THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK COLLEGE AT BROCKPORT & STUDY ABROAD IN CUERNAVACA, MORELOS, MEXICO

The State University of New York (SUNY) College at Brockport has a long history of engagement in Study Abroad in Cuernavaca, Morelos, Mexico, a celebrated center for teaching Spanish as a second language.

In the 1960s, the college offered limited opportunities for student experiences overseas. During his tenure from 1965 to 1981, President Albert W. Brown presided over significant development and expansion of the college including a successful drive to boost international programs. In 1968, Brown appointed Dr. Donald Myers Director of International Education (DIE) with a mandate to increase study-abroad offerings. Myers encouraged college faculty to submit proposals, and one of them led to an enduring relationship with Cuernavaca of almost half a century.

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Donald Myers, Director of International Education, 1968-81.

When Myers left the college in 1981, the Office of International Education boasted a score of programs abroad from the United Kingdom, France, and Germany, to Brazil and Puerto Rico. Of course, Brockport students could also enroll in programs administered by other SUNY schools. The college was on its way to global outreach.

THE BEGINNING: DR. JOHN DAUGHERTY & IVAN ILLICH

In 1970, Myers welcomed and encouraged a proposal by Dr. John Daugherty of the History Department to explore academic ties with CIDOC (Centro Intercultural de Documentación), founded in Mexico by internationally-renowned scholar Ivan Illich. Daugherty envisioned a program of social science courses offered in English, supplemented by Spanish-language classes. CIDOC was an ideal place to launch such an endeavor.

Born in Vienna, Austria in 1926, Illich took holy orders and immigrated to the U.S. where he became a parish priest in New York City. After conflicts with the Church hierarchy, he left the U.S. for Mexico where he founded a center for research and propagation of alternative ideas on education, society, medicine, and philosophy in Cuernavaca in 1961. Initially sponsored by the Church, much of the center’s financing came from tuition from Spanish classes for missionaries going to Latin America. In 1968, Illich was summoned to the Vatican for an inquisition into his controversial associates and radical ideas. While not defrocked, the offended scholar asked the Pope to relieve him of his priesthood.  CIDOC severed its church affiliation, continuing its work educating missionaries, but transforming its mission to  scholarly research and  conferences by  famous social scientists and educators in residence (https://www.ivanillich.org.mx/8cidoc.pdf).

After an inspection visit to CIDOC, Daugherty submitted a proposal emphasizing social-science course work and intensive Spanish-language study. The college administration accepted the proposal and Daugherty was the resident director for the first group of SUNY students to spend a semester in Cuernavaca in 1971. SUNY students from other campuses could register and receive transfer credits at their home campuses. The Foreign Languages Department at Brockport was not enthusiastic about the program initially, perhaps seeing it as competition to its own classes, and skeptical since language teachers did not have doctorates. Hence the Cuernavaca study-abroad program was directed initially by the Department of History.

By 1973, students in the program could also take Spanish classes at Centro de Artes y Lenguas, CALE, one of many schools founded by educators dissatisfied with working conditions and salaries at CIDOC, or just anxious to profit from the boom in Spanish-language demand. The administrator at CALE was Lic. Santiago Olalde Fajardo, a dynamic, charismatic teacher and program organizer who played a long-term role in the evolution of SUNY programs in Cuernavaca until his untimely death in 1989.

In January 1973, for personal reasons, Daugherty was unable to leave campus, and he and DIE Don Myers tapped yours truly, the only other history professor with Spanish-language training, to be resident director. Initially my Spanish experience was confined to a 1967 crash course at SUNY Buffalo prior to undertaking research in Mexico for my doctoral dissertation on U.S.-Mexican Relations. I had continued my language study including a three-week course in Mexico City during the summer of 1969 and sitting in on classes on campus, including an innovative Peace Corps training initiative. Needless to say, spending four months as resident director in the spring of 1973 led to a significant improvement in my fluency.

