Laura Lillis, a college student from Phoenix, grew up studying Spanish, and even spent a year after high school in Chile. But when she arrived to her year abroad in Mexico, Lillis, a biology major, had never taken a science class in Spanish.
At the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s campus of Juriquilla in the central region of the country, all of her classes — environmental analysis, urban ecology and animal echo physiology — were in Spanish. And on the second week of one class, she had to give a presentation for 20 minutes.
"Because of the way the school works, and I'm the only foreign exchange student, nobody speaks to me in English so,” Lillis, a fourth-year student at Northern Arizona University, said recently.
She took the challenge with enthusiasm. But more on her academic exchange in a moment. First, let’s look at where she fits in within this industry of international higher education.
Universities across the Southwest are stepping up the work they do with counterparts in Mexico. They’re looking for ways to send more exchange students and to do more scientific research together.
Over the last year, Northern Arizona University, Arizona State and the University of Texas have rolled out plans to exchange more students or collaborate on scientific research with schools in Mexico. (This is something the University of New Mexico and the University of Arizona have also been doing for a while.)
And in many cases, it allows schools in the U.S. to get dollar-for-dollar matching funding for research from Mexico. Mexico has long been a natural destination, said Daniel Palm, who’s in charge of global initiatives at Lillis’ home of Northern Arizona University.
"I think the primary reason of Mexico is that it's a border country to the United States,” Palm said. “It's so key that we interact with Mexico, that we have great partnerships and that there's really an understanding between our two nations."
Rafael Rangel, the former president of the elite Tecnologico de Monterrey University, often takes Americans down south in his new role as special adviser at ASU. Many of his guests travel expecting to see an unsophisticated old towns, and instead are met by large cities with large corporations and development, Rangel said.
"They change their perspective,” he said.
Rangel says a lot of what he and administrators at other schools are doing is to show Americans that they shouldn’t be afraid of Mexico and to show Mexicans that they shouldn’t be suspicious of the U.S.
"The universities have to become the engines of the development," he added.
A lot of this renewed energy is possible because the State Department began issuing security warnings on a state-by-state basis, instead of a blanket warning for the entire country, says Susan Popko, a board member on the Forum for Education Abroad, and associate provost at Santa Clara University. Popko sees another trend dovetailing with this one.
"Diversification outside of Europe,” she said. “Historically, that’s where a majority of U.S. students went. Now we're just under 50 percent. What that has meant is that students are going to lots of different regions."
Europe, or more specifically Spain, was the other country that Lillis, the biology student from NAU, had initially considered for her year abroad. Lillis is the first student on an official yearlong NAU exchange in Mexico since the university suspended activities in 2010 for security reasons. And she says she’s happy she chose Mexico.
Her first semester went so well that by the end of it, it was easier for her to explain science in Spanish than in English. (She often switched back and forth between the two languages to explain her final project for the class where she had to give that presentation.)
And she didn’t do too badly in the course: she earned a 9.5, the equivalent of an A.
“I think it went pretty well," she said.
Coming from a state like Arizona, any Spanish is useful, including technical Spanish that she will use in her lab work, Lillis said. And this upcoming semester? She’ll create her own study plan, doing research alongside a professor at her host university in central Mexico.