On the Road to Internationalization in Latin America

Story / Ann Hayes
Photography / Pam Vargas


The Rio games are over. The medal counts are in the books. And while America continues to buzz about its Summer Olympic extraordinaires, the world was reminded of something deeper.

In an iPhone TV ad whose message resonated during the games, the late poet laureate Maya Angelou, observed, “I note the obvious differences in the human family. Some of us are serious, some thrive on comedy … I note the obvious differences between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”

While nations wrangle over political, religious, social, racial and economic divides, human nature often transcends all.

As Southeast begins the process of internationalization in teaching and learning this fall as a participant in the American Council on Education’s Internationalization Laboratory Program, Southeast President Carlos Vargas discussed the initiative, echoing Angelou’s words as he underscored the value of international education.

“When you go to another country and you are young, it reshapes you,” he says. “You all of a sudden find that people are people. They have the same challenges we have here. They are dealing with economic issues. They are looking at how to improve their living conditions, how to be successful by studying. They have their culture. They have their families. They suffer. They are happy the same way we are. We are more similar than we are dissimilar, and I’ve always felt that way.”

Vargas offered his reflections after returning from summer visits to Panama, Costa Rica and Cuba. There, he and others explored collaborative efforts to increase research and exchange opportunities for students and faculty.

“I have always believed a strong international campus enhances the educational experience of the students in ways that are even difficult to describe. There is a profound impact on the educational experience of the students,” he says. “When the campus has this opportunity to be engaged in multicultural activities, international activities–that creates a lot of energy, and it really transforms students’ lives.”

Rekindling Partnership in Panama

Panama native Dr. Etilvia Arjona Chang knows this all too well. She and members of the Southeast Alumni Association’s Panamanian chapter visited with Vargas during his Latin America trip, rekindling their relationship with the University during an alumni gathering in Panama City.

Dr. Chang shared with him a seed planted in her life many years ago when in 1945, as a young child, she helped her two aunts prepare for their trip to Cape Girardeau to become students at then Southeast Missouri State Teachers’ College. Dr. Chang has continued their legacy, encouraging new generations of Panamanians to attend Southeast and establishing scholarships for Southeast students, all while leading a distinguished academic career, creating translation and interpretation schools worldwide.

Similarly Panamanian Dianee Chang set out on her educational journey to Southeast 37 years ago and credits her degree as “a catalyst in providing me the opportunity to not only work as a special education teacher, but actually has given me the opportunity to own my own early intervention agency.”

Fellow Panamanian Gloria Ducreux says her Southeast degree propelled her to open Balboa Academy High School, a private, internationally recognized school in Panama.

“When I graduated from SEMO, I was immediately hired by the Department of Defense Schools,” she says. “My training and background in education were essential in the hiring of the prestigious DODDS schools. I was able to put all this to work in a different venture by opening Balboa Academy.”

Trudy Lee, assistant vice president for advancement services and planned giving, says she has been “surprised to see how much the University has impacted education in Panama over the years. The number of alumni who have made a difference there and credit their success to Southeast impresses me. The fact that we can continue to make an impact is exciting.”

The Panamanians welcomed the chance to reconnect with Southeast.

“It was a pleasure to have President Vargas visit my home country to both see all of the alumni and learn more about us and our country,” Dianee Chang says. “This visit opens new doors for others and reaffirms our relationship with the school. I truly hope that SEMO can extend its relationship with our institutions in Panama and open the door for more opportunities.”

The trip to Panama, where Southeast has had ties since 1935, took the delegation to several education institutions, including the Universidad Santa Maria la Antigua and the Universidad Especializada de las Américas where agreements to explore collaborations were signed. Pam Vargas, director of Research and Grant Development at Southeast, says potential grants to fund student and faculty exchanges were explored with Panamanian educators. The group also visited the Panama Canal, where Southeast alumnus Onésimo Sánchez is the manager of the Economic Intelligence and Research Unit in the Department of Corporate Planning and Marketing. The Panama Canal could serve as a site where Southeast economics and marketing students put their skills to work.

