Student Spotlight: Neider Devia – 2022 Fulbright Colombia Recipient

November 7, 2022 - Marsella Macias

Student Spotlight: Neider Devia –    2022 Fulbright Colombia Recipient

The University of New Mexico welcomed a diverse cohort of graduate and PhD students to its Latin American & Iberian Institute in Fall 2022. One of its new PhD students is Neider Devia, who is a member of Resguardo Indigena Guasimal, a Colombian indigenous community located in the south of the province of Tolima. Neider was awarded the Fulbright Colombia Scholarship for Indigenous Communities to complete a doctorate program in the United States as a member of the Fulbright Colombia Commission’s 2022 cohort. The course of Devia’s doctoral studies in Indigenous Public Policy will “center upon multidisciplinary research regarding the concept of ethno-development, and how (Colombia) state-led policies towards racial and ethnic minorities can provide better living conditions for indigenous peoples guaranteeing the physical and cultural survival of them.” (Latin American Studies student bio, The University of New Mexico) 

In a recent interview with Devia he revealed, “my indigenous community is located in an area that has been deeply affected by violence between government forces, paramilitaries, and the demobilized FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia; Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), it has affected my community and my family as a whole with forced displacements and murder. Coming from a vulnerable population helped me to understand that education can help to improve the skills and life of indigenous communities, and that’s my purpose and why I try to stand out in my studies.” 

In 2012 Neider was awarded special admission by indigenous communities to attend the Universidad de Tolima (Colombia) where he earned his bachelor’s degree in International Business. He finished in the top four of his graduating class and was its only indigenous graduate. When asked how he felt about this achievement he stated, “I feel proud because in my country there are big gaps between people who have studied in the countryside and people who have studied in big cities. I come from the countryside, and I managed to do a good job and I feel proud to represent my community.” With an outstanding academic performance while earning his bachelor’s degree, Neider was awarded admission in 2015 to an esteemed program for ethnic minorities. The award offered was a scholarship for an international exchange program at the Universidade Federal de Roraima in northern Brazil. This five-month journey was “immensely enriching for me because I was able to interact with leaders of the indigenous movement of Roraima. This in turn strengthened my own cultural identity,” he recounted. “After returning to Colombia, I worked part-time to gather enough money to cover the expenses of graduate school. Furthermore, I concentrated on strengthening my leadership skills by running for and being elected student representative for the University of Tolima’s residence hall. During the time I held that position, after several round-table discussions with the university administration, our demands for decent housing conditions were finally met.”

Immediately after earning his bachelor’s degree, Neider returned to the Universidade Federal de Roraima in Brazil and began his master’s studies on Regional Development of the Amazon, which was fully funded thanks to a scholarship he received from the Partnerships Program for Education and Training (PAEC, in Spanish) of the Organization of American States (OAS). His case study for his thesis focused on his indigenous community which provided him with valuable scientific information on the history of Colombian indigenous peoples and the process of constitution and organization of his own community from the Pijao ethnic group, as well as an introduction to ethno-development. Neider explained how he finished his master’s degree in 2019 by completing an analysis about the historical process of socioeconomic development in his community - the Guasimal indigenous land. When asked which conclusion from his master’s thesis he is most looking forward to further exploring Neider replied, “in my community we implemented some projects that were financed by international organizations, but those projects were not sustainable at the time so I’m looking for solutions or strategies that we can implement to help the production of the community, and that can be sustainable.” He added, “through this research I was able to conclude that the current challenge of the Guasimal community is to maintain their projects in such a way that they continue generating profits, in addition to making government institutions meet the indigenous community's desire to see their currently-small-lands expanded, with the goal of expanding ethno-development projects in their territory.”  

Devia bestows a huge credit for continuing his PhD studies to his advisor, “Roberto Ramos Santos was my advisor at the Universidade Federal de Roraima. When I finished my thesis and master's degree, he gave me the confidence to continue my studies, and he told me that I had the skills to do the doctorate (degree) here in the United States. He gave me the advice to apply for a Fulbright scholarship.” 

Now newly relocated in Albuquerque with his wife and one-and-a-half year-old daughter, Neider is tackling his new role as a PhD student and is already having a positive impact amongst his peers. A fellow PhD student studying from Brazil commented, “being in the same classes as Neider is enriching because together we can build perspectives from different parts of the same continent. His sharp reading of society is a skill that those who have the opportunity to cross paths with him are lucky to witness.” 

When talking about his recent move to Albuquerque, Neider was asked if having a new family while going to school changed the way he approached his studies. He replied, “I think it is a plus. I can say that my wife Brenda and daughter Koraima have joined in this life project, and we are a team. My wife has supported me in this process to get here, and they are also my motivation. They motivate me every day to fulfill these objectives, our family objectives, and to take full advantage of this experience here in the USA and in the different places where we go.” Asked what he envisions for himself and his family once he completes his PhD, Neider concludes, “when I finish my PhD here at UNM we are going to go back to Colombia and my hometown Natagaima, and I want to engage with a university where I can share all the knowledge and my experience of this process, and also engage with indigenous organizations where I can share my knowledge, my support, and my advice to different projects they have.”