MEXICO CITY — A decade ago, George Reyes was a junior at Harvard with a yen to travel, empty pockets, and an unimaginative academic adviser. It was a bad combination.
He tried to figure out how to spend a semester abroad but was stumped by the bureaucracy at his department. He looked into getting a summer internship overseas, but was thwarted by the financial aid office.
"I was a poor kid who had made it to Harvard," says the 31-year-old native of Patterson, N.J., "... and it felt like everyone was saying, 'You want to do what now?! Are you nuts?' "
"There is an old Harvard tradition ..." says John Coatsworth, director of Harvard's David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, "... which says, if you are already at the best in the world, why go anywhere else?"
But, it turns out, there comes a time - even at Harvard - when traditions come up for review.
Last week, Harvard President Lawrence Summers and members of his faculty were in Mexico to admit that this particular tradition might have been somewhat misguided. Or, as they prefer to put it, times have changed.
"There has not been a time in the last century where there has been so much misunderstanding of the US and so much misunderstanding by the US of the world," Dr. Summers told some 400 Harvard alumni from across Latin America who gathered here for a two-day conference.
"This needs to be a preoccupation, especially for an institution as visible and as symbolic of the US as Harvard. We have opportunity and responsibility to promote international understanding," lectured Summers, as he laid out for his audience both the "how" and the "why" of this change of direction for Harvard.
The way Harvard intends to rise to that responsibility, Summers explained, is to ensure that every Harvard undergraduate gets a "significant" overseas experience, be it work, research, or study. The curriculum overhaul that will include this change - along with other innovations, such as a new focus on undergraduate scientific literacy - is expected to come into effect as early as next spring.
Harvard's first universitywide office overseas has already opened - in Santiago, Chile - with a mission to promote study abroad and international internships, along with other academic projects. Other such offices across the globe are expected to follow.
"We are living in a time where there is a need for leaders with global, cosmopolitan views, and having a foreign experience is uniquely important to creating these sorts of leaders," says Dr. Coatsworth, who participated in the curriculum review. "That," he adds, "...you might say is the amended Harvard tradition."
At a time when foreign mistrust of America is matched only by the country's bewilderment at the fact that it is unloved, the dispatch of Harvard students will make only a tiny dent in the international goodwill deficit.
But the new enthusiasm for overseas study - at a time when fewer foreign students are choosing to study in the US - is a measure of how globalization has reached even America's most venerable academic institution. It's a recognition that being an educated American today requires a measure of worldliness.
No, the concept of the semester abroad was not just invented in Cambridge, points out Carolyn Sorkin, director of Wesleyan University's Office of International Studies. Wesleyan's study abroad office. More than half of Wesleyan students spend a semester overseas. But, she emphasizes, Harvard's fresh approach to the topic is "absolutely" to be applauded.
"Anything which gets students to see and learn about other societies is very positive," she says.
"Harvard is playing catch-up," agrees Peggy Blumenthal, vice president of the Institute for International Education (IIE), a nonprofit based in New York. "But it's good they are, because when Harvard speaks, a lot of other schools listen up."
This is exactly what Harvard is hoping. Indeed, its other curriculum reviews in the 1940s and '70s served as catalysts for both debate and change in the US academic world.
Harvard hopes to provoke a debate with its new curriculum changes, says Jorge Dominguez, director of the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs. Every year at commencement in Harvard Yard, he says, the graduating seniors are "welcomed into a fellowship of educated men and women." Now is the time, he adds, for everyone to reevaluate the meaning of "educated."
"It's a very important debate to have," notes Abundio Maldonado, Guatemala's former ambassador to the US and a Harvard grad.
When he first got to Harvard in 1949 and told people he was from Guatemala, he recalls, the response he most often received was: "Is that in Texas?"
"I am afraid," says Mr. Maldonado, "... that the situation has only gotten worse since ... many young Americans do not have a clue about the rest of the world."
In fact, with or without Harvard's awakening, it seems US undergraduates, their parents, and their colleges have been realizing the need to "get a clue" for some time now, and the situation is finally, slowly getting better. The number of US students receiving credit for study abroad has been going up since the early 1990s - and jumped by 8.5 percent in the academic year 2002-03, reaching a record total of 174,629, according to IIE.
This increase coincides, ironically, with a post-9/11 decrease in foreign students coming to the US for study, Ms. Blumenthal notes. In the 2003-04 academic year, the US was experiencing its first absolute decline in foreign enrollments since 1971-72 - down 2.4 percent to a total of 572,509.
The decrease has to do in large part with changes in US policy that make it tougher to get a student visa, she explains, as well as concerns among foreign students that they might not be welcome in the US.
In starting its overseas undergraduate program with a study center in Chile, Harvard is also challenging a different tradition: US universities have always had stronger links with Asia and Europe than with next-door Latin America.
According to IIE, the country with the most foreign students in US colleges is India, with nearly 80,000 students, followed by China, South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan.
By comparison, even though the numbers have been increasing over the past 10 years, Mexico has only 13,300 students on US campuses. Colombia and Brazil have about 7,500 students each, Venezuela 5,500, Peru 3,700, Argentina 3,600, Ecuador 2,345, and Chile 1,612.
Meanwhile, IIE reports, 63 percent of American college students go to Europe for study abroad, while only 15 percent choose Latin America. "Kids think going right across the border is not exotic enough," explains Blumenthal.
But there is nowhere better to begin an exploration of the world than next door, insists financier David Rockefeller, who funded the Harvard Center for Latin American Studies.
"It's clear to me that America needs friends," says Mr. Rockefeller. "One good way to start making them is to get to know them. And there is no better place to start than with the neighbors."
Though he never made it abroad during college, Mr. Reyes did eventually fulfill his dream of traveling overseas, coming to Mexico three years ago to teach video and filmmaking at a local college. He rented a house in the hip Condesa neighborhood, learned Spanish, and decided to stay for a while.
Last week, he donned a nametag, put on a coat and tie, and came to the Harvard alumni event to hear Summers speak about globalization and the importance of international experience.
"I am really glad to hear Harvard admitting they were wrong," he says. "And it's OK. No one is perfect."