On March 24, 2018, more than a hundred university alumni from the late 1950s and 1960s gathered in Austin for the fourth reunion of our unique fraternity. We enthusiastically sang Latin American songs, drank Chilean wine and pisco sours, and reminisced for hours about the experiences we had shared as participants in The University of Texas Student Leader Seminar Exchange Program in Chile. One member of our group, Richard Cohen, captured the ambience of the reunion perfectly when he commented that he was "overwhelmed by the spirit of the occasion."
The exchange program originated after Vice President Richard Nixon's good-will tour of Latin America in April 1958. His eighteen-day trip began on an unfortunate note and worsened as it continued. On the first day, the Vice Presidential motorcade became stuck in Buenos Aires traffic, causing Nixon to miss Argentine President Arturo Frondizi's inauguration, the trip's primary purpose. In Lima, the Vice President encountered mobs of hostile Peruvian students who threw fruit and rocks and spit tobacco juice in his face. In Colombia, local pickpockets cleaned up by snatching the wallets of American reporters, Nixon staff members, and even the Secret Service agents. The stop in Ecuador was uneventful because the Vice President cancelled his visit to the Central University. Nixon's most dangerous confrontation came in Caracas, where a violent mob blocked the path of his motorcade and smashed the windows of his limousine as Venezuelan soldiers and police stood by. While Nixon's display of courage earned widespread admiration at home, the trip underscored the need for improving U.S. relations with Latin America, especially its student population.
Immediately after the Vice President's return to Washington, U.S. Department of State officials began to explore ways to cultivate a more positive influence upon Latin American student populations. They attributed the anti-American sentiment to Communist infiltration of the university community, so their planning assumed a Cold War urgency. The officials identified two basic flaws with the existing student exchange programs. The number of students involved was so small that its impact was negligible. The selection criteria for Latin American exchange students to the United States were even more problematic. Since the students were drawn from the affluent classes, often to reward the families of establishment politicians, the program generated more resentment than support. Acting Budget Director Maurice Stans asserted that "the promotion of democracy would be better served in many areas by broadening the base of international exchange through wider selections among the less privileged elements." Vice President Nixon's own recommendations emphasized that it was no longer sufficient to interact with government officials and the elite among the financial and business communities. He identified students, teachers, newspaper editors, reporters and labor leaders as the ones who are exerting influence in Latin America and added: "we must find a way to get our story across to them more adequately." "Person-to-person contact," he concluded, "is the most effective way to accomplish this."
Two versions of an expanded student exchange evolved from draft proposals. The first was a Junior Year Abroad that would fund American students attending Latin American universities for a semester or an academic year. The second version was a four-to-six-week Foreign Student Leader Seminar that would enable several hundred Latin American students to visit one of nine universities in the United States.
The pairings for the inaugural year of 1959 matched Rutgers University with multiple Argentine universities, the University of Florida with Bolivia's University of San Andreas, New York University with Brazilian law schools, The University of Texas with Chile's Pedagogical Institute, MIT with Chile's Catholic University, UCLA with Colombian universities, Puerto Rico's Interamerican University with Guatemala's University of San Carlos, the University of Michigan with Mexico's National University, and Indiana University with three Peruvian universities. Fordham University subsequently joined with Catholic University in Chile, and the University of Kansas students attended the University of Costa Rica.
The Foreign Student Leader Seminars originally did not include a reciprocal exchange of U.S. students traveling to Latin America. This component emerged spontaneously after the first foreign student participants and several of their home universities extended reciprocal invitations, a fact cited by one State Department official as evidence of the program's effectiveness. Thus, fifteen Rutgers students traveled to Argentina, twelve UCLA students went to Colombia, and fifteen University of Texas students traveled to Chile in the summer of 1959. A university professor accompanied each group. The three reciprocal Student Leader Seminar programs implemented a second round of exchange programs in 1960, while MIT and Catholic University in Chile initiated a reciprocal program.
The State Department's enthusiasm for the student exchange programs proved to be short-lived. Officials regarded government funding of the Junior Year program as temporary pump-priming, with the expectation that the sponsoring universities would transition to self-supporting programs. The universities had difficulty recruiting enough student participants and finding alternative sources of funding to make the program viable, but Fordham's Junior Year program managed to secure the funding to continue for several more years. The State Department also concluded that the Student Leader Seminars, "while generally well received and of benefit to the American student participants, are probably not the most effective use of the funds." It decided to notify the universities not to anticipate any additional financial aid, although they would be encouraged to continue the programs on their own initiative, if they chose to do so.
