilitators of men and women who are becoming educated and improving their lives.
The college started in 1993, so 26 years. I started with them in 1996, so I’ve known most students who have gone through.
Josh: HAVE YOU KEPT CONTACT WITH ANY OF THE STUDENTS THROUGHOUT THE YEARS?
Hugh: Yes – mostly through Facebook. There are also those I text with on WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. I have a gay godson who graduated from the college a few years ago in their nursing program. He lives in a little, tiny community 2 days-travel from the capital. The first day you get to a town called Guanay, and the second you have to travel up-river on a boat for 4 hours. There’s a clinic in his community, but it’s hard to get an appointment, or the doctor isn’t always there. He started a pharmacy in his community, and the people go to him when they have medical problems. I’m really proud of him.
Josh: AS YOU SHOULD BE. ON THAT NOTE, I’VE BEEN WONDERING: HAS YOUR SEXUAL ORIENTATION EVER INHIBITED YOU IN YOUR WORK?
I worked with nuns who took vows of chastity, who re-invested the energy they would spend in a relationship into their work. That was part of my avoiding relationships. Part of it was denial. I still felt a lot of internal shame about expressing myself as a gay man publicly. It definitely played a role in my “escaping” the United States to a place where having a relationship would be difficult.
Josh: WHAT ABOUT EXTERNAL SHAME?
Hugh: The rural areas really reinforce gender stereotypes. For example, if a little boy cries, they’ll say “No seas maricón [Don’t be a little faggot.].” I always felt that people wouldn’t accept me if I came out as gay, but the year after I left my position as Director, I was working with fundraising and still living in Bolivia. A lot of the farmers I’d worked with over the years, who trusted me, asked the Bishop to make me Director again. In a big public meeting, the Bishop said to the farmers, “If you knew what I know about Hugh, you would not ask him to be the Director.” The leader of the group said to the Bishop, “We know that Hugh is gay, and we don’t care. As Pope Francis said, ‘Who am I to judge?’”The Bishop was taken aback because he thought homosexuality was a grave sin, but I felt really affirmed by those farmers. I’d worked side-by-side with them, and I was a godparent of many of their children. I’ve probably had at least 20 godchildren over the years.
I know that on some level, being gay is not something that these parents would hope for their children, but on another level, they judge you for who you are, and not who you’re attracted to.
Josh: I’M JUST ABSORBING THAT. THANK YOU, HUGH. YOU’VE LIVED ONE HECK OF A LIFE!
Hugh: I always hear people quote E.M. Forster, who says we should only connect.
JOSH: YES! THE FIRST LINE OF ONE OF MY FAVORITE HOWARD ZEN’S NOVELS SAYS “THE MORE I LIVE LIFE, THE MORE I REALIZE THAT IT’S IN CONNECTING WITH OTHER HUMANS IN MEANINGFUL WAYS THAT WE FIND MEANING.”