In the summer of 1974, as a political pressure cooker finally ended with President Nixon’s resignation in August, a group of 19 Beloit students, including myself, prepared for our Peru seminar
in Arequipa, coming that fall. Forty-two years later, with another troubling presidential cauldron bubbling, our tightly knit seminar group gathered last August for a stirring reunion at my family’s old summer camp, on a mill pond near Mystic, Connecticut.
We are members of the classes of ’75 through ’77 who were dubbed “El Grupo Wis” by the Arequipa newspaper that carried an article about our seminar. Our now 87-year-old leader, Professor Alonso Benavides, presided in Beloit, in Arequipa, and again at Mystic. Twelve of our full company were at our fourth reunion this past August. With the virtual participation of the other seven members, and also of Prof. Benavides’ ex-wife and our co-leader in Arequipa, Norma Wilder Benavides’64, we savored and toasted our memories and accomplishments with ceviche, pisco sours, and much mirth.
We could not fully appreciate it then, but Beloit’s only Peru seminar opened our adolescent eyes to the world writ large and led many of us to international, educational, and altruistic careers. For all of us, it was a formative bonding experience that remarkably enhanced our lives.
Back in 1974, after arriving in Lima, we flew to Cusco, where our altitude sickness was treated with mate de coca. Then a mind-expanding three-day ride across the Altiplano on the highest railroad in the world to Puno, Lake Titicaca, with its floating villages, and Arequipa completed our introduction to this spectacular and varied land.
La Universidad Nacional de San Augustin is our Peruvian alma mater. Members of El Grupo Wis studied Peruvian archaeology, literature, sociology, indigenous music and dance, and Quechua. We lived with families from Arequipa, Prof. Benavides’ hometown. Instructed to speak only Spanish (and Quechua) during the semester, we plunged fully into this fertile foreign culture.
As we recalled this past August, El Grupo Wis encountered knotty logistical and cultural obstacles before and during the seminar. When one student in our group lost her passport and ended up in a Lima jail, Prof. Benavides had to summon his considerable political skills. Beloit College is to be commended for making a courageous choice at a time when international higher educational opportunities, especially high-risk/ high-reward programs like the one in Arequipa, were even more unavailable than they are now.
Field trips took us to the mystical Inca citadel Machu Picchu, on a mountaintop overhanging the sacred Urubamba River, and down to the Pacific shore. When our bus broke down, we piled into the back of a rusty mining truck and snaked up and down sinuous mountain roads, as condors soared (or were they circling?) over us, to an indigenous market at the bottom of a terraced canyon where agricultural products and local wares were offered alongside traditional therapeutics.
Some of us briefly left sunny and temperate Arequipa and scaled the 19,100-foot El Misti, nearly a mile higher than the highest of the Rocky Mountains, just a dozen miles outside town. El Misti, which has erupted since our visit, is an andesite stratovolcano whose grey and yellowed maw wafted sulfurous vapors into the thin air, imparting an eerie overprint onto our oxygen-starved perceptions.
We took academic trips to sites where we conducted primary archaeological research under our Peruvian professor’s supervision. At the end of the semester, we were back in Lima for a week, with its history, archaeology, and art museums.
The Peru seminar opened the hearts and minds of 19 students from a small liberal arts college in Wisconsin to a new world and to friendships that bind us still. This past August we relived the experience with photos, artifacts, and stories. Listening to Prof. Benavides, as ever vigorous but composed, we felt transported back to an enchanted place and time. He said it was a professor’s dream-come-true that an educational experience he orchestrated could have had such a profound and long-lived effect on students.
El Grupo Wis has a unique but universally teachable perspective on how differences among us may be synthesized into a more abundant and healthful whole. Our world and the lives of those we have known since are better for it. We offer our gratitude to Professor Benavides, to the college, and to each other.
Viva El Grupo Wis!