Long-distance education in Cortez has typically meant taking a class by video conference from Utah State University at the Unlimited Learning Center on East Second Street.
On Monday, Unlimited Learning, a local non-profit which helps residents of the Four Corners to complete high school equivalency diplomas and obtain higher education degrees, stretched the definition of long-distance education by agreeing to help the Pacific island chain of Samoa with its educational outreach programs.
Samoa is about 5,600 miles from Cortez, but its ambassador to the United States, top education ministers and tribal chieftains of its more remote islands did not seem to have any problems bridging cultural differences.
Lunch was chili and Southwestern-style tacos on fried bread as well as a traditional Samoan fruit salad mixed in coconut juice and garnished with peanuts.
One rural area helped another as Unlimited Learning and Samoan officials commiserated on the access and equity challenges of providing educational opportunities as well as wanting to raise the professional status of teachers.
Magele Mauiliu Magele, the Samoan minister of education, sport and culture, said he would like Samoan teachers from pre-school to the 12th grade to obtain advanced degrees, but teachers typically do not want to leave their families to go to New Zealand or Australia for graduate school.
With long-distance education programs, “everybody will get a chance to learn some skills,” Magele said.
“We’re going to go home and take a look at (long-distance education),” he said.
Samoa wants to take advantage of its $200 million broad-band project, but Samoans found Cortez the low-tech way. People just started talking.
LeRoy Lafaialii Mariner, a native Samoan living in Cortez who is studying political science at Utah State by taking classes at the Unlimited Learning Center, was talking about his homeland with Ann Miller, the executive director of Unlimited Learning Center.
Samoa does not have long-distance education programs, he said.
“I said, ‘How we can help?’ That’s how it all started,” Miller recalled.
Mariner coincidentally is the nephew of the Samoan ambassador to the United States. Ali’ioaiga Feturi Elisaia, who also visited the center on Monday.
A conference room of the Unlimited Learning Center is decorated with a section of tapestry originally given to Samoa by the king of Tonga in commemoration of its independence from New Zealand in 1962, Miller said.
Samoa gave a section of the tapestry in appreciation for its help in establishing long distance programs.
“We’re providing them a sample idea of how to network their country,” Miller said. “What they want to do is what we’re doing already.”
The Unlimited Learning Center has the capability to broadcast classes to Samoa if unnecessary, but officials are still in the exploratory stages of setting up its program.
Unlimited Learning officials from Cortez are planning to visit Samoa — a 22-hour trip by plane — in coming weeks.
Samoan officials will also be coming back to Cortez for further consultation.
Perhaps one advantage to long-distance education is that young people around the world have already become Internet savvy, even youth in the remotest of locales.
Jerry McCarthy, the governor’s long distance learning project manager who attended Monday’s meeting between Unlimited and Samoa, recalled in an interview hosting a teen-age girl from Mongolia at his home in Denver.
The exchange student stayed in a bedroom with a private bath in the basement.
Like a typical teen, she kept in touch with her friends in Mongolia through Facebook, but she piqued her hosts’ curiosity by running the bathwater late night.
Not wanting to invade her privacy, the hosts did not ask her why she was running water late at night but they eventually figured it out. She was washing her clothes in the tub instead of using their laundry machine.