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DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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Paula McDermott

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A Student's Perspective


The Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies represents the enormous and diverse region it exists to study in many ways. Its wealth, for example, does not instantly make itself known in outward vestiges such as that of the neighboring Law and Public Policy Schools at UT Austin. Instead, like the twenty-eight countries and dozen territories that form the lion’s share of the Americas, its richness seeps out of mulitlayered and often little recognized fuentes repeatedly discovered and eagerly explored by students like me. During my three years immersed in academic challenges as a joint-degree student of public policy and Latin American studies at UT Austin, the program has served as a provocative companion and a refreshing refuge from some of the more sterile aspects of graduate study.

It is difficult to pinpoint specifically what the Latin American studies program offers that creates its unique place in academia, largely because it is more a conglomeration of people, resources and happenings, rather than a singular institutional entity. Here I draw on my personal experience to highlight the aspects of the place and the program that have fused to create for me a stimulating and satisfying fulfillment of very high expectations. I can best describe the essence of this success as a matter of providing choices, both in access and results.

First and foremost, the academic resources available to students in the world of Latin American studies at UT Austin extend beyond what one can actually experience during the few short years one dedicates to pursuing a degree. The diverse disciplines that make up Latin American studies, together with the flexibility built into degree requirements, offer students practically limitless options. These options include, as a beginning, formal coursework directed by seasoned professors and burgeoning intellectuals as well as primary and secondary research materials in many languages available in the world-renowned Benson Latin American Collection and LANIC, the widely-respected electronic resource guide.

However, these represent only the most obvious treasure troves of resources. The Lozano Long Institute also provides the foundation from and within which specific academic and cultural centers have evolved. And I found that often it was my colleagues—other students—offering their diverse experiences and perspectives that challenged me academically, leaving long-lasting impressions. Beyond the fascinating course descriptions listed in Latin American studies that surface each semester just before registration, I had to decide among many additional, somewhat subtler choices. I knew that I could make individual arrangements with any instructor in almost any department to shape a course so that it included a focus on Latin America. I could, in other words, take a class on “Women and Public Policy” or an economic seminar on “Globalization and Development” and research and write on women policy makers in Brazil or factory work in Central America while earning credit toward my Latin American Studies degree. This enhanced my opportunity to benefit from instructors knowledgeable in their field regardless of regional focus, while at the same time I helped to expand their exposure to relevant research in Latin America.

It is difficult to express the kind of learning that happens in a classroom setting conducive to participation when scholars share different perspectives, inspired by compelling research and experience. I have sat around the table discussing complex issues and provocative readings with individuals from Mexico, Nicaragua, Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil and the U.S. Our instructors hail from Canada, the United Kingdom, Mexico, Brazil and New England boasting extensive experience ranging from fieldwork in small Andean mountain communities to academic debates in ivy league halls and publications. The interactions that occur in UT classrooms and offices, based on knowledge developed well beyond institutional walls, give Latin American studies its well-deserved reputation. I have been challenged, listened to, intrigued and encouraged, but rarely was I disappointed with an academic experience during my three years as a graduate student.

The reputation of the Benson Latin American Collection also extends well beyond UT’s boundaries, and with good reason. I remember the first time I ventured into the catacombs of the Benson’s stacks. I felt like I was in another world, surrounded by books and manuscripts in English, Spanish, Portuguese and less familiar languages. As a quick trip turned into hours, I quietly explored the endless shelves, amazed at the diversity of subjects and sources at my fingertips. I later met scholars from other countries who had gone to great lengths to be able to come to the Benson and spend several months taking advantage of those same resources. These print materials, both aged original manuscripts and contemporary publications, are enhanced by the availability of electronic resources. For comprehensive research one does not supercede the other; they almost always play complementary roles.

As a graduate student at the turn of the twenty-first century, one spends much more time on the computer than at any other time in history. This has brought incredible opportunities, especially in gaining access to information from around the world and from many different perspectives, as well as setting up collaborations. However, research via the Internet can be extremely time-consuming and overwhelming. LANIC, the UT-based, Latin America-focused Internet site, serves as an excellent filter and helps to connect scholars with relevant resources in and about Latin America. In the small, but well-equipped, modern computer lab available to students, LANIC serves as the home page, reminding us that although scholars use the site all over the world, it remains a home-grown affair. Similarly, the LLILAS-affiliated centers create strong linkages between those who share common interests in specific area studies across campus, as well as across the globe.

I have benefited dramatically from the resources provided by the academic centers that focus on a specific region or area of study. LLILAS supports the Brazil Center, the Mexican Center, the Center for Argentine Studies, the Center for Resource Management in Latin America (CERMLA) and the Population Research Center. Activities of each center seem to ebb and flow with faculty and staff interests, funding and the timing of political events as well as visiting scholars. All the centers, however, regularly arrange for interesting speakers to make both informal and formal presentations open to the community at large. They serve as a valuable resource locally and internationally, producing research and facilitating important academic exchanges.

Brazil Center staff has helped arrange a number of conferences and seminars featuring distinguished visitors known for their involvement in seminal events in Brazilian politics and academia. They also make sure visiting scholars, professors and government officials from Brazil have access to everything they need while they are guests in our country and at our university. As a result, even high-ranking dignitaries have been willing to spend time speaking to classes and to graciously meet individually with students as well.

