Rotary scholars, not otherworldly at all, are here seeking knowledge they hope to use in saving parts of the planet from the ravages of war and other forms of conflict.

World Peace Scholar Sergio Rapu
World Peace Scholar Sergio Rapu. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Sergio Rapu can trace the history of his people, the Rapanui of Easter Island, to around 400 A.D., when Polynesian explorers arrived, stayed, and eventually built the mysterious giant stone heads (moai) that captured the world’s imagination.

Later encounters with other explorers were less constructive — from a high in the tens of thousands when he Dutch landed there in 1722, the Rapanui population nosedived to a mere 111 in a century and a half, during which disease, Peruvian slavers, and overgrazing by Chilean sheep led the depredations.

Today, another century later, the Rapanui have bounced back to the low thousands, and have been represented for the last two years on the Berkeley campus by Rapu, a former governor of their territory (and the first native Rapanui to hold that office). Trained as an archaeologist, Rapu came here in the fall of 2002 as one of ten members of Berkeley’s first class of Rotary World Peace Scholars.

None of these scholars is exactly a typical graduate student. Virtually all are returning to the student experience after a substantial hiatus. Rapu, in his mid-fifties, is older even than most of his classmates. But, like them, he has a mission.

In order to build a lasting economic system for his remote Pacific island homeland, Rapu hopes to use expertise acquired at Berkeley to employ an agroecological development plan that would combine traditional farming knowledge with elements of modern agricultural science (excluding most chemical fertilizers and pesticides), to grow what Easter Island needs locally and for export.

The other major element of his plan is to harness education to the already large sector of tourism, so that international groups and governments, and tourists themselves, will help restore some 20,000 archaeological sites on the island (which Rapu calls “a beautiful, open-air museum”), and local farmers and students will learn to appreciate more about their heritage and directly help with preservation and restoration, especially of the 800 or so emblematic moai. (Most lay broken until a Japanese executive heard Rapu talking about their plight in 1988 on a show broadcast in Japan. He called with the offer of a million-dollar crane and instruction on how to use it. Many of the rock figures are now repaired and back in sentinel position.)

Rapu also advocates bilingual education, in Rapanui and Spanish, to help his people interact with the offshore government in Chile and the modern world in general.

World Peace Scholar Sarah Williams. Peg Skorpinski photo.
World Peace Scholar Sarah Williams. Peg Skorpinski photo.

Rapu’s class of World Peace Scholars was joined by a second group of ten, one of whom was Sarah Williams, who worked for years as a lawyer in Britain’s music business — “a natural background for conflict, not necessarily resolution,” she says — before deciding to help change the way international institutions craft their laws in ways both idealistic and realistic. Inspired by a friend and associate who worked on legal problems stemming from the wars in Kosovo and Iraq (in the latter he was nearly blown up), Williams believes that preventing war’s horrors means facing them with courage. “Humanitarianism has to be hard-core,” she says, “it can’t be of a fluffy-kitten type. My goal is not to live a long life, but to do something worthwhile.” Her World Peace Scholar “classmates,” each with different but worthwhile goals, were from Argentina, Belgium, Brazil (2), India (2), Korea, and the Phil-lipines (2). Each Peace Scholar is sponsored by a local Rotary group in his or her part of the globe.

The Rotary World Peace Scholarships are the result of a partnership between Berkeley’s International and Area Studies and Rotary International’s Rotary Foundation, which promotes world understanding through international humanitarian service programs, cultural exchanges, and scholarship programs. Scholars are selected by an international committee to study at one of Rotary’s seven worldwide centers.

Berkeley’s Rotary Center, administered by IAS, provides the most sought-after such program in the world, according to its director, Professor Edwin Epstein. The global reputation of the campus is a factor, and so is the way Berkeley encourages the students to adapt the program across departmental and discipline boundaries to fit their individual needs.

The program exists in part through the labors and deep familiarity with Berkeley of Cliff Dochterman M.A.’50, a former assistant to the late UC President Clark Kerr. Dochterman went on to head the University of the Pacific, and served as Rotary International’s president in 1992–93.

While at Berkeley, the Rotary World Peace Scholars tend to be heavily involved in the array of activities at International House, where it’s convenient for them to get to know each other and network with other students from all over the world.

— by Dick Cortén (originally published in The Graduate magazine, Fall 2005)