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Study Abroad

A Foreign Exchange

The highway from Nogales through the state of Sonora winds through cactus-studded mountains and rural towns until it arrives three hours later at Kino Boulevard, the hotel zone of Hermosillo. Even though I'd been told by my boss, the director of the department of languages at the Universidad del Noroeste, that Hermosillo was rather modern, I still expected to find some typical Mexican charm-plazas lined with open-air cafes, residential neighborhoods filled with family-owned shops. Instead, I was greeted by a wide road lined with American franchises. Further on, I discovered other staples of uniformity-Wal-Mart, Sam's Club, Costco-that have become part of the giant corporation takeover across the U.S. As an American teacher looking to experience another culture, I asked myself why I should teach English in a place that seems so much like home. And as I looked more closely at the spreading of the American commercialization and its big business model I wondered, Why teach English at all? When I ask my students at UNO why they want to learn English, the reply is that it will help them with their careers.

Education, like globalization, is about improvement. But improvement for whom? Sure, my students with their private university degrees will most likely find jobs at Ford and other corporations around Hermosillo. But they and others in their social class are a minority in Mexico. The government and businesses like to advertise that exportation of Mexican goods has risen in the past 10 years. But what they fail to announce is that 30 percent of the Mexican population-40 million people-live in extreme poverty and the overall earning power is worse today than 15 years ago. The minimum wage-what a person earns at Ford or at any maquiladora-is not enough to afford groceries for a balanced family meal. But minimum-wage jobs become the only option as large corporations force family-owned businesses to close.

In Hermosillo, one doesn't have to look far to see the extent and influence of American corporations. Let's return to Kino Boulevard and turn down the side streets that lead to el centro. We can't help but notice the empty, almost crumbling shells of what used to be small businesses. The faded paint tells the story of fruit, dry goods, and tortilla shops. Now the inhabitants of these buildings are alcholics and drug addicts.

In teaching the students of the UNO, I have the opportunity to be part of an exchange of ideas, to share aspects of culture that go beyond money and business, to encourage them to reflect on and question their own assumptions and those of others. I'm fortunate, because in language teaching discussion and the exchange of ideas is the key-that is how we practice the language. But all educators are in a position to teach students to use their critical thinking skills, to go beyond the mastering of formulas and theories and to reflect on what these mean for everyone.

One day in my advanced level English class a vocabulary word led us into a discussion about salary and wages. My students were disgusted and outraged about the paltry minimum wage in Mexico, even though they'll never hold minimum wage jobs. When I asked what they were going to do about it, someone joked, "Go to the States." But after the joking had died down, all agreed that with their privileged position also came the responsibility to help others.

To get my students to think about their futures (and to review the past tense), I asked them to write an essay in which they pretended it was the year 2050 and explain what they'd done with their lives since graduating UNO. Gustavo, a bright student and smart aleck, wrote that he'd achieved his biggest dream: owning a successful company. And with the fulfillment of this dream he was able to fulfill another: providing work for many people. More than once he wrote how good it made him feel to know he had given people jobs-and jobs with a fair pay.

Like Gustavo, many business students wrote about having their own business and helping the less fortunate with money and employment. Several psychology students opened their own clinics and practices and provided help for families and children.

As teachers, we can't undo the infiltration of American investment, commercialization, and the big business model. But maybe my students, when they are leaders, will be able to make use of our models without forsaking their own culture and forgetting the quality of life for all people. My teaching of English isn't only about bolstering business opportunities but also about broadening communication, deepening reflection, and, in the end, helping others realize their connections and responsibilities.

One night at the end of my second semester at UNO I walked down Kino Boulevard, this time with some of my students. To celebrate the end of the semester they' decided to take me out for a Mexican dinner. At the restaurant, brightly decorated with images from all over Mexico and blaring the latest Ricky Martin CD (which appropriately alternates between English and Spanish), we discussed, in Spanish, school summer vacation, music, the new nightclubs, relationships. After we finished our enchiladas, quesadillas, moles, and Coca-Colas, they invited me to the latest Mexican movie in the adjacent multiplex theater. Even though they had all seen it before, they were excited to see it again and to show their American teacher some Mexican culture. Sure, I say. After all, I'm here for the foreign exchange.