It was this semester in residence that brought me into personal contact with Ivan Illich and Santiago Olalde as I shuttled between CIDOC and CALE to supervise SUNY students at both institutions. Illich had by then completed a draft of his book, Medical Nemesis, published in 1975, and he asked me to read and comment on the text. While students were in class. I was inspired to take advantage of CIDOC’s library of scholarly material on controversial issues like public health in Latin America. The experience stimulated me to retool my research from diplomatic themes to historical perspectives on the politics of health care, which eventually led to three major articles and a number of academic papers. My article “The Mexican Revolution and Health Care or the Health of the Mexican Revolution,” (Latin American Perspectives,1983; reprinted in the International Journal of Health Services, 1985) was well received and became required reading in courses at Mexico’s National School of Public Health. Indeed, my first semester as resident director in Cuernavaca turned out to be a substantive turning point in my career.

CHANGING OF THE GUARD

In 1974, a number of factors led the college to sever its affiliation with CIDOC in favor of full time at CALE. Some factors in the change were the inconvenience of two different host schools, better student evaluations and less expensive tuition at CALE, and recommendations I made in my report as resident director in 1973. The CALE program emphasized intensive immersion in Spanish in classes of no more than five students per teacher with optional “minicursos” in other disciplines. Student class placement was determined on arrival by testing their fluency from beginning to advanced by written exam and oral interview. Students were required to live with Mexican families who provided additional language practice.

In 1975, program coordinator John Daugherty left the college and Santiago Olalde left CALE.  When I was able to resolve a crisis for the program at CALE, described later, DIE Don Myers asked me to take over coordination of the program on campus. It involved reviewing student applications, monitoring academic issues in the program, and liaison with the host school in Cuernavaca. I felt some students were not achieving sufficient Spanish fluency and proposed changing the emphasis of the program from social science to foreign language.

LEADERSHIP IN MEXICO: SANTIAGO OLALDE

When Brockport linked up with CALE in Cuernavaca, it began its long-term relationship with dynamic Mexican administrator Santiago Olalde. He was not the owner of the private language institute but coordinated its academic program. In 1975, Olalde left CALE to coordinate the program at another private school. His departure left a lack of leadership at CALE, leading to administrative disarray, faculty squabbling, a threatened strike, and student dissatisfaction. Don Myers sent me to Cuernavaca over the Thanksgiving break to investigate the situation. I interviewed faculty and SUNY students, evalutated the problems, and sought the advice of Santiago Olalde who assured me he could replicate the entire SUNY program with more stability at his current post at Instituto Fenix. DIE Don Myers, Victor Rojas, and I had developed solid respect for and confidence in Olalde, and Brockport changed its host institute the following semester. Olalde’s administrative skills, his willingness to meet Brockport’s academic quality requirements, and his superb public relations with administrators and staff at Brockport provided a  period of stability and consistency in the program.

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Lic. Santiago Olalde Fajardo, founder of Centro Bilingüe.

In 1978, Santiago Olalde was invited by Dr. Daisy de Jesus to take a position at SUNY Albany. Seizing the opportunity for advancement, he departed Instituto Fenix, took all the possessions that would fit in his car, and left Cuernavaca for Albany. There was some misunderstanding at Albany and the promised position was not available when he arrived, perhaps due to political issues or his lack of a doctorate. His friends at Albany sent out an SOS for help. DIE Don Myers helped arrange a position at Brockport in the Migrant Outreach program. In September 1978, Santiago drove to Brockport to assume his new position, and resided in my home until his finances allowed him to rent his own apartment.

Santiago’s work at Brockport afforded many opportunities to interact with Spanish-speaking faculty and community people, and he developed a strong network of friends and supporters. But Santiago harbored the dream of one day using his vast experience and academic alliances to open his own Spanish school in Cuernavaca. During the summer of 1978, Dr. de Jesus came from Albany to Brockport and met with Santiago and me in my living room where we discussed his proposal and shared ideas on what he needed to do academically to attract U.S. study-abroad programs, especially that of SUNY. He and Dr. de Jesus wanted to emphasize not just language but “multicultural” experiences, settling on the name The Center for Bilingual-Multicultural Studies. I thought that mouthful would be tough to publicize, suggested they abbreviate it, and we  settled on Centro Bilingüe.

