Our Students Need to Become Global Citizens, and Mexico Can Help

By Richard Ekman

Americans are increasingly appreciative of global interdependence. Key indicators of this increase include the U.S. involvement in the creation of NATO, the European Union, and NAFTA, as well as the growth of multinational corporations (many of which are headquartered in the United States). In the higher education arena, we have watched the growing cross-enrollment by students in European countries. International student enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities has risen—at least until recently—as has the number of U.S. students studying abroad. For colleges and universities, helping graduates become better global citizens and more employable has led greater numbers of U.S. students and faculty members to go abroad, more international students to come here, and to curricular changes that help American students understand the world beyond the U.S. Most colleges now recognize that graduates must develop a level of competence in the history and contemporary cultures of other nations.

The world is a big place, and colleges cannot teach about every country, so choices are required. Beyond travel to the still-important European capitals where Western history, art, music, politics, and literature can be explored, many colleges now focus on other countries that have strategic importance to Americans. From the surge in Russian study during the Cold War, to the emphasis on Japan and Japanese-language study during the country’s auto manufacturing and tech boom, and to the study of China and Mandarin language as that country’s economy opened and soared, U.S. colleges often have approached foreign language and international studies with an eye to trends, responsive to the anticipated needs of students and American national interest.

Some surprising gaps have occurred, however. For example, the U.S. has never had many trained experts on Afghanistan or the Pashto or Dari languages nor the languages of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, or Southeast Asia—critical regions for America’s role in the world for the past five decades. The rise of economic powerhouses such as India has stimulated surprisingly few language programs in Hindi. Our collective tunnel vision ignores what the late John C. Whitehead, a U.S. deputy secretary of state, once said: “You can buy in English, but you can’t sell in English.” Whitehead also was a big booster of the humanities, private higher education, and international exchanges.

An equally dangerous misstep has been to overlook the familiar. A prime example is Mexico. Approximately 1 million Americans live permanently in Mexico; about 31 million Mexicans live in the United States. Annually, 17,000 Mexicans study at U.S. colleges and universities, while only 5,000 Americans study in Mexico. Even so, the U.S. is Mexico’s largest trading partner and Mexico is our third-largest trading partner. Spanish is by far the most widely spoken language in the U.S. after English. Many corporations maintain operations in both the U.S. and Mexico. In broader cultural terms, both countries share the heritage of Western civilization, although developments after the 16th century took decidedly different turns in the two locations, which are instructive for students
to learn.

Three years ago at the Presidents Institute, CIC hosted a delegation of rectors of Mexican private universities. The conversations were productive, and the rectors have continued to participate in the Presidents Institute, with support from Santander Universidades and Universia and CIC. Two years ago, the Mexican Federation of Private Higher Education Institutions (FIMPES), to which 108 of the strongest private universities belong, and CIC began to discuss a joint meeting. The first “Higher Education Summit” organized by CIC and FIMPES was held in March 2017 in Guadalajara. A delegation of 23 CIC presidents visited three Mexican universities, met with rectors, deans, and faculty leaders, and began to plan joint projects.

The Summit took on unexpected significance after President Trump’s directives about visa restrictions. Our Mexican colleagues had hoped that the Summit would, through positive publicity, raise the likelihood that NAFTA renewal talks would focus more on education and training. Unfortunately, now the timing of any NAFTA renewal talks is in doubt. At a March press conference in Guadalajara, attended by national newspapers such as Milenio, and in interviews with Televisa (“the CNN” of Mexico), journalists wanted to discuss visa restrictions and the role of “sanctuary” campuses and cities more than potential new exchange programs.

Many Americans fear violence in Mexico, but our impression is exaggerated, so much so that the U.S. Department of State changed its usual way of preparing travel advisories. For Mexico, the Department of State now issues a region-by-region report in which it is clear that only certain areas have notable violence. Ironically, Mexican students who study abroad prefer Spain and Italy to the U.S., and fewer were coming to the U.S. even before the recent visa restrictions. Mexican students believe that the U.S. is filled with violence—impressions gained from watching Law & Order, reading about shootings in Ferguson, Charleston, and Baltimore, and seeing recent state-level legislation that permits more people to carry guns in public places. Our challenges are to retain the international students we now enroll and to make it easier for undocumented students to obtain legitimate residency in the United States. We also should work to attract even more Mexican students to study in the States and to send more of our U.S. students to Mexico and other countries for a period of stu​dy. Several organizations, such as NAFSA: Association of International Educators and the Institute of International Education, can help us. A new, helpful inventory of U.S.-Mexico programs has just been released by the American Council on Education (view the report, U.S.-Mexico Higher Education Engagement: Current Activities, Future Directions). And CIC members can benefit from CIC’s special partnership with the American Councils for International Education.

Although we need to understand China and other countries of economic, cultural, and strategic importance to the United States, Mexico and other significant countries have been overlooked despite their overwhelming importance. Mexico may be especially appealing for the reasons cited above, as our neighbor, and because the current exchange rate makes programs there affordable.

A few CIC colleges have well-established programs in Mexico, such as Millsaps College (MS) and the University of the Incarnate Word (TX), and additional opportunities are likely to develop as a result of the recent Summit. At a time when greater attention to preparing internationally-competent graduates is paramount, we have much to gain by engaging with often-overlooked regions of the globe that are significant for Americans’ intellectual, cultural, economic, and strategic interests.