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Mexico: Summer Service Learning & Language Immersion

Mexico City, Mexico

Fascinating Mexico City Offers Great Opportunities for Students

Published: March 23, 2010

In early March, ACM staff members Scott Ozaroski and Heather Everst visited Mexico City, site of ACM's new Mexico Summer Program: Service Learning & Language Immersion.  The following is Scott's account of some of the highlights of their visit.

MONDAY EVENING – "So, how many pesos should we take out?"

It was the first visit to Mexico City for both of us, and I wasn't sure what to expect from one of the largest cities in the world.  I usually do lots of research before trips aboard, but aside from a quick skim through my Lonely Planet guidebook on the flight down, I landed in Mexico City ready for whatever came my way.

Universidad La Salle

On the Universidad La Salle campus.

The line for customs and immigration at Benito Juárez International Airport was thankfully short.  After a quick trip to an ATM for some local currency, we made our way to a taxi stand, figured out the fixed price of a taxi to our guest house, and hopped in a cab to ride into the heart of the city. 

Our guest house in the Condesa neighborhood near Universidad La Salle was just beautiful, with a welcoming staff, an open courtyard, and unique rooms (with Wi-Fi!).  The perfect spot to spend the next few days.

TUESDAY MORNING – "That looks like a pink house to me."

A sunny morning, and after fresh pastries in the guest house courtyard, we were on our way to Universidad La Salle.  Their Center for International Education (CIEL) is ACM's partner in the program, and after many e-mails, we were about to meet our new colleagues for the first time.

Casa Rosa

Casa Rosa

A quick cab ride got us to the university.  The CIEL office, the "Casa Rosa," is hard to miss, so we made our way to the front gate of the pink house, where we had the pleasure of meeting Rosario Escalada and Willy Villegas. 

Rosario coordinates the special programs run through CIEL, and Willy works with her doing a variety of program logistics.  You can tell right away that they make a great team, with Rosario's thoughtful and caring manner and Willy's enthusiasm and humor.  Their office is engaging and active, with students milling in and out, and a friendly vibe.

A tour of the university campus was followed by a visit to a local host family.  The students on our new summer program will be staying with host families, all of which live within a 10-minute walk of campus.  We met Maria, who has hosted numerous students over the years.  She was as gracious as could be, taking us all around her house.  It was an adventure as we wound our way through her house (out onto a balcony and then down a twisting back staircase!), seeing the rooms she had renovated to host international students.  In a mixture of English, Spanish, and French, we chatted with a student from France who said he was really enjoying his time there.

TUESDAY AFTERNOON – "Is that the cactus?  I really want to try the cactus."

Next, we were off to visit some of the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that our students might be working with this summer.  In addition to Spanish language classes, a service learning internship with an NGO is the main focus of the program.  CIEL has a variety of different organizations students can work with, and we would visit three of them.  Our first stop – Christel House.

Christel House

Christel House

Christel House is a school for impoverished children, founded 10 years ago to provide education to help break the cycle of poverty.  There are almost 400 students, ranging from six to 16 years of age. Classes are taught in both Spanish and English, with a strong emphasis on language, mathematics, and computers.   As we toured the school, we got to see kids in a variety of classes, playing at recess, and at the school's mobile health care unit.  With additional locations in Venezuela, India, South Africa, and the U.S., Christel House is creating a network of opportunities for kids in need around the world.  For students interested in teaching, this would be a great place to volunteer.

It was then time for lunch, which tends to be a bit later in Mexico and is the main meal of the day. We headed to a local restaurant with Rosario and Willy for our first real meal of the trip.  Chips and salsa hit the table – these were some really good chips, and it was some really spicy salsa!  We ordered enchiladas and tacos, and I was set on getting some "nopales" – prickly pear cactus.  The nopales were quite tasty, similar to green peppers or okra.  The rest of my salsa verde-filled lunch was just as delicious, with some fresh limonada to wash it down.

View of Mexico City from Universidad La Salle

After lunch, we were off to Casa Arturo Mundet, a nursing home for the elderly.  With such a strong focus on the family unit in the Mexican culture, nursing homes aren’t nearly as common in Mexico as in the U.S.  This private institution, though, has been in existence for over 60 years, providing a home for more than 150 people, along with health care services and a variety of activities.

A busy Day One in Mexico City completed, we went back to the guest house to relax for a bit, grab some dinner, and catch up on some e-mail.

WEDNESDAY MORNING – "¿Yo bailo… con mis amigos?"

The second major component of the new summer program is Spanish language classes.  At La Salle, there are a variety of classes for students at different levels of Spanish.  The classes are very small and composed of international students, both college-aged and adult learners. 

Scott, Heather, Rosario, and Willy, with Mexico City's Cathedral in the background.