Thus, in the fall of 1979, Santiago Olalde returned home to Cuernavaca, secured financial backing, assembled experienced Spanish teachers, and began developing the curriculum and administration of his own school, Centro de Estudios Bilingües y Multiculturales (The Center for Bilingual-Multicultural Studies), or Centro Bilingüe. (When another institute claimed the name duplicated its own, a minor change was made to Centro de Estudios Linguisticos y Multiculturales). During the Thanksgiving break, DIE Don Myers asked me to meet Santiago and his prospective staff in Cuernavaca and evaluate its potential as a host for the college program. I knew most of the personnel from my semesters as resident director, and I was pleased that the curriculum included supplemental cultural courses that were traditionally part of the the SUNY curriculum abroad.

Thanks to my report and Santiago Olalde’s respect at Brockport, Don Myers approved changing the college affiliation to Centro Bilingüe, which guaranteed sufficient income for Santiago to open his doors to the first handful of students in the late fall/early winter of 1978. In January 1979, I led the first contingent of 25 SUNY students to study at Centro Bilingüe for the semester. Colby College of Waterville Maine had a long-standing program in Cuernavaca as well, and its director, Dr. Henry Holland, asked me for an evaluation. In the fall of 1979, Colby changed its program site to Centro Bilingüe, and soon after, many other universities and high schools did likewise. As resident director I was pleased to have colleagues from Colby College, the University of Utah, Northern Arizona University, Union College, and Phillips Exeter Academy, among others. Thus, Centro Bilingüe grew to be the largest, most successful, and most academically respected language school in Cuernavaca. Needless to say, the College at Brockport maintains a special place in the hearts of the administrators and staff at Centro Bilingüe.

JOHN PERRY

When Don Myers retired as DIE, the new Director of International Education, Dr. John Perry continued his office’s robust support for the program from 1981 until his untimely death in 2006. He visited the program on a number of occasions and became an enthusiastic advocate. During those years, enrollments varied from 18 to 25 students per semester and a dozen or more each summer. When some members of the history department and even one vice president questioned the support for a faculty line in Mexico, Dr. Perry stridently defended the decision on the basis of program quality and consistency.

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Dr. John J. Perry, Director of International Education, the College at Brockport, 1981-2006. 

Under John Perry’s leadership, the campus global outreach continued to expand. He initiated the first programs in Ghana, South Africa, and China, among others and he was highly respected by DIE’s at other SUNY campuses. The John J. Perry International Scholarship for Study Abroad is one of several opportunities for student  financial assistance.

 

 

RESIDENT DIRECTORS

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The Brockport group at Centro Bilingüe, spring semester 1995. Resident director James Horn at top center.

The College often had difficulty finding qualified faculty willing to spend a semester in Cuernavaca. Many had children and didn’t want to take them out of schools, or spouses who had jobs or other reasons for not wanting to leave Brockport. Cuernavaca offered limited research resources long before the internet. After my divorce in 1980, I suggested to the administration that it would be good to have me in Cuernavaca every spring semester to sustain program consistency and quality. The Office of International Education welcomed the suggestion. In addition, I taught a three-credit history course in Spanish on U.S.-Latin American Relations, one of my teaching specialties. For the next 18 years I spent the fall semester in Brockport and the spring semester in Cuernavaca, except for two sabbatical leaves for scholarly research in Mexico City and Brazil.

The history department was not happy with my absences since I was not on campus half the year to teach my specialties, serve on committees, and help with academic advisement. But the department received my academic line allowing for the hiring of adjunct professors to teach other unstaffed courses. The deans supported my situation, and the college president Dr. John Van de Wetering visited the program twice and returned to Brockport with high praise. In 1997, the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools sent a specialist to Cuernavaca to evaluate the SUNY program. The MSA is a non-profit organization that provides evaluation for public and private schools and some U.S. based foreign programs. The report supported continued accreditation, with superlative praise for the academic quality of the curriculum and the administrative leadership of the program.

VICTOR ROJAS

Brockport College involvement in Cuernavaca was further enriched thanks to the additional involvement of Dr. Victor Rojas, a Spanish professor who promoted the program in his department and spent several semesters and summers as resident director in Cuernavaca. Dr. Rojas and I had a strong working relationship on related academic issues, and we shared the development and coordination of the Latin American Studies minor on campus from 1975 to 1998.

