Thoughts on Theses: Ariana Rodriguez

Ariana Rodriguez ’24 is an economics and education studies major writing a thesis about nutrition programs in El Salvador public schools. In this Thoughts of Theses, Rodriguez walks us through her data collection, which took her all the way back home.

Thoughts on Theses: Ariana Rodriguez
Outside of her thesis, Rodriguez is also involed in the Amherst Equestrian Club. Photo courtesy of Ariana Rodriguez ’24.

Q: Let’s get started. What is your thesis about?

A: I’m writing an Economics thesis. It evaluates the impact of two nutrition programs in public schools in El Salvador — both in terms of nutrition, but also in terms of other educational outcomes, such as enrollment, for example.

There are two specific programs I’m looking at. One of them is called “A Glass of Milk,”which is a program that distributes a glass of liquid milk to public schools, twice a week, per student. The other one is called PASE (Programa de Alimentacíon y Salud Escolar), a food and health school program that distributes ingredients making up the base of traditional meals. For example, beans, rice, sugar and powdered milk are all part of PASE. These ingredients don’t constitute a whole meal, but they’re still more than some kids can get at home. That’s why these programs are so, so important to examine, even if they pale in comparison to nutrition programs in the US. All schools in El Salvador are supposed to benefit from these programs, but I found that, in the most recent data, only about 50 percent of schools received the “Glass of Milk.” A good chunk, almost 90 percent, received the food program’s distribution, but again not all. There are clearly certain discrepancies.

Q: Why El Salvador?

A: I was born and raised in El Salvador — I came here three years ago to study at Amherst — so this research is something that hits very close to home. It’s an interesting case study of a densely populated, small, low to middle income country — that, at least in my experience, is quoted less in economics and academic literature. I think there are a lot of policies in El Salvador that are yet to be explored, and it’s especially interesting to address these education programs in the context of the larger country.

Q: What is home to you? Describe El Salvador to me, and be as poetic as you want.

A: I think that El Salvador and home are two different things, but they go hand in hand. To me, home has a lot to do with family. And when I think of home, it is the backdrop of El Salvador that sticks in my mind.

If I had to describe El Salvador I would describe to you its nature. It’s such a small country with 20-something active volcanoes and lakes and wonderful beaches of every color. You say El Salvador, and I see family, but also heat, humidity, and rain that is not cold like it is here. It sounds very cliche, but El Salvador is really made up of wonderful people. I think that it is a very hardworking community that is trying its best to change for the better. Politics, I believe, has been its worst enemy. So I think it’s important to remember that we’re more than what our politics determine for us, to remember what El Salvador means to its people.

Q: What outcomes do you want to witness, as a result of your research/thesis?

A: I think I’m aiming high. I have not found a lot of literature on this topic, and so I’m working on some larger plans for my research. Also, the participants in my interviews will receive a completed work of my thesis; I’m looking forward to reaching out to all the wonderful people who helped me, after my thesis is done and translated.

I also worked over the summer with an education policy think tank affiliated with a university in El Salvador. They were interested in my results because I combined a variety of datasets on programs that are often not thoroughly researched. In that way, I’m hoping that the impact of my work can be very widespread, all the while protecting the confidentiality of the schools I worked with.

Q: You mentioned you conducted interviews as well. Tell me more about your interview process, and the people you spoke with.

A: I interviewed school principals in El Salvador. I asked them about their experience with these nutrition programs in terms of their professional opinions about the school as a whole, and how students themselves viewed these programs. We went into great detail in the interview process in order to also get their personal stories and experiences.

It was often hard to reach out to these schools. A lot of them didn’t have a phone number. Most of them didn’t have a website. Some of them didn’t even have internet access. Oftentimes, I found myself snowballing to someone who knew someone, or I started with a school that I knew someone had gone to and we would just travel there. I remember a lot of times just stopping at the side of the road, knocking on the school’s door and hoping. All of them were very welcoming and helpful, and most of them were able to set some time aside to talk to me. I really appreciate that because, as resource-constrained as they are, it was incredible how willing these schools were to find time to talk to me.