When the State Department solicited the 1961 budget priorities of the U.S. embassies in Latin America, the embassy in Chile was the only one to give a high priority to one of the student exchange programs, the UT-Chile Seminar. Likewise, according the State Department's records, The University of Texas was the only participating university that "has evidenced active interest for continuing the exchange another year." By 1966, four U.S. universities were operating exchange programs in Chile. UCLA sent a professor and five law students to Chile for a month. They earned praise for their maturity, fluency in Spanish, and academic preparation. New York University initiated an exchange with the University of Concepcion, and in the final phase of Vanderbilt's exchange with the University of Chile's School of Political Science, a single graduate student participated. Yet, The University of Texas's Student Leader Seminar with the University of Chile's Pedagogical Institute was exceptional in its longevity. With the ongoing support of the U.S. Government and the university, the program continued through 1967. By 1968, however, the U.S. student opposition to Vietnam had become so intense and pervasive that the State Department concluded that continuing the program would be counterproductive. Likewise, Chilean students' widespread opposition to the war made them less willing to have Americans on the Institute's campus.
The major force behind the program's success was Dr. Joe W. Neal, the founding director of the university's International Office. His artful resourcefulness enabled him to leverage the State Department's support while maximizing assistance from university offices and organizations. He also established strong allies within the Pedagogical Institute, the most radical and politically active branch of the University of Chile.
In his first meeting at the Pedagogical Institute, Neal took control of the selection process through a series of maneuvers that would ensure the Chilean campus's support of the program. When the institute's director announced that he would assemble a panel of suitable Chileans students to be considered, Neal surprised him by insisting that the competition be open to all students. He then met with the student leader union and distributed applications to their members after realizing that the group had been excluded. In the end, 150 students applied, and 140 appeared for interviews. In selecting the group of fifteen undergraduates, Neal considered the students' leadership experience and their academic standing. He also ensured that all six of Chile's political parties and different academic departments were represented. Two of the first participants were open communists; some were conservatives; others were moderates. The accompanying Chilean professor was chosen for his ability to get along well with the students. In the following years, these former Chilean student and faculty participants, especially Professor Luis Capurro, would become Neal's and the program's strongest allies. The fact that The University of Texas could sustain an ongoing exchange student program with the radical campus, where embassy personnel were not welcome, impressed State Department officials.
In a meeting of U. S. university coordinators of Latin American exchange programs in 1959, Joe Neal described how the Chileans who came to the Austin campus were "absorbed" by the host university's student leaders. Despite the language barrier, "a tremendous relationship" developed between the two groups. Each delegation of Chilean students experienced a Texas barbeque at Neal's ranch, "Horse Thief Hollow," where former and future Texas participants had the opportunity to become acquainted with some and to reestablish friendships with those whom they had met in Chile. Many of these relationships endured long after the program's termination.
Neal personally selected the Texas contingent as well as the Chileans. After a preliminary interview by a panel of former participants, each applicant met privately with Dr. Neal. In subsequent years, all of us wondered and many asked Neal why he had selected us, but he generally kept his own counsel. His criteria squarely aligned with those in early State Department drafts of the program that had recommended selecting U.S. students not merely on the basis of academic qualifications, but also on such qualities as leadership, maturity, adaptability, and friendliness that would "encourage a favorable understanding of this country." While we were not expected to espouse the U.S. Government's policies, we were encouraged to know what those policies and their rationales were. Therefore, the Texans going to Chile and the Chileans who came to the U.S. received preliminary briefings in Washington by State Department officials.
The 113 UT student participants during the program's nine-year span represented various segments of the university campus. Many were involved in student government; indeed, seven would serve as student body presidents. Others worked on the Daily Texan, the student newspaper. Musical talent was a plus. Each contingent included both independents and students in fraternities and sororities. If UT social organizations provided housing for a Chilean student, their members' chances of being selected improved significantly. At least eight members of the Tejas Club, one of the perennial host organizations, participated in the program. Some of the Texans were fluent Spanish-speakers and Latin American studies majors; others had had limited exposure to the language and culture of Chile. Participants spanned the era's political spectrum, from Young Republicans and R.O.T.C. to Students for a Democratic Society.
