By Kelly Sampson
Reprinted from The Arizona Summer Wildcat
Coffee, cocaine and conflict.
Such are the words commonly conjured up in American minds upon hearing the name "Columbia."
A recent agreement between the University of Arizona and the Universidad de los Andes in Colombia's capital city of Bogota could be a vital first step in correcting this simplistic view of the country and its people, said James Smith, an adjunct professor in international business programs at the UA.
Smith is a retired foreign service officer who worked in Colombia for eight years. The country has problems, but the conception in America of what Colombia is like is simply incorrect, he said.
"Colombia is a different kind of panorama than you get from simply reading the 'scare accounts' about it," Smith said. "It has some very lovely parts to it, which are relatively unknown here."
The first stage of the agreement between the UA and los Andes, to develop a stronger institutional relationship between the two universities, is already underway.
This initial stage, made possible by a three-year, $100,000 grant from the U.S. Information Agency, is the only "concrete" piece of the agreement so far, said English professor John McElroy. With the help of the UA, the agreement will create an American studies degree program at los Andes. It is the first such program in Colombia, McElroy said.
It is also a first for the UA, which never before has had an academic connection to a university in Spanish-speaking America beyond Mexico, he said.
Smith said los Andes is the perfect place to begin building a bridge between Arizonans and Colombians, via the UA.
It is much like a university in the United States, he said. It is a private college, founded by a group of wealthy American-educated Colombians in 1948, and modeled after the American university system.
It is now one of the most highly respected and modern of the almost 40 universities in Colombia, Smith said. Los Andes is already affiliated with some of America's top universities, including Harvard University and the University of California at Los Angeles.
About half of the 8,000 students and most of the faculty members speak English, Smith said.
The UA will play a key role in implementing the American studies curriculum developed by McElroy.
Beginning this fall, professors from los Andes will come to the UA for teacher training and to prepare course material for the newly-created classes. These professors will attend courses here similar to the ones they will teach at los Andes, said Dennis Evans, assistant director of development for the College of Humanities. Along with humanities, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, Fine Arts and Law also plan to take part, he said.
The five-year undergraduate degree program at los Andes will require 178 units in four core areas; U.S. history, literature, economics and government. In addition, the Colombian students must take courses in peripheral areas such as American music, law and sociology. In the ninth semester, these students will travel to Tucson and take two courses at the UA and complete a research paper under the direction of faculty members.
McElroy said that these classes should begin in los Andes in the fall of 1996, and will involve about 20 professors when the program is in full swing.
This program, he said, will be the first of many steps on the path to increased understanding between the universities.
Future steps, McElroy said, will hopefully include UA faculty and students going to los Andes to teach and to study. "But the attitude that Colombia is a dangerous place will be a big stumbling block with the student exchanges," he said.
Changing this attitude is one of the main goals of the agreement, he said. "People tend to write it (Colombia) off as a nothing country that's full of gangsters and thugs. They have no real understanding of how wonderful most of the people in the country are and how desirous they are of developing their democratic institutions," he said.
He pointed out that Colombia has a democratically-elected president and no history of military dictatorships.
McElroy said he hopes this affiliation will eventually lead to a Colombian studies center at the UA. It would be the first in the western United States, he said.
Cultural understanding may be a lofty goal, but the agreement is important for other more practical reasons, Smith said.
Colombia is rich in natural resources Ÿ petroleum, natural gas and minerals Ÿ and is looking for expanding markets, Smith said. If Arizona, and the rest of the country, hopes to benefit from increased trade with Latin America and how people there do business, he said.
This affiliation could help Americans realized that there is much more to Colombia than they thought, Smith said. "It is far more than people just buying cocaine all the time."
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