Reflections on 5 Months in Colombia

Earlier this year, I had the honor of being a Fulbright Scholar to Colombia. From January through May of 2014, while on sabbatical from Binghamton University, I worked at Pontificia Univeridad Javeriana in Bogotá, where I taught a graduate Seminar in Public Management to municipal leaders from all regions of the country and conducted research on the recent evolution of graduate level public affairs education in Colombia. The experience was rewarding on so many levels and can be measured in terms of the new friendships I established, my personal research productivity during the period, vast improvements in my Spanish language abilities, a pending formal agreement between the two universities, and the multitude of subsequent professional collaborations that have arisen as a result. There are many opportunities and motivations to build on the professional relations and activities and thus they have understandably received the bulk of my attention since my return. What has been less incentivized and thus easier for me to neglect is deliberate reflection on the experience and how it affected me on a more personal level.

International travel is not new to me, evolving from family vacations as a child, the tourist excursions as an adult, and international conference presentations and consulting activities as an adult. I have had opportunities to visit countries throughout the Americas (North, Central and South), Central and Eastern Europe, Asia, and Africa, for periods of a few days to a month. The Fulbright experience was the first time I lived for an extended period outside of the United States. Living there and having the benefit of the professional networks afforded by my Fulbright scholarship and my host institution in Colombia afforded me a very different experience than any prior travels. To be sure, I was still a foreigner (even though I could pass for Colombian in many contexts and when people pegged me as being a foreigner, they more often guessed I was from Brazil than the United States!). A foreigner yes, but not a tourist or a visitor just passing through.

I had the good fortune of being in Colombia at a fascinating point in the country’s history, with progress being made in peace negotiations that have the real potential to put an end to more than 50 years of armed conflict, and campaigns and elections for both the national legislature and the presidency for which peace was understandably a central issue. I took advantage of every opportunity to talk with people about these issues; I asked questions of my students, other professors, taxi drivers, neighbors, store clerks, and people I met in the park while walking my dog (yes, I took my dog with me). Beyond what I learned from these casual conversations, two experiences profoundly influenced my thinking about these issues.

During my first week at Javeriana, as part of the orientation for the College of Political Science and International Relations, I learned that one professor had recently secured approval for a new program to teach classes to ex-combatants of the National Liberation Army or Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN) guerrilla group in a prison in Medellin as a way to improve their chances for constructive re-integration in society upon their release. I expressed interest in learning more about the program. Rather than merely providing me documents about the program, the Dean offered me the opportunity to co-teach a day-long course on local government as part of the program. Meeting these men in the prison and spending a day teaching them, learning from them and sharing meals with them challenged many of my preconceived images. Were it not for the multiple levels of security through which we had to pass in order to enter the designated area for the ELN prisoners, I could have been in a classroom in any university anywhere in the world. Were it not for the knowledge of the types of offenses committed by ELN guerillas, I could have been with any small group of highly engaged and dedicated students (they did the assigned readings and were prepared to discuss them critically and apply them to their experiences). Were it not for environment in which me met and the formal nature of our class meeting, I could have been at a gathering of friends and family. These were individuals who, under different circumstances, could have been my students, colleagues, friends or relatives. They were thoughtful and reflective; they were neither apologetic nor dogmatic; they were committed to bettering their communities and their country; they chose methods that I and the standards of society deem unacceptable, but they were not bad people. I left the prison that day feeling more conflicted and having a better sense of the complexity of the issues.

I was also able to accompany a group of student volunteers from Javeriana and their faculty leader for a two-day visit to Barrancabermeja, the site of a 1998 massacre of innocent civilians in the clash between guerrilla and para-military groups, and then up the Magdalena River to the village of San Pablo, another community that was the site of extensive violence in recent years. In both communities, I was able to learn about their tragic histories and see the wonderful work that volunteers from Javeriana University are doing as they engage in community projects through the Jesuit Refugee Services organization. Much more than reading statistics, visiting these sites makes their histories come alive.

There is not space in this post to delve into how these experiences have shaped my thinking as a teacher, scholar or human being. Suffice it to say for the purposes of this blog entry that the influences were profound. I have a great appreciation for value of being in another country as more than a tourist or short-term visitor. I have a strong desire to experience this again in other parts of Colombia or in other parts of the world. I also hope that many of my students and colleagues have similar opportunities and I look forward to hearing about their experiences when they do.

Nadia Rubaii, ’85, MA ’87, PhD ’91 (Political Science)

Associate Professor, Public Administration

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