Pima welcomes Bécalos students


Fresh off the plane and ready for a semester abroad, 58 students from all over Mexico were welcomed by students and faculty from Pima Community College on Sept. 2 at the Tucson International Airport.

Looks of nervousness and excitement covered the faces of the new arrivals, which were greeted with cheers and a welcome banner.

Their arrival also caught the attention of Tucson media, KGUN9. Reporter Keaton Thomas patiently waited for the Mexican students to de-board the airplane for an interview. While most shied away, two brave interviewees stepped forward to be on camera for the next day’s morning news.

The 58 students are here for the duration of the semester as part of the SEP-Bécalos-Santander Universidades International Program to increase global awareness and international partnerships.

As part of the introduction to their temporary college on Sept. 3, the students toured Pima’s Downtown and West Campus for the first time.

Chancellor Lee Lambert spoke to the international students, along with the many administrators and student volunteers participating in the program during the West Campus orientation that afternoon.

“You’re a part of something much larger than we ever imagined,” Lambert said. “Our two nations got together and realized the vital inter-dependency we have with one another, and that one of the best ways to strengthen those ties is through education.”

He added that PCC is making a renewed commitment to internationalization. Lambert said, in an All College Day address in August 2014, that internationalization is not only welcoming international students, but connecting and sharing the different cultures.

“Not only will all of you have a great global experience, but also our students, here in Tucson and Pima County, will have a great global experience,” Lambert said at the Sept. 3 orientation.

“We’re no longer just citizens of our own nations, we’re also citizens of this globe. And to better understand that, we have to come in connection with one another. And so your time here, I think will enhance that understanding for all of us.”

Program coordinators, Imelda Cortez and Elena Montaño-Rock have arranged workshops to help the students develop the skills they need to be independent, such as “Apartment Living 101” and “Study Skills Workshop.”

The program focuses on cultural experiences and academic support, said Montaño-Rock.

“We’re teaching them and giving them the skills and the tools to be independent,” she said.

For most, it’s their first trip to the United States. As is the case for Alejandra Albores, 19, from the Universidad Tecnológica de Chihuahua. The third semester engineering in business development major said, so far, she feels at home in Tucson.

During their semester at PCC, the students will take English as a Second Language classes along with a variety of other subjects, such as computers, logistics, education and marketing. Along with one ESL class, all the students will take two classes according to their interests and major, said Montaño-Rock.

Apart from their classes, the students are required to complete 20 hours of volunteer service. They have a variety of organizations to choose from, such as Ben’s Bells, a volunteer-based group that hangs strings of bells and beads around the community to promote and symbolize intentional kindness, and Tucson Meet Yourself, an annual celebration of the Southwest arts.

SEP-Bécalos-Santander Universidades Scholarship, individually worth about $8,100 according to the scholarship’s guidelines, pays for tuition, books, travel expenses, health insurance, housing, food and cultural activities.

All the students are living in one of the student apartment buildings close to the Downtown Campus. Their building has a pool and a gym, and dorm-style studios. The two-bed, furnished rooms average at $575 a month. The students also receive $300 a month to cover all their food and any other expenses.

The scholarship is funded from a number of sources, such as Bécalos, a private-sector education initiative in Mexico that currently has the backing of 30 banks and financial institutions, according to the Bécalos program.

Bécalos receives much of its funding from donations made by millions of people at ATMs through Mexican banks such as the Asociación de Bancos de México. ABM and other participating banks and organizations also make separate contributions from their own funds.

The new students heard about the program while studying in their respective Mexican universities. To apply they had to pass an English proficiency test, according to Chihuahua local Stephanie Ochoa, 19, from the Universidad Tecnológica de Chihuahua.

The diversity of PCC and Tucson is new for Ochoa, and she said she’s excited to be a part of this community.

“It’s an opportunity to know people from all around the world that can teach us their culture and their experience,” Ochoa said. “In Mexico, we don’t have students from a lot of places, so we don’t know anybody. Here you see people from all around the world. It’s something new for us.”

Student Stephanie Lujan, 19, from Chihuahua, said she’s excited about classes, meeting new people and making new friends.

“It’s a great opportunity,” said Lujan about the program.

As part of their first weekend in Tucson, they learned how to navigate the bus system. With the group of Pima volunteers, the majority of the Mexican students crammed onto a bus for the five-minute ride downtown. They rode the Tucson streetcar, walked through the UA mall and went to the Tucson Mall.

Vanessa Reynaga is a Pima student participant with the Peers volunteer program, helping the new students succeed in their time at PCC. According to Reynaga, the Tucson Mall was bigger than anything the international students have in their home towns.

Last fall, Reynaga attended a leadership retreat where she met many of last year’s students here with the scholarship program.

“I really enjoyed meeting people from different parts of Mexico,” she said about last year’s experience. “It was a really good opportunity for me.”

Associate Director of International Student Services, Daisy Rodriguez Pitel said, everyone working on the project is really committed to the students.

“We all believe in student success,” she said. “If we have a student that looks like they’re struggling, we’re not going to let them struggle. We’re going to help them and give them the tools to be successful.”

After the mall, Reynaga and some of the international students went to Fourth Avenue and other parts of Tucson that she loves.

“I was acting like a tour guide,” she said. “I thought it was really interesting and fun.”

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