Dr. Juan Bosco Bernal, president of UDELAS, signing a Letter of Intent to explore collaboration between Southeast and UDELAS.

Opening Doors in Costa Rica

In Costa Rica, the group toured a hospital emergency room; a simulation lab at the Universidad de Iberoamerica in Tibas, Costa Rica; an international Christian elementary school; neighborhood clinics; and the Universidad Internacional San Isidro Labrador.

“We explored potential comparative education opportunities as well as possible student teaching placements for our students” that would send them and faculty to Costa Rica to observe in schools, says
Dr. Diana Rogers-Adkinson, dean of the Southeast College of Education.

Students could both teach English classes and take Spanish classes to help them teach English Language Learners here, bettering their understanding of education on a global scale, she says. The goal is for Southeast education majors to understand the important role of education in developing countries.

Exploring Opportunity in Cuba

Educational partnerships were also President Vargas’ focus in May when he joined a Missouri delegation, led by Gov. Jay Nixon, on a trade mission to Cuba. With recent progress toward normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations, the mission focused on growing Missouri exports to the island nation, especially agricultural products. There, President Vargas visited with higher education officials discussing collaboration on potential research projects, eventually leading to student and faculty exchanges.

The Common Denominator

President Vargas, a Mexico City native, acknowledged that being bilingual may have landed him a spot in the governor’s trade delegation to Cuba. But it’s a position he willingly accepts, acknowledging undeniably his Spanish speaking skills opened doors in Panama and Costa Rica as well.

“Do I think that we have an advantage—and I would call it a competitive advantage—with countries that are Spanish-speaking? Yes, I think we do,” he says. “The fact that the president can go there and not only communicate but also, it’s really not just speaking the language—there’s something beyond that—it’s that you understand the culture. You can relate to certain traditions, certain cultural practices that make you feel part of the family.”

Because of President Vargas’ familiarity with the culture and his ease with the Spanish language, “I think this is … probably only the beginning of those international contacts that he will be able to make,” says Dr. Gloria Green, chair of the Southeast Department of Nursing.

Dr. Vargas and Dr. Trudy Lee of Southeast (right) with alumna Enith Duenas and Dr. Etilvia Arjona Chang.

What’s Next?

This fall, College of Education officials will return to Panama to begin finalizing plans for student teaching placements in English Immersion schools in Panama and Costa Rica.

“This allows our students to bring curriculum to these schools and simultaneously learn from the experience of teaching in another culture,” Rogers-Adkinson says, adding short-term comparative education summer opportunities for education majors are also possible.

“Understanding the global importance of education and seeing the opportunities it brings is an exciting learning opportunity for our students,” she says.

Pam Vargas says efforts are underway to identify U.S.-based funding for collaborative projects in Latin America.

Meanwhile, Green says Southeast’s Department of Nursing hopes its students elect to learn about alternate ways of providing healthcare next summer as part of the clinical component of NC492 Community Health both in Panama and in Costa Rica.

“Both of those countries truly have a national healthcare system. So for the students to see that applied would be very helpful,” she says. “They also see patients with different health issues,” including different home lives, food and schooling. “Getting that multicultural impact is really helpful. A lot of our students will not practice in Southeast Missouri. They will go all over the world, so they need to see that broader picture of what healthcare can be.”

President Vargas says Latin America is an important part of the world for Southeast to explore, and the potential exists for many other academic programs to benefit from partnerships there. Next up could be Mexico, where “we have hardly any connections,” he says.

“This trip helped us all realize the things we need to do better. Now we are making a concerted effort to improve our international recruitment,” he adds, noting the recent hire of Kevin Timlin as executive director of International Education and Services. “That’s why this plan on internationalization is going to be good. If we take advantage of the opportunities, the rewards will be big.”

Juan Plenells, president of USMA, signing a Memorandum of Understanding for student exchange between USMA and Southeast.


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