UM Student on “Pan American University”

By David Colbus, Senior in the College of Arts and Sciences
Student Assistant, University Archives

Throughout last fall, the University Archives worked to curate and install the Pan American University: The Original Spirit of the U Lives On exhibit on Richter Library’s first floor. This was the first exhibit I encountered as a new University Archives assistant. To introduce me to the Archives’ work and purpose, my supervisor Marcia Heath gave me a tour of the recently completed display. The exhibit celebrates Pan Americanism, the University’s 90 years of history, and the new president, Dr. Julio Frenk. Beyond teaching me about my new role in the Archives, this exhibit educated me on the University’s history, and how that history informs the institution it is today.

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“Pan American University: The Original Spirit of the U Lives On,” located on the first floor of the Otto G. Richter Library, features historical materials dating back to UM’s founding years. Photo by Andrew Innerarity.

The exhibit tells us that “Before there were University of Miami students or faculty, defined programs, or even a single building, the enduring concept of UM as the Pan American University had taken form.” Congressman William Jennings Bryan dreamed up this concept, one George Merrick and other founding members of the University strongly shared. Merrick envisioned a “university of our own tropical America…to supply that definite unfilled need of a cultural contact by university facilities with all of Latin America.” This Pan American University would invite cultural and academic exchange across all the Americas. This ideal informed the University’s earliest programs, research focuses, and even the University’s original architectural design. Victor and Rafael Belaúnde were specifically recruited to teach Latin American history and economics, and their establishment of the University’s Hispanic American Studies and Hispanic American Institute set the stage for many of today’s Hispanic-focused programs. The University of Miami also maintained close academic contact with the University of Havana through its early years to facilitate the academic exchange that Pan Americanism called for.

Drama_Department_members_in_front_of_the_Capital_Building_in_Havana

Photo featured in the exhibition of UM drama students outside of the capitol building in Havana, Cuba, c. 1950s, from the University Archives.

University Archivist Koichi Tasa came up with the vision for the exhibit and served as its chief curator, culling records from the Office of the President Records as well as visual materials from the UM Historical Photograph Collection and UM Campus Architecture Collection, among others from the University Archives.  “It’s a great occasion to showcase our collections and knowledge about UM’s history,” Tasa said.

Archives specialist Marcia Heath worked with Tasa in research for the exhibit, and supervised the Archives’ assistants in their tasks. “We have an opportunity to start and frame important discussions about history, culture, and diversity in our community,” Heath said. “This resource encourages students to broaden their horizons.”

The exhibit was a collaborative effort within the UM Libraries and beyond: Beatrice Skokan and Yvette Yurubi from the Special Collections department and Meiyolet Mendez from the Cuban Heritage Collection researched and provided materials on topics such as the founding of Coral Gables and friendship between UM and the University of Havana. The Library Communications team provided editorial and promotional assistance for the exhibition. They also worked with local artist and UM alum Alex Vahan (Cushy Gigs Creative) in the creation of an eye-catching photographic collage surrounding the exhibition space.

Archives’ student assistants Jodiann Heron, Davin Stencil, Cody Andreoni, Sabrina Anand, and I located and researched materials for the exhibit. “What I really like is learning so much about the University. Every single day you learn something different,” Heron said. When I looked through the display cases, I remember being amazed by the complexity and importance of the exhibit. Yes, the exhibit focuses on the cornerstone idea of Pan Americanism and the University of Miami’s close ties to Latin America, following through the University’s creation and history, as well as into the modern day. However, it also locates one of the University’s greatest strengths, our diversity, within that original idea of Pan Americanism. It shows how the University’s devotion to broader understandings of cultural acceptance, of diversity, of peace and equality, stem from this one idea.

This exhibit represents the University Archives in capacity and purpose, and represents its role they could play for the future. Looking forward to 2026, the University will be celebrating its 100th anniversary. The University Archives will play an integral role of this celebration, showing the growth and evolution of our University from the ideals that it was founded upon. I hope that all of the University of Miami, every department and office, helps us in this endeavor. “If anyone in the University wants to celebrate their anniversary, the Archives are here to work with them,” Tasa said. When the centennial celebrations arrive, everyone at this university, everyone who has contributed to its achievements and shaped its reputation, deserve to be celebrated as a part of that history, so that their efforts and accomplishments are remembered, and their spirit and ideals are passed on for those to come.

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Local artist and UM alum Alex Vahan (Cushy Gigs, Inc.) created the historical wall design for the exhibition space using digitized archival materials. Photo by Andrew Innerarity.

The exhibition “The Pan American University: The Original Spirit of the U Lives On” is on view on the first floor of Otto G. Richter Library through May 2016.