On the evening of October 27—just two days before Hurricane Sandy made landfall on the East Coast of the United States—I was flying with a Princeton delegation to spend the week of fall break visiting alumni groups, university and government officials, and secondary schools in Latin America. The delegation included Professor of History Jeremy Adelman, who chairs the Council for International Teaching and Research, Professor of Anthropology João Biehl, who hails from Brazil and co-directs our Program in Global Health and Health Policy, Vice President and Secretary Robert Durkee ’69, and Assistant Vice President for Alumni Affairs Margaret Miller ’80.
The impetus for our trip was to sign a strategic partnership agreement with the University of São Paulo (USP), arguably the best university in Latin America. This partnership recognizes and will build upon the growing number of collaborations between our faculty and those at USP in fields as disparate as astrophysics, global health, sociology, and Portuguese literature. The partnership will accelerate the flow of Princeton students studying in Brazil and attract Brazilian students to our campus.
These exchanges are already under way; this past summer, Princeton students honed their Portuguese language skills in our new language program in Rio de Janeiro, and others took part in a summer Global Seminar on “History, Culture, and Urban Life: Rio de Janeiro and the Imaginary of Brazil” taught by Assistant Professor of Spanish and Portuguese Languages and Cultures Bruno Carvalho.
We began our travels in Santiago, Chile, where we watched on television with horror and no small amount of “survivor’s guilt” the devastation of the coastal areas of New Jersey and New York brought on by the hurricane. Phone calls to campus told a tale of careful planning, immense dedication, and a little luck that brought the University through the storm relatively unscathed. I have often said that I am never more proud of Princeton than during a crisis, for that is when the effectiveness, loyalty, and dedication of our staff become visible for all to see. We were also lucky that it was fall break, with the vast majority of students away, and that the 150 trees we lost did very little damage to buildings.
In Santiago, in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and in Buenos Aires, Argentina, we were generously feted by engaged groups of alumni who were eager to hear news from campus. They were pleased to learn about the expanding engagement of the University with Latin America and had good suggestions for how we could be even more effective in the future.
Another of my goals for the trip was to understand why Princeton attracts so few undergraduate students from Latin America. Toward that end, we visited secondary schools to speak with students, teachers, and guidance councilors about Princeton. The schools ranged from a private international school in Santiago that caters to the children of expatriates, to a public high school in São Paulo whose choir serenaded us with “Old Nassau,” which they had learned from a YouTube video, to a public military college in Rio. We learned that none of those schools was sending large numbers of students abroad and that the tradition has been to delay going abroad until graduate school. It is probably no coincidence that the best universities in Latin America are publicly financed and are either very inexpensive or free.
I shouldn’t leave you with the impression that the trip was all work and no play. One afternoon, we visited AfroReggae, an innovative social organization located in one of Rio’s slums, called favelas. The organizers use the creative power of the arts to draw impoverished youth away from lives of violence and drugs and keep them in school. The day we visited, the center was humming with the music of drummers beating on empty oil cans, an amazing rock ’n’ roll band, and a troupe of modern dancers, as well as the clicks of students doing their homework online. As Brazil continues to grapple with social and economic inequality, AfroReggae provides a fascinating model for the future.
At the other extreme, Professor Adelman led us on a sobering tour of the Naval Mechanics School in Buenos Aires, where an estimated 5,000 victims of Argentina’s “dirty war” were questioned before they were “disappeared.” It is now a human rights museum, a testament to man’s inhumanity to man. Perhaps most haunting to me was imagining men and women being tortured in the same building where naval officers and their families were living.
It has been a long time since a Princeton president traveled to Latin America, but thanks to the warm welcome and the opportunities that we explored, my successors will be traveling south more often in the future.
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