In the summer of 1975, Dr. Rojas spent time at the host institute, CALE, taught a language course there, and evaluated the teaching strategies, praising the “total immersion” concept. His experience led him to personal commitment to the program from that date. At my suggestion, he designed a six-credit summer program that initiated in 1977 with him as the resident director. In the fall of 1977, he was resident director for the full-semester program for the first time, a position he resumed in the fall semesters of 1993 and 1999. But it was primarily in his leadership of the summer program that he made his major contribution, serving as resident director every summer from 1977 to 1982.

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Dr. Victor Rojas, Chair of the Department of Foreign Languages and frequent resident director in Cuernavaca.

Fortunately for the program, Dr. Rojas was appointed chair of the Foreign Languages Department where he served from 1978 to 1991, and again in 1993 and from 2002 to 2005. From his position as chair, he lent strong on-campus support to maintaining and improving the program as well as encouraging majors in his department to spend a semester or summer in Cuernavaca. He also encouraged his colleagues in the Foreign Languages department to embrace the program, and professors Andrea Parada and Joe Siracusa spent successful summers as resident directors. The program was a great asset to the Foreign Languages Department because Dr. Walter Morris, professor of German, wanted to retool as a Spanish instructor due to severely declining demand for German classes. He spent the summer of 1993  in Cuernavaca and returned to the College as a Spanish teacher.

In addition to his significant contributions to promoting the program on campus, Dr. Rojas was a solid academic asset in Cuernavaca not just for student participants but also for faculty development of Mexican staff. Students could take courses like Sor Juana de la Cruz, the Novel of the Mexican Revolution, Advanced Spanish Grammar, Introduction to Descriptive Linguistics, and Language Variations in Spanish America. For host institute staff, he gave workshops on ACTFL Oral Proficiency Testing in Spanish and the U.S. Foreign Service Institute Language Proficiency Testing.

Dr. Rojas was also a successful grant applicant, allowing him to adapt new methodologies in language teaching and in proficiency evaluations. He used those skills in giving workshops to Mexican staff and in teaching program participants. Other grants paid participation expenses for over twenty students to go to Mexico.

Later Dr. Rojas developed a successful study-abroad program in his native Costa Rica. After his retirement in 2007, he worked for the Office of International Education as Director of Internships in Costa Rica. Also after retiring, in 2009 the host school in Cuernavaca, then Universidad Internacional, invited him to teach two graduate courses in their MA program in Spanish, History of the Spanish Language and Transformational Grammar in Spanish. Few professors at the College could come close to his contributions to the college’s international outreach and its impact on the academic achievements and careers of so many students.

The Foreign Languages Department at Brockport helped promote the program by hiring one of Centro Bilingüe’s staff members to teach classes on campus.  Norma Lazcano started as an adjunct professor in Brockport in various summer Spanish classes between 1991 and 2002, and then one semester a year between 2000 and 2010. Her enthusiasm and love of students were major assets in recruiting participants to study abroad, and she is adored by students in her charge when she is resident director.

CUERNAVACA’S WORLD FAME

By the 1980s, Cuernavaca was the second largest center for Spanish-language study after Salamanca Spain, boasting over twenty-five private and public schools and institutes. Demand continued to increase after the ratification of NAFTA in 1995, promoting trade and investment ties with Mexico. Huge increases in Mexican migrants in the U.S. led to increased interest in Spanish among business, social work, and health-care professionals, among others. School administrators estimated that about ten thousand foreign students yearly participated in semester, summer, and winter intersession programs in Cuernavaca. Hundreds of independent students also enrolled in short or long-term sessions. I recall meeting the Vice Presidents of Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, the President of General Electric de México, a vice president of Scotia Bank, to name a few. Centro Bilingüe became the favored site for Spanish classes for foreign embassies. I met future ambassadors from Canada, New Zealand, and Australia before they took up their duties in Mexico City, and I gave a private tour of Cuernavaca to James Jones, President Clinton’s nominee as ambassador. NAFTA increased Mexican importance in U.S. politics as well, and I met mayors and other officials like Senator John Cornyn (R. TX), and journalist/commentator Mort Kondracke. The Catholic bishop of Rochester NY, Matthew Clark, also spent several weeks in classes.

