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Chilean President Travels Coach—Right Next to a Maxwell Student

May 10, 2022

The lucky coincidence was a highlight of Rohan Popenoe’s research trip to Chile, made possible by several Syracuse University programs and people.

Rohan Popenoe lost an argument with his sister over which of them would have to take the seat next to a crying baby on their flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas, Chile, in late December 2021.

Just as he settled into the seat, a somewhat deflated Popenoe took note of a fellow passenger headed down the aisle in his direction. Popenoe immediately recognized his beard and a trademark tattoo on his arm showing a storm encircled lighthouse in the Strait of Magellan: The approaching passenger was none other than Gabriel Boric, the 35-year-old president-elect of Chile.

Popenoe, who earned a bachelor’s degree in economics and international relations this past May, could not believe his luck. He was in Chile on a three week Syracuse Abroad trip to research his honors thesis, focused on the Chilean discontentment that led to a rewrite of the country’s constitution and the election of the unconventional leftist, Boric.

“He sat down right in front of me, in economy class with everyone else,” recalled Popenoe. “People started to recognize him, and he shook their hands and gave autographs.” From the other side of the plane, Popenoe’s sister and parents—who had joined him for the first week of his trip—sent texts urging him to seize the opportunity to meet him and ask Boric a few questions for his project.

Student Rohan Popenoe gives thumbs up in the Convecion Constitutional de Chile
Student Rohan Popenoe in the Convencion Constitutional de Chile.

“I took my chance. I got his attention through the seat by saying his name twice, and then asked him if he would take five minutes to answer a few of my questions. He said ‘Yes, but later in the flight.’”

Two hours later, Popenoe leaned forward and began interviewing Boric between the seats. He recorded the seven-minute exchange, while his parents recorded video from their cell phones a few rows over.

“We talked about his role in facilitating the new constitution, the reasons behind strong Chilean institutions,” he said. “He was very amiable, no rough edges, and genuinely interested in our conversation.”

The encounter was the centerpiece of a successful trip that was made possible by several University programs and people, not the least of which was a Chilean alumnus Popenoe got to know a few years earlier at Maxwell: Ricardo Mena ’19 E.M.P.A.

Mena served as a teaching assistant during Popenoe’s sophomore year for the Modern Latin America course taught by Gladys McCormick, associate dean for diversity, equity and inclusion and Jay and Debe Moskowitz Endowed Chair in Mexico-U.S. Relations. It was in that class that Popenoe developed an interest in Chile.

McCormick became his thesis advisor. “I began to follow current events in the country and made plans to study abroad,” said Popenoe. “I wanted to study Chile’s constitutional referendum and the social upheaval there. I wanted to visit and get a good feel for the country because it was important to the region and to the world.”

The study abroad trip was nearly derailed by COVID and shortened to three weeks instead of a semester. The frustrations and worry wound up being for naught: The trip was the experience of a lifetime and perfectly timed since it not only coincided with Popenoe’s senior year research needs but also happenings in the Chilean government.

The experience was made possible with a grant from the Syracuse Office of Undergraduate Research and Creative Engagement (SOURCE) and the support and encouragement of McCormick, the Syracuse Abroad Santiago team—Mauricio Paredes and Paula Lopehandia—and, of course, Mena. In Chile, Mena was then working as a policy adviser for Santiago’s regional government. A year after earning his executive master of public administration, he learned about Maxwell’s new Alumni Ambassador Program and quickly applied. In the fall of 2020, he joined its inaugural cohort.

Student Rohan Popenoe sits at a picnic table with Ricardo Montero Allende during his trip to Chile
Rohan Popenoe, left, interviews Ricardo Montero Allende, a Chilean lawyer who was elected as a member of the Chilean Constitutional Convention

Upon hearing about Popenoe’s plans, Mena was happy to help.

“Ricardo was the main reason I was able to get interviews with people working on the constitution, scholars and people from NGOs,” said Popenoe. “He connected me with some great individuals who had interesting opinions. My expectations were far exceeded.”

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 more pessimism than I expected. Some people did not have a lot of faith in their government and this new system. Changing negative perceptions is one of the goals of my thesis project.”

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, adding that he is eager to continue working with the Maxwell Alumni Ambassador and Syracuse Abroad Santiago programs. He recently began a new position as a program officer for Chile and South Cone at IDEA International. “This experience was very interesting for me. I can be more than a tour guide. I can help with internships or contacts in the public sector or research.”

After completing his degree this May, Popenoe will take a few months off and then go to work; he has already been hired as a business development analyst for a financial technology firm. He is also considering graduate school—law or political science. Ultimately, he hopes for a career that will enable him to travel the globe and experience new cultures.

He is already dreaming about a return to Chile and plans to send Boric’s office a translated copy of his thesis and a thank-you note. Boric took office on March 11. Popenoe has closely followed him in the international media. He has also had plenty of time to reflect on their airplane meeting.

“I was riding a cloud for the whole trip,” added Popenoe. “I could not believe how lucky I was to have been able to do that.”

—By Renee K. Gadoua and Jessica Youngman

About the Ambassador Program
Headshot of Alumnus Ricardo Mena

Ricardo Mena '19 E.M.P.A.

Ricardo Mena ’19 E.M.P.A. is among the first to have joined the Maxwell School’s Alumni Ambassador Program following its launch in the fall of 2020.

The program was designed by the Office of Enrollment Management to provide networking, mentorship and other supportive services to prospective and current Maxwell students. Just shy of two years later, the program boasts 233 ambassadors who represent a diverse mix of degree programs and professional pursuits.

Interested in joining? Passionate, engaged alumni are encouraged to apply in the summer of 2022, when applications will again be accepted.

Interested in joining? Passionate, engaged alumni are encouraged to apply in the summer of 2022, when applications will again be accepted.

To learn more, visit the Ambassador Program page.

Published in the Summer 2022 issue of the Maxwell Perspective

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