“This Will Change Your Life”

How one study abroad experience inspired global generosity
Sunset along the bay in Chimbote, Peru

Sunset along the bay in Chimbote, Peru

In the span of a few years, Ralph Mendelson’s life had taken a fortuitous turn.

He had gone from cleaning toilets in a San Francisco bar—working as a “swamper”—to interviewing cabinet ministers in the Peruvian government about building a steel plant in Chimbote. It was, as he describes, the most exciting thing he has ever done in his life.

The journey from California to Peru actually began in Minnesota. Mendelson (BA ‘52, international relations), a Bay Area native, had transferred from San Francisco State to the University of Minnesota in 1950 because it was the only land-grant institution that did not have compulsory Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC). 

Once he arrived, Mendelson recalls looking at courses and being intrigued by a class called Latin American History and Government. It was a post-graduate course and required faculty approval, so Mendelson knocked on the door of history professor Donald Beatty and asked to join.

“He couldn’t believe my arrogance,” laughs Mendelson, “so he let me in the course.”

Beatty became a mentor and, during the course of one of their many discussions, asked Mendelson if he had ever heard of an organization called SPAN, Student Projects for Amity among Nations. At the time, the university partnered with SPAN to send students out to countries all over the world. But the program went beyond study abroad, students were also required to conduct an independent research project related to the experience.

Dreaming in Spanish

“Beatty and I talked about it and we came up with an economic analysis on an attempt to start a steel industry in Peru,” Mendelson says. And so, months later, thanks to the encouragement from his mentor and a loan from his aunt and uncle, Mendelson arrived in Chimbote, a fishing village nearly 300 miles north of Lima.

Ralph Mendelson
Ralph Mendelson (BA '52, international relations)

The village was home to a state-owned hotel, a secluded beach, and thousands of birds who perched along the harbor’s rocks. “Every day at 4:00 in the afternoon, as if someone had fired a cannon, the birds would fly to the mainland,” Mendelson reflects.

In the mornings, he swam in the bay, and in the afternoons and evenings, he spent time at the site of a hydroelectric plant, engaging in conversations with Peruvian engineers and government officials, and analyzing the social, economic, and environmental implications of a new steel industry infrastructure.

The conversations were all in Spanish, and Mendelson jokes that he went to bed every night with a headache, but the experience left a lasting impression. “I came as close to fluent as I’ve ever been in my life,” he says. “I dreamed in Spanish. It was a real, real experience, the likes of which I’ve never had since.”

“Donald Beatty had said, ‘this will change your life,’ and it did. It changed my life.”

Supporting the next generation of global citizens

Mendelson returned home, turned in his paper, and, in the midst of the Korean War, began thinking about graduate school to maintain his student deferment. After graduating summa cum laude, he enrolled in Yale Law School and despite the many adventures that followed, including 21 months of service in an Alaskan reserve unit and a legal career that spanned four decades in California, his Peruvian experience always stayed with him.

Consequently, when Mendelson started to think about philanthropy, his inclination was to support an initiative that was similar to his own transformative time abroad. In 2019, he established a scholarship for global studies majors that provides funding for two semesters. During the first semester, students conduct research as part of a study abroad experience and during the second semester, they apply that research into a capstone project. 

Since the scholarship’s creation, Mendelson Scholars have traveled the globe from Iceland to Italy, South Korea to Ecuador, engaging in once-in-a-lifetime experiences and thoughtful research.

“This scholarship has made time abroad possible for students who might otherwise have missed the opportunity,” shares Evelyn Davidheiser, director of the Institute for Global Studies and assistant dean for International Programs. “It has encouraged students to take a deep dive into topics that pique their interest and has given them direct access to people and institutions beyond the University’s boundaries.”

In turn, this access has the potential to launch students into postgraduate education and career paths they had not considered before.

Mendelson considers the scholarship a fitting way to pay tribute to his mentors and benefactors. “I’ve been around the horn, had a lot of fun, and I give a great deal of credit to Minnesota and the people, like Beatty, like my aunt, who helped me along the way,” he says. “Peru changed my life and I want others to have that opportunity, too.”

Mendelson Scholars offer their reflections

The Ralph Mendelson Scholarship

If you are inspired by Ralph Mendelson's story and want to help students conduct research during a learning abroad experience, consider a gift to The Ralph Mendelson Scholarship.

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