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Crossing the Rio Grande to Study Overseas

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My reflections on the 1962 Mexico program and the launch of the overseas study program

by Nosratollah Rassekh

Preparation

During the 1961-62 academic year, a rumor circulated on campus. Some said that when President John R. Howard learned that more students were expected the next year than the dormitories could accommodate, he responded, “Let us send them overseas!”

It was the second year at Lewis & Clark not only for the young, dynamic Jack Howard but also for me. I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the rumor–though the new program did take the daring step of including first-year students–but the president subsequently explained his rationale this way:

“The College through this program will be speaking to the two dominant truths of these times: First, that minds need to be prepared for a world of rapid and unpredictable change. A narrow, technically complete job training is hardly adequate in an age when most jobs in 1962 did not exist in 1942.

“Second, the people of the world are inextricably bound together in a complex pattern of interdependence. This being so–and every international development seems to underscore the truth–then send the [students] out to find the world, to recognize its dimensions and to make [themselves] a part of its salvation.”

It is remarkable that Howard’s reasoning makes as much sense today as it did 45 years ago, and no wonder that the Overseas and Off-Campus Program has continued to the present time and has given Lewis & Clark its unique place in higher education. I know that students’ exposure to life in different countries significantly changed the culture of the college.

Lewis & Clark in 1961 was provincial, with practically all of the students coming from Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and California. One day over coffee in Templeton, I asked a group of students where they came from. Most were from Portland or the suburbs. One, however, declared, “I come from back east.” Intuitively I asked, “Boston?” and he said, “No, Bend!” Today, I understand, nearly half of the undergraduates hail from outside the West Coast states, and we have students from 53 countries.

When the president introduced his plans for overseas studies at a faculty meeting, there was much heated debate. The faculty had serious concerns about the absence of their colleagues even for a semester or two from campus, where they were so much needed. Many had strong reservations about including incoming first-year students in the study-abroad programs; they questioned the social and academic maturity of 17- or 18-year-olds to meet the challenges. At the end of the debate, of course, the president prevailed.

For the first semester of the 1962-63 academic year, students traveled to four countries: Japan (two groups), Chile, Peru, and Mexico. Fortunately for the future of the program, the College had contracted with the Experiment in International Living, which had 30 years of experience in international travel and living. They brought their expertise to the delicate matter of finding native family homes for the students during the first month of their program, and they also did a creditable job on transportation to and from and within each country. Every group was accompanied by an Experiment representative, who took care of all the logistics of the program. Academic matters were in my hands. We each had our own budget.

Most of the students going on the first programs seemed to prefer the countries farthest removed from the United States. Since the upperclass students had the first choices, Mexico was left open mostly for incoming students. Of the 23 students who accompanied me to Mexico, 19 were freshmen. But I felt I ended up with the best of the lot. I had good reasons then, as I have now, to be really proud of all those fine young men and women who were my fellow participants in that first overseas study program.

The students were to begin their Mexican adventure with a monthlong homestay in Puebla, a Spanish colonial town southeast of Mexico City. From there we would move to a pension in what turned out to be one of the most elegant neighborhoods of Mexico City. The spacious establishment, situated on the outskirts of beautiful Chapultepec Park, was aptly called Mansion del Parque.

My first problem was preparing to teach a course on Mexican history, of which I was not a master. With only a few months to go through a crash course on the subject, I sought advice from colleagues, including a Latin American professor at my alma mater, Stanford University, who gave me a solid bibliography. Other friends provided introductions to Mexican scholars, who were great and useful resources while we were in Mexico.

At 10 p.m. on Friday, September 14, the three groups going to Latin America boarded three chartered buses in front of Templeton, and the overseas study program was on. After four days of travel including two very welcome overnight hotel stays, we crossed the Rio Grande–as big a sea as these first Lewis & Clark “overseas” groups were to cross. The next leg was a pleasant two-day train ride to Mexico City, where the three groups parted. Those destined for Peru and Chile were to fly to Lima and Santiago; our group got on another bus for the two-hour ride to Puebla.

Immersion

In the Puebla bus station, all the homestay families–a couple hundred people–were there to greet their students, most clutching pictures in their hands, while a mariachi band was blowing full blast. For most of the group, the homestay turned out well. The genuine hospitality of the host families and the love they expressed for our students soon transcended elements that could have been divisive and created a bond that lasted for years or even decades beyond our stay. My own homestay became awkward for reasons best explained by my roommate at the time, Vic Baltrusaitis B.A. ‘65, who wrote some 30 years later, “I admire the dignity, tact and diplomacy with which you held off the unsolicited amorous advances of our divorced hostess.” I was lucky to have Vic as a chaperone and tried my best not to leave the house without him.