PROGRAM ACADEMIC FEATURES

Over the years, the Brockport program evolved and improved, but the basic pattern of total immersion plus minicourses remained intact. The summer program now offers two options, a five- week course for six credits and a ten-week course for twelve credits. The 15-credit semester program of 13 weeks includes one week of vacation at midterm, and the family stay provides students with additional language practice. A one-semester Spanish course on the Brockport campus consists of about 45 hours of classroom instruction. Students in Cuernavaca exceed that in two weeks, not counting their conversations out of class. Optional after-hours workshops like “individual attention in grammar”, and extra conversation classes allow for two more contact hours daily for those inclined. The result from my observation was that absolute beginning Spanish students returned home conversational with grammatical errors. Those who had already completed a few college Spanish classes became bilingual by the end of the semester.

In addition to language studies, participants can choose from a variety of cultural courses taught in Spanish. Until his retirement, expat Dr. Ross Gandy taught the History of Mexico. Rather than take his job, I taught a three-credit course on U.S. Latin American Relations. Other offerings have included Mexico Today (Sociology), Hispanic American Civilization and Culture, the Mexican Political System, and History of Mexican Art. Resident directors from other university programs offer other choices on occasion. The cultural courses are open to the entire student body, but only resident directors can approve academic credits on their home campus.

CENTRO BILINGÜE TRANSITIONS TO AN ACCREDITED UNIVERSITY

The College at Brockport has continued its affiliation with Centro Bilingüe from 1980 to the present. In 1997, rector Javier Espinosa undertook the expansion of the school into a full university accredited in the state of Morelos, renaming it the Universidad Internacional (Uninter). Centro Bilingüe became one of six schools, each with its own divisional administration and staff. Today foreign students studying Spanish share the campus with approximately two thousand Mexican students who opt for one of 31 majors, in addition to several master’s degree programs and one doctorate.

Thus, SUNY program participants no longer study only with other English-speaking students, but find themselves on a campus with hundreds of Mexicans their age, enriching their intercultural experience. More advanced students can take non-language courses from the broad Uninter curriculum. Meanwhile, the Spanish school, Centro Bilingüe, attracts students from many foreign countries as well, so SUNY participants might share a classroom with Koreans, Japanese, Germans, Swiss, Belgians, French, Brazilians,Portuguese, and a dozen other nationalities. Regular social events and excursions provide for social interaction in this academic melting pot.

STUDENT EXPERIENCES

During their one-week mid-term break, students take public transportation to far off Mexican destinations, Pacific beaches, ancient colonial cities, pre-Columbian pyramids, and the like. I always thrilled to hear stories of their adventures, how well they managed to resolve travel issues and confront potential problems, interacting with local people and learning so much more about the country. They come back thrilled that they were able to communicate so well, manage travel logistics, meet new friends, and build their self confidence. At the end of their term, students return home with variable fluency in Spanish, and feeling incredibly more sophisticated and empowered. In many cases their parents hardly recognize them.

Students interaction with their Mexican host families offers a significant addition to their academic experience. Not all families are equally dedicated and loving, but most students bond quickly with their Mexican mamá, papá, and siblings. They do aerobics or yoga with Mexicans in the gyms and hangout with Mexican friends in café’s and bars, often cementing new lifetime friendships. One of my most stressful experiences as resident director involved a female student who wanted to marry a Mexican within a month of arrival, necessitating a fly-down by her father. While professors on campus usually finish their day at the end of classes, I often got called upon after hours over issues of student drinking, an occasional bar fight, and family-stay problems. The worst incident was the tragic drowning death of a student while on mid-term break on a beach in Oaxaca. After confirmation from the U.S. Consulate in Oaxaca, I had to phone his father to tell him his only son had died.

Students in the fall semester 1985 had a major scare when a magnitude 8.0 earthquake devastated nearby Mexico City. While Cuernavaca was spared, the quake shut down communications and airfare in Mexico and parents were justifiably concerned. Ham- radio operators came to the rescue, allowing for communications with Brockport where the office could reassure families that program participants were safe.

Fortunately, far more frequent are the cheerful success stories of program participants. Countless students told me the semester abroad was their greatest life experience. Few courses on campus elict such effusive comments. I got to know the students very well because I saw them on campus daily, read their journals, invited them to my home several times during the semester, joined them on some excursions, and hosted their farewell dinner at the best restaurant in the city. Some students still keep in touch, a reward it itself.

