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Alumni Ambassador Assistance Leads to Student's Impromptu Chat with President-Elect of Chile

May 31, 2022

Rohan PopenoeRohan Popenoe ’22 was on a plane heading to visit the South American Patagonia region when he bumped into the 35-year-old president-elect of Chile, Gabriel Boric. “He sat down in the seat ahead of me,” said Popenoe, a dual international relations and economics major. “I got his attention through the crack in the seats. He was very nice and very interested in talking to me.” He recorded the seven-minute encounter, while his parents recorded video from their cell phones a few rows over. 

Popenoe was in Chile from Christmas to mid-January to research his honors project on the country’s constitutional referendum. Chileans overwhelmingly voted in spring 2021 to create a constitutional convention and elected 155 people to draft a new constitution.  

Helping Popenoe plan the trip was Ricardo Mena ’19 E.M.P.A., a native of Chile and a member of the Maxwell School’s Alumni Ambassador Program, which connects alumni with undergraduate and graduate students seeking networking and mentoring.  

Mena, who met Popenoe a few years ago at Maxwell and is policy adviser for Santiago’s regional government, was happy to help.  

The two met when Popenoe was a sophomore. Mena had served as a teaching assistant for the modern Latin America course taught by Gladys McCormick, history professor and Jay and Debe Moskowitz Endowed Chair in Mexico-U.S. Relations. It was in that class that Popenoe developed an interest in Chile.  

When Popenoe started focusing his honors project on Chile, Mena was his first contact.  

“I wanted to study Chile's constitutional referendum and the social upheaval there,” Popenoe said. “I wanted to do a trip there and get a good feel for the country because it was important to the region and to the world.”  The in-person conversations and observations were invaluable. “Ricardo was the main reason I was able to get interviews with people working on the constitution, scholars, NGOs that are working on it,” he said. “He connected me with some really great individuals who had interesting opinions. I definitely got way beyond what I would have expected.”  

Some experiences surprised him. “I was expecting a gung-ho attitude about the new constitution and setting an example for the world,” he said. “There was a lot more pessimism than I expected. People did not have a lot of faith in their government and this new system.” He met officials, experts and citizens. “I got to attend a neighborhood gathering,” Popenoe said. “A few hundred people were there asking questions. They were very engaged.”  

Mena, he said, “was just fantastic. I’d get up, hop on the metro and meet him for coffee or breakfast and talk about who I was meeting. He kept me busy.”  

Ricardo Mena BurgosBefore coming to Maxwell in fall 2018, Mena had worked in Chile’s federal budget office, where he implemented programs and policies on government transparency and public integrity. “At Maxwell I was very interested in learning about the use of technology in the public sector,” he said. “It helps you use data to make better decisions.”   

For a Winterlude program, he was in Washington, D.C.—a major goal for his time at Maxwell. He also earned a certificate in E-government Management and Leadership. “The mixture of knowledge and experience was perfect for me,” he said. He now works with the government of Santiago on transparency issues.  The pandemic canceled Popenoe’s initial travel plans. But he contacted Mena again last semester. “I told him, ‘I am not giving you any tips; I will help you myself,’” Mena said. “Then I started making networking plans.” In 10 days, Popenoe conducted 13 interviews. “He did very intense work and I helped him by connecting him,” Mena said. “He is a very impressive student.”  

Mena learned a few things, too. “It was very interesting for me to see this situation from the outside with another Maxwell colleague,” he said. 

Mena said he’s eager to continue working with Maxwell Ambassador program as well as coordinate with the SU Abroad Santiago program to help more Maxwell students who want to visit or work in Chile. "This experience was very interesting for me," he said. "I can be more than a tour guide. I can help with internships or contacts in the public sector or research."  

Gabriel Boric had been elected Chile’s new president a few weeks before Popenoe bumped into him. “He was up and shaking hands,” Popenoe said. “It was a political exercise to be there in economy class with the people. He was very open to talking with me and he gave me contact information for someone else working on the constitutional referendum.   

Popenoe attributes this impromptu conversation to "luck, timing, maybe some divine intervention." He can add Mena to that list.  

(This story originally appeared in the spring 2022 edition of the Executive Education alumni newsletter)

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