The subsequent professional paths of the program's alumni have affirmed the interpersonal skills that Joe Neal had perceived. Many became prominent lawyers, government officials, university professors, journalists, and civic leaders. One participant, Vilma Martinez, recently served as U.S. Ambassador to Argentina; another, Lloyd Doggett, is a member of Congress.
Neal also selected a university professor to accompany each group. In doing so, he chose some of the most popular members of the faculty. They included Joe Frantz, Dan Stanislawski, C. P. Blair, Joseph Michel, Robert Little, Charles Parrish, Donald Larson, Jessie Villarreal, and Michael Hall. Sam Johnson, a participant in the first group and a subsequent International Office staff member, also accompanied a number of the Texas groups to assist the professors. Richard Cohen performed a similar role with our 1966 group after having been to Chile in the previous contingent. Cynthia Keever, a member of the 1961 group, joined Neal's staff the next year. She then assumed responsibility for many of the program's administrative and logistical matters.
Why did a month-long experience in Chile more than a half-century ago have such a strong, enduring impact on virtually all the Texas exchange students? Was it the country itself or its people? Chile's stunning natural beauty made an immediate impression. We were enchanted by its snow-capped peaks; the lush valleys, parks, and roadside vineyards; the handsome 19th century neoclassical architecture; miles and miles of roadside vineyards; and the sparkling Pacific coastline.
Befriending and admiring the Chilean students came naturally. They were attractive, warm, thoughtful, and earnest. Many were several years older than we were; they had more responsibilities and fewer financial resources. Music was our international bonding agent. The appearance of a guitar inevitably triggered a spontaneous sing-a-long of traditional Latin favorites and popular U.S. folk songs. Most of our discussions focused on politics, a preoccupation of Chilean students, who were usually well-versed on domestic politics, economics, and international relations. Although their passionate and often dogmatic views left little room for ambivalence, they did not blame us for the U.S. policies they opposed. While I discounted as fanciful their persistent allegations of U.S. interference in Chilean elections, later revelations confirmed that they had been better informed on this issue than we Americans were.
It is no surprise that our Chilean counterparts have not bonded or rekindled their mutual experiences with festive reunions as we Texans have. Chilean politics was already polarized in the 1960s, but it became much more volatile in the following decade. A military coup overthrew Socialist Salvador Allende's government and established a dictatorship under General Augusto Pinochet in 1971. His forces rounded up and killed dissidents, including a number of our friends who had participated in the program. Another former Chilean participant, Federico Willoughby-MacDonald, who became an official in the Pinochet regime, managed to intervene on behalf of two of those who were targeted.
Perhaps the enduring significance of the exchange program is that it was an extraordinary experience at a uniquely impressionable moment in our lives. International travel was far less common among student populations at that time than it is today. Most of us knew little about the world and its other cultures. Being completely immersed in a different environment had a powerful influence on all of us. We underwent a change, a revelation of self-awareness. Some students who had already been to Chile cautioned us ahead of time that we would experience culture shock, not in Chile, but after we returned. And we did! We felt oddly different, as if part of us had remained in Santiago or Valparaiso. Some returning students coped with this void by frequently getting together in small groups. Perhaps it was not merely our camaraderie in Chile but also a special bond forged in this common experience that produced six marriages among the Texas participants, while four others married Chileans. Julius Glickman, a 1961 participant, invoked the poetry of T. S. Eliot to analyze our Chilean experience at the 1984 reunion: "And the end of all our exploring/ Will be to arrive where we started/ And know the place for the first time." The Chilean exchange program, Julius added, "enabled us to know ourselves and to know a little bit more about the world."
M. L. G.
Dear friends, the time we have eagerly awaited has arrived, and we have all gathered to celebrate each other and our beloved Chile. What is it that makes our time together so anticipated, so special? I think everyone in this room would say that our experiences in Chile changed our lives forever. We fell in love with Chilean songs, we fell in love with Chilean wine, we fell in love with the cordillera and Valparaiso, we fell in love with the Chilenos who welcomed us so warmly, and, yes, some of us even fell in love with each other. We left as small-town citizens of Texas, and we returned as global citizens of the world. We did not all become international lawyers or immigration lawyers, although some of us did; we did not all seek to rescue our imprisoned Chilean friends during the Pinochet reign of terror, but some did. I can safely say that we all came home determined to make our reimagined world a better place and that we have all done that in our own individual ways. And so we gather this weekend to share our stories, and our laughter, and to remember.