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Take five: Hometowner Frank Reale, rector of SLU-Madrid

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2011 - The next time you're in Madrid take the No. 6 circular line to the the Guzman el Bueno stop, just north of Madrid's city center. After exiting the station, walk down Avenida del Valle. It's a sunny, tree-lined street with low-density, colorful buildings. This is a district with a half-dozen hospitals and clinics along with the University of Saint Paul. A dozen other similar metro stops in similar neighborhoods ring Madrid's old city center.

But Guzman el Bueno's stop is a bit different. Walk down the street from the metro, and a St. Louisan will see a familiar sight in this Spanish city. Plastered on the corner of a stucco-sided building is a sign reading "Saint Louis University Madrid." Courtyards are decorated with blue-and-white SLU banners, and even students studying under the Madrid sun wear Billiken apparel.

SLU established its Madrid campus in 1967, and the campus has witnessed some of the most important events in modern Spanish history. When it was 8, the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco died. When the campus was 12, Spain joined NATO, and by 16, Spain joined the European Community. Over time, the campus itself has grown from a small study-abroad program for American students into an international gathering place for scholars from around the world.

Frank Reale, SJ, has helmed the campus for the past three years. Born in St. Louis, Reale attended Saint Louis University High School. He studied as a Jesuit both in the United States and Britain before returning to St. Louis to begin his teaching career. After his time in the classroom, Reale took on various Jesuit administrative roles before ending up as vice president of mission and ministry at Saint Louis University. Then he went to Madrid where he serves as rector.

Reale oversees about 650 students. Some are studying abroad from American universities; others are enrolled only at SLU Madrid. Students can study the liberal arts, business or languages. Nursing and engineering students can study for the first two years in Madrid before finishing at the St. Louis campus. SLU's School of Public health will soon offer part of its degree program at the Madrid campus.

To learn more about SLU Madrid and about the Jesuit who oversees the campus, the Beacon sat down with Reale last month in his offices in Madrid. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How did you get chosen to lead SLU's campus in as beautiful and sunny a city as Madrid?

Reale: I was already working as one of the vice presidents of Saint Louis University, and I already knew the Madrid campus a little bit. A few years ago, [SLU president] Father [Lawrence] Biondi and most of the VPs actually visited this campus. In spring of 2008, a couple of years after that, Fr. Biondi asked me and two of the other VPs to come and pay a visit. It was not terribly long after that that Fr. Biondi talked with me over dinner one Sunday night about the possibility of my becoming the chief administrator of this campus. I joke with people that Fr. Biondi bought dinner, and I've been paying ever since, but it's been a really nice thing to pay because I love Madrid.

What do you think makes this campus unique, especially in comparison with SLU?

Reale: First of all I'm going to correct you. Here on the Madrid campus, we don't refer to St. Louis as our home; we are our own home. We refer to them as the other campus or the St. Louis campus. They're not our daddy. Madrid is our home, and we're pretty proud about that. Even though we are smaller with about 650 students -- St. Louis probably has 11,000 or more -- we're our own embodiment of Saint Louis University.

Differences -- one of the obvious is diversity. We are a much more diverse student body. Many of our students, about one-third, are study abroad students, on campus for only a short time. So that makes for a very different experience in terms of the overall student body. You have that turnover. But more generally, what makes us unique is our cultural diversity, our international nature. And to be quite honest, the fact that we live in a world capital as opposed to St. Louis, which is a great city and my hometown, but it's not a world capital. All of those things come together to make us the American Jesuit University in Spain.

What is in the future of SLU's Madrid campus?

Reale: We're entering a pretty exciting period. First of all, we go back only 44 years. We trace our beginings of a Saint Louis University presence in Madrid to 1967. It began as a very small study-abroad program, and it was that for a number of years. And then it had a second phase in which its student body was almost exclusively either Spaniards doing their first two years of university or Americans doing study abroad.

Beginning in the 1990s, we developed into a full university campus giving degrees. There is no such thing as a Saint Louis University Madrid degree. It is just a Saint Louis University degree. But we can deliver whole degree programs here on this campus. So, that's the third phase. And at this same time the cultural background of our students has really diversified. With becoming a full campus, we began to attract students from other parts of the world as well.

We are on the verge of aquiring a third building that we will actually own, and that is going to create possibilities for expansion of our current facilities, including student socializing space, new classrooms, library. We have those things now, but the new space will let us upgrade those.

Academically, we're going to see many more partnerships, some with institutions from the United States but other institutions as well.

You mentioned that you don't view the St. Louis campus of SLU as a home campus. Tell me more about the relationship between the Madrid and St. Louis campuses.

Reale: Well, it's a complicated one, but it's one that works very well. We are our own campus, but we're not our own college. We host academic programs offered through at least four colleges of Saint Louis University. We offer degree programs through [the college of] arts and sciences, through the school of business, and we offer the first two years of a degree in engineering and in nursing. So we relate a lot with the deans of a number of the colleges of Saint Louis U. Right now we're just beginning a relationship with the School of Public Health in St. Louis.

But on the other hand, we're much more than a department or college. We're not always checking in with St. Louis. We are accountable to the board of trustees, which is the board of trustees for the entire university. We're accountable to the president, who is the president of the entire university. One board, one president, a couple of campuses in a couple of countries.

What do you miss about St. Louis and what is your favorite thing about Madrid?

Reale: I've lived in a lot of different places in my Jesuit life and because of the jobs I've had, I've met a lot of different people. It's always hard to move away from human relationships. So what do I miss most about St. Louis? I miss friends and colleagues, Jesuit and not, whom I would see on a much more regular basis if I were in St. Louis. What do I appreciate about Madrid? I like learning new cultures. I like learning the culture of Madrid and the different cultures around Spain. I love the fact that in Madrid, even in the depth of winter, you never totally lose color. The whole world does not become gray. But I think St. Louis has better variety of trees.

Alex Sciuto, a former intern at the Beacon, is working in Europe.