Darwin Mori Barbaran was born one of 10 to a school teacher and a jewelry artisan deep in the Peruvian jungle. When he was a child, both of his parents died in tragic accidents.  He was forced to confront the grim realities of the hinterlands at a young age –the tough physical labor life there would require as well as  the paltry opportunities for those who stay in the campo. As a result, he decided to do all he could to break out of the recurring cycle of poverty.

A life as a farmer, logger, weaver or a carpenter was really not interesting to him. Unlike many of his peers, he was grappling with profound questions, such as how societies develop, how governments can be more efficient with lesser resources, and how to create and sustainably run environmentally-friendly, legal businesses.

One bright, sunny afternoon, Mori’s life was forever changed by an announcement on the radio. Listening to his favorite station that broadcasts in the Shipibo indigenous language, he heard that the Peruvian government created a scholarship program for indigenous students from the Amazon to attend public universities in the capital city.

Initially, he was nervous. He would have to speak Spanish and dress in a different fashion. He would live in the chaotic city of Lima. But ultimately, he decided to pursue the scholarship. After a rigorous application process and a tense waiting period, the good news arrived: he had been accepted.

As predicted, Mori faced serious obstacles upon arriving in Lima. He was forced to share a room with four roommates, often times having to schedule sleeping in shifts, so the two mattresses would suffice for all. He picked up two jobs: one at the university library working as the bag check clerk, and the other making necklaces and another popular kind of jewelry called shakiras – a skill he learned from his mother. While some were able to take summer classes and get ahead in their studies, Mori could not, as the S/. 250 (approximately $85) per class was simply out of his budget. After nine years of struggling against the odds, and after many academic ups-and-downs, Mori graduated with a B.A. in Economics.

Recently, he began working at USAID/Peru under the mission’s Afro-Peruvian and Indigenous Internship Program. This program, founded in 2009, works to increase the number of quality professional and educational opportunities available to Peru’s Afro-Peruvian and indigenous populations. The effort aims to train recent graduates who could become their country’s next generation of leaders by providing hands-on development experience and an understanding of the U.S. Government.

To date, eight students have taken part in the program. Recent and well-received changes include an online application, a substantial increase in the stipend, and the ability to recruit students from all parts of the nation. With help from the Peruvian Ministry of Culture, key Afro-Peruvian organizations, and Confederations of Indigenous Peoples, word has gotten out to many remote parts of the country.

The Peruvian Vice Minister of Intercultural Affairs thought so highly of the program that he conferred upon USAID/Peru an honorary diploma recognizing the mission’s efforts to forge a stronger sense of intercultural identity, and its contribution to the development of a Peruvian national identity. Interest in the program has been impressive and the selection process has become increasingly competitive.

Today, Mori currently works in USAID/Peru’s Alternative Development Office (link to website), where he supports one of the mission’s highest priorities by helping to strengthen the value chains for cacao, coffee, and palm oil—.licit alternatives to the coca that is cultivated mainly in his native region, helping to expand economic opportunities for the community and build long-term economic sustainability. “Because I am from the jungle,” Mori says, “I can help the USAID team understand how people there perceive the program. Because I know many of the indigenous organizations in the area, I can help USAID connect with them and help them create linkages with the local government.”

After completing the internship, he will apply for several master’s degree programs and would be interested in owning his own business or working as an economist for the Peruvian government.