In Mexico, students learn life and language

Students spending the semester in Queretaro, Mexico immerse themselves in language and culture

By Emily Smith

While most Wheaton students are currently breaking out the Chacos and Birkenstocks, defiantly willing it to be spring, eight students have spent the last three months in warm Querétaro, Mexico, a large city 136 miles northwest of Mexico City, through the Wheaton in Mexico program. Although the weather is definitely a perk, the program’s purpose is to help students develop both linguistic and intercultural competency as they take classes and enter into the local community.

Wheaton in Mexico began in 2014 and was offered every other year. Starting in spring 2018 the program has continued every spring semester. Since the program’s inception, students from 20 different majors have participated, and Wheaton in Mexico remains the only Wheaton-run, semester-long international study-abroad program. This characteristic is not the only thing that makes Wheaton in Mexico unique. Associate Lecturer of Spanish and Wheaton in Mexico Director Tim Klingler explained in an email, “In contrast to most study-abroad programs, a faculty member accompanies the student cohort during the entire semester, providing on-site mentoring, teaching an integrative seminar and both supporting and pushing students to deeper intercultural learning and engagement … The dual emphasis on developing linguistic and intercultural competency is very unique.”

As an academic program, students take classes taught entirely in Spanish by professors on a local college campus. Courses include Mexican History, Advanced Spanish, Mexican Art and Mexican-United States Relations. Art class stands out as a particular highlight: for each period in art history students receive an introduction through a lecture or presentation in class, then take a field trip to find examples of art in Querétaro and finally work on an art project in the style they are studying. When class lets out usually around 1 p.m., students go home for “la comida,” the biggest meal of the day. They then head back out to explore the historic center of Querétaro or do homework in a café.

Students also have the chance to complement what they learn in class through several excursions to different parts of Mexico. After learning about the different pre-hispanic civilizations in Mexico, they climb the Teotihuacan pyramids and explore other ancient ruins in Oaxaca. Students also explore Guanajuato, a smaller colonial town, canoe up turquoise rivers in the Sierra Gorda and view the artwork of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera in Mexico City.

“My favorite part of this experience so far has been all of the traveling we have done,” said Caitlyn Kasper, a sophomore currently participating in the program, in an email interview. “Traveling can be super stressful, but through the program a large majority of the logistics are taken care of for you so that you can focus on learning and exploring.”

Brian Salcedo, a senior who participated in the program last year, agreed with Kasper, adding that learning the history of the places he visited enhanced his semester. “It was a very unique, immersive experience. Whether it was in the beautiful waterfalls we visited outside, the pyramids that we saw, each had own story.”

The heart of Wheaton in Mexico is the opportunity for students to be immersed in the language and to invest in and learn from their local community in Querétaro. Students are individually matched with host families so that they can live and work alongside locals while steeped in the culture. Students commute to school and work. Often host families become treasured resources and confidants throughout a students’ stay. Although culture shock can make total immersion into a family difficult, many students grow to love residential life in Mexico. Rachel Novak, a sophomore currently participating in the program agreed. “ are amazing sources to learn about Mexican culture and life, and I am positive that they have played a huge role in improving my Spanish,” she told the Record in an email.

Sophomore Leah Martin also raved about her host family, reporting by email from Mexico that despite her host parents’ busy lives, “Somehow, my laundry is still done for me, I’m provided with freshly squeezed orange juice every morning and they never forget to ask me how school was. I kind of feel like an elementary schooler who is convinced their mom must have super powers.”

Students also find a variety of ways to get involved in Mexican culture apart from their host family and classes. Over the years several students have volunteered as English tutors at Instituto Asunción, a Catholic school in the area. They play English word games and facilitate discussions with Mexican students, helping to improve the students’ English language skills while also polishing their Spanish. Teaching in another language allows Wheaton in Mexico students to integrate their majors into pedagogy. Kasper, a Spanish and secondary education major, says she has enjoyed integrating her majors and experiencing “cool exchanges” of English and Spanish learning while serving in the local community.

This semester, other students have gotten involved with Centro de Apoyo Marista al Migrante, a ministry that aids Central American immigrants passing through Querétaro. Students visit the ministry center every other Thursday, cooking breakfast for those living there. The population is young, transitory and open to conversations with other young people. Martin told the Record, “Many of the individuals whom I have met there are young men from Guatemala or Honduras fleeing from violence and/or looking for work … They have been some of the individuals who have shown me the most grace with my Spanish and shown me that my presence is valued.”

