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May 26, 2003

Grad student juggles studies and solidarity work

By Jennifer McNulty

In a blend of academics and activism, UC Santa Cruz graduate student Maxwell Boykoff is pursuing his doctorate in environmental studies and helping poor children in rural Honduras finish their own schooling.

Maxwell Boykoff with Honduran children. Photo courtesy Maxwell Boykoff

In his third year at UCSC, Boykoff is raising money to help youngsters in the agricultural village of Duyure, where he served as a Peace Corps volunteer in the late 1990s. It was an experience that shaped Boykoff’s academic goals and forged a desire to provide ongoing help to the community.

Boykoff was in Honduras in 1998 when the country was devastated by Hurricane Mitch, considered the most destructive storm to hit the Western Hemisphere in 200 years. The destruction sparked Boykoff’s interest in exploring the link between global warming and the growing number of natural disasters like Hurricane Mitch, which caused torrential floods and landslides, destroyed the capital city of Tegucigalpa, killed thousands, and left countless numbers homeless. "We helped evacuate people who were gathering their belongings before their homes were submerged," recalled Boykoff, now 29. "We piggybacked children across the water, and then it was an hour-and-a-half hike up the mountain to higher ground."

Cut off from the Panamerican Highway by landslides and fallen bridges, Duyure was accessible only by helicopter. Boykoff and others helped residents for seven days before being evacuated to Panama by the U.S. government.

Boykoff’s unscheduled departure at a time of crisis, coupled with some lingering dissatisfaction with the Peace Corps program, deepened his commitment to help the people of Duyure. Upon returning to the United States, Boykoff and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Monica Moore, who married in 2000, began fundraising to support the rebuilding effort. Encouraged by their success, they turned toward funding scholarships and established a nonprofit to sell coffee and funnel the proceeds to children in Duyure.

"Kindergarten through sixth grade is compulsory and free, but the next three years cost $150 each, which is beyond the reach of most families," said Boykoff, whose Café Adelante Scholarship Project has provided scholarships to 12 students so far.

"These people are barely getting by," said Boykoff, describing typical homes with adobe walls, corrugated tin roofs, and dirt floors. "The scholarships provide just enough that some families are able to take the risk of having their children continue their education. School is seen as an investment in the future."

Now, Boykoff delivers fair-trade, organic, shade-grown coffee to friends and colleagues In the Environmental Studies Department, and Moore delivers coffee to colleagues at Amesti Elementary School in Watsonville where she teaches. They hope to build sales and provide five scholarships each year.

Boykoff’s academic interests were also shaped by his experiences in Honduras. His doctoral research explores the role of the mass media in shaping the public’s understanding of global climate change. Boykoff is examining how the media "translate" scientific findings and how journalistic, economic, and political norms contribute to the public’s poor understanding of the threat of global warming.

"I want to lay bare the social and political processes that are often veiled in these translations," said Boykoff. "I want to draw attention to those processes."

On the path to his doctorate, Boykoff has received a teaching assistant award from the Environmental Studies Department and a Chancellor’s Award in 2002. He also cofounded a weekly political ecology reading group that brings professors from other disciplines to the department for informal seminars, and he’s a shop steward for the teaching assistant labor union.

"And I’m a dad, so I’m tired," said Boykoff, smiling as he gestures toward a photo of his toddler son, Elijah. "But this is an opportunity I have, and it’s only for a definite amount of time. I want to take advantage of it. Particularly at UCSC, there are just so many opportunities."

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