A Spring Break Study Abroad Trip to Mexico Opens Eyes, Changes Minds

“Spring Break in Mexico” conjures images of sun-drenched beaches and bustling nightlife, but for a cadre of Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University graduate and undergraduate students, their week-long adventure in and around Mexico City had a decidedly different purpose—one with lasting results.

The study abroad program had the timely title of “The Future of U.S.-Mexico Relations: Walls or Bridges in an Era of Populisms and Nationalisms,” and the packed itinerary exposed the 11 students to high-ranking officials, veteran journalists, and well-known professors in a variety of security, immigration, military, and policy fields.

Said Master’s in Public Policy student Cody Bowles, "What I want to do with my career has changed because of this trip."

"The trip opened my eyes to a different side of Mexico,” he said. “What we hear in the media is generally negative [about Mexico], but our experience was so positive—we were welcomed, we learned from our speakers, we saw some beautiful sites, and had intellectual discussions the whole time."

Master’s in Public Policy major Jenifer Miguel Canton, who was born and raised in Spain, appreciated the way the trip, designed by Schar School Director of External Programs Michal McElwain Malur, “showed both sides of the government spectrum. The professors are all very experienced and knowledgeable. The amount of thought and work that was dedicated to this program is very impressive.”

The week began on Saturday, March 9, with a discussion about current events, and ended on Saturday, March 16, with an optional visit to the “silver city” of Taxco. In between, the students learned about how wealth inequality affects development; heard lectures on security issues and the Mexican military; and received an update on the war on drugs, energy reform, immigration, trade agreements, and other topics.

Highlights included:

  • A visit to the Command Center known as C5 and a meeting with the Mexico City Department of Public Safety Director Juan Manuel García Ortegón;
  • Going on the floor of the Chamber of Deputies while the Federal Congress was in session and being greeted by the Vice President of their Federal House of Representatives;
  • A briefing by newly elected Congresswoman Saraí Nuñez, Secretary of the Foreign Relations Committee;
  • Briefings at the U.S. Embassy by political, economic, consular, and public affairs officers;
  • A press conference about the Schar School students’ visit at the State Congress in Morelos; and
  • A visit to the international corporate headquarters of Jose Cuervo tequila and a briefing by international marketing director Araceli Ramos.

But it was not all study during the study abroad trip. There were private guided tours of the Frida Kahlo House, the Leon Trotsky House, the Diego Rivera House, and the Saturday bazaar, as well as a visit to the ancient Pyramids of Teotihuacan and the Basilica of Guadalupe, and the Plaza of Three Cultures. The farewell luncheon took place in historic Cuernavaca, about 90 minutes south of Mexico City and home of the most productive sugar mill in the country. The lunch was hosted by former governor of the state of Morelos and secretary of agriculture Jorge Morales.

"Cuernavaca was an amazing paradise,” said Master’s in Public Administration student Elizabeth Allen. “I am a [human resources] specialist. The group dynamics were amazing and interesting for me to see from an HR perspective."

Suzie Zimmerman, who is in the Master’s in International Commerce and Policy program, summed up the visit: "It’s hard to understand the richness and vibrancy of Mexico without meeting its people, eating its food, and visiting its sites—ancient and modern—which is truly the most important reason for study abroad."

"This class rekindled an international relations passion in me that had been dormant," said Ingrid Botero-Bernal, a Master’s in Public Policy student. “This experience was amazing. It will be always in my heart.”