I regret we never developed a mechanism to track students after graduation to follow their achievements, but here are two stories seventeen years apart:

 

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Christian J. Schrank

Christian J. Schrank was a criminal justice major at the College at Brockport when he decided Spanish language could be a career booster. He spent the spring semester of 1998 in Cuernavaca where I remember him as one of the most enthusiastic students I had the pleasure of working with abroad. In less than a year after his graduation in 2000, he was hired as a Special Agent in the Office of Investigations of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services New York Field Office. He has risen rapidly through the ranks and is currently Special Agent in Charge in the Office of Investigations of the HHS Office of Inspector General for the Los Angeles region. He has just been promoted to Assistant Inspector General in charge of investigations in Washington DC.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Jennifer Abbott, far left; third from left, Norma Lazcano, resident director,  and Jennifer’s Mexican family, 2016.

Jennifer L. Abbott journeyed to Cuernavaca in the summer of  2015  and was so enthralled  with her Spanish classes and family stay that she enrolled in the fall semester 2016, earning enough credits to complete her Spanish major at SUNY Fredonia. After graduation in 2016, she attended the New York State Department of Corrections Academy and became an officer, but after two years she realized her heart was elsewhere. She enrolled in a Masters Degree program and is now just one semester away from fulfilling her dream to teach Spanish. Jennifer says the program, especially her family stay, transformed her life.  “Traveling to Cuernavaca,” she says, “was the greatest decision I have ever made.” Just months after her summer abroad, she returned to visit her host family and she plans to make return visits for the rest of her life.

 

 

 

 

 

The Office of International Education at the College has had a long history of planting the Brockport flag abroad. Now known as The Center for Global Education and Engagement, the office administers overseas education in over one-hundred sites in addition to student access to other SUNY programs. The excellent Directors have had the support of a number of assistant directors and other staff who have played a major role in managing so many programs in so many countries. Lindsay Crane, now Interim Director, Pat Coates, Assistant Director now retired, and advisor Lindsay Liu, a former student in Cuernavaca, have been stalwart promoters of the Cuernavaca experience. https://brockport.studioabroad.com. 

ENROLLMENT DECLINE

The Spanish School at Universidad Internacional carries on, but U.S. study-abroad program participants declined severely beginning in 2008 for reasons explored in my blog post. https://jimhornnews.com/2013/05/24/cuernavacas-spanish-language-schools-resilient/

Due to the 2008 economic downturn in the U.S., the H1N1 influenza scare, and increased violence associated with competing drug cartels in Mexico, frightening headlines in the U.S. press reduced travel to Mexico, even if Cuernavaca remained a peaceful oasis. Of about twenty-five language schools in the city, more than half closed their doors and others limped along far below capacity. Centro Bilingüe had the most solid base in affiliations with U.S. and other foreign academic institutions (over two-hundred colleges, universities, high schools, and travel agencies maintain affiliations with the school), but enrollments still plummeted. The College at Brockport’s program enrollments dropped significantly from 20 to 25 students per semester to fewer than a dozen. After 1995, I was no longer on campus to visit classes and promote the program, and my participation stopped with my retirement in 1998. Dr. Victor Rojas retired in 2007, leaving no one in the Foreign Languages Department with his enthusiasm for the program. In recent semesters, only a handful of SUNY students have journeyed to Mexico. For local supervision, the College relies on Norma Lazcano, a Cuernavaca resident, who has spent many semesters as an adjunct professor at Brockport.

Cuernavaca has not been a victim of the criminal violence that has affected other parts of Mexico, and students and tourists are neither the targets nor the victims of competing drug cartels. But the perception of danger continues to affect enrollments adversely. One of SUNY’s longest operating and most successful study-abroad programs educated hundreds of students whose lives have been transformed by the experience. One can only hope that a reduction in violence and improving perceptions of Mexico in the U.S. will lead to a renaissance in Spanish study in Cuernavaca.

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POST SCRIPT:  THE PROGRAM’S IMPACT ON MY CAREER

In addition to deriving so much satisfaction from my work coordinating the SUNY Study-Abroad Program in Cuernavaca, becoming bilingual in Spanish, and enjoying so many friends and colleagues in Mexico, the experience made a significant impact on my academic career and subsequent entrepreneurial ventures. I already mentioned above my transition to scholarly research on historical issues on public health in Latin America.

