Last week I returned from Bogota, Colombia where Kristian Chervenock and I were busy exploring opportunities.
First, we attended the first AAPLAC (Association of Academic Programs in Latin America & the Caribbean) conference to be held in South America. Hosted by our long time partner, Universidad de La Salle (ULS), over fifty education abroad professionals from the United States shared best practices and networked. Kristian called it one of the most productive conferences of its kind that he has ever attended.
Kristian also made multiple presentations to over 700 ULS students who are interested in studying English. ULS, having implemented a higher English proficiency requirement for graduation, finds itself needing intensive English training for many of its upcoming graduates. NMSU and ULS entered a special agreement whereby NMSU will provide an intensive and customized English program for 50 ULS students during the Summer of 2014. The program has also attracted interest among other Bogota universities.
ULS is also spearheading a curriculum reform project among area high schools as part of a government initiative. As part of an international symposium, I offered a short leadership workshop for participating public colegios (high schools). I also found many of these teachers interested in our Center for English Language Programs.
Finally, I visited Universidad de La Salle’s “Projecto Utopía” near the town of El Yopal. “Utopía” is a project designed to make agricultural engineers out of youth affected by the violence in Colombia. It will graduate its first class in May and the results are incredible. My wife, Mona Menking, and I had the privilege of being some of the (maybe the) first foreign visitors a few years ago, when the project was just welcoming that first class. The project has now won a couple national peace awards and will soon be presented a UNESCO award for non-governmental sustainable development. In a word, this place is incredible. I have spent my life in search of sustainable development projects and this one is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
I was accompanied by Jean Silk, Program Manager at The Whitney and Betty MacMillan Center for International and Area Studies at Yale University, and Mr. Garrett Phalen, a seasoned high school administrator who has led innovative schools such as the Cesar Chavez Public Charter High School for Public Policy in Washington, DC, and the Barrie School in Silver Spring, Maryland. All of us were amazed, often teary-eyed, at the stories of the students at Utopía. Each student is hand-picked by ULS’s President, affectionately known by all simply as “Brother Carlos”. There is no doubt about it, Utopía is his baby. When he speaks of it his eyes sparkle and he has a way of captivating and convincing anyone listening that this project is special. Colombian officials also had their curiosity peaked, resulting in Colombia’s President Juan Manuel Santos convening his entire cabinet of Ministers on the Utopía campus a couple weeks ago. Staff at Utopía call President Santos’ visit a game changer.
I feel fortunate to have been working with ULS for the past few years. Under Brother Carlos’ leadership, and with the able support and dedication of my dear friend and colleague, Giovanni Anzola Pardo, Director of the Office of International Relations at ULS, I feel NMSU has associated itself with one of the best universities in Colombia, not to mention one sincerely and genuinely doing wonderful things to move Colombia beyond the era of cartels and violence.