After years of what amounted to a messy divorce, New Mexico universities are rekindling their relationship with schools south of the border.
Mexico was once a top destination for U.S. students studying abroad. A summer studying Spanish in Cuernavaca, a semester in Guadalajara – such programs were a rite of passage for the more than 10,000 U.S. students who studied in Mexico during the 2005-2006 school year, a historic high, according the nonprofit Institute of International Education.
That was before the Mexican government declared war on the country’s drug trafficking organizations, unleashing horrific violence in many parts of the country. The U.S. State Department issued the first of many harsh travel warnings in 2010, and many U.S. public universities, including in New Mexico, subsequently shut down their Mexico programs.
The number of U.S. students studying in Mexico fell to a 16-year low of about 3,700 in the 2012-2013 school year, the Institute of International Education reports. Nationwide, nearly 290,000 students studied abroad last year; Mexico didn’t even rank among the top 10.
But there are signs of a turnaround.
It started with a Mexico City meeting last year in which Presidents Barack Obama and Enrique Peña Nieto announced an initiative to increase educational exchange between the U.S. and Mexico.
Obama’s “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program aims to send that many students each year to Latin America by 2020, including to Mexico.
The program, administered by the State Department, provides matching grant money for educational exchange. UNM has already taken advantage, earning $15,000 from the U.S. Embassy in Mexico that will be matched by three deans to boost student mobility between the two countries next year.
“We’re starting small,” said Mary Anne Saunders, special assistant to the president for global initiatives. “Historical ties between New Mexico and Mexico are strong, but they haven’t really been mined as much as they could be. We want programs to be initiated, but we want to do them very carefully. The No. 1 driving issue is the safety and security of our students.”
That’s where colleges’ good intentions get tripped up. The State Department is encouraging educational exchange in Mexico with one hand while wagging its finger with the other.
The State Department maintains an extensive, travel advisory on Mexico – the most intricate of any country, with warnings against non-essential travel for certain states and cities, while some regions carry no advisory.
“In a way, that makes it more complicated,” said David Wright, UNM associate director of education abroad.
Cities like Ciudad Juárez have emerged from the worst drug violence, but other areas remain gripped by organized crime. Yet Mexico is a vast country, and some regions like Queretaro – where UNM maintains an exchange program – are safe.
UNM has focused on sending individual students to safer parts of Mexico, particularly heritage speakers of Spanish, Wright said, “who have family in Mexico and understand the risks.” The university opened an office in Mexico City in August to nurture new relationships.
NMSU has been slower to re-engage with Mexico, although it’s trying.
“The violence in Mexico had a tremendous impact on us and our programs in Mexico,” said Cornell Menking, NMSU associate provost for International and Border Programs. “But we’re going back.”
This week, NMSU is sending an adviser to Mexico to talk with potential partner universities. Because the school is close to the border – where some of the worst drug violence hit Mexico – there remains a “culture of fear of Mexico,” Menking said.
Recalling a conference on Mexico a few years ago at UNM, he said, “The closer to the border the institution was, the stricter the rules were. These are very real stories for us.”
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