George Mason University

News at Mason

State Department Collaboration Brings South American Student Leaders to Mason

February 24, 2012

By Rashad Mulla


New Century College Assistant Dean Lisa Gring-Pemble and Professor Rei Berroa, at center, toured the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., with students visiting from South America. Photo by Alexis Glenn

A group of 21 students from Bolivia, Paraguay and Peru spent the month of January at Mason as part of the U.S. State Department’s Study of United States Institutes for Student Leaders (SUSI) grant.

Hosted by academic institutions throughout the United States, the program includes an academic component, an educational tour of other regions of the country, local community service activities and an opportunity for participants to get to know their American peers.

Lisa Gring-Pemble, assistant dean of New Century College, and Rei Berroa, professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern and Classical Languages, directed the program at Mason.

“You know those moments when you feel like everything is right with the world? We had a lot of those in this program,” Gring-Pemble says. “Hearing our students share their personal experiences, perspectives and views on leadership was extraordinary.”

The program was geared toward students from underserved regions in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“The program required a lot of work and around-the-clock dedication,” Berroa says. “It was a tremendous success owing to all of the people involved, including the participants themselves.”

The selected students, college undergraduates, were identified by their embassies as being exemplary young leaders.


South American students participating in the State Department program performed at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. Photo by Alexis Glenn

“I was one of the teachers, yet I learned because I saw America through the eyes of others,” Gring-Pemble says. “The students were, without a doubt, one of the most intelligent, committed groups I have ever had the pleasure of working with. They had this abiding sense of commitment to family, to community, to learning and to making the most of their experience at Mason.”

The students received an on-the-go educational experience, traveling to different locations to learn about subjects native to those areas.

The student group studied American family life and culture in Pittsburgh, immigration in New York City, leadership and slavery in Philadelphia, the limits of discursive democratic decision-making in Gettysburg and American history in Williamsburg.

“Mason guided the students to see, learn and understand our imperfect society and encouraged them to transform their lives by serving their own societies,” Berroa says.

The students visited many famous landmarks, including the White House, the U.S. Capitol, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Small Business Administration, the Newseum and the offices of the Washington Post. In addition, they met with Sonia Sotomayor, Supreme Court justice, and Rex Lee Jim, vice president of the Navajo Nation, as well as local leaders from the City of Fairfax.

The program concluded with the student group meeting representatives of the State Department, including Maria Otero, under secretary of state. During the meeting, students from Mason and other SUSI programs gave research project presentations.

Gring-Pemble says programs like this infuse the university with a different kind of energy.

“Even though we are an incredibly diverse university, the type of diversity that these students brought was not already here,” she said. “The regions and ideologies these students represented were different than any others. This was innovation at its finest.”

In addition to her duties at Mason, Gring-Pemble served as the program director this winter for SUSI programs at Wheelock College and North Carolina Central University. She also directed Mason’s summer 2011 SUSI program. Berroa served as this winter’s academic director.

Jessica Oxendine, MA Spanish ’11, was the program’s administrative coordinator, while six current Mason students served as mentors:

  • Junior Sarah Brown (Latin American studies and criminology, law and society)
  • Graduate student Talia Orencel (public administration)
  • Freshman Karen Ponce-Corral (integrative studies)
  • Senior Kevin Argueta (integrative studies)
  • Senior Marine Herodet (foreign languages)
  • Senior Anna Martinez (government and international politics)