Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Internship in Ecuador lets Polster apply human service, community development experience


Rachel Polster received the 2013 Penniman Prize for her paper, “Substance Abuse and the U.S. Criminal Justice System,” written for professor Tim Smeeding’s course on Comparative and National Social Policy.

people walking down sidewalk and street

Above: Polster, third from left, and part of her team. "We meet up with the locals from the neighborhood to work together and figure out exactly where one neighborhood starts and another ends," she says. Below: Some of Polster's colleagues in Ibarra discuss the project to identify neighborhood boundaries in Ibarra.

Below: Polster takes a break from her community development work.

Woman with llama

Three people in T-shirts

Above: Rachel Polster, left, and two coworkers at el día de desafío, where the city of Ibarra held a march from downtown to an old airport that is being turned into a a community park and recreation center this coming year. "It was a great experience to get to know other people working in local government and see their enthusiasm for improving the city and increasing involvement," Polster says.

Rachel Polster is mapping her future.

She is spending the summer in Ecuador on a community development project to increase resident participation in the governance of Ibarra, a city of 110,000 people.

“For the first step, we are legalizing community neighborhood boundaries,” says the international public affairs student. “We go out to each community and hold town hall meetings as well as do field work to create the boundaries. I learned how to use ArcGIS and AutoCAD computer systems to create the maps for the project.”

The project also will involve taking a census in each neighborhood and identifying 12 representatives from each neighborhood and community to represent all parts of the population, including women, disabled, youth, children, elderly, indigenous people and people of African descent. “We will also create an ad campaign to encourage people to run for representative,” says Polster, who will be in Ecuador for nine weeks.

Ibarra’s proximity to the Colombian border means it has the fastest growing Colombian refugee and immigrant population in Ecuador. “The city of Ibarra is mandating the resident participation project to ensure that marginalized populations are being served and represented,” Polster says. “Our priority is to unite communities so that they can take collective action to address problems and issues in their area.”

Polster is interning with ELI, a nonprofit organization that promotes human rights for marginalized groups. She is based in Ibarra’s resident participation office and its urban and rural planning office.

Polster came to La Follette after working in several human services jobs in Wisconsin. “I am pursuing an international public affairs degree because of my commitment to social services and my interest in global affairs,” she says.

After graduating from North Central College in Naperville, Illinois, she worked in Dodge, Columbia and Sauk counties as a bilingual case manager for clean-up and rebuilding efforts after the 2008 flood that hit southern Wisconsin. “I assisted flood survivors to apply for federal funding,” Polster says. “I presented cases to a long-term recovery board in each county for approval. I also coordinated bidding of contractors and oversaw construction projects. The total amount of approved funds for all of my cases exceeded $250,000.”

After the one-year position ended, Polster became a community support specialist with Joining Forces for Families in Sun Prairie, a town outside of Madison. “I assisted local families having problems with housing, food, transportation, legal and immigration issues,” Polster says. “I started a computer literacy class and a job club. I also gave budgeting workshops and coordinated my efforts with a local bank to help clients access financial counseling.”

Polster also worked as a bilingual parent educator and made home visits to help prepare 4-year-olds for kindergarten. That position helped her keep up the Spanish she learned at North Central and while studying abroad in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.

The work in Ecuador is giving Polster a chance to apply her skills and experiences in a new setting and give her a taste of what she hopes to do after she graduates in 2012, she says. “I hope to work for an international nonprofit organization focused on community development. This summer is a great opportunity to see local government in action and participate in the implementation of projects that meet the needs of marginalized communities.”

— This article was last updated June 11, 2013