Spanish speaker Libertad Aranza went back to basics with a Mercer team this summer to fill a need expressed by the community. During Mercer On Mission’s first trip to Mexico, students and teachers provided English lessons to nearly 200 children in Izúcar de Matamoros and held workshops for 33 students who are studying to become English teachers.
Aranza and Dr. Jose Pino, associate professor of Spanish and director of Mercer’s Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures, led 15 Mercer students from various disciplines on the three-week trip.
“Through Mercer On Mission, our students not only change, impact and touch lives in these communities, but through the interactive experience, they are also impacted and changed in so many ways,” said Dr. Pino. “Some of them discovered their true vocation, what they really wanted to do, their strengths or their weaknesses. Our students went above and beyond, and they all faced challenges.
During a visit to Izúcar de Matamoros earlier this year, locals told Aranza they lacked English teachers in their schools as well as specialized English teaching techniques.
“Most of their teaching is more grammar-based and they don’t focus on listening, speaking and understanding to have a conversation. It’s more of a book-related teaching,” Aranza said.
The Mercer group, which prepared lesson plans before the trip, spent their mornings at two colleges teaching English to students who had been selected for summer camp.
The kids were excited to learn and participate, but they needed a lot of encouragement and reassurance, said Kimberly Lopez, a double major in Spanish and mechanical engineering.
“They understood the grammar part, but when they started speaking (English), they felt less confident and a bit embarrassed to speak in front of their classmates,” said Samantha Vaquero-Covarrubias, a rising junior in Spanish. “Our lesson plan was to apply everything they knew, plus give them time to practice with us and with the class.”
In the afternoon, the Mercer Group trained college students at the Universidad Tecnológica de Izúcar de Matamoros (UTIM) in second language acquisition techniques. Later, UTIM students partnered with Mercer students to work with college campers. These immersive experiences allowed them to improve their teaching language skills and cultural competence and showed them how to deliver more effective and appropriate lessons, Dr. Pino said. Mercer students were also able to develop their Spanish skills.
The hope is that these English skills will open doors for Izúcar de Matamoros and its people. Speaking English can change the lives of children there by giving them more opportunities for their future. Additionally, 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 do more and … maybe go to higher education in Mexico or outside of Mexico, like I did,” said Aranza.
English skills are also an important component of immigration, Dr Pino said. As people immigrate from Mexico to the United States or vice versa, knowledge of English and Spanish facilitates communication between community members and family members and can facilitate cultural transition, a said Aranza.
Community members have also expressed interest in learning how to apply for college and university scholarships in the United States. Thus, during the Mercer On Mission trip, Dr. Pino led a seminar on the subject which was attended by UTIM students, faculty, staff and administrators as well as members of the general public. The auditorium was packed and the event was a great success, said Dr. Pino.
Vaquero-Covarrubias and Lopez said a closing ceremony hosted by UTIM students, faculty, staff and administrators and local government to recognize the work of the Mercer team was especially meaningful. Lopez said the event put into perspective what they had accomplished.
“At first it’s a new group of students,” Lopez said. “It takes a while for them to open up to you, but once you’ve established that relationship with them, you don’t want it to end. We had accomplished what we set out to do, and I hope that from here more Mercer trips will continue and that students know that they have 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 he saw signs of his mother’s Mexican heritage in one of the dances.
“They were showing us their culture, while we were showing them our culture through the educational workshops,” she said.
In addition to their work teaching English, Mercer students explored the country — from major cities to rural areas — and various historical sites to better understand Mexico’s cultural diversity, Aranza said.
“It’s not just about learning about a city, but learning the whole picture,” she said. “One of the goals was to see the different perspectives of Mexico and learn about 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 by camping in the mountain town of Cuetzalan; and got a bread-making lesson with the locals. Lopez said baking bread was one of her favorite parts of the trip.
“To be able to experience this with my fellow Mercer students and the locals there was a unique opportunity,” Lopez said. “For them to give us the opportunity to do something like that meant a lot, and it showed me that they were thrilled to have us there. They were thrilled to share some of their culture with us. .
The Mercer Group also visited government offices and agencies, including a senior center and a family resource center, to see other ways to expand the Mercer On Mission program 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 health care needs.
Work with UTIM will continue this fall at Aranza Spanish Conversation Classes, where Mercer and UTIM students will hone their language skills in online meetings.
Feature photo: Mercer students are pictured in Puebla’s arts district. Photos courtesy of Libertad Aranza