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O N C OU RSE Peter Neissa’s Spanish 520:

Gil Talbot

Modern Hispanic Culture and the Emerging Global Economy by Sally Holm Don’t bother adding Miquel de Cervantes’ epic novel, El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha, to your booklist for Peter Neissa’s advanced Spanish course. It’s not on the list. You’ll be better off with Paul Krugman’s International Economics: Theory and Policy—with a big caveat: you’ll need fluency in Spanish. Neissa, head of the Division of World Languages and chair of the Spanish Department, is plunging his students into the world’s emerging Hispanic markets—a world of stocks, investment, acquisitions, hostile takeovers, and big money. Very big money. Divided into groups of four, students in three sections of Spanish 520 started winter term flush with $10 million in virtual cash. Their mission: to select an actual Hispanic company and create a “business case” to persuade the other groups to invest in their chosen enterprises. They were encouraged to play the stock market, consider acquiring other companies, and develop resources. The company with the most assets at the end of spring term wins! It may sound like a game, but this is a very serious business. Students must research companies, countries, and financial markets. They must understand historical and political forces at work in Latin America and the consequences of trade treaties such as NAFTA. They write resumes and apply for jobs. They must prepare persuasive presentations on their companies. Students and teacher keep track of every transaction throughout the two terms. All in Spanish. In Week 3, which the syllabus calls “Los Cinco Misterios del Capitalismo” (from the book by Hernando de Soto), they are exploring “why capitalism triumphs in the West and fails everywhere else.” Neissa, a compact, brainy, energetic presence clearly relishes his role. He takes the students through a brief history of the European engagement with

Latin America and the dispersal of property by Western kings. He prepares his class for this week’s case—real and very much current—of a peasant named Francisco Quisbert who holds title, passed down through his family, to land around a salt lake high in the Bolivian Andes. The students must research and find the story. They pull their chairs and laptops around and hit the Web together, discussing the case without a word of English. Twenty minutes later, two groups are clearly struggling, but the third is onto the answer. Beneath the surface of Quisbert’s land lies the largest deposit of lithium in the world. Lithium, the lightest of all metals and highly reactive, is used in nuclear physics and weaponry, ceramics and glass production, aircraft, and batteries. Developed, the deposits would be worth a fortune, which has foreign investors and large multinational corporations clamoring to get in. But Bolivia’s president vehemently objects to anything but nationalizing the potential industry, even though the country lacks the resources to develop the site itself. How to acquire development rights to this vast potential wealth?

Born in Colombia, Neissa moved to the United States for undergraduate work at UMass– Amherst, then earned a master’s degree in Spanish language and literature at Harvard, and finally a PhD in Hispanic studies at Boston College. In between he taught, first at the high school level, then at Harvard, where he worked with two other colleagues to develop the prototype for Spanish 520 as an experiential, intermediate-level course. It caught on, filling a void Neissa had long recognized in language education, and began attracting Harvard Business School students. But Harvard, Neissa noticed, was still offering traditional literature courses while many students were looking for alternative professional language courses—language instruction that professional fields of business and science demanded in a global economy, courses that were offered to incoming freshmen at schools like Wharton. Looking around for a more progressive environment, he found Andover.

In PowerPoint presentations the next week, each group makes its case to the class. Renat Zalov ’11, dressed in a suit, confidently explains the “problema de litio” and proposes a means of getting an experienced Chilean company involved, hoping to convince other companies to invest. Students field difficult questions from classmates and teacher. The Spanish is fluent, complex, and highly technical. So is their grasp of the economics required.

It seems to be a good fit. His courses are always full, and he has found PA students to be “the best in the nation.” He is amazed at their talent and enterprise. He relates how the team of Apsara Iyer ’12, Paul Donovan ’11, Minymoh Anelone ’12, and Eve Simister ’12 in last year’s course persisted until they got the CFO of a large Spanish clean energy company—Iberdrola Renovables—on the phone for an interview. Neissa was very impressed. “These are high school students!” he reminded himself, doing the work of intermediate to advanced college students.

And that’s the point. Neissa is determined to pull foreign language instruction beyond the rich literature of the Spanish language into professional usage—in business, health care, energy, and the environment—while educating students about the issues facing the Hispanic world.

Neissa’s goal is to turn out students “who are able to converse in the world of Spanish business. You can have a Harvard MBA, but if they send you to Spain or Latin America and you can’t speak the language, you won’t be effective.” Cuidado, mundo. Aquí vienen.

Neissa is determined to pull foreign language instruction beyond the rich literature of the Spanish language into professional usage—in business, health care, energy, and the environment—while educating students about the issues facing the Hispanic world.


On Course: Spring 2011