The Brazil Center has been enormously instructive for me in facilitating important contacts in Brazil and insights not available through books and journal articles. My experience prior to returning to school to pursue graduate study had been primarily in Central America and limited to Spanish-speaking regions in Latin America. The center helped ease my immersion into the immense Portuguese-speaking world, providing easily accessible and relevant information about people, places, programs, Web sites and materials in, and related to, Brazil. I was able to secure funding and develop indispensable connections to conduct original research in the region through the center’s professors and activities.

Institute-related conferences and symposium provide fabulous forums where people from around the world form personal relationships and exchange information and research ideas that result in rich discussions about Latin America and the region’s role in global politics. These events span many academic disciplines and focus on numerous topics. I can easily recall specific talks and exchanges at conferences during my graduate experience at the University that deeply influenced the way I now understand and think about the region.

On the UT campus alone I had the opportunity to participate in the Conference for Latin American Geographers, a journalism symposium focused on Latin America with journalists from the region, a Chicano studies conference and several LLILAS Student Association annual meetings. In the process, I have heard and personally met presidents, politicians, grass-roots leaders, activists, writers, film makers, academics and many policy makers and students of Latin America. I have helped organize conferences and events and hosted visitors from other countries at my home. I have formed deeper connections, spending many hours discussing politics, culture and language in informal settings while eating, drinking and even dancing together.

The financial resources that LLILAS consistently struggles to provide students and prospective students definitely enhanced my choices. I was the fortunate recipient of a Foreign Language Achievement Scholarship financial award and a Ford Foundation grant that allowed me to have time to learn Portuguese and then conduct three months of policy research in the Brazilian Amazon. The previous summer I benefited from a National Security Education Program grant to conduct research with the Organization of American States in Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Costa Rica. LLILAS also frequently wins the institutional honor to host Tinker awards, which provide research-funding opportunities for students and faculty. Resulting research partnerships and publications help give LLILAS faculty and students a growing presence in Latin American studies internationally, evident at events like The Latin American Studies Association congresses.

The Institute has given me access to many academic, social and political choices. Using the University resources affiliated with Latin American studies, I have participated in academic courses and events with colleagues having similar interests but divergent backgrounds and perspectives. The departments of Geography, Government, Radio-Television-Film, Spanish and Portuguese, Government, Public Affairs, Sociology and Fine Arts, all integral parts of Latin American studies, have contributed to my experience. Together with the academic centers, conferences and symposium and the Benson Collection, these departments have provided the space and resources (many of them human) that challenged my preconceptions and pushed me to explore the boundaries of my knowledge about Latin America and the world. Access to choices has led to provocative, mind-expanding results, which in turn leads to more choices.

Given the expansive opportunities LLILAS offers students, most of us choose individual and varied paths during our time in the program, thus creating unique academic ventures. The choices I made resulted in a strong academic base, practical experience rooted in intense time spent in the region, and development of wonderful relationships, all of which have given me new and multilayered perspectives. Each choice I made has opened new doors leading to additional options for learning about and exploring Latin America and related issues in the United States.

My previous love for Latin America and its many places, peoples and cultures stemmed from spending time there, not only studying the region in an academic setting. Thus I have really enjoyed having the luxury to read and explore the work of Latin Americanists while spending time doing fieldwork and working toward a graduate degree.

I took courses in Spanish focusing on contemporary Cuban literature and film, and I learned about Brazilian and Argentine music from an expert in ethnomusicology.

I combined my own professional experience in international development work with seminal readings old and new on economic development to debate the many related controversial issues with colleagues and professors.

I invited Marina Silva, one of eight women in the Brazilian Senate, to share her personal experience with a group interested in women and policy based at the LBJ School.

I watched Cheri Moraga, a ground-breaking feminist academic and writer, perform a piece about what it is like to be an openly homosexual Chicana artist in the United States in the twenty-first century.

And, working with a visiting professor from Brazil, I designed a course of study that led to a wonderful three months conducting research on an innovative government project in Amapá, Brazil on which I would base my master’s thesis.

I traveled and conducted countless interviews throughout Latin America, which gave me the opportunity to develop lasting personal relations. Policy makers and academics alike opened their homes and offices to me, providing information, resources and connections to colleagues who, in turn, repeated the process. I did the same with visitors to our city and university. We now exchange e-mails, research and even music, creating better informed networks and communities that keep enhancing our knowledge of political, social and cultural issues relevant to Latin America and the world. It is the perspective I gained through the combination of all these experiences that will continue to provide me with new options.

This is the legacy of Latin American studies at the University of Texas. Choices.

Paula J. McDermott
Paula J. McDermott graduated with a joint master’s degree in Latin American Studies and LBJ School of Public Affairs in May 2001. Her academic concentration was on labor, health, and social exclusion particularly in terms of policy and women. She combined her research with many years of professional experience working in community development in Central and South America and in social services in Central Texas. She was instrumental in creating the Policy, Women, and Resources (PoWeR) group based at the LBJ School. She can be reached at 512-462-9791.

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May 14, 2002
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