Other students create their own service projects that further their specific interests. Salcedo is a senior applied health science major who interned at a local hospital during his 2018 semester in Mexico. He was able to gain invaluable experience as a medical fellow assisting medical students and doctors, attending medical lectures and talking to patients. He reported how incredible it was to observe different departments, especially in a foreign context, and to employ the training he has received at Wheaton. “My favorite part was just having a white coat, learning beside medical students and being treated as a medical student,” he said.

Regardless of how they choose to get involved in the community, all Wheaton in Mexico students find a church home for the semester. “I have been so blessed with a church family that includes some pretty great individuals around our age,” said Martin. “They’ve taken us bowling, to the movies, out for crêpes, out for ice cream, invited us to birthday parties, ran a 5K with us and have been so incredibly patient with us in the process of honing our abilities to speak Spanish.”

Novak also said that her church family has been her favorite part of the semester, but for different reasons. While the community in the church is vital, Novak loves worshipping in a Mexican context. To her, the intercultural exchange that happens during a church service foreshadows heaven’s unity. “I am often hit with the blessed feeling of being part of the Church, the body of Christ connected across the globe, believers from all different cultures and languages,” she said. “It is almost surreal.”

Developing a routine and finding a community in Mexico transforms a foreign place into a home for the Wheaton students living there. When asked what the best part of the semester has been, Martin responded, “Having a host family I belong to, a church family, a volunteer position in a local organization and the knowledge that most employees at the coffee shops within a half hour walking distance from my house definitely recognize me … is a feeling I so cherish. My favorite part about living here has been … feeling like I belong.”

Studying abroad benefits students in several ways. First of all, living cross-culturally teaches students a lot about themselves, not just about their host culture. Many students describe how their growth, while difficult, was accelerated in a foreign context, giving them incredible coping skills, a widened worldview and a better grasp on their identity. “Sometimes I feel as if Wheaton should count another four credits just from emotional and identity learning in a study abroad experience!” joked Novak.

“Wheaton in Mexico had a huge impact on me personally,” said Elizabeth Frey, a senior who participated in the program last year. “I grew incredibly as a person during my time away, not only in my language ability and worldview but as a human being. I learned independence, courage and faith at a level I hadn’t encountered before … My capacity to do my own thing, seek out the experiences I wanted, take care of myself the way my body best responds to and approach conflict expanded beyond anything I expected.” In an email, Frey acknowledged the fear associated with spending four months in an unfamiliar place but said that her experience showed her how much faith and courage she actually possessed. She returned to Wheaton with knowledge of her abilities and with more spontaneity because of her newfound confidence in God’s provision.

The personal aspect of the trip was especially meaningful for Salcedo, who is Mexican-American. Before Wheaton in Mexico, he remembered being “at a loss of what being Mexican-American meant to me.” He said his outlook was transformed by studying in a location that contained a component of his heritage and learning about Mexican history and culture. “I am proud to have a history that got to study, and at that same time use that history and mix it with American culture, American identity … and I’m proud of merging both cultures into who I am in my daily life,” he told the Record.

For other students, spending time outside of the culture they have always grown up in is revealing. It can jumpstart a passion for justice, racial reconciliation and intercultural communication. In the case of junior Abby Smith, another 2018 participant, she told the Record that she recognizes more cultural differences in communication and expression. She also noted oppression in regard to many Mexican individuals, saying the experience “opened my eyes to how much injustice there is that I’ve never had to deal with because I’ve always had it easy.”

In addition to learning more about themselves and their cultural identities, students also form strong relationships within their cohort that continue even after the semester ends. “I have been overjoyed to see the way that we have taken care of each other and treat each other like family,” Martin said. “Even though I know that our time here in Mexico will soon be coming to an end, I am so incredibly glad that I get to share the memories we have made here with my Wheaton peers and that I can continue growing in relationship with them even once we are back on campus.”

In the end, all past and present participants interviewed were unequivocal in their assessment of the program. Would they recommend it to others? “1,000 percent yes,” said Novak. “I was told many times that as a science major (and double major) that it would be very difficult to leave for a semester and I should choose a summer program instead. However, I can truly say that nothing could replace a full 16 weeks in another country.”

“I would recommend Wheaton in Mexico to everyone!” Frey said. “I saw the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen, got to experience so much I will probably never get to again and made relationships with people in our group and those I met in Mexico I plan to keep the rest of my life.”

“This semester has definitely not been without its challenges … but it has been such an incredible opportunity for learning and growth. I have learned a lot about myself, had to lean an awful lot on the Lord and have pretty much fallen in love with Mexico,” Martin said.

In the end, Martin did mention one major downside: “The transition back to eating Saga fruit after a semester here might present a rather large challenge.”

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