Latin American student leaders visit University

The U is one of seven hosts to the Latin American Student Leadership Institute.

Diane White

Students sat in Blegen Hall last Wednesday morning, waiting for their names to be read from the orange name tags in front of them. Their thick accents, Spanish names and eagerness to participate distinguished them from typical University students.

They’re part of the Latin American Student Leadership Institute, a program sponsoring foreign students’ studies at prestigious institutions in the United States, said Paul Maeker, the program’s administrative director.

The U.S. State Department gave a grant to the Academy of Educational Development, which was then redistributed to seven institutions – including the University, he said.

Students go through an application process in their home countries and are selected by the U.S. Embassies there, Maeker said.

The academics

Though students don’t attend actual University summer courses, education is the main priority of their visit. 

“They have a morning lecture everyday Ö relating to grassroots leadership,” Maeker said.

He described the bulk of presenters as representatives from nonprofit organizations or political groups.

Melissa Stone, a faculty member from the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs, presented on this particular day and described why the program emphasizes nonprofits. 

“They’re a globally democratizing effort,” she said, adding many of these students have been involved with one or several nonprofits in their home countries.

After their morning session, students visit sites relating to the presentations, like the State Capitol, Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights and the Minnesota History Center.

Maeker said they have a small amount of free time during the weekend, though much of the downtime is packed with recreational activities around the metro area, like Twins games and Mall of America trips.

The students

Seventeen college students make up the University’s group. They range in age from 18 to 26 and are from Guatemala, Ecuador and Venezuela.

Most have not been to the United States before this experience and some have never been outside their home countries.

“Our parents are proud Ö we’re top-of-the-line,” said Olubunmi Ogunyankin.

At 25, this Guatemala native has a chemical engineering degree and is working toward her Masters of Business Administration.

Two other Guatemalan students, Evelyn Gonzalez and Andrea Gudiel, are English majors here looking to perfect their knowledge of the language, though back home their parents speak none.

The trip (so far)

Since most of these students haven’t experienced “dorm life,” they said living at Centennial Hall has been a bit of a shock.

“Privacy is not being alone Ö it’s having your own bathroom,” Daniela Bonilla, from Ecuador, said as she shared a laugh with others at her lunch table.

Besides the bathroom situation, the large amount of food wasted in the dining hall surprised Bonilla.

The group also found the “Minnesota Nice” adage to be true.

“People here have a good application Ö they’re good citizens,” Gonzalez said.

The group will spend most of their time on campus before traveling to Duluth for several days and then to Washington, D.C., where they’ll meet up with others from the program.

“(I’m) learning a lot of political things,” Gudiel said who wasn’t as familiar with the subject before her arrival.

Back home

Other students were acutely aware of politics and had political affiliations themselves, particularly the Venezuelan students who described their government back home as hostile.

Alberto Alvarez, a journalism and law student, said he doesn’t oppose the government in Venezuela, just its policies, which is why he is part of an opposition party.

Though Alvarez said it’s dangerous activity, he feels it’s worth the risk.

“You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do,” he said, describing his party’s emphasis on justice, democracy and education.

Alvarez said this educational experience gives students the chance to compare and contrast the U.S. government with their own.

“(We can) take the things that are right here to make our democracy stronger,” he said, though he pointed out not everything is perfect in the United States.

What the future holds

In two years, Carmen Quintana will be done with her English education degree in Venezuela.

Afterward, Quintana said she would like to study public policy and law in a joint master’s program at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute, an option unavailable to her at home.

The two-year gap, while she finishes college at home, will allow her to collect the correct documentation and apply for and receive the visa needed to return.

“(I want) to get a degree that is unknown in my country Ö to get the best education,” Quintana said.