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Students Get a First-Hand Look at the "New Colombia" During Political Science Seminar Trip Abroad

by Bill Giduz
Columbia's Vice Minister of National Defense
Colombia's Vice Minister of National Defence was among several government officials to host the Davidson College contingent.

For the fourth time in as many years, Professor of Political Science Russell Crandall accompanied 13 students to Colombia to witness first-hand the economic and social development that has taken place in the Andean nation on the heels of more than 50 years of armed conflict.

The group enjoyed a full itinerary every day, and took opportunities in the evening to experience Colombian culture. "What we lacked in sleep, we made up for in delicious Colombian coffee," said Paul DiFiore '13. "By the end we were all exhausted, but no one would have traded any of the precious few waking hours we had for sleep."

The group's schedule included meetings with U.S. and Colombian government officials, representatives of the United Nations, and leaders from non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and the private sector. The face-to-face engagements allowed students to explore the challenges and opportunities faced by a country that has been defined in modern times by drug-related violence and civil unrest.

The eight-day journey began at La Minga, an eco-friendly retreat center located on the outskirts of Bogota. There they learned about the business model of UnBosque, a logging company that hires internally displaced persons (IDPs).

Vivan Christman, founder of UnBosque, noted that his business model's success rests in the philosophy that "reconciliation requires a focus on the future -- not on the past." Colombia is home to in excess of four million IDPs -- more than any other nation.

Paul Di Fiore 13 interviewed by Columbian media
Paul DiFiore '13 was interviewed by Colombian media. DiFiore and Associate Professor of Political Science Russ Crandall are co-authoring a paper about the trip to be published in a journal of international affairs.

At the U.S. Embassy, the group met with the deputy American ambassador, commander of the Special Forces Unit, and the heads of the USAID economic development and counter narcotics missions. They also had the honor of speaking with Colombia's vice minister of defense, as well as the deputy director for the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights.

"The individuals we met exuded incredible confidence in Colombia and an enormous amount of passion for and knowledge about the country," said Kenneth Westberry '13. "The atmosphere of optimism was inspiring."

While most of the four-day itinerary involved meetings with government and NGO officials, one encounter provided students with an entirely different perspective.

"We held a meeting with a former drug addict and gang member who is now an internationally recognized peace advocate," Crandall said. "The meeting took place in what was once one of Bogota's roughest neighborhoods where his organization is located."

From Bogota, the group traveled northwest at the crack of dawn to the transformed city of Medellin, where they were shown hospitality by the acting mayor and other officials. The morning continued with a meeting with a representative from the International Red Cross who is actively negotiating with Marxist guerrilla deserters. The students also learned about "Culture E," an initiative to invest in the city's entrepreneurial sector and bolster living conditions for the poor. All were inspired by the city's remarkable story of initiative, determination and progress.

In the 1980s, at the height of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar's reign of terror, Medellin was ranked among the most violent cities in the world. It now boasts clean, efficient public transportation and a library that allows patrons to check out books without providing identification, on their honor.

Davidson students group photo in Columbia
Davidson students toured Bogota and Medellin, Colombia, to learn about the country's efforts to build infrastructure and social capital in the wake of decades of violence.

Before returning to Charlotte, the group was treated to a day of relaxation at a finca (plantation) in Colombia's coffee country, traveling through the mountains by bus, Jeep and horse for more than eight hours to arrive at a place often described as paradise. The natural beauty and fine cuisine of tamales and fresh fruit inspired reflection and appreciation for the strides Colombia has made in the past decade

"Colombia has made it this far because of the wherewithal of the people -- people who continue to view the future with hope," said a local host.

The Colombia trips originated out of Crandall's "Insurgencies and Counterinsurgencies" seminar, and have been made possible in large part because of the support of Colombian national and Davidson College alumnus Eduardo Estrada '03. On previous trips, students met with a Nobel Peace Prize nominee, demobilized guerrillas, leading journalists and correspondents from National Public Radio and The Washington Post.

"I've been able to rely upon colleagues and friends from government and academia that help us to pursue this academic visit, and give us remarkable access," Crandall said.

Each year, upon their return, the students present an on-campus public lecture and discussion. The next trip will take place during winter break of the 2013-2014 academic year.