Aran Valente ‘10 on Putting Knowledge Into Practice in the Peace Corps

When talking to Aran Valente for even a brief amount of time, it becomes exorbitantly clear that he is a man of two things: action and change. Coming to URI from the not-so-far-away town of North Kingstown, RI, Valente was drawn in by URI’s many offerings on both the academic and social fronts. “URI has lots of interesting programs,” he says, “and I was hoping to find stuff that would be inspiring and to gain skills that would help me in the workforce. I gained both, and I got to meet a lot of cool people.” For his major, Valente saw himself vividly in the field of Political Science, stating, “I always thought it would be something I’d want to go into, and it’s a neat way to learn about the world. You learn how to handle and write about politics, as well as finding a variety of ways of covering events in the world.” Eventually becoming a work study student with URI’s Political Science department, he developed strong relationships with Professors now-Emeritus Gerry Tyler and Alfred Killilea.

Graduating in 2010 with a B.A. in Political Science, Valente opted for an experience abroad that would change the way he saw the world completely. He entered the Peace Corps., starting out teaching English to primary school students in Romania for sixteen hours a week. While the culture shock and Peace Corps.-sanctioned stipend management proved tricky enough, Valente was also tasked with incorporating international forms of education into his own teaching style. And yet, he didn’t stop there, and was eventually led to a discovery that would forever shape his worldview. “I wanted to take on a second project,” he says, “so I started working at the Concordia Orphanage in Bucharest. I learned that some students have families living in the sewers of the city.” Yes, you read that correctly: there are hundreds of people living in the sewers of Bucharest. A failed attempt by previous Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu to centrally heat the nation’s capital, the heated sewer lines beneath the city now function as a haven for Bucharest’s homeless population. Combine that with Ceaușescu’s denial of the existence of HIV, a dash of infected orphan blood transfusions that led to the downfall of the nation’s orphanages, a heaping spoonful of governmental refusal to accept the assistance of Western medicine, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a modern dystopia rife with a disenfranchised underground community riddled with HIV, hepatitis A, and drug addiction. Valente was fascinated by this subculture of Bucharest, and, after a chat with the social worker assigned to him, he finagled his way into staying an extra year, conducting ethnographic research spanning from 2013-2014. As it turns out, that year happened to be Bucharest’s time to shine. Everyone from Vice to National Geographic took a stab at the story, and Valente adds that he loved comparing the interviews the media conducted to his own research.

After his life-changing tour in Romania, Valente decided to continue with the Peace Corps. for another tour, this time turning his attention to a new continent. “My work as the vice president of SALA at URI inspired me to go to Uganda,” he states, “I’d already been to Ghana, so I wanted to experience living in East Africa.” In part inspired by his time with SALA and taking Africana Studies courses at URI — as well as protesting the mining of mountains containing cyanide in Romania — Valente became interested in working in southeastern Uganda. “I was doing education again, teaching at a primary teacher’s college,” he states, “And I was also conducting research on the cultural history of the members of the Twa community.” The Twa, or Batwa, were a group of hunter-gatherers dwelling in the dense forests of Uganda, and the African Pygmy tribe’s way of life has almost entirely gone extinct. The work the nation did turning forests into animal sanctuaries in the 1990’s ended up becoming a trade-off, as it left the Twa destitute. Those who remain are mostly infected with diseases like HIV or are prone to heavy drug addictions.

Now state-side after returning to Romania and an extra visit to Germany, Valente is currently enrolled in a masters program in health studies at Clark University in Worcester, MA, his commencement date May 2020. Heavily inspired by the work he did with the Peace Corps., Valente is currently both writing his masters thesis on his findings in Romania and releasing a documentary on his two tours, discussing the rampant disease and drug addiction prevalent in Bucharest’s sewer villages and the developing drug usage of those living in containment units in Kampala, the capital of Uganda. His humanitarian efforts even took himself and a group of fellow Clark graduate students to the Texas-Mexico border as volunteers at a human respite center in July 2019. Though his world travels have taken him far over the years, Valente is still thankful to Little Rhody for acting as his springboard to success, as his connections with URI faculty landed him the recommendations that got him accepted into the Peace Corps. to begin with. Valente keeps this in mind when pondering advice to future students, stating, “Keep an open mind. Work hard in your classes, but you should make sure to get to know your professors and fellow students as well because you’ll get a lot of great experience.”

~Written by Chase Hoffman, Writing & Rhetoric and Anthropology Double Major, URI Class of 2021