We expected to observe a beginning Spanish class.   Observation quickly turned into participation, though, as la professora made us official members of the class for the morning.  Not a problem for Heather, who studied abroad with ACM in Costa Rica when she was in college.  Different story for me, the French speaker.

The topic for the day was "ar" verbs.  I floundered my way through cantar, hablar, and nadar, crafting basic sentences, and doing better than expected with the scraps of Spanish words and phrases I'd picked up here and there.  And even though I don't necessarily do much "dancing with my friends," at least the verb conjugation and grammar of my sentence was "perfecto."

WEDNESDAY AFTERNOON – "The boys are great at changing diapers."

Our last NGO visit was to Casa Cuna La Paz, an orphanage that’s been around for more than a century.  Around 75 children from birth to six years old live at the orphanage, which has sleeping rooms, activity rooms, and a spacious and bright courtyard and playground. 

Casa Cuna La Paz

Casa Cuna La Paz

The nuns who run Casa Cuna La Paz were happy to give us a tour, where we saw a group of teenage volunteers playing with the children.  The volunteers help plan activities with the kids, and the Sisters noted how impressed they were with how the volunteers get involved – even when it comes to the less-than-glamorous tasks such as changing diapers. 

We had a farewell lunch with Rosario and Willy at a rooftop restaurant overlooking Mexico City's  Zócalo, the huge downtown square that's home to some famous landmarks.  After a fantastic buffet lunch, we said our goodbyes to the wonderful hospitality of the CIEL staff and were off to explore downtown a bit. 

Mexico City Metro

The Mexico City Metro

We checked out the huge Cathedral, and explored the ancient Templo Mayor site of Aztec ruins.  Then it was back to the guest house. Heather was heading out in the morning, but I was staying an extra day to do a bit more sightseeing.

THURSDAY MORNING – "Is this where the bus back to Mexico City departs?  ¿Autobus a Ciudad Mexico?  ¿Aquí?"

My plan for the day was to visit the archaeological site of Teotihuacán, about an hour's drive outside of Mexico City.  Teotihuacán is home to the third-largest pyramid in the world, and the whole complex of ancient ruins would make for a good half-day excursion. 

I took the Metro to the northern part of the city – Mexico City's subway is clean and efficient, and one of the cheapest in the world, at about 25 cents per ride.  I exited the Metro and hopped on a bus to the ruins. 

Pyramid of the Sun

Scott preparing to hike up the Pyramid of the Sun.

Once I'd arrived, I was surprised at how expansive it all was.  I did a lot of walking in the hot sun, and scaled some awfully steep steps as I trekked all the way to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun.  The view was beautiful, and I stayed up there for a while to soak it all in.  I continued down to the Pyramid of the Moon, and then wandered back to the entrance. 

I had to ask a few people where to wait for the public bus back to Mexico City. Despite their assurances, when the bus came, I was still in the wrong spot! I darted across to where the bus was pulling up and hopped on.

THURSDAY AFTERNOON – "More tamales, por favor!"

I arrived back in Mexico City with just enough time to do some more exploring downtown before the sun went down. I grabbed some quick street food from a vendor – fabulous tamales, which were so good I had to order a couple more – and then headed to the National Palace. 

Mural by Diego Rivera

One of the murals by Diego Rivera

While the Palace itself is a massive structure that takes up an entire block, I was most interested in what was inside – the series of murals by Diego Rivera depicting "The Epic of the Mexican People."  The murals did not disappoint – they are sprawling and evocative, covering the entire wall of the main staircase and continuing down the hallway, filled with vibrant scenes of Mexico's history. 

FRIDAY MORNING – "¿Hasta  luego?"

I was up before the sun Friday morning, for an early flight home.  Rather than take a cab, I took the Metro out to the airport.  Arriving with plenty of time to spare, I checked in for my flight, and was headed home. 

Mexico City surpassed my expectations in almost every way.  The city was immense in size, but easy to navigate, and had an efficient public transportation system.  It was full of people, but didn't feel terribly crowded, and was extremely clean.  Everyone was exceedingly friendly, and the city felt welcoming and accessible, with so much more I would have loved to explore if I'd had more time.

Dowtown square

The downtown square in Mexico City

I've been lucky enough to see a lot of the world, and I must say that my trip to Mexico City was one of my most pleasant surprises.  While it's easy to get caught up in what you hear in the media or see in the movies, part of the joy of traveling is being able to see a place firsthand and make up your own mind.  I came to Mexico City not knowing what to expect – I left hoping someday to return.

 

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Grace Robia My experience in Mexico was incredible and I’ve been missing it since I stepped foot on the airplane back to the U.S. Watching the World Cup games with 35-50 soccer-obsessed Mexicans was of the most unforgettable things I’ve ever done. All of the Mexicans that I met were enthusiastic, fun-loving, open, and kind. I’d take the first chance that arose and fly right back to Mexico City. ¡Viva México!

—Grace Robia, Mexico, Summer 2010

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