During the 2019-2020 school year, 19,792 U.S. students studied abroad in Spain, the top destination for U.S. study abroad, according to the Institute of International Education’s Open Doors report. The same year, a mere 2,999 U.S. students chose to study in Mexico, which ranked twelfth on the list of leading U.S. study abroad destinations. Study abroad numbers were down across the board that year, thanks to the pandemic, but the 2018-2019 data paints a similar picture, with 39,358 U.S. students in the U.K., 39,043 in Italy, 33,849 in Spain–and only 6,340 in Mexico.
This is not a problem unique to Mexico: The only Latin American country in the top ten study abroad destinations for U.S. students during the 2019-2020 school year was Costa Rica, which hosted 2 percent of students. Europe, on the other hand, was the destination for more than half of all U.S. study abroad students.
But while the problem is not unique to Mexico, it is particularly important in the context of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. Mexico, afterall, is a top U.S. trade partner, connected to its neighbor by a 1,954-mile border, countless families and a series of shared challenges–migration, water, local economic development, security, health–that cannot be solved unless both nations work together to do so.
Increasing the exchange of students between the two countries means increasing the next generation of professionals with the language skills, cultural competence and political-historical literacy to take these challenges on. In other words, it’s urgent.
Don’t get me wrong: I have nothing against Europe, and I think Spain, the U.K. and Italy are great countries that U.S. students can learn a lot in. As someone who grew up in northern Arizona and went to college in Phoenix, I totally understand the appeal of jetting off to the cobbled streets of Sevilla or the castle-like campuses of London. But as a U.S. citizen, I find it hard to argue that understanding the U.K. or Spain is more important to the future of our country than understanding Mexico.
I must disclose I am, indeed, a biased advocate: My semester in Mexico was the most educational and important experience I had in college. It made clear the path I wanted to follow after graduation (basically, to work more with Mexico), introduced me to my soon-to-be husband, and set me up to return to Mexico on a Fulbright (and later to work on projects between my alma mater, Arizona State University, and Mexican partners). It’s precisely for these reasons that I find it impossible to ignore the huge missed opportunity in the low levels of student exchange between the countries.
Things weren’t always this way. From 2000 to 2010, Mexico found itself among the top ten U.S. study abroad destinations in the Open Doors report. But the country steadily slipped down in the ranking from fifth place during the 2000-2001 school year to 13th place during the 2010-2011 year. The following year, it fell down to 15th place, and has since settled around 12th.
There are many factors that affect whether and where U.S. students study abroad–economic pressure at home, the fluidity between educational institutions, language accessibility, ease of mobility, and travel rankings and tourism marketing, to name a few.
Still, it’s noteworthy that Mexico fell from 9,461 students during the 2006-07 school year, when the Mexican government announced its war on drugs, to 3,815 students in 2011-2012 year, coinciding with a peak of the violence implicit in that war (and of media coverage of its grotesqueness). At the time, a number of U.S. universities canceled programs in Mexico, as the L.A. Times noted in 2014, including, for example, the California State University system, which banned academic exchanges in Mexico from 2010 to 2013. While today, many Mexicans are still forced to live with unacceptable levels of violence, in the context of educational exchange it’s important for students and universities to have a nuanced, informed understanding of this violence, including its large regional variability and the fact that U.S. visitors are far from its primary victims.
Thus far, I’ve focused on U.S. students going to Mexico rather than Mexican students studying in the U.S. for two reasons: First, it’s the experience I know best, and second, there are far more Mexican students studying in the U.S. (14,348 in 2019-2020) than the other way around. Mexico has remained a top ten place of origin for international students in the U.S. since 2000 (though it has seen fluctuation, with a peak of more than 17,000 students in 2014-2015). Still, we can and should do more to increase opportunities for Mexican students in the U.S. as well, and ensuring two-way exchange is critical.
There have been several notable efforts to increase student exchange, such as the Fulbright Program, the 100,000 Strong in the Americas initiative, and Proyecta 100,000, among others. Government efforts like these are important, and should be built upon and expanded–but they cannot stand on their own.
Universities play a huge role, and it’s critical for university administrators to ensure: first, that their institutions have strong exchange partnerships with Mexican counterparts; second, that those exchanges include easily transferable credits and are financially accessible for students; and third, that those exchanges are actively and aggressively promoted to prospective study abroad participants. Top states for international students in higher education include Mexico City, Nuevo León, Baja California, Estado de México and Jalisco, according to data from Mexico’s education secretariat, and ensuring regional diversity among programs is important. (And, for those students who can’t study abroad, universities should heavily encourage, or require, a Mexican history class!)
Of course, even the most robust catalog of university exchanges in Mexico is useless unless a student is willing to pick it up. For many U.S. students, this requires actively interrogating the one-dimensional portraits of Mexico often painted by headlines and Hollywood, and recognizing its richness and incredible importance. Many students chose Mexico as a destination to connect with familial or cultural heritage, a place where they can build on connections and make their own. Others, like me, may be starting from zero.
My message to all students is this: Study in Mexico–you won’t regret it.
And, who knows, the future of our two countries may be relying on it.
* Mia Armstrong is a journalist based in Mexico City. Opinions are her own. Twitter: @MiaAArmstrong