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The AmeriCenter Faculty Spotlight Series: Puerto Rico – The 51st State?

As part of our faculty spotlight series, The AmeriCenter recently caught up with Brittany Samko, who serves as Customized Program Administrator of the Global Education Office at George Mason University. Brittany is passionate about experiential education and is excited to be working with George Mason students and faculty to create meaningful and transformative global and domestic experiences. The AmeriCenter will be supporting Brittany during George Mason’s customized faculty-led program to Puerto Rico this summer. The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

The theme of your upcoming study away program, Puerto Rico: The 51st State? is on statehood and comparing the fight for statehood in Puerto Rico and the District of Columbia. Why is this such an important theme in the current context, and what drew the student participants to your program?

This is a great question and a big reason why I wanted to develop the program! Among the many founding principles of our country, equal representation under the law has long been a significant priority to the foundation of our democracy. However, to this day American citizens in DC and Puerto Rico are essentially still experiencing taxation without representation.  Statehood discussions for both locations have been at the forefront of politics recently, and it’s important for students to be knowledgeable on these issues that will affect the future of the United States in the years to come.

Could you briefly discuss the historical and cultural influences on statehood arguments for both Puerto Rico and DC? What are some of the similarities and differences in each respective argument for statehood?

I don’t want to give too much away as we’ll be discussing this in detail on the program, but there are some key similarities and differences. As mentioned earlier, both do not have equal representation under the law despite being American citizens. However, their histories vary drastically. DC is a constitutionally established district, but Puerto Rico was originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno before it was colonized by Spain and later, became a territory of the United States. This is important to truly understand and appreciate the various arguments for and against statehood for both DC and Puerto Rico.

This travel program is unique in that students without a passport can travel to discover the beautiful island of Puerto Rico. What do you see as the main benefits of study away and domestic programming as an alternative to study abroad?

In addition to not needing passports to travel to domestic locations, oftentimes the travel costs for domestic programs are less than international programs – especially when it comes to flights. There’s also a diversity of cultures to explore and experience in our backyard, so students can still build intercultural skills, expand their understanding, and have a greater appreciation and empathy for their fellow Americans through domestic programming. Finally, it can be a great stepping-stone for studying abroad in the future for students who may not be ready for international travel but still want to have a transformative experience.

In Puerto Rico, students will explore the rich history and culture of Puerto Rico, laying the foundations for various arguments for statehood and independence. Could you share some of the program highlights?

We have quite an exciting itinerary lined up! We’re starting with a walking tour of Old San Juan, and later in the week, we have some meetings scheduled with prominent Independence Party members and statehood advocates on the island. This will culminate with a visit to La Fortaleza to discuss statehood advocacy with Governor Pedro Pierluisi. I know the students are really looking forward to these meetings!

As this program represents some of the first student travel programs since the start of the pandemic, could you share some of the Covid-19 risk and safety procedures in place to ensure a smooth experience?

Safety has been a significant priority in our program design. There are some guidelines required by Puerto Rico, such as masks, mandatory pre-departure testing, and an island-wide curfew. In addition to these guidelines, I am recommending students limit non-essential activities outside the home, work, or school for a week prior to departure to limit exposure, and students are also being encouraged to get vaccinated. Furthermore, some changes have been made to our pre-travel itinerary and we are now meeting virtually for our pre-travel classes. It’s not ideal, but I wanted to do as much as I could to limit exposure prior to travel and this was something I could do that was in my control.