By NICK MEYERS
Forty-nine Mexican students descended the escalators at Tucson International Airport on Aug. 30 to the cheers of Pima Community College students and faculty. A large sign read “Welcome International Students.”
Many of the visitors remained speechless. For some, their shocked expressions were remnants of their first time on an airplane. For even more, it was their first time in America.
“It was a celebratory greeting,” said Geneva Escobedo, assistant to the West Campus president. “It was also emotional. The students saw us with the sign and they stopped.
They looked shocked, and then the smiles came. Even I got a little teary-eyed.”
Preparing for visitors
PCC administrators, staff, faculty and students have been preparing for the arrival of the Mexican international students since February.
Part of a program called SEP-Bécalos-Santander Universidades, the students join 250 more Mexican students who are studying at five other colleges around the United States.
Bécalos is a pilot program for President Barack Obama’s 100,000 Strong for the Americas Global Initiative, in conjunction with a Mexican equivalent named Proyecta 100,000. The programs hope to introduce 100,000 American students to higher education in Mexico and vice versa.
The Mexican students were drawn from three technological bilingual universities:
• Universidad Tecnológica El Retoño in Aguascalientes,
• Universidad Tecnológica de La Zona Metropolitana del Valle in Hidalgo,
• Universidad Tecnológica de Saltillo in Coahuila.
The international students will spend the fall semester studying science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, subjects on Pima campuses.
They will live in 13 apartments close to the West Campus.
“We are honored to be part of an important initiative that infuses international awareness into our institution,” Chancellor Lee Lambert said in a press release.
“Programs such as this are examples of the college’s commitment to bring the world to Pima and help prepare students for life in an increasingly global society.”
A first visit to America
The students involved are distinctly aware of this.
Aaron Mata lives in Aguascalientes, a city of nearly 1.2 million people about 300 miles northwest of Mexico City. He attends Universidad Tecnológica El Retoño, as do more than 30 of Pima’s Bécalos students.
“I am extraordinarily happy about being here,” Mata said in heavily accented English. “Arriving to America was one of the most exciting and happy moments in my life, because I have never traveled before,” he said. “When I arrived, I was dazed because of the plane. It was a new experience for me, uncomfortable indeed.”
Mata wishes to become “a citizen of the world,” a sentiment that pervades his conversation.
Every experience thus far in his life built toward his current adventure, he said.
“I arrived to America with the hope of building a new, better life and learning everything I can to be a better person and a better professional — a human being that is useful for society.”
While many of the Mexican students know enough English to make conversation, they will take some English as a Second Language classes with a STEM focus intended to develop their language skills..
Thirteen Pima students are involved as ambassadors through the West Campus Student Life Office in a program known as Positive Engagement Education Resources, or PEER.
Mentor hopes to help
Alma Gonzales, one of four PEER mentors who speak Spanish, was born in Mexico and immigrated with her parents to the United States when she was young.
“It was a little awkward not knowing anyone and barely understanding the language,” she said of adjusting to life in the U.S. “You don’t click right away. There’s no mediator, so that’s what we are.”
By now Gonzales has lived most of her life in the U.S., and hopes to transfer to the University of Arizona to continue her studies in psychology.
She juggles responsibilities as the West Campus student government president, a vice president for Young American Libertarians and a member of the cheer team. She intends to run for office in the International Student Club.
“I guess you can say I keep myself busy,” she said.
Gonzales hopes her experience will benefit the new arrivals. “In the end, it worked out. My family is happy and I got a better education,” she said.
“I know it will work out for them, too, but I just want to make their transition easier. It’s hard leaving friends and family behind and sometimes you can’t help feeling just a little homesick.”
How Pima got involved
Bécalos came to Pima after Ricardo Castro-Salazar, an instructor in the social and behavioral sciences department, contacted Maggie Suarez of Fundación Televisa, a large Mexican corporation that supports Proyecta 100,000.
Suarez met Lambert at a conference in Washington D.C. for the 100,000 Strong Initiative.
The two arranged for Suarez to tour the West Campus with Escobedo and Campus President Lou Albert.
Suarez was so impressed with Pima’s leadership and international focus that she insisted on raising the number of students who were to visit from an initial 24 to the 49 who arrived last month.
While the program is still in its infancy, administrators hope it will expand both at Pima and around the nation.
During this semester, Pima officials will evaluate the program and work in conjunction with Fundación Televisa and the Universidades to decide how to continue.
“It is a labor of love,” Escobedo said. “We’re here to teach all students and the international students are part of that too. Frankly, they’re having a blast.”