Monday, May 20, 2024

Why don’t more students from the US and Canada study abroad in Mexico?

The year was 1995, but I remember the anxiety I felt like it was yesterday.

It was my second year at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and I found myself looking around at what some of my best friends were studying: engineering, chemistry, accounting, physics.

I wondered, how will I find a good job with a generic management/marketing degree?

So I started thinking about what I could do that would give me some more experience and hopefully, more marketability to get hired after graduation.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had just gone into effect the year before, and I remember Ross Perot talking about the infamous “giant sucking sound” of jobs going to Mexico. Was it time to learn Spanish?

I intensely disliked Spanish in high school and did the minimum required to get into college, but maybe it was time to try again? I looked into the study abroad program of the UW Madison Business School to learn more about programs in Spanish-speaking countries.  My options: Santiago, Chile or Barcelona, Spain. Both great places, but neither struck me as very relevant to a future career in business. Mexico seemed like a more logical choice, but I wasn’t sure how to go about it.

This being the pre-Google era, I researched by reading the campus daily newspaper, and one day came across an ad for a study abroad program in Guadalajara through Beaver College (now called Acadia University) in Pennsylvania. Had I ever heard of Beaver College?Of course not! Did I know anything about Guadalajara? Absolutely not! But I decided to take the plunge — which turned out to be the single most important and impactful decision I’ve ever made in my professional life.

Fast forward to 2024, thirty years later, and it’s both surprising and disappointing to learn how few students study abroad in Mexico. I looked at the UW-Madison Business School study abroad options currently available and there are over 30 programs to choose from around the globe. In fact, there are programs at five different universities in Spain, but still none in Mexico! I couldn’t believe it. How can it be that so many people are coming to Mexico to vacation, so many foreigners are now living in Mexico, so many business people from around the world are coming to work in Mexico, and yet such a tiny amount of students come here to study?

A quick Google search shows that over 25,000 U.S. students study each year in Spain, over 14,000 in France, and yet less than 3,000 study in Mexico. What’s going on here? Are kids just generally not interested in Mexico as a study-abroad option? Are parents not interested in sending their kids to study in Mexico? Are U.S. and Canadian universities lagging in offering programs in Mexico? Are Mexican universities not stepping up and offering attractive programs?

I understand that Mexico might not be as “attractive” as a European country in some respects. Europe offers an unparalleled experience to study with people from all over the world and the opportunity to easily travel to many countries — which is invaluable.  But Mexico has so much to offer as well, given the increasing political, business, social, and cultural ties across North America.

Taking me as an example of a student who did study abroad in Mexico, the experience was life-changing and the impact was lifelong. Mexico offers a much easier opportunity to “keep up the connections,” given the proximity to the United States and Canada. Many expats I’ve met who are now living in Mexico studied here earlier in their lives.

It’s important to remember that the overall impact of a study-abroad program is not just academic, but rather as an experience. A few highlights from my time here included weekends on isolated tropical beaches, exploring ancient pre-Columbian pyramids, discovering 500-year-old cities, learning how to dance in Acapulco’s clifftop discos and camping in a Chiapas rainforest. I was invited countless times to stay, eat, and travel with my new Mexican friends’ families, and most importantly, I learned how to be independent, curious and confident.

Why not study art in the footsteps of Frida Kahlo in Mexico City? Why not learn anthropology in the shadows of Maya pyramids in the Yucatán peninsula? Why not take business classes at a university in Monterrey, Guadalajara, Querétaro, or Guanajuato where there is a massive investment boom? Why not take culinary classes (along with some surf lessons) in Oaxaca? Why not challenge yourself by taking an economics or liberal arts class somewhere in Spanish? The opportunities are endless.

I recently spoke to the U.S. Embassy about what is being done to foster student exchange on both sides of the border, and I was happy to see that some progress is being made.  However, my sense is that there is a lot of work yet to be done to fully take advantage of the opportunity.

We at Mexico News Daily believe that this is an important topic to explore further, and we will be providing increasing coverage of the issue going forward. Our intent is to inspire new ideas, debate and dialogue, so please share your thoughts in the comments. And in the meantime, try to inspire a student you know to study in Mexico!

Travis Bembenek is the CEO of Mexico News Daily and has been living, working or playing in Mexico for over 27 years.


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