Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Group Study Exchange Delegation Returns with New Awareness of Turmoil in Argentina

Michael Stimpert recently led four young professionals on a month-long trip to Argentina as part of Rotary's Group Study Exchange (GSE).

Here is his written summary of the trip:

Comments for the RCB Viewer
It was my pleasure to serve as the Team Leader for this year’s Group Study Exchange (GSE) program with Rotary District 4915 in Buenos Aires Province, Argentina. GSE has four main objectives: (1) provide an opportunity for young business people to become fully immersed in another culture, compare business methods, and learn to use another language in daily life situations; (2) improve the prospects for friendship and world peace through one-on-one contact; (3) provide Rotarians with an opportunity for international service; and (4) introduce young people to the purpose and power of Rotary.
Team members are selected by the District GSE Committee, which is chaired by Dave Peterson. They must be between 25 and 40 years of age, have demonstrated leadership skills, an interest in community service and development, and a track record of academic and professional success. This year’s team consisted of two men nominated by RCB, Saul Infante who is a consultant working for North Highland and Michael Liss who is a commercial banker with SunTrust Bank; as well as two women, Paige Pushkin who works for Literacy Action and Jane Reinberg who is a graphic designer and web page architect nominated by the Marietta and Dunwoody clubs respectively.
In preparation for the trip, the team met eight times for a total of 27 hours of classroom study of Spanish, preparation and practice of the presentations that we would make to Rotary Clubs in Argentina, and lectures on the history and current programs in Rotary and how GSE fits into the objectives of the organization. In addition, team members put in countless hours on their own sharpening their language skills and doing research on the history, culture, economics, and politics of the Argentine Republic.
District 4915 consists of most of Gran Buenos Aires less the capital city itself. In other words, it forms a semi-circle of suburbs around the capital about 60 miles long and 60 miles wide. The district consists of 77 clubs and about 1300 members, so the average club has 17 members. The largest club we visited had 25 members. Many of the clubs own the building in which they hold meetings and often rent the facility to individuals or other organizations for outside meetings or social events.
During our four weeks in Buenos Aires, we were hosted by Rotarians in their homes. Because of the relatively short distances between clubs we were only required to move three or four times, so we got to know our hosts quite well. Few of our hosts spoke English. Two of our team were quite proficient with Spanish, two were novices, and I have a fairly good command of basic Spanish but found deep discussions of politics and economics to be beyond my capabilities. This sometimes led to awkward moments, but we were always able to make ourselves understood in the end.
We were welcomed on the day of our arrival with a trip to a historically important village two hours from the airport where we toured a museum, got a history lesson, and then enjoyed an asado, the traditional gaucho barbeque. We quickly learned the generosity and friendliness of our hosts. I must also add that the Argentine food, featuring the local beef, is extraordinary. Even when prepared on a parilla (ordinary grill) or in an oven, the beef is unbelievably tender and flavorful. The Argentines claim that this is due to the fact that almost all of the cattle there are not fattened with grain and the quality of the grass in the Pampas is much better than in any other part of the world.
A typical day began early and closed with a dinner that began at 9 pm and ended at midnight. Most weekdays included a Rotary Club meeting at which we were both the guests of honor and the program. We had a 25 minute presentation in which all five of us gave a short PowerPoint assisted talk (in Spanish, of course) about ourselves and some aspect of life in Georgia. These meetings were always at night and included dinner with much wonderful Argentine wine.
Meetings during the day included visits with local political dignitaries, visits with business people, bankers, the stock exchange, sports stadiums, colleges, specialty schools, museums, cultural sites, government buildings, churches, and industrial parks. Weekends often included trips to the countryside for asados, horseback riding, conversation, and relaxation or boating on the River Plate.
We toured the Cámera de Diputados (their Congress) and met with one of the Representatives. We also toured the Casa Rosada, which is their White House. We met with the mayor of La Plata and were scheduled to meet with the mayor of Lomas de Zamora, but that meeting was cancelled due to a demonstration being held in the city hall. (Two other meetings were cancelled due to demonstrations which blocked roadways and made it impossible for us to reach our destination.)
The clubs showed off some of their projects which included a school for the deaf, a school for teaching Spanish as a Second Language to immigrants and indigenous peoples, a cancer treatment facility, and a clinic in a very low income area.
Living with Rotary host families was to be part of the cultural immersion we were to experience. At our second stop, Quilmes, there were not enough host volunteers which required that the three men share two bedrooms and one bath in a house that was occupied by its owner only late at night. We missed the opportunity to interact with a family and to be forced to use our Spanish. Without exception, our hosts were kind and generous with both their time and their homes. The exchanges that we had with these wonderful people were, without doubt, the highlight of our month in Argentina.
The things that surprised us the most were the constant and bitter remarks about the current government and its programs which were viewed as completely controlled by the trade unions and extremely anti-business, the incredible amount of graffiti on almost every building, the constant fear of crime which caused everyone to fortify their homes and use extreme caution at night, and amazingly aggressive driving which terrified all of us.
All of us left Argentina with a sense of satisfaction that we had learned a great deal about the country and its citizens and had fulfilled our role as ambassadors for Georgia and the United States. We all improved our ability to communicate in Spanish, gained respect for what Rotary does in so many places, and had an opportunity to both teach and learn from others in our fields of work. 
- Michael Stimpert