I was lucky enough to have my dad support me during this time, taking me to all of the schools — a quick shoutout to him! Sadly, the country is going through a lot of changes and it is not the safest, so I had to have someone with me at all times. I’m just really grateful it could be him. Both my parents’ support mean a lot to me, and this would not be happening without them.

Q: What was the hardest part of your whole thesis process?

A: I do anticipate it getting harder, for sure. I think the hardest part, currently, is that when I look at my data, I see so much potential for what exactly I can do with it — there are many avenues I can go down. Being able to center in on what my main focus will be, is the real struggle. I’m still thinking through all the questions I have. Do I want to highlight outcomes beyond nutrition? Do I first want to highlight what I can say about nutrition? I’ve been dwelling on these ideas and can’t seem to settle yet.

Q: What about the most rewarding thing?

A: I think there have been a lot of little victories. The interviews were rewarding in the sense that so many of the school principals I interviewed were willing to share with me. They wanted to talk to me, and even give me tours of their schools. All participants received compensation for the interview, even if they decided against taking part, or stopped halfway. But their interest in the study went beyond this compensation. It was very rewarding to hear how much they cared about these programs and, consequently, I got to see how much they wanted to see this data be studied. The input of those that are actually on the ground, working in the schools, are incredibly valuable.

Q: That makes me think about you and your thesis. How does it feel to be writing about your home?

A: There are all kinds of feelings I’m experiencing. I am enjoying writing about home, I really am. At first you have these questions: how do you feature a country that is not as well known? And how do you put it in the context of research? I think it’s very cool to actually get to do that.

It can feel bittersweet, especially when you have to face the not-so-great conclusions. Whatever the results are, of my regressions or the interview analyses, I have to follow the truth of these results. I’m a little nervous sometimes, about exactly what my work is going to show and how it will portray El Salvador. Overall, I would say that this is such a great opportunity to have, even if it is painful at times. And I’m very grateful to the Economics department, because I got to go home over the summer to collect my data and conduct these interviews. That process holds a very special place in my experience with this thesis.

Q: Tell me a little bit about your thesis advisor.

A: My thesis advisor is Professor Katharine Sims from the economics department — and she is the absolute best thesis advisor I could ever ask for. We would meet over the summer to discuss my progress, and she has been there for me when I overthink everything I’ve done, from beginning to end. She’s also been extremely supportive about me conducting these interviews, and having my work morph into a more mixed-methods thesis. I’m really, really grateful to her for that. She’s very patient and really takes her time with me, even at this early stage. Without her, I don’t think I’d have gotten to this point of my thesis.

Q: Is this topic something you plan to keep working on after you graduate?

A: I would hope so. I’d really like to continue working on Central America, regarding both education and general policy — I think that’s important. But you know, there is a lot of data in these datasets, and I really hope that at some point in the future, I can come back to explore all of it.

Q: Alright, what words of advice do you have for students thinking about writing a thesis?

A: I should have known this question was coming. I think a lot of us here at Amherst are double majors, or have interests spanning different disciplines — and I would tell people: don’t be afraid to explore bringing your different interests together. And don’t be afraid to do that in a way that’s nontraditional for Amherst’s academic departments. I think that there are a lot of support systems available to us, and we should make use of them! So, in short, don’t be afraid to think big about your thesis.

Q: Okay, any last words? Tell me something non thesis about yourself.

A: Oh, jeez. It’s consumed my life, what can I say?

I’ve never broken a bone … I hope that doesn’t start this year. My favorite breakfast is coffee and pistachios.

Q: Amazing, thank you so much for talking to me! Now I just have to transcribe all of this.

A: You have to transcribe all of this? Another challenge, a BIG challenge was transcribing my interviews. So good luck with this one! It took so much time — I did it by hand, but also because it was in Spanish, and the Salvadoran accent … Sometimes there was background noise because the interviews were conducted in schools. I wouldn’t change anything if I had to go back, but it was super challenging to dedicate all those hours to transcribing …