Negative perceptions of what it is like in Mexico over the last couple of years have led to a huge drop off of people from the U.S. visiting Mexico. The tourism industry has felt it. The educational study abroad sector, which I am part of, has felt it. And I’m sure that U.S. companies investing in Mexico have had harder conversations with their executives sent to work here. Yet those of us who live here have difficulty matching those perceptions that others hold with the reality we see and feel while going about our daily lives. Last month I got some more insight not only into how those perceptions are formed, but how they can be changed.
I was at a meeting held at Casa California, an estate in the San Angel district of Mexico City owned by the University of California. The U.S. State Department's Overseas Security Advisory Council was hosting the College and University Health, Safety, and Security Seminar. Attending were Mexican and U.S. academics. I predict this meeting will mark a positive turning point in U.S.-Mexico study abroad programs.
First some background. In the fall of 2011 the chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system cancelled all of CSU’s study programs in Mexico. Keep in mind that with 23 campuses and a little shy of a half a million students, CSU is the largest university system in the United States.
It turns out that CSU had a blanket policy that if the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning, programs in the target country had to be cancelled. This didn’t sit well with faculty, students, nor their parents. The California state legislature didn’t like it either and demanded further analysis of the situation.
California State University's Director of International Programs Leo Van Cleve was on hand to tell us what he did next. He told us about the "need to analyze the real situation," and carry out additional information gathering.
A key source was the University of San Diego Trans-Border Institute's analysis of Mexican crime-related statistics, "a pretty substantial document." Dr. Van Cleve also mentioned the importance of taking other countries' travel advisories into account. "There are lots of different angles. No piece of information is going to give you an entire picture. But by putting it all together you can come up with a more complete or a more nuanced view."
He described working with academic partners in the foreign country, in this case Mexico, recognizing that they play an important role in "gathering insights about what's going on at the university where our students will be studying."
Contracting an outside analysis of the situation in Mexico proved useful and persuasive to CSU. The result was that in March of this year it reversed its decision and reinstated its study abroad programs in Mexico.
Dr. Van Cleve said their new strategy regarding Mexico will serve as a model for the way CSU monitors its study abroad programs in other countries and in all health and safety situations. I watched the two consular officials who earlier in the day had defended the U.S. State Department's dire and dour Mexico travel advisories. They sat stone-faced as Dr. Van Cleve described the embarrassing situation CSU had gotten into by relying exclusively on U.S. State Department information.
Dr. Van Cleve closed his talk by saying "We want to see more connections between California and Mexico and between the U.S. and Mexico. We really want to take this on and I think we in California will continue to see what we can do to encourage more activity and more connections. Not only student mobility -- it strikes me that there are a lot of other ways that we can cooperate and collaborate."
The following day the Oversees Security Advisory Council sponsored a business-oriented meeting at the Bankers Association headquarters in Mexico City's Historic District. There, the State Department's ten regional security officers presented a positive and encouraging view of U.S. companies doing business in Mexico. While at the academic meeting the day before OSAC analyst Eric Sheely had refused to make comparisons between Mexico and other countries, at the business-oriented meeting regional security officer Paul Isaac presented a chart comparing Mexican crime statistics with those of other countries. Mexico's figures were more favorable than The Bahamas or Brazil's. Isaac recognized that this is not the impression one would get from reading or listening to mainstream media.
I am heartened that in May of this year, at the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, President Obama introduced the 100,000 Strong Initiative. He envisions 100,000 Latin American students studying in the United States and an equal number of U.S. students in Latin America. To honor President Obama's commitment will require that the State Department implement a new and welcoming visa application process for Latin American students as well as encouragement for U.S. students to venture abroad. President Obama said "when we study together, and we learn together, we prosper together."