Skip to Content
Doctoral candidate turns teens in poverty into changemakers
Before: Children in Isla Barú fish a ball out of polluted standing water. Both an eyesore and a threat to human health, the once-persistent problem has since been addressed following youth engagement with local leaders who previously ignored it.

Doctoral candidate turns teens in poverty into changemakers

February 21, 2024 at 4:19pm

Eduardo De La Vega Taboada remembers the day he recruited high schoolers in a poor community in South America to serve as citizen scientists, defined as amateurs who collect and analyze data to collaborate with professionals. The dozen teenagers in a school club leapt at the opportunity he dangled before them: document the physical aspects of your environment that detract from your health and well-being.  

Residents of a coastal village south of De La Vega’s hometown of Cartagena, Colombia, the youth did not hesitate. “They were excited,” recalls the FIU psychology Ph.D. candidate, who co-led the project. “Everyone wanted to do it.” 

Given cell phones enabled with a special app, the students photographed and described in voice notes what they considered serious challenges. 

De La Vega (pictured) and his fellow researchers, from the Universidad de los Andes and Stanford University, pinned the images on a map and brought the teens together to prioritize the perceived barriers to well-being. Topping the list: persistent stagnant water on a stretch of road near their school that prevented traffic from passing and emitted a stench; a neglected, unused public soccer field and adjacent building; sections of that same facility in which drug addicts congregated. 

“They would talk with frustration about seeing problems that are ‘stuck,’” De La Vega recalls, about “politicians who would come and promise things that never happen.” 

The research team then coached individual youngsters to present the findings to dozens of invited leaders, among them representatives of local and district governments, the secretary of the national health ministry and heads of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). 

The meeting generated great interest – the larger group broke into committees around each of the three identified targets – and led to the brainstorming of ideas that would not require intensive government intervention (or money) but could be undertaken relatively quickly, and several impactful actions followed in the short term. These included repairing pumps to drain the flooded street; organizing a soccer tournament with just enough time before the first match to entice citizens to help clean up and paint the sports venue; and mounting a crowdfunding campaign that eventually made possible the purchase and installation of lighting to deter drug activity in the vicinity of the playing field. 

“It gave them a feeling of hope,” De La Vega says of the young participants. “Hope [in] identifying their capacity for moving things forward and working together toward a goal.” 

Still, he says, the children understood the improvements could be short-lived. “They are hopeful, but they know they have to keep working,” he adds of the long-term accountability to which they will have to hold the community and officials to keep problems from resurfacing. 

The success of the project – the soccer field is now busy nonstop, De La Vega says – confirmed for him the wisdom of dramatically altering his career path some years earlier. 

Trained as a civil engineer, he was designing aqueducts in his homeland but missed what he describes as a closer connection to populations in need. Earlier, as an undergraduate, he had gotten a first taste of that possibility when he interacted directly with a community that lacked potable water. Since that time, he says, “I was driven to include more human development perspective into my professional life.” 

With that as a goal, he transitioned to working for an NGO even as his interest in pursuing additional education grew. Around that time, FIU Psychology Professor Dionne Stephens was overseeing a project in the same community in Colombia in which De La Vega lived and worked. Interacting with her helped clarify his next steps.

“He got excited because he saw what my student was doing,” Stephens recalls. “We were creating a space for really transformative work,” she explains. De La Vega assisted with that in his role with the NGO and learned firsthand about the resources and training that FIU offers.

Flash forward, and De La Vega today stands just months shy of receiving a Ph.D. in developmental psychology, Stephens having served as his major advisor. His doctoral project has already garnered attention – he won second place last month at FIU’s 3-Minute Thesis competition and has been invited to another elsewhere – and earned him a post-doctoral fellowship from the National Institutes of Health to replicate it in another town. 

Now 42, De La Vega feels validated in his work and finds reward in having empowered young people by giving them both the tools to initiate change and the opportunity to follow the process through to conclusion. No longer just citizen scientists recording their findings, the students took an active role in positively impacting their external environment. Equally significant, De La Vega believes, the project likely provided them with a sense of agency at a critical moment on the journey to adulthood. 

“Hopefully, those adolescents can become changemakers in their careers, in their professional lives,” he says, “in positions in which they can keep transforming their communities.”