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Mexican Drug Conflict Threatens U.S. College Study Abroad Programs

For the past two years Cesar Villasana, an electrical engineering technology major at New Mexico State University, has traveled with a small group of his fellow engineering students to Mexico, where he has helped to build a water well for some 80 residents of Ruiz De Ancones and a bridge for the 150 residents of Las Boquillas.

“I almost feel as though we have been called to do this work,” says Villasana, the secretary for the NMSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders, which has more than 350 projects in more than 45 developing countries, including renewable energy, sanitation and water. “Even though the work was sometimes hard, it was good because we were able to do things to help to make life better in this one part of Mexico.”

Villasana, 25, would like to continue such efforts but if he does it will be without the official sanction and support of NMSU, which this past spring announced that it would no longer participate in any school programs in Mexico.

The university made its decision in response to a U.S. State Department travel advisory issued earlier this year warning of growing violence in the states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon, Sonora and Tamaulipas.

That warning took particular note of violent confrontations between drug cartels and Mexican authorities, which have resulted in more than 23,000 deaths, primarily in the six Mexican border states.

The travel advisory also said U.S. citizens in Mexico had been harassed in their vehicles and subjected to both robbery and violence on some highways in the northern border states.

Many colleges and universities in the U.S. with longstanding Mexican student exchange programs, as well as sponsored study trips to that country, have since pulled back their efforts, taking note of the State Department’s warnings.

The University of Texas at Austin on April 3 ordered its students taking classes at the Monterrey Institute of Technology and Higher Education in Monterrey, Mexico, to return to Texas.

The University of Texas system, which includes nine universities and six health centers, followed suit with an order on April 23 pulling all of its students out of Mexico. That decision was made before a University of Texas at El Paso student and a former UT-El Paso student were gunned down in May on a highway connecting Juarez with Villa Ahumada.

“This was a very tough decision,” says Christian Clarke Casarez, the director of international public affairs for UT-Austin, of the decision to pull students out of Monterrey. “We have long, historic ties to Mexico and deep relations with Mexico. So this was not anything that was done easily.”

But Casarez says safety considerations prompted the school to make its decision.

Those same factors prompted Arizona State University to also withdraw students from the Monterrey Institute.

“Basically we have taken our students out of everything in northern Mexico,” says Kathleen Fairfax, vice provost for global education services at ASU. “We called them home in the spring and will not be sending them there this fall. But we do have students in programs in Guadalajara and other places in the southern part of Mexico. In general, violence has increased overall across the entire country. You have to be vigilant today in all parts of Mexico. But it has really become quite severe in the northern part of the country.”

Although the larger University of California has not made a decision regarding study programs in Mexico, individual schools within the UC system have gone their own way. A study program based in Morelia, Michoacán, has been suspended by the UC San Diego.

“We haven’t done anything beyond that at this point,” says Christine Clark, assistant manager in the school’s communications and public affairs department.

UC San Diego also issued a message in March from the Office of Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Penny Rue warning students to avoid spring break travel to northern Mexico.

Other U.S. schools responding to the upheaval in northern Mexico include the Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire and Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. — all of which have canceled various study-abroad programs in the region.

Kenny Stevens, an associate professor of engineering technology at NMSU who has worked with the Universidad Autónoma de Chihuahua, worries that the withdrawal of U.S. universities from Mexico may undo relationships that were forged years ago and tested by time.

“I don’t want to see the friendships we have made in these areas die,” says Stevens, who served as an adviser to the NMSU chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

The NMSU engineering students have identified nearly two dozen additional projects to improve life in Chihuahua, says Stevens.

“We don’t know what is going to happen next,” Stevens adds. “But we do very much feel that our work there isn’t done.” 

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