Drop-in Series: Hands-on learning from the life of a president


Inspired by Steve Jobs’ commencement speech at Stanford University in which he shared how auditing a calligraphy class in college inspired him years later to add diverse fonts to Apple computers, we set out to visit classes around campus that make us think differently about what it means to be educated. This is one in a series of drop-ins.

President Solis reviewing concepts for the final exam with his students

Master’s students at the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs are learning from a man widely regarded as one of the brightest minds in Central American politics—proving experience is, indeed, the greatest source of knowledge.

Former Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís Rivera is a professor of “Contemporary Politics in Central America” at FIU’s Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center (LACC), part of the Green School.

Solis has been a scholar for 35 years, long before he became a politician, and served as a researcher for LACC prior to his presidency in 2014. After his term, Solis decided to distance himself from the administration to view it from a different perspective.

He returned to FIU, which he refers to as his second alma mater, to teach the next generation of political leaders the current dynamics of Central American politics.

“The work I did in the past is there to be used for the purpose of teaching and learning lessons to improve things in the future,” says Solis.

Through examples and variables that are not only academic, but from real-life experience, his students understand the reality of politics in the region.

One lesson Solis engraves in his student’s minds is the importance of diversity. Before reaching conclusions and overstating generalizations, he explains they must understand Central America in its complexity, and not under the vision of stereotypes.

The class is set up in a circle and Solis opens up the floor for a discussion on the potential of conflict, as a result of misguided perceptions of Central America.

After students share their input, they jointly come to the conclusion that it is only natural that the United States sees Central America as a place where advantages could be materialized, but from experience, it is often seen as a threat because of its location and proximity.

Rafael Bastos, an international relations master’s student, took this class to broaden his knowledge in global politics and reinforce his career in political consultancy for the Democratic Party.

“This class was a hands-on experience to learn about the interactions between foreign leaders from someone who was actually part of government,” says Bastos. “His examples are not like the ones you find on the books, because professor Solis lived through them.”

The eye-opening course taught students, like Bastos, the expectations and realities of being a politician, as well as, the delicate balance of pleasing people while dealing with crisis.

Solis shares an anecdote on his experience dealing with militant activists when his administration decided to build a bridge above a swamp near Port Moin. Although the pillars of the bridge did not harm animal life, and there were no manatees in the swamp, activists claimed the administration did so as an attempt to kill the manatees.

Being a politician in the system often entails being targeted by activists fighting against the system. He says his family received multiple calls from activists making the sounds of manatees and falsely accusing him of killing them.

Solis’ experience serves as an open book on historical theories, governance and background formulations of global political leaders.

“The academic experience is valuable, but in this class, a well-respected academic with professional first-hand experience teaches us real world politics,” says Daniel Perez, a Latin American and Caribbean studies master’s student.

Perez, who also works for the Department of Defense, aims to get a better understanding of global political leadership and how politicians in Central America think things through.

The class has not only been a learning experience for the students, but also for Solis himself.

“They allow me to explore areas of knowledge that I had not seen before,” says Solis, inspired by the personal interactions with his students. “Every time I teach a class, I learn from my students, they’re my best teachers.”

Professor Solis’ next class, “Central America and the United States, a Contemporary Outlook,” will be offered in Fall 2019 at the undergraduate level.