Chilean students come here to study
by Contra Costa Times
When the president of Chile, Michelle Bachelet, toured Northern California on June 12, Cristian Castro was too busy taking a rigorous qualifying exam to meet with the head of state.
But the significance of Bachelet's brief visit was not lost on Castro, a doctoral candidate in history at UC Davis. Three years ago, he was one of more than 100 high-ranking students who were awarded presidential scholarships by the Chilean government to study abroad.
At the time, Castro was one of a few who have "been lucky to get this money," he said.
But now, as part of an ambitious $5 billion scholarship plan that Bachelet touted during her whirlwind California tour, Chile hopes to send more than 6,000 students abroad each year by the turn of the next decade, with an emphasis on encouraging those studying science, economics and technology.
It's the kind of investment, said Castro and other Chilean students in California, that the South American country hopes will propel it to a better position in a globalized economy.
"I have an agreement with the University of Chile to go back and teach for them," said Castro, one of a small group of scholars in the humanities who benefit from the economics-focused program. "I feel the commitment to go back. If you're committed to the country, more than the government, you have to come back and pay back somehow. It's a moral issue to me."
Officials have not detailed all the specifics of the scholarship expansion, but one can expect to see more Chileans milling about the halls of California's top universities in coming years, as well as in colleges in Europe, Australia and other parts of the United States. The current awards have included tuition, travel expenses to and from Chile and a modest stipend of about $1,000 per month.
Jorge Rojas, recipient of one such award, is working on a doctorate in law at UC Berkeley, and helped draft the Chile-California partnership Bachelet signed with Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on June 12.
Usually, Rojas said, "the people who have access to the university (in Chile) are the high-society people. Poor people don't get access to the universities."
But Rojas said much of his enthusiasm about Bachelet's proposed expansion, which will take effect incrementally beginning this year, is that it will widen the opportunities for more qualified candidates to get a top-notch education and bring that knowledge back to scholarly and government institutions at home.
"I am from a poor family. Being here has really been a privilege," said Rojas, who grew up and was educated in the mid-sized city of Concepcion. "My parents always encouraged us to study. Education is the only way for people without money to get social mobility."
Chile has a special history with students who study abroad and bring what they have learned back home, sometimes with mixed results. In the 1950s, a group of Chilean economists studied at the University of Chicago under the tutelage of free market advocate Milton Friedman.
When they were finally able to apply their ideas to Chile's economy, it was under the conservative military dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet — the results of that economic experiment continue to be fiercely debated. Another Chile-U.S. exchange, of agronomists studying at UC Davis in the 1960s, is credited with helping to modernize the country's agricultural system.
But the fact that Bachelet — a center-left socialist whose father was killed by Pinochet's regime — is undertaking the biggest such exchange in the country's history is a sign that Chileans take such exchanges seriously, regardless of ideology, experts say.
"This is what all of Latin America should be doing but isn't," said Riordan Roett, a Latin America scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Chile's export economy is growing, especially to China and other parts of Asia, Roett said, and for Chileans to best be able to take advantage of that wave, they need to have the skills to innovate and add value to those exports.
"I think that the Chileans are moving exactly in the right direction," Roett said. "The growth of the world economy is going to be in Asia and the Chileans want to take advantage of that.