Guidebook cover 3Students had scores of questions for Brockport and Centro Bilingüe administrators and advisors, wanting to know what to pack, how to plan finances abroad, what kinds of health problems they might confront, what medical attention was available, and so many other issues that naturally arise when one goes abroad for an extended period. In 1981, at Santiago Olalde’s suggestion, I published the first edition of a guidebook in English, “Cuernavaca, A Guide for Students & Tourists.” Due to the limited audience, the book had only modest success in sales, but  it provides a wealth of information for program participants. When foreign visitors to Cuernavaca declined precipitously in the 1990s due to perceptions of violence in Mexico, sales were too low to finance a print edition with color photos, and in 2013, I switched to an electronic edition on Amazon.com.

My own career took on another facet in 1977 when I began teaching students in a three-credit course in Cuernavaca on the history of Mexico during the January intersession. Students accepted for the spring-semester program could arrive three weeks early and receive three additional semester credits. Non-students could enroll on a non-credit basis as tourists, paying a fee to International Education. Gradually more and more adults increased enrollment.  After doing that for four or five intersessions, earning only transportation costs and a per diem for expenses, I asked the college administration to make it equivalent to a summer-session course with a salary. The request was denied and I decided it was too much work and too stressful for only expenses. I stopped offering the course for credit but repeated the classes and excursions as a private tour unrelated to the college.

The first endeavor as a private business in 1982 had 16 participants, but numbers grew year after year, mostly by word of mouth. Soon friends and relatives of former participants signed up and my career as a tour organizer grew. Previous participants asked me to take them to other parts of Mexico, and I eventually organized and guided groups to seven destinations in Mexico including Oaxaca, Chiapas, Veracruz, the Colonial Cities, and others. In 1987 I took a summer vacation trip to Spain where I set up a tour for the following summer that sold out the 26-person maximum. In future years I added destinations in Spain, Italy and six countries in Central and South America offered during intersession or summer vacations. The travels enhanced my knowledge of other cultures that I could use in my fall-semester courses on campus on 20th Century Latin America and U.S.-Latin American relations.

During several fall semesters on campus, I audited freshmen courses on French and Italian languages, and did a self-study of Portuguese. A sabbatical leave for research in Rio de Janeiro in 1982 improved my Portuguese and led to publication of a highly-praised article (“Brazil: the Health Care Model of the Military Modernizers and Technocrats,” International Journal of Health Services, vol 15, 1985).

Since my tours were advertised as educational, they attracted many retired teachers, librarians, and professional people. Many of them talked about another educational tour operator they enjoyed, Elderhostel (now Road Scholar). My experience in Cuernavaca provided the incentive to submit an application to Elderhostel which was readily accepted. The first program “Spanish Language and Mexican Culture” was scheduled for my spring break in Cuernavaca in 1990. It sold out promptly with a wait list of 53 persons, indicating I had a promising future with that organization. From 1990 to 2011, I coordinated 80 programs for Elderhostel, supervising participant language classes at Centro Bilingüe, offering four lectures in English, a Mexican cooking class, four excursions, and two fiestas. Many programs sold out with 38 applicants with a wait list, and most programs varied between 34 and 36 participants.

By 2010, enrollments lagged due to the same perceptions of violence that affected language-school enrollments. Some programs did not make the minimum needed for the price, and the last program in 2011 had only 13 enrolled. The program coordinator in Boston told me not to submit any programs for 2012, and that ended my career with Road Scholar without so much as a thank you or adios. Fortunately, I had already decided to retire from my business career in 2012.

In 1995, budget cuts in SUNY led the administration at Brockport to consider staff reductions. Dean Robert McLean of Social Sciences asked faculty near retirement to consider speeding up the decision. I was not ready to retire but discussed with the dean another alternative. Thanks to Dean McLean’s initiative, the college had an incentive program that allowed faculty to go half-time at half salary for three years, after which one had to return to the college full time or agree to retire. I had a home in Cuernavaca and a strong commitment to the study-abroad program, so I told the dean I would volunteer to go half time if it was the spring half in Mexico which he accepted. The decision was not helpful to the History Department which could not immediately obtain a line to hire a replacement to teach my courses. But an administrator at the college told me that a colleague’s retirement in the history department and my change to half time saved two history colleagues from retrenchment.

