SIA students experience international diplomacy, development in Peru

SIA students and Dr. Jett in CuscoSIA students and Dr. Jett at the ruins of an Incan palace just outside Cusco. IMAGE: Penn State

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – During spring break this year, while many students were taking a much-needed hiatus from classes, 17 Penn State students traveled to Peru for an “unforgettable” immersive educational trip.

Led by Ambassador Dennis Jett, professor of international affairs with the Penn State School of International Affairs (SIA), 16 SIA students and one Penn State Law student got an insider’s perspective on international diplomacy and development, with visits to a USAID-funded development project in Cusco, the U.S. Embassy, American-Peruvian Chamber of Commerce and Peruvian Foreign Ministry, a tour of two of Peru’s top museums, meetings with Peruvian lawyers, professors, and students, and a special reception at the residence of the U.S. ambassador to Peru.

“The idea was to give students a broad introduction to the history, culture, and politics of Peru while providing some unique experiences in a fascinating country,” said Dr. Jett, who was the U.S. ambassador to Peru from 1996 to 1999.

An Insider's Perspective

SIA student Erick Jenkins at Machu Picchu
SIA student Erick Jenkins stands on a mountain overlooking the ruins at Machu Picchu. IMAGE: Danielle Harvey

Thanks in large part to Dr. Jett’s experience and connections in the country, the week-long trip was far from a typical visit.

“It felt more like being an ‘insider’ than just a traveler,” said Danielle Harvey, a first-year SIA student who is interested in conflict resolution and homeland security with a focus on Latin America. “I decided when I came to Penn State that I would take advantage of every opportunity, and on this trip we got a lot of opportunities that you would never get as a tourist.”

For SIA student James Korman, who is concentrating his studies on international political economy with a focus on Latin America, the highlight of the trip was the reception at the ambassador’s residence where students had the opportunity to network with distinguished local guests, including the current ambassador to Peru. Already impressed with the level of access granted to them, Korman received an additional surprise when Dr. Jett introduced him to Hernando de Soto, a highly regarded economist and one of Korman’s favorite authors. The two proceeded to have a 45-minute conversation—in Spanish—about the role of the drug trade in Peru’s economic development. Korman described the encounter as an extraordinary opportunity that impacted him on both a personal and professional level.

“It was an unforgettable experience that I will cherish for the rest of my life,” he said.

While Korman used the trip to deepen his expertise on Latin America with an eye toward a future career in the region, other students saw the trip to Peru as an opportunity to broaden their horizons. When she first learned about the trip, Miranda Pierce said she didn’t plan on participating because her academic focus is on the Middle East.

“I was initially going to say, ‘No,’ but then I started to realize that, although my interests have been very focused on the Middle East, I think it’s smart to be versatile and have more international travel experience,” she said.

Once on the ground in Peru, Pierce valued the time spent absorbing local perspectives and insight into local issues, such as the USAID-funded project dealing with water conservation and sustainability in Cusco. Pierce, who is considering pursuing a career with the U.S. Department of State, said that first-hand exposure to an international development project, no matter the location, was a valuable experience and that building knowledge outside her region of expertise will be an asset to her future career.

Similarly, Ana J. Castellanos used the trip as an opportunity to expand her knowledge and experience.

A first-year SIA student concentrating in development policy and international security studies, Castellanos said her focus up until now has been primarily on Francophone Africa, but she wanted more experience in Latin America. One of the most memorable aspects for Castellanos was meeting with a women’s organization in a small community outside Cusco whose work focuses on reducing gender-based violence and improving the local economy. It was enlightening, she said, to see the role local communities can play in driving development projects—rather than a top-down approach in which international organizations impose their own development goals. As she considers her own career objectives, Castellanos also found it useful to meet with those working in the development field; she even had the good fortune of meeting a USAID employee who is from near her hometown.

“Meeting people on this trip has opened my eyes to that aspect—what it means to be working ‘on the ground’ in the area of development,” she said. “As I head down this path, it’s reassuring to meet someone who is from the region I’m from [the Bronx] doing what I want to do.”

An Immersive Experience

SIA students at Ollantaytambo
SIA students (left to right) Wei-Ting Yang, Danielle Harvey, and Berenice Beltran-Maldonado in the ruins of an Incan fortress above the town of Ollantaytambo in the Sacred Valley of south Peru. IMAGE: Ana Castellanos

Creating connections—both personal and professional—was a common theme.

For Josh Evans, a second-year SIA student who grew up in Costa Rica and has also visited Nicaragua and Panama, the trip was an opportunity to learn more about Peruvian society—to gain new perspectives by talking to the people and being attuned to socio-cultural dynamics. It was eye-opening, he said, to witness such stark contrasts in the country: the coastal, cosmopolitan city of Lima, Peru’s sprawling capital, juxtaposed with the ancient Incan ruins of Ollantaytambo and Machu Picchu in the highlands further east; or the personal warmth and positivity of many Peruvians despite high levels of poverty, particularly in rural areas.

“The best way to learn about a place is to be there, to be immersed in the culture,” he said.

The students approached the trip with a variety of academic and personal interests and with varying levels of experience in Latin America—some wanted to build on their already-considerable knowledge of the region while others were looking to branch out from other areas of expertise; some students spoke Spanish fluently and others had never studied the language.

Regardless of their background, each student returned from the trip with a wealth of new experiences—and more than a few stories to tell. Most importantly, the students were able to learn about Peru, and international politics and development, from a variety of perspectives.

“I’m here for a purpose, I’m here to learn. I think that’s the most important part,” Evans said, reflecting on his experience during the week abroad. “Every minute I was there I had the chance to learn something.”