A Novel Approach to Studying Latin America

After a year of preparation and planning, led in part by Dr. Mili Lozada, Director of the Language and Culture programs, the Lauder Institute’s new Latin America summer immersion program is underway. Built on the Institute’s past Spanish and Portuguese summer immersions, the regional immersion preserves the dynamic mix of coursework, experiential learning, and meetings with politicians and with prominent business leaders – Lauder alumni among them. What has changed, more than anything, is the place of intensive language study on the syllabus and the role of a student’s language of study in determining where they will go.

In years past, language tracks divided students: Students on the Spanish track headed to Peru, Colombia, and Mexico; Portuguese language students to Brazil. Now all students in the Latin America Program of Concentration travel to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries in their first summer. By focusing first on the geographic region as a whole, the program challenges students to learn not only about individual countries with rich political, historical, social and economic stories to tell, but also about how to situate these stories in broader regional and global contexts. Students also learn how to understand Latin America as a region in all its diversity.

Value Added for Students at the Lauder Institute

To Regina Escamilla, an American first-year student studying Spanish, the benefits of this shift are clear: “The regional curriculum offers the opportunity to broaden my perspective,” she says. “Comparing geopolitical climates, socio-cultural attitudes, and working environments allows me to develop skills that I’m confident I’ll use in future endeavors.”

Colombian Angela Londono, a first-year Lauder Institute student studying Portuguese, sees the new regional focus as perfectly aligned with her career goals. “My aim is to work throughout Latin America,” she says. “By being able to study the region as a whole, I will be much better prepared to do business in Brazil, but also in any other country in Latin America. The program is equipping me to come back to Brazil, but it is also enabling me to go back to Colombia someday.”

Escamilla and Londono are two students in a highly international cohort of students from Spain, Peru, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, Argentina, Hong Kong, and the United States. Their backgrounds are key pedagogical tools for the program’s faculty who challenge preconceptions and upend any biases the students bring with them. Also, the intensity of the program challenges the students by keeping them focused on the academic goals and moving them from their comfort zones. All students – whether they are first-time visitors or born-and-bred citizens – develop a fuller, more nuanced picture of each country they visit during the program.

Learning Together: Penn, Peru and Brazil

After finishing an intensive course at the Lauder Institute on the University of Pennsylvania campus in May, students travel to Lima where they study the economic and political history of Peru and the Andean region at the Universidad del Pacífico. Because understanding the business opportunities of the region requires a baseline of historical and cultural knowledge, activities on gastronomy, seminars on current history on Peru and an excursion to Cuzco, Machu Picchu, and Puno are folded into the itinerary between corporate visits.

A visit to Caja Rural los Andes, a microfinance bank founded and run by Lauder alumna Rosanna Ramos Velita, illustrates the support Lauder graduates offer the program. In addition to local partnerships with academic institutions , alumni support makes the summer immersion program the intensive, hands-on experience that it is. Local alumni act as guest lecturers, teach seminars, and, in the case of Ramos Velita, offer a unique learning and life experience by organizing  visits to several of Caja Rural’s offices and clients from the highland of the south of Peru . At evening events, current students network with influential alumni who have built careers in the region and who inspire students to launch careers of their own.

After a week in Peru, students of Spanish and Portuguese alike move on to Brazil. “Brazil is incredibly unique,” says Londono. “It is almost like Latin America is split in half by language. There are the Spanish-speaking countries, and then there is Brazil. You can’t really understand the region without understanding the role of the biggest country on the continent.”

In São Paulo, the group visits a variety of companies from different industries that operate in the region. Each visit focuses on aspects and strategies that are relevant for the company and generates meaningful interaction with the students.

The whole group then travels to Rio de Janeiro. In Rio, the Foundation Getulio Vargas, considered one of the top policy think tanks in the world, partners with the Lauder Institute to offer students access to notable lecturers, local residents and business owners..

“We seek to use the city as a learning opportunity,” says Fernanda Guida, the Lauder Institute’s Director of Portuguese, adding that “Brazil is going through a very particular period, politically and economically speaking, so being in Brazil at the moment allows students to witness current turmoil the country is facing.”

Learning Apart: Brazil and Colombia

Portuguese language students remain in Brazil for the next five weeks, supplementing coursework and cultural immersion with visits to UNESCO, the Brazilian Development Bank, and Brazilian aerospace company Embraer, among other firms.

In Bogota and Cartagena, Colombia, Spanish language students keep a similarly packed schedule. Supported by a partnership with the Universidad los Andes, students explore ‘Diversity in Colombia’, ‘Socializing in Urban Areas’ and other region related topics in the classroom, and by participating in activities like traditional dance, lectures on the history of film in Colombia, and Caribbean influences on local culture. A study of the interaction between the country’s transportation and coffee industries incorporates readings, lectures and a visit to the Juan Valdez coffee plant. A guided tour of Bogota’s Candelaria historic district is another highlight.

The Logic of the Language Piece

While it is no longer the central organizing principle, language fluency is a key goal of the Latin America summer immersion. The goal of the five-week language curriculum is to improve language use and promote critical thinking by making students engage with a variety of texts and contexts, in the classroom and outside. Students not only improve their proficiency in colloquial use of the language, but also learn how to discuss and debate issues related to a variety of topics relevant to the region in Spanish and Portuguese. Grammar and phrases learned in the classroom are put to use through experiential learning opportunities that are essential to linguistic mastery. “The different format of activities planned for the program requires students to linguistically and culturally adapt to different contexts,” says Guida, “navigating between formal and informal discourses, which is the key to successfully perform in the target language.”

Both Guida and Diana Cuervo, the Spanish Language Summer Coordinator at the Lauder Institute, emphasize the importance of students going beyond the classroom in order to achieve superior language competency. “They learn from the message shared in a lecture, corporate or cultural visit, but they also learn from the environment and from the presenter, as they all are expressions of local culture,” Guida explains. Cuervo adds, “Despite the rules that we learn about our language in class, successful communication depends on our awareness of social and cultural rules, as well as our capacity to differentiate contexts. That is why the program is not classroom centered.”

From Mexico City to Philly

By the time the students reconvene in Mexico City for the final week of the program, they have learnt about different historical, political, and social issues that affect the central and north of the region such as immigration, security, natural resources, and structural reforms. Since Mexico like Brazil is a country that plays an important role in the region, the academic lectures, cultural activities, institutional and corporate visits are crucial for helping the students to understand the entire region. Through this learning experience, students make a final presentation that reflects on and responds to the following key questions:  What are the advantages and disadvantages of conceiving of Latin America as an integrated region? What is the main challenge Latin America faces as a region?