Puebla, surrounded by volcanoes and snow-capped mountains, was the center of attention in Mexico that year because 1962 marked the centenary of the Battle of Puebla. On May 5, 1862, the Mexican army defeated an invading French force, giving rise to a national holiday, Cinco de Mayo.

We explored Puebla’s rich history, many churches, colonial public buildings, schools, the great library, and the fine museum. We toured pyramids at Cholula, a textile factory in Santa Ana, and a nearby tile factory. On a tour of a cider factory, seeing my students enthusiastically consuming the samples offered in the hospitality room, I was admiring their health consciousness. But on the bus back to Puebla, upon examining the bottles and learning that the cider contained close to 8 percent alcohol, I understood why it was such a happy trip back home.

The care shown by the host families toward their American daughters or sons was truly exceptional. One woman offered to teach beginning Spanish classes one hour a day to interested students. Another volunteered to teach the group traditional Mexican dances. Two families invited us to picnics at their ranches, complete with mariachi bands. At one ranch we had our first exposure to cockfighting (and mercifully, for most of us, the last) and in the other, we were treated to a graceful bullfighting exhibition in the ranch’s private bullring (enjoyable for most of us because no bull was killed). The students planned a festive farewell party for their host families on our last evening there. When we left Puebla on October 20, in the words of one student, “the departure was as tearful as the arrival was happy.” Many of our students were invited back to spend the two-week Christmas holiday with their host families.

From this experience I believe the students acquired an appreciation of a culture different from theirs and at the same time increased their love for their own country. They were all ambassadors of goodwill for the United States.

Once settled in our pension in Mexico City, the students took three courses: a semester of Spanish, with daily classes at the Mexican–North American Institute; my daily course, History of Mexico; and Land, People, and Culture of Mexico, with outstanding local scholars. In addition, each student had an independent study project relating to his or her particular subject of interest. Their papers were to be graded by appropriate professors back on campus. Some of the students were able to sit in on an Alliance for Progress conference held while we were there. The conference, coinciding with the U.S. quarantine of Cuba, provided some anxious and dramatic moments. In the final session, newsreel cameras took notice of our presence; the footage was broadcast across Latin America by the U.S. Information Agency.

Eleven students attended a UNESCO seminar, Rural Life in Central America; others attended meetings of the Business International Roundtable about problems of Mexico’s economic development.

Reflection

I learned quickly that in such a situation, I could not restrict my relationship with the students to the traditional teacher-student roles. I have pleasant memories of our many shared activities, including a bullfight where the students rooted for the bull, cheering every time the matador missed his prey–giving me some concern about our security. Or another day when I joined a group of students playing low-stakes poker and found myself with a pile of coins, perhaps 25 cents’ worth, in front of me just as another student walked in and said, “Dr. R., I want you to meet my parents!” For a few moments I had the painful thought that President Howard’s brainchild was aborted, but the parents took it all in good spirit and the program was saved!

I’ll never forget the leisurely talks into the evening at a coffee shop near our pension … a spectacular performance of the Ballet Folklorico de Mexico … field trips that familiarized us with different parts of Mexico and facets of the country’s culture and peoples … the surprise birthday party the students arranged for me … their forming a university of their own, UCM, for the University of Cinco de Mayo, with its own colors, emblem, and school song.

The 23 young men and women who accompanied me to the land south of the Rio Grande were not just my students, but were and have remained my good friends. Our reunions ever since have confirmed the unique bond that we forged. I am grateful to all of them for their willingness, occasionally, to accept the unacceptable, and at all times to show respect and affection for one another. Though generously endowed with personal dissimilarities, they made that reality a source of strength rather than tension and conflict.

In particular, I believe the 19 first-year students deserve a great deal of credit. Their cultural response and social behavior convinced the faculty that they could meet the challenges involved; thus they contributed to the future of the overseas program as a whole.

As our semester in Mexico came to its end, I felt the program had succeeded exceptionally well academically. The college was already planning to send five groups overseas in fall 1963, though at the time, very few of my colleagues could foresee that, thanks to Jack Howard’s vision and courage, his “overseas experiment” would become permanent and, in fact, one of the most distinguishing dimensions of Lewis & Clark’s curriculum.

Judy McNally, who edits and writes at McNally Editorial in Portland, excerpted this narrative from Nosratollah Rassekh’s full-length travel memoir.

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