Spanish lecturer Libertad Aranza returned to her roots with a Mercer team this summer to address a need expressed by the community. During the first Mercer On Mission trip to Mexico, students and faculty provided English language lessons to nearly 200 children in Izúcar de Matamoros and hosted workshops for 33 college students studying to be English teachers.
Aranza and Dr. Jose Pino, associate professor of Spanish and chair of Mercer’s Foreign Languages and Literatures Department, led 15 Mercer students of a variety of majors on the three-week trip.
“Through Mercer On Mission, our students not only change, impact and touch lives in those communities, but through the interactive experience, they also are impacted and changed in many ways,” Dr. Pino said. “Some of them discovered their true vocation, what they really wanted to do, their strengths or weaknesses. Our students went above and beyond, and they all faced challenges.”
During a visit to Izúcar de Matamoros earlier this year, residents told Aranza they were lacking English teachers in their schools as well as specialized English instruction techniques.
“Most of their teaching is more grammar based, and they don’t concentrate on the listening, pronunciation and understanding to have a conversation. It’s more book-related instruction,” Aranza said.
The Mercer group, which prepared lesson plans in advance of the trip, spent its mornings at two middle schools teaching English to students who had been selected for the summer camp.
The children were excited to learn and participate, but they needed a lot of encouragement and reassurance, said Kimberly Lopez, a rising senior double-majoring in Spanish and mechanical engineering.
“They understood the grammar part, but when they started speaking (English), they felt less confident and a little embarrassed to speak in front of their classmates,” said Samantha Vaquero-Covarrubias, a rising junior majoring in Spanish. “Our lesson plan was enforcing everything they knew, plus giving them time to practice with us and with the class.”
In the afternoons, the Mercer group trained college students at Universidad Tecnológica de Izúcar de Matamoros (UTIM) in second language acquisition techniques. Later on, UTIM students paired up with Mercer students to work with the middle-school campers. These immersive experiences allowed them to improve their teaching language skills and cultural competence and showed them how to provide more efficient and appropriate lessons, Dr. Pino said. The Mercer students were able to expand upon their Spanish skills as well.
The hope is that these English language skills will open doors for Izúcar de Matamoros as well as its residents. Speaking English can change the lives of children there by offering them more opportunities for their future. In addition, fluent speakers can help pave the way for future business transactions that benefit the community.
“By being there and teaching them English, we motivate them to strive for more and … maybe pursue higher education within Mexico or outside Mexico, like I did,” Aranza said.
English language skills are also an important component of immigration, Dr. Pino said. As people immigrate from Mexico to the United States or vice versa, knowing both English and Spanish aids in communication among community members and family members and can help make the cultural transition easier, Aranza said.
Community members also expressed interest in learning how to apply for scholarships to colleges and universities in the United States. So during the Mercer On Mission trip, Dr. Pino led a seminar on the topic that was attended by UTIM students, faculty, staff and administrators as well as members of the general public. The auditorium was filled, and the event was very successful, Dr. Pino said.
Vaquero-Covarrubias and Lopez said a closing ceremony hosted by UTIM students, faculty, staff and administrators and the local government to recognize the Mercer team’s work was especially meaningful. Lopez said the event put into perspective what they had achieved.
“At the beginning, it’s a new group of students,” Lopez said. “It takes a while for them to open up to you, but once you establish that relationship with them, you don’t want it to end. We had accomplished what we wanted to do, and I hope that from this, more Mercer trips continue and that the students know they also had an impact on us as well.”
Also during the ceremony, an orchestra played and local students performed dances representing different regions of Mexico. Vaquero-Covarrubias said she saw signs of her mother’s Mexican heritage in one of the dances.
“They were showing us their culture, while we were showing them our culture through the teaching workshops,” she said.
In addition to their English instruction work, the Mercer students explored the country — from larger cities to rural areas — and various historic sites to get a better understanding of Mexico’s diverse culture, Aranza said.
“It’s not just learning about one city but learning the whole picture,” she said. “One of the goals was to see the different perspectives of Mexico and learn the different communities.”
They saw the Great Pyramid of Cholula; learned about the Nahua people (descendants of the Aztecs) in Mexico City; connected with nature while camping in the mountain town of Cuetzalan; and got a lesson in bread-making from the locals. Lopez said the bread-making was one of her favorite parts of the trip.
“To be able to experience that with my fellow Mercer students and the locals there, it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lopez said. “For them to give us the opportunity to do something like that, it meant a lot, and it showed me they were excited to have us there. They were excited to share a part of their culture with us.”
The Mercer group also toured government offices and agencies, including a senior center and a family resource center, to see other ways the Mercer On Mission program could be expanded in the future. Dr. Pino and Aranza hope to recruit more students for the 2023 trip, so they can provide additional English instructors, and the community has mentioned needs related to health care.
The work with UTIM will continue this fall during Aranza’s Spanish conversation classes, during which Mercer and UTIM students will hone their language skills during online meetings.
Feature photo: Mercer students are pictured in the arts district in Puebla. Photos courtesy Libertad Aranza