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Book Smart

Siury Pulgar, Ed.M.'09, and her inspiring project, the 10,000 Book Challenge.

Siury Pulgar

There isn't a library in Siury Pulgar's hometown. There was, but that was 10 years ago, before a devastating flood and subsequent mudslides ripped through coastal Venezuela, burying much of Macuto, where Pulgar, Ed.M.'09, was living with her family. At the time, she was on a trip to San Francisco and learned about the catastrophe from the newspaper. It would be five days before she knew the fate of her family. (They were safe.)

When the government started to rebuild, housing was, of course, their priority, including on the spot where the library once stood. By then Pulgar had moved to the United States to learn English and was taking classes in nonprofit management and project development. In one class at the Harvard University Extension School, taught by Linda DeLauri, Ed.M.'02, who later convinced her to apply to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, she started thinking about pursuing a dream of her father's. A trainer and boxing referee, he wanted to start a preschool focused on sports and the arts. Through her coursework, Pulgar realized this would be expensive and a huge challenge in a country where the government has much control over how children are taught, she says.

"I decided that rather than changing teaching, let's support the learning process," she says. One way to do that was rebuild the library in her town. Although the original library had been inadequate -- it didn't have computers and the books were outdated -- she knew that having a place to read and to learn outside of school was important. She decided to collect books and rebuild, while also working to elevate the status of libraries throughout the country.

The result is her project called the 10,000 Book Challenge. The goal is to make the library a destination spot, something it wasn't in the past. To do that, she wants to make the library a learning center for students and families -- a place that not only holds useful books, but also offers assistance to young people throughout their academic lives.

"There are so many libraries here in the United States," she says, sitting in a Cambridge teashop. "When I first came here, I was incredibly impressed that families took their kids there every week. In Venezuela, we have a ratio of one library to 35,000 people." Nearly 51 percent of municipalities do not have libraries at all.

"We want parents in Venezuela to get into the habit of bringing kids to the library until they're old enough to start going on their own to read or for homework assistance," she says. She also wants to offer college admissions assistance, something she says is currently lacking. "When it comes to higher education, we don't know our options. I was lucky enough to have a friend who gave me a slip of paper from the local newspaper with information on where and how to register for college," she says. "People just don't find out. It's a big problem."

Although she will start small with just the library in her town, Pulgar eventually wants to build a network of library learning centers throughout Venezuela and even other Latin American countries. "The bigger the goal, the harder you work toward it," she says.

At the Ed School, Pulgar is tailoring her coursework as much as possible toward the project and will continue collecting books (all in Spanish). Fundraising remains a challenge, although, to date, several publishing companies have offered support, and Johnson & Johnson Venezuela is considering the project for a corporate social responsibility investment. Eventually, getting people back home to realize the value of libraries will also be a challenge. "It will take awhile for people to rethink how they think," she says.

This is why she is trying to stay well connected to her community, in part through a growing network of volunteers, and to the local government -- a strategy she learned from John Wood, founder of Room to Read, a nonprofit that helps build libraries in developing countries.

"I realized that after having lived in Boston for five years, I am now an outsider to my own community," she says. "Reconnecting with them is key to success."

Home, in fact, is why she decided to study at Harvard. "I'm not going to come here just to find my own happiness," she says. "It needs to be for a larger number of people back home."

photo by Tanit Sakakini