By Andrea Westerlund, ’10, ‘12
St. Bonaventure University hosted a Study of the U.S. Institute for Student Leaders after receiving a sub-grant from the U.S. Department of State through the Institute for Training and Development (ITD). The Study of the U.S. Institutes (SUSI) are designed and funded by the Study of the U.S. Branch in the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA).
The purpose of the SUSI grant is to bring undergraduate student leaders from the Western Hemisphere to the United States to study U.S. culture, history, society, and government while enhancing their leadership skills.
After speaking with the students, it is easy to see that this goal was achieved. Perhaps what the ITD had not anticipated, however, was that the Americans interacting with these students would not only learn about Latin American culture, but their own culture as well.
Twenty SUSI students from Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela began to arrive at St. Bonaventure University on July 7. Although they became involved in the program in various ways – all of the participants had something in common: each student has exceptional academic standing and is considered a leader in their home and institution.
From the time they arrived until August 11, the students, with the guidance of St. Bonaventure student mentors, experienced campus life at a typical American university. Many of the students were surprised at the nature of the program. Romina from Ecuador said, “I didn’t know that we were going to have this much fun. I just thought that we were going to study but not have fun.” In addition to daily lectures and discussions, the group visited many locations such as Chautauqua Institute, Niagara Falls, Chicago, and Washington DC.
As intended, the students expanded their knowledge of American culture and several were surprised at what they found. Agustin from Venezuela said, “I was expecting, because of the opinions of my friends, that I was going to meet grouchy people [but] I met kind people so it pretty much felt like home.” Several other students echoed the participant’s sentiments. Multiple students felt that the program had delivered much more than they expected.
However, a good educator understands that his or her job is not only to teach but to learn from their students as well. Maddalena Marinari, the academic director of the institute, was very grateful for the chance to spend time with the students and learned more about her own culture in the process. “Because of the different cultural backgrounds of these students, they ask different questions, pay attention to different aspects of American history, and read the key documents of American history differently than my American-born students,” said Marinari.
The students, too, gained a wealth of knowledge on American politics, history, culture, and what it truly means to be a leader. On her experience at the Pfeiffer Nature Center, Nicole from Ecuador said, “we were learning about leadership so we saw how leaders [are] the people working in non-profit organizations, like the Nature Center. It’s a way to see what we learned in class really applied.”
Overall, everyone involved got something out of the program that they did not expect. “As somebody interested in the role of the U.S. in the world,” said Marinari, “it’s been fascinating to discuss with them the relationship between the U.S. and their countries…. again and again they tell me that our institute has challenged many of the stereotypes they had about the United States, Americans, and American society before coming here.”