The Northeastern group poses for a photo at Fuerte de Loreto (Fort Loreto), site of the Battle of Puebla.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Ten students in Northeastern Illinois University’s Educational Leadership-Higher Education graduate program could not have picked a better time for their educational trip to Mexico.

Andres Manuel López Obrador won the country’s presidential election—one many believe to be the first truly democratic and fair election in Mexico in more than 80 years—on the eve of their arrival in July.

Then on the group’s first day in the country, Mexico squared off with Brazil in the World Cup soccer tournament taking place in Russia.

“We were supposed to have our orientation to the host university, but pretty much the entire university was on pause,” said Associate Professor and Provost’s Fellow for Success and Retention Francisco Gaytán, who joined the students on their trip. “Rather than have classes and meetings, more than 400 summer students and our group from Northeastern gathered in their student union to watch the match for two hours on three giant screens.”

The game’s result was a bust for Mexico, but it was only the beginning of a truly eye-opening experience for the group of students who all completed their master’s degrees this month.

During their 10-day visit to Puebla with the help of the ENLACE scholarship, a historic city about 65 miles southeast of Mexico City, the students sat for lectures about social mobility in Mexico and the country’s slowly growing middle class at Universidad Popular Autónoma del Estado de Puebla, explored cultural sites and museums and visited a nonprofit/social enterprise that provides housing, education and work training to street children. The trip was largely planned by the students in coordination with their host university.

“People learn from experience, and that’s exactly what occurred in Puebla,” Laura M. Ruíz said. “It encompassed what we have been focusing on since Day 1 in our program—but from a different perspective. The challenges our education system faces are not limited to the U.S., and exchanges such as this can help with dialogue in an effort to provide better student-oriented solutions. Additionally, this study tour shed light on the educational and career opportunities NEIU graduates have access to, both here and abroad.”

Perhaps the most memorable experiences for the students were visits to a migrant village and to a shelter connected to a church that provides sanctuary to Central American migrants traveling through Mexico.

“It was emotionally very heavy to hear about the risks they were taking and the hardships they had faced. You got a real sense of the desperation that would lead one to uproot himself, leave family, face danger, all in search of a better life,” Gaytán said. “At the village, the residents welcomed us with open arms and showed us the love that they have for their community and how they work to make it so that people do not have to leave.”

Overall, the trip was an educational success, the students said.

“Puebla is a place of rich history and welcoming people,” Franklin Ortega said. “Fuerte de Loreto in Puebla, the Great Pyramid in Cholula and the migrant shelter will always stay in my heart.”

The trip spoke directly to the career goals of students who participate in Northeastern’s Educational Leadership-Higher Education graduate program.

“The program aims to help students become culturally competent higher education professionals, and that is very connected to Northeastern’s status as a diverse school and as a Hispanic Serving Institution,” Gaytán said. “It gives our students a fuller sense of the families and lives of students who attend Northeastern. They come with rich stories and backgrounds that cross national boundaries and make them who they are. Higher educational professionals must be aware of these backgrounds if they are to truly serve their students well.”

Gaytán was grateful that his students were able to experience so much during their 10-day trip.

“Many people do not see Mexico as attractive for many reasons. We see much of the violence stemming from drug trafficking that is portrayed in the media. We hear about government corruption. We see migrants from Mexico seeking a better life in the United States. What we rarely see is that Mexico is much larger and much more complex than those issues,” he said. “Several of our students are of Latina/o and Mexican descent themselves, and they got to see a different side of Mexico as well—seeing two cosmopolitan cities and universities in addition to rural Mexican culture. The goal was to see this complexity and to appreciate the beauty of Mexico and all of its people, and we certainly accomplished that.”

The Northeastern contingent poses for a photo at the Great Pyramid of Cholula.

Top photo: The Northeastern group poses for a photo at Fuerte de Loreto (Fort Loreto), site of the Battle of Puebla.
Above photo: The Northeastern contingent poses for a photo at the Great Pyramid of Cholula.