West Windsor, N.J. – When 26 students arrived from Mexico at Newark Airport on July 19, they were mostly seeking to improve their English language skills to assist them in careers as professors, psychologists, engineers and more. Ask the Mercer County Community College (MCCC) professors who taught them over the next four weeks and all will agree that the students made significant strides in speaking and understanding the English language.
But the group got other equally important gifts: an appreciation of American history and culture, and strong new friendships with their classmates and the MCCC staff.
Oh, and they learned yoga.
It was all part of “Proyecta 100,000 @ MCCC,” a program established to increase academic mobility between Mexico and the United States. The students ranged in age from 20 to 64; some are pursuing graduate and doctoral degrees. The trip was a series of firsts for many in the group – their first time on an airplane, their first experience of international travel, their first time in America.
“We began an adventure expecting the unexpected in a country we didn’t know except through the movies. We didn’t know your ways or your people,” said Cecilia Mendez, who hails from Durango, Mexico, and is a Professor of Business at the Technical Institute there. She was among numerous speakers who reflected on their Proyecta @ Mercer experience during an awards ceremony on Aug. 14, the group’s final day on campus.
“We come from humble families where resources are limited. This experience was a first time for many life-changing things,” Mendez said. “It has changed the way we see today and the way we envision the future. It will affect the way we teach and the way we encounter other cultures.”
Added student Yoveli Burciaga, “We have reached the top of a mountain. We worked very hard and today we are finished. What we value most are the friendships we made, the moments we shared. Mercer has been like the moon to us and we have taken first steps just like Neil Armstrong. We thank you for your time, your passion and your energy. You are an example for us.”
The “Proyecta 100,000” program project grew out of the U.S.-Mexico Bilateral Forum on Higher Education, Innovation, and Research launched by U.S. President Barack Obama and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto in 2013. The forum’s goal is to expand economic opportunities for U.S. and Mexican citizens and develop a shared vision on educational cooperation.
According to MCCC faculty member Andrea Lynch, who led the Proyecta @ Mercer with co-coordinator Georgette Shaymer, planning for the summer immersion program began in earnest in April, when MCCC learned that its Proyecta 100,000 proposal had received funding from the Mexican Ministry of Public Education as part of the National Training Program for Students and Teachers SEP-SRE Proyecta 100,000. Mercer was one of only a handful of community colleges to receive funding.
The Mexican students spent the bulk of their days in the classroom and the bulk of their evenings studying. The four weeks of intensive academic coursework, taught fully in English, added up to a full semester that earned them 12 college credits. Their MCCC instructors included Maria Julie Lora-Ruiz (affectionately known as Miss Julie), who taught English; Lynch, who taught Computer Concepts; Alvyn Haywood, who taught Speech and Human Communication, and Jacqueline Franz, who taught Concepts of Health and Fitness. Shaymer was the group’s guide throughout the trip.
Among the highlights of the Mexican students' time at Mercer was a scavenger hunt, when the students fanned out to take photos of themselves with various staff members at designated locations. They spent time at WWFM the Classical Network, with each student getting a chance to do a station promo -- in English. They visited MCCC’s Trenton campus and met faculty and students. And, they learned yoga from Professor Lora-Ruiz, who used it during her four-hour class as a welcome break for mind, body and soul.
On the weekends, the students, accompanied by Shaymer, toured major cultural and historic sites in Trenton, New York City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Local trips included Grounds for Sculpture, a Trenton Thunder baseball game that went 13 innings, Camden Aquarium and Princeton University. Among the most memorable sights the students recalled were the Statue of Liberty, the Lincoln Memorial and the Liberty Bell. Others thrilled to the artwork they saw at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Philadelphia Art Museum, and the National Gallery in D.C.
And they danced away one of their last nights in New Jersey at On the Border Mexican Cantina on Route 1, which allowed the group to stay on after the rest of the customers had left. They enjoyed the hospitality of Extended Stay America, also on Route 1, which embraced its international guests with open arms.
MCCC President Jianping Wang bid the group a fond farewell at the awards ceremony. “We think you are great,” she said to the students, having met many of them during the scavenger hunt that required a photo with the president. “You will always have friends here. We hope you will be ambassadors for our people and our country."
Gifts were exchanged on both sides. Prof. Lynch presented the Mexican students with Proyecta 100,000 @ MCCC t-shirts, along with a desk set that included a pen engraved with each student’s name. Students also received small American flags and lapel pins depicting a map of New Jersey.
In return, Jorge Gutierrez, an artist in the group, presented each instructor with a pencil portrait signed by students with their thanks.
Lynch singled out Georgette Shaymer for special praise. "The students had a bilingual, bicultural coordinator throughout the duration of their stay. Georgette provided 24/7 support to this group. She befriended them, provided meals, led all the trips, assisted with health related needs and was their go-to person.”
Bryan Sapon was one of two student workers who enjoyed assisting the group. “I helped out as an occasional interpreter. I moved here 11 years ago from Guatemala not knowing a word of English. I was able to relate to these students from their perspective.” He even knew their English professor, Julie Lora-Ruiz, who had been his middle school ESL teacher during his first year in New Jersey.