SUNY faculty had gone three years without a salary increment and I knew I could earn more than my half salary leading tours the other half of the year. I continued as resident director in the spring semesters of 1996, 1997, and 1998, increasing my private tours and Elderhostel programs in the fall and summer. This was so successful I could not imagine going back to full time in Brockport. By then study-abroad enrollments were crashing due to the perception of violence in Mexico, although Cuernavaca remained quite safe.

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Leading a group at Machu Picchu Peru.

 

With a dim prospect for continuing to spend spring semesters in Cuernavaca, I announced my retirement from the college in May 1998. That year I incorporated my private tour business as Educational Travel Service, Inc., expanding the tour offerings and living full time in Cuernavaca. When I retired from that business in February 2012, I had organized and led over 150 tour groups to 20 destinations in eight countries, including the 80 programs for Road Scholar (Elderhostel).

 

 

 

My academic career and civic contributions in Cuernavaca led to various honors including recognition by the mayor and city council (Reconocimiento,  Huésped Distinguido,  Presidente Municipal y Ayuntamiento de Cuernavaca, Mor. July 2003); honors bestowed by Universidad Internacional (Reconocimiento, “Ciudadano del Mundo,” Universidad Internacional, Cuernavaca, Mexico, May 8, 2008); Reconocimiento & Homenaje, “Distinguido Miembro de la Universidad,” Universidad Internacional, Cuernavaca, Mor. Mexico, April 14, 2011); and an honor by a civic organization Reconocimiento: Identidad Morelos, Feb. 9, 2015, Cuernavaca, Mor.

In conclusion, the study-abroad program in Cuernavaca became half or more of my duties at the College at Brockport, and later the focus of a successful entrepreneurial career in tourism. I am grateful to the College for allowing me so many semesters abroad, to the Office of International Education and its Directors for their unstinting support, to my many colleagues in different departments who contributed to the program, and to the History Department for sort of tolerating my absences. I am grateful also to the administration and staff at Centro Bilingüe, now Universidad Internacional, for their dedication to providing a superb educational experience and a warm Mexican abrazo to the hundreds of SUNY students the College at Brockport has entrusted to their care.

 

6 thoughts on “THE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK COLLEGE AT BROCKPORT & STUDY ABROAD IN CUERNAVACA, MORELOS, MEXICO

  1. Pingback: Spanish School´s Blog at UninterTHE STATE UNIVERSITY OF NEW YORK COLLEGE AT BROCKPORT & STUDY ABROAD IN CUERNAVACA, MORELOS, MEXICO

  2. I arrived to work with Ivan Illich in 1973 and just stayed in Cuernavaca. So I read with care everything you said about the build up of SUNY’s program before that. You are the mainspring of the SUNY program for decades, although Santiago Olalde really helped. And I did all that I could. I consider the program to be one of the great sucesses in education that I have participated in. We got so many American kids out of their shell. Just one example. One student came by to see me when she had finished and told me that it had been the most important year of her life and had changed her forever. Others said something like that.

    The libertarian approach to education, the fraternalizing of profs with students, the field trips and excursions–wherever Illich is now he his proud that he inspired this kind of work. You are the one who made it all possible. The Reganites and the Bushes and the Trumps, the repressive forces in the knowledge factories have pretty much had their way, but we were able to resist. Keep this blog going. It’s in our tradition.

  3. Thanks for your comments Ross. You were always the most popular minicourse instructors and you were present from the beginning. Thanks for all the inspiration you provided our students.

  4. Jim, thank you so muchoooo for this article. I learned so much and I too am awaiting the UNINTER renaissance. Best years of my life were spent with my students and dedicated Mexican friends in Cuernavaca. MU students lost a great experience when MU closed the program.
    Muchas felicidades, Judy Elliott

  5. Thanks Judy. Your long history bringing students to Cuernavaca parallels my own. Lots of personal rewards apart from knowing how significant the programs impacted student lives. Sorry MU let everyone down. Abrazos.

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