Challenges for Cooperation: Education and Cultural Exchange between the United States and Mexico
Although Mexico and the United States are intrinsically linked in many ways, particularly economically, this interdependent relationship is not reflected as strongly in educational exchange. While the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) had a notable impact on bilateral education exchange, increasing the number of Mexican students in U.S. universities, Mexican enrollment has remained almost flat since 2003-04. On November 15, 2007, the Wilson Center's Mexico Institute and the Mexican-U.S. Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (Comexus) brought together a binational group of academics, specialists, government officials and diplomats to analyze this issue. Participants agreed that Mexico is failing to use its geographic proximity and intense bilateral relationship with the United States as an advantage for increasing the number of its students in American universities.
Mexico Institute director Andrew Selee emphasized the importance of educational exchange as a means for developing a common language to address the many pressing issues the United States and Mexico share. Educational exchange, he said, is a critical link that is not often taken into consideration in policy making. Comexus executive director Arturo Borja noted that individuals with international experience become important instruments for cementing and furthering the bilateral relationship by building understanding between the two countries. The Department of State's principal deputy assistant secretary for Western hemisphere affairs, Ambassador Craig Kelly, added that educational exchanges act as the day to day de facto integration that is occurring between the two countries. Mexican Ambassador Arturo Sarukhan emphasized that over the past decade, the increased interest in academic circles and within the educational establishment on both sides of the border has led to the emergence of new think tanks and the restructuring of school syllabi, which has allowed new generations of Mexicans and Americans to grow up with a better understanding of their neighbor.
In the first panel, Public Policies to Support Educational Cooperation and Cultural Exchange, participants included general director for cultural affairs of Mexico's Secretary of Foreign Relations, Alberto Fierro; Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) director for international studies, Rafael Fernández de Castro; American University's dean of the School of International Service, Louis Goodman; Nattie Golubov of la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México's Research Center on North America, and senior advisor to the deputy secretary of state, Robert Earle.
Louis Goodman reported that currently only five Mexican elite institutions have written agreements on student exchange with their U.S. counterparts: Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (CIDE), el Colegio de México (Colmex), ITAM, the Tecnológico de Monterrey, and the Universidad de las Américas-Puebla (UDLAP). He pointed out that although his school sends between 400 and 500 students abroad every year, Mexico is not a top choice because it is viewed as being too close to home and not exotic enough. Nattie Golubov attributed the fact that less than one percent of Mexican undergraduate and postgraduate students study abroad to the severe lack of information provided to students about programs offering funding and other resources. This lack of knowledge prevents them from taking full advantage of available exchange programs and scholarships. Rafael Fernández de Castro stressed the role institutions play in meeting the challenges of cooperation and said that one of the problems with NAFTA was its inability to create more bilateral institutions. He proposed that Mexico and the United States seek to negotiate a bilateral initiative to significantly increase the number of Mexicans in U.S. graduate programs and the number of Americans in Mexican higher education institutions
The second panel, Educational Exchange: What More Can We Do?, included participation from Cynthia Wolloch, chief of the Fulbright Program for the Western Hemisphere; University of Arizona's executive director for North American Higher Education Collaboration, Francisco Marmolejo; Juan Carlos Silas of the University of Monterrey; and University of Texas-El Paso's Center for Inter-American and Border Studies Executive Director, Ricardo Blázquez.
Francisco Marmolejo noted that as the world becomes more global, we are witnessing increasingly aggressive recruitment processes from foreign institutions in Latin America. However, Juan Carlos Silas noted, some American students do not feel welcome in Mexico and perceive disrespect, and others do not feel that attending Mexican institutions is important for their job prospects. Ricardo Blázquez described the University of Texas-El Paso's model of binational education in which students from Mexican border communities study "abroad" at UTEP but the university also works closely to develop the capacity of other educational institutions' on the Mexican side of the border, often in partnership with the private sector. Panelists from both panels noted that other obstacles that Mexican students from public universities face when deciding to study in the U.S. include the lack of adequate financial resources, a lack of English skills, and post 9/11 immigration policies that make it more difficult to get student visas. Participants expressed further concern about the negative impact that the immigration debate, with its anti-Mexican undertones, is having in almost all aspects of U.S.-Mexican relations.