Center for Latin American Studies Marks 50 Years of Expanding Expertise, International Boundaries

Issue Date: 
September 22, 2014

Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies marks its 50th anniversary this month. From its launch in 1964, the center’s presence and reach have grown significantly. There are now 120 faculty members from across the University who are linked to the center either through their teaching or research—up from eight when it opened. Designated a National Resource Center by the U.S. Department of Education, Pitt’s Center for Latin American Studies conducts research, provides student study-abroad opportunities, and hosts conferences as well as visiting scholars, dignitaries, and students from outside the United States. Its mission, which is to expand and enrich academic resources related to Latin America and the Caribbean, serves to prepare students for global enterprise, enrich faculty expertise, offer its resources to others for work globally, conduct research, and share its resources with the worldwide academic community. It also serves as an integral component of the University of Pittsburgh’s presence on the international stage.

Pitt Chronicle’s Sharon S. Blake recently spoke with center Director Scott Morgenstern about the center’s history and relevance.

Q: Tell me about the center’s origins.
One of the interesting things is that the center precedes Pitt’s University Center for International Studies. During the 1960s, Pitt’s then-chancellor viewed Latin America as a region for Pitt to explore as the University began to form its international strategy. Pitt did not have that focus in those days, and it saw Latin America as tremendously important, with the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis and other kinds of proxy wars that were occurring. Today, there is an intrinsic interest about what is occurring politically, economically, and socially in Latin America, and we have a large set of faculty interested in the cultural side as well. We’d like to think that by giving grants, bringing in experts, and sending faculty and students abroad that we are able to attract students to develop and maintain their interest in this region.

Q: Does our center differ from other similar university centers around the country?
There are certainly other centers around the country that focus on Latin America. I would say that what distinguishes Pitt’s center is the quality, size, and diversity of our faculty, plus our specialty programs. The primary goal of all of the centers is similar—to support faculty and student research and to train future leaders who are competent globally and within Latin America. The challenge for us is finding innovative and interesting ways to engage our students so that they develop that global competence.  We stand out, however, for having done this for a very long time. We emphasize opportunities for our students to study and conduct research in Latin American countries, and this is a transformative experience. It opens students’ eyes to a different way that the world works. For someone who has never traveled outside of her own state suddenly to experience life in these countries is incredible—a different language, a completely different culture, and different problems and issues. Yet the local people are also very friendly, warm, and wonderful in so many ways. The students return home and make these things a part of their lives in a different way.

Q: What do you mean by specialty programs?
One of our unique programs is the Seminar Field Trip, which was established in the early ’70s. Students take a one-semester course focusing on the region in general and on one country specifically. They travel to that country for six weeks and conduct independent research projects while living with families and working on language skills. This year the program will go to Costa Rica.

We also have a wide range of study abroad programs, that encompass the region, including Cuba. Right now, we are trying to establish a new program in Mexico, which had been closed for a number of years because of security concerns, but now offers areas that are open and very safe.

Other specialty programs include our Brazilian Studies program, which has led to our bringing faculty members and students from Brazil. This year we are excited that we have 50 Brazilian students on campus, which is the result of our work with the Brazilian government and their “Science Without Borders” program. That is a huge number—and the Brazilian government paid the tuition. Also, our center has recently hosted both the Bolivian Minister of the Economy and the economics minister from the Embassy of Mexico. These are the kind of things we are able to do and the learning experiences we can offer.

Q: What significant changes or trends have taken place in Latin America in the last 50 years and how have they influenced the center’s teaching and research?
I think the most important trend in the region has been the consolidation of democracy. Today, all of the region’s countries, with the exception of Cuba, have democratically elected leaders, and human rights are respected at a much higher level than ever before. There are still very significant problems, but these nations have also made tremendous progress not only in creating democracy generally, but in developing social policies and antipoverty programs. 

Bolivia, for example, which is one of poorest countries in the world, tripled its GDP in the past decade. Brazilians have a “conditional cash transfer” system—simply put, if you keep your children in school, the government will give you about $40 a month as an incentive. This has helped kids stay in school and has provided a basic level of income for their families. This is now copied around the world as a model anti-poverty program with a long-term impact.

Q: For your students earning graduate or undergraduate certificates in Latin American Studies—what kinds of jobs do they obtain?
The jobs are tremendously varied, ranging from those in industries requiring employees with a level of global competence, or who can speak a little or a lot of Spanish, or who know the culture well enough to visit the region, talk to people, and to make deals. Some of our certificate holders work in the banking or insurance industries. Other job opportunities are the many nongovernmental organizations that work in Latin America on everything from democracy and public health, to development aid, to the establishment of social networks. There are also numerous government jobs, including in the U.S. State Department, that require an expertise in Latin America. The head of UPS recently said his whole focus was finding people who had global interests—people from the United States who can go and build bridges to Latin America.

Q: What kind of ties does our region have to Latin America?
It’s surprising how many companies here have ties to Latin America. The new head of H.J. Heinz is Brazilian, for example.  PNC Bank has a whole division devoted to making loans and investments in Latin America, and we’ve been talking to the bank about internships for our students. Pittsburgh also has a Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Actually, our city’s ties to Latin America go back to the steel days. Did you know that the Panama Canal was built in 1903 with steel made here in Pittsburgh? The trade with Latin America has zoomed over the last number of years in many different areas, and we like to think that we can help contribute to that.