As Harvard students are returning to campus from spring break, University President Drew G. Faust will be taking a break of her own to experience firsthand the work that Harvard students and affiliated institutions have done in Chile and Brazil. Getting the chance to meet with government officials, academics, and other local stakeholders, Faust has the opportunity to shape Harvard’s role as a transformative force in the region. Especially as she makes her journey through Chile, our university’s president will hopefully see both the nation’s progress and continuing struggles and bring back a renewed desire to continue the University’s outreach and build partnerships to promote a more equitable future.
This January, I had the opportunity to volunteer in Chile through the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies’ Language and Public Service Program. Spending time in Santiago, I was able to marvel at the city’s progression, taking in the mix of modern structures, classical architecture, and gorgeous mountain ranges—the view of Santiago most foreigners have become acquainted with. The purpose of the program was to engage with Chile through service by seeing the country through the eyes of those whose view is often never brought to light.
Despite Chile’s position as one of Latin America’s economic powerhouses and reputation for its comparatively higher standards of living, the country is still facing many challenges today. When in Santiago, Faust will see the splendors of advancement and progress, the same sites and development that inspire awe in many visitors. At the same time, however, she must recognize that she is traveling through a metropolis that is segregated by class, and that while marginalized populations may be out of sight, they should not be left out of mind.
Although having experienced severe trauma stemming from a divisive military dictatorship and a sense of terror created by the 2010 earthquake, Chilean culture is built on endurance and solidarity. Faust will not see a people who are weak, but rather a community thirsting for reform and self-sufficiency. As part of this DRCLAS J-term program, I was assigned to work with a construction project in Curnailahue, a small mining community in the south that was caught in the crosshairs of the earthquake’s destruction. Here I saw a level of poverty that can be most accurately be described by the Spanish word indignante. Homes the size of college suites (but often housing six to eight people) were densely packed along unpaved roads, with neighbors having to share government bathrooms located on an adjoining street. The community residents, for what little they had, opened up their homes to us, even giving me a baseball cap to prevent me and my New England constitution from getting heat stroke, and frequently offering me additional food and telling others to make sure they took care of their “Gringo.”
What I was able to experience in Curanilahue was something truly beautiful: the construction of a foundation. Here was the essence of community.
This embracing spirit of survival is something that I hope Faust is able to observe on her trip. I hope she is able to see that many Chileans are not looking for a handout, but for a hand up and a partner that will enhance the leadership capacity of the residents. By prioritizing programs in the region, like the efforts of DRCLAS, that cultivate local leadership, Harvard has the opportunity to build relationships and construct a future without individuals being defined by circumstances out of their control. Moving beyond the Harvard bubble, Chile offers us only one example of how we can take our education out of the classroom and apply it in a way that has a positive social benefit. We may not necessarily be in a position to pick up a hammer, but we all have the capability to extend the benefits of our university outside of Harvard Yard. By taking this trip, Faust has already recognized this capacity. I hope that through her journey and observations she can better educate the Harvard community about Chile’s ongoing struggles.
David H.A. LeBoeuf ’12-’13, a Crimson news writer, is a social studies concentrator in Pforzheimer House.
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