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OPINION: Why some American students are attending college in Mexico

Facing the challenges on both sides of the border

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We’ve seen Mexican students face hurdles when attempting to cross the border to attend class in the United States amidst obstacles like closed borders or long wait times.

But educational opportunity is also sending U.S. residents south of the border, with American students often facing challenges similar to those of their Mexican counterparts, even as they take pride in their trans-border identity, attending college in Mexico.

Knowledge is perhaps one of the most overlooked “goods.” It spurs growth, innovation, peace and equality in our society. And at a time when much policy- and political-intrigue — and a small army of U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) negotiators — remains focused on trade between the United States and Mexico, perhaps our most important export can (and should) be educational opportunity.

In a political and economic moment when cross-border partnerships and collaboration face new headwinds, here are three reasons why a cross-border educational experience is critical to our collective future.

As the president of a Mexican university with campuses just barely south of the U.S.-Mexico border, I see how knowledge is carried across the border every day by our students. Borders, cultures and perspectives converge here in a manner that makes it impossible to ignore the interdependence of our two nations. And we need only look at the make-up of our student population to see how this cross-border focus comes to life.

In 2019, 10 percent of my institution’s graduating class was made up of mostly Southern California residents who chose to complete their higher education in Mexico. This fall, U.S. citizens and residents will make up at least 10 percent of our full-time student population. And these figures reflect a larger trend in which Mexico has seen a four-year increase in the number of U.S. students choosing Mexico for study-abroad opportunities.

Related: Thousands of students cross the U.S.-Mexico border every day to go to college

There can be no campus “bubble” when our campuses themselves sit at such a cultural and political crossroads. The challenge is how to embrace the richness — and, yes, the messiness — of a border region to help students think critically about the challenges facing communities on both sides of the border.

This requires that we define social responsibility broadly and acknowledge hard truths about both nations. Poverty in California’s Imperial Valley (25 percent in Calexico alone) co-exists with the increasing economic vibrancy of Mexicali’s 3 percent unemployment rate, and that concentrations of wealth in Los Angeles, San Diego and Tijuana contrast with other neighborhoods marked by extreme poverty.

Ultimately, challenges like economic inequality and climate change cross our borders whether we want them to or not, and one starting point for addressing them is to prepare students who can transcend the trappings of border politics to navigate and solve them effectively.

With one foot in each country, our international students have the linguistic and cultural capacity to support the $1.7 billion in daily trade between the United States and Mexico. Their presence in our classrooms sets the stage for the reality of a border-region economy where global companies like Honeywell, Gulfstream and Medtronics increasingly expect globally-oriented talent to match their own multinational ambitions. And these companies are increasingly looking to colleges and universities in America and Mexico as critical partners in their ability to compete, locally and globally.

Related: Universities try to catch up to their growing Latinx populations

That means developing talent with highly specialized skills, but also graduates with the ability to find commonalities amidst cultural difference — and even conflict.

At our Mexicali campus alone, students like Bryan Alvaraz — who hails from Seattle and came to study renewable energy — share classes with students like Kimberley Manzano, whose family moved to California’s Imperial Valley from Venezuela because of the desperate situation in her home country. And our job is to help them build a future with the skills and cultural competence that will equip them to succeed anywhere in the world.

We serve students more effectively when we model real collaboration. For my institution, that means partnering with a university in Minnesota to develop a specialized graduate engineering program in medical devices. And it means launching a joint project with University of California at San Diego to help foster a robust semiconductor industry, or an initiative with Embry Riddle Aeronautical University to strengthen and support the aerospace cluster.

At our best, colleges and universities in Mexico and America can be anchors for innovation. We can bring together local governments and corporate leaders to build shared prosperity. Such alliances, after all, are ultimately built on the type of cultural exchange often established in classrooms that unite students from our countries, and countless others.

Amidst the uncertain future of the USMCA and the attempts from some to over-simplify the realities in border communities, let’s not forget that the building blocks of true economic and cultural partnerships that our nations need are already here.

This story about U.S. students attending college in Mexico was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for our higher-education newsletter.

Fernando León Garcia is president of CETYS Universidad, a private, nonprofit university in Mexico with campuses in Ensenada, Mexicali and Tijuana.

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Fernando Leon Garcia

Fernando Leon Garcia is president of CETYS University, a private, non-profit university with campuses in Ensenada, Mexicali and Tijuana. See Archive

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