Features
Written by: Dr. Seneca Vaught

Swapping Scholars: The Niagara University – Universidad Sergio Arboleda Professor Exchange Program

Of the numerous diversity initiatives Niagara University has engaged in over the last five years, the Niagara - Sergio Arboleda University Professor Exchange Program is one of the most unique. The program provides a weeklong intellectual and cultural exchange, allowing faculty members from Niagara University and Universidad Sergio Arboleda to visit, lecture, tour and research in Colombia and the United States. The program was established several years ago by Gina Ponce de Leon, associate professor of Spanish, and the Latin American Studies program to facilitate a cross-cultural experience between faculty members across colleges and to meet cultural diversity objectives of the strategic plan. Since the program's first exchange in 2007, Dr. Joseph Little, assistant professor of English; Dr. Tenpao Lee, professor of commerce; and Dr. Abdiweli Ali, associate professor of economics; have all spent a week in Bogotá lecturing on various topics and absorbing Colombian culture.

This past March, I was delighted to join the program as the fourth participant. Initially, I was a bit apprehensive because Colombia has frequently been featured on the U.S. State Department travel-warning list for its problems with drug wars, kidnappings, and guerilla conflicts. Notwithstanding these reservations, from my first moment there, the Colombia I encountered was vastly different from the one in the American imagination. Bogotá is an impressive city: romantic, majestic, and open. The majestic plateau in the Andes Mountains, some 8,000 feet above sea level, is home to more than 7 million people. The city has experienced substantial economic growth in the last seven years and has become an increasingly popular destination for American investors and tourists. It presents an optimistic outlook of endless possibilities in a culturally diverse and politically stable Latin America.

In addition to its economic boom, the city is an interesting place to learn about race, class, urban development, and economics. People migrate to Bogotá from all over Colombia in hopes of finding better opportunities. Many have succeeded, but many others slide deeper into poverty. Thus the "Athens of Latin America," as it is called, faces common challenges of urbanization in the modern era akin to New York, Johannesburg, and Shanghai.

Universidad Sergio Arboleda grew like a tree from the midst of these historical challenges. It was established as a private university with a mission to train skilled professionals in science, research, and culture, structured according to the principles of Christian and humanistic philosophy. Its founders intended it to develop leaders in economic development, as well as scholars of cultural and international issues. The main campus is nestled in the heart of the city and is bustling with student activity during the day. Many of the students I met were very similar to their American counterparts - entrepreneurial-minded, optimistic, and curious about the outside world. During the seven lectures I gave on various topics in African and African American history, I was peppered with a series of critical questions about race and politics in the United States, the economy, and Niagara University.

While there, I also spent a significant time with professors, addressing intellectual problems in a cross-cultural interdisciplinary framework. For example, I participated in a series of discussions with professor Catherine González comparing the conditions of indigenous populations in Colombia to Afro-Colombians and Afro-Americans. Discussions with Maria Christina Lizcano helped me to understand the proliferation of African influence in the music of Colombia from cumbia to bajanato. I also spent a bit of time discussing perspectives of race and business culture that I had not previously considered with Javier Gomez, a professor of marketing, who participated in the exchange the year prior to my arrival.

Collectively, these exchanges helped me to think of my research on Afro-Americans in the light of a broader historical narrative, but also helped me to more clearly explain the significance of the these historical problems to a broader audience. In the past, I have given numerous lectures on American slavery, but when I delivered this lecture to a Colombian marketing class, I had to think about the global tragedy from a different perspective. Additionally, I had to confront questions about the moral impact of slavery to an audience whose nation had vastly different economic and cultural outcomes with slavery than the United States.

For the final component of the exchange, I flew to the northern coast of the country and spent two days at Universidad Sergio Arboleda's Santa Marta campus. Santa Marta is a diverse coastal community that reveals the rich cultural diversity of the country. Colombia has the third largest population of African people in South America with a population of 4-8 million. In Bogotá, the influence of African and indigenous population is muted, but in Santa Marta the pluralism and syncretism of Colombian culture is readily revealed in the bustling street markets, bombastic bajanato music blaring from stereos, and the ubiquity of Koguis mochila (bag) design patterns. There I delivered a lecture on Afro-American politics to the School of Communication and Journalism. I was warmly greeted and engaged by the students and faculty there. My hosts provided me with a thorough cultural and historical tour of the area -- including the famous Tairona State Park and the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino. Equally important, we had many discussions about similarities, differences, and parallels in the histories of the United States and Colombia. They had a keen interest in issues of race and politics in the United States and I wanted to learn about perceptions and developments of similar issues in Colombia. It was a wonderful exchange!

The day I left Colombia I shed silent tears, but my joy returned when my Colombian counterpart, professor Luis Angel Madrid, arrived at Niagara University to complete this year's exchange. Professor Madrid completed a series of lectures around the campus as I had done in Colombia. A highlight of his visit occurred when he lectured my Introduction to Africana Studies on race and class in Colombia. The students were thoroughly engaged in the subject as he outlined the hidden-in-plain-view history of Afro-Colombians in the country from El Choco to Cartagena. His brilliant lecture on Afro-Colombians was complementary to a semester-long course objective to explore cultural diversity within the African Diaspora. I was pleased to continue the exchange of ideas that I had begun with him in Colombia and inspired to continue to research the subject.

The Niagara - Universidad Sergio Arboleda Professor Exchange Program is a unique initiative that will continue to contribute to cultural diversity initiatives on campus. We hope to see the program continue to grow in its fifth year. It has already yielded significant academic fruit with the publication of an article by Abdiweli Ali in Universidad Sergio Arboleda's journal Empressa y Economia. I am scheduled to submit a piece for a forthcoming issue. While the program provides a significant cultural and intellectual exchange for Niagara and Sergio faculty, in the future we hope that we can expand the program to meet the need for our students to explore Latin American history and politics, the African Diaspora, and the Spanish language firsthand. Work on this initiative has already begun.

The scholar swap pioneered by Niagara University and Universidad Sergio Arboleda is truly a neo-Colombian exchange that will transform both campuses in ways that none of us can imagine.