by Enrique Gutiérrez
After what he thought was an unorganized study trip to Mexico, senior Lehi Dowell made sure his concerns were heard.
Dowell was one of 12 students who took part in the Mexico Study Trip during the January Interterm which was directed by Protestant Campus Minister Debbie Roberts and co-instructor David Román.
After attending the trip, Dowell wrote a letter of complaint to the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences John Gingrich in which he explained various difficulties the group faced during its stay on Mexican soil.
“There wasn’t any evaluation process for the class so therefore I had to write to the dean,” Dowell said. “I had no other choice because Debbie wasn’t listening.”
Wrote Dowell, “I do want to state that I have tried several times to talk to Mrs. Roberts about my concerns in person. Each time I was thwarted, ignored, or threatened with my grade.”
“I’m sorry Lehi remembers it that way,” Roberts said. “I’m not a person who threatens people. I do not consider myself as a person who relates to people that way.”
Dowell raised three main issues he considered to be important for further revision to improve the course in the future.
“I was concerned with the organization and leadership that was provided as far as Debbie and David, which there wasn’t any,” he said. “They were very unorganized. They never knew where we were going to stay. They never knew where we were going to eat lunch or dinner. It was just bad organization as far as I’m concerned.”
In regard to the trip’s organization, students agree it could have been planned better. However, they said that did not take anything from the experience.
Senior Eddie Casarez who went on last year’s trip as a student, traveled with this year’s group as an aide for the instructors. He said the trips were planned similarly.
“The trip was planned as best as it could have been,” he said. “There are just some things, a matter with going with the flow, not all things are going to work out the way you planned them.”
The trip wasn’t exactly organized,” said sophomore Kristine Werthwein. She also said it was the “chaos” that made the trip so special to them.
“I would not trade it for anything,” she said.
“Spontaneity can be beneficial,” Casarez said.
Roberts explained that since Román is in Mexico, it was more difficult to plan the course as they did last year.
“Sometimes we had to deal with things we weren’t planning,” said sophomore Anna Roy.
According to freshman Jennifer Contreras, the instructors took some decisions without considering the opinion of the students.
“When [the decisions] were presented to the group, we all disagreed,” she said.
Junior Maria Muñoz said, “The professors in charge decided to cancel two really good lectures because they thought we couldn’t handle it.
“It was kind of unfair of them to make that assumption and not even consult us about making that decision,” Muñoz said.
For instance, a museum visit was cancelled because “they decided that we weren’t prepared or capable of going to the museum,” said Contreras.
But Dowell feels the cancellation of the museum visit was due to a lack of effort by Román.
“We tried three times to get into the same museum, but never once were able to enter,” he wrote in his letter. “The excuse was that the museum closed at different times on different days. Why he [Román] didn’t bother to get the business hours on the first day is still a mystery to me. This was a waste of three afternoons.”
Dowell also said he thought the instructors had made some adjustments from the experience of a year earlier.
“By talking to some of the students who went last year, it became evident that some of the same problems re-occurred this year, and that no effort was made to identify/fix those problems,” wrote Dowell.
Georgina Negrete, a junior, was one of the students who went last year. She said last year’s trip presented no major problems.
Dowell’s letter also addressed his concerns regarding the safety of traveling through Chiapas, one of the states the class visited during the 17-day trip. “Debbie and David never told us it was a war zone.”
Chiapas is the state where the Zapatistas started the insurgent movement that came to the public in 1994. Ever since, Chiapas has been considered a zone of conflict. When the group arrived students had a chance to witness on a first-hand basis the tension that is lived there.
Before leaving to Mexico students were told to read the book First World, Ha Ha Ha! for them to be, if they were not already, aware of the political situation in Mexico, but specifically in the state of Chiapas.
“I figured that [after reading the book] you decided whether or not you still want to go,” Negrete said.
In the introduction article of the book, it states, “The Zapatista rebellion has not ended, and Mexico continues to be shaken by it.”
Dowell admits the book “clearly defines the struggle,” but he also wrote that most students did not read the book until they were already in Chiapas.
That perspective was not shared by Roy who said, “We had to do the readings before, so we were going into Chiapas informed.”
Negrete agreed, “You’re not going to Cancun, you’re going to freaking Chiapas,” she said. “It’s your fault if you didn’t read the book.”
In Chiapas and elsewhere, the class also visited non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which Dowell also wrote of, “These organizations allow for foreigners to be present and to make available, information regarding the government and how it is trying to exterminate the indigenous population.
“By doing that we were considered a threat to the Mexican government,” Dowell wrote.
It was also there that the group was stopped by Mexican immigration agents. Some students said they felt scared of being, in the worst case, deported back to the United States.
“There is a lot of traffic of people…therefore it is understandable that they would check our documents as a routine,” Román wrote via email.
He also wrote they were never in danger because “we didn’t violate the national laws, also every foreigner, by entering Mexico, has individual rights like any citizen.”
Although the instructors told students it was a routine inspection, some students confessed of being afraid, especially because some did not carry identification with them.
“We thought it was like a trip because we were going to waterfalls and ruins and we didn’t realize it was a war zone,” said Dowell.
Opinions on the subject are divided among those who were involved in the trip, some students believe it was clear where they were going.
“It’s kind of obvious it wasn’t going to be like a trip,” Roy said. “It’s kind of basic, if your are going to Chiapas , if you’re visiting NGOs. The government wants to suppress information, I think it was clear there were some risks.”
“There are so many different factors that you have to account for when you are dealing with NGOs and people who have their own scheduling constraints,” said Casarez. “The key is to be as flexible as you can.”
Casarez said that the incident helped some students to understand how politics are played in Mexico.
“Our knowledge was dangerous to the Mexican government. To some people it really helped to crystallize that there are things that are going on in Mexico that are horrible atrocities being committed by the Mexican government and they are trying to hide them the best as they can,” he said.
In regard to the safety issue, Dean Gingrich said, “I don’t like to put students in danger, but you can’t avoid danger. It’s whether or not you can avoid excessive danger.
“The year before they were there and they didn’t experience any incidents at all.”
The third issue Dowell raised was a change on the syllabus regarding intoxication after the class was over.
According to him, Roberts “said some of us overimbibed.” Dowell wrote about a letter each student got when they turned in their required journals on Jan. 27, four days after arriving in the United States.
“In this letter I found the new syllabus,” Dowell wrote. “I was personally insulted, offended, and completely dumbfounded that a professor would think this was acceptable.”
According to Dowell, the changed in the syllabus was “in order to include 10 percent of the students’ final grade…on whether or not we were sober during the trip.”
Roy said the issue of sobriety was discussed before the trip. “We talked about it before the trip. I just wasn’t aware that it was 10 percent of our grade,” she said. “That was never made clear.”
Muñoz had a different feeling as she said the issue was touched throughout the trip.
“It was addressed several times. It was not something that was ignored,” she said, “and both sides presented arguments.”
Sophomore Nancy Morales said, “I heard students were drunk, but I didn’t see it.”
Roberts said she undid the change and explained that the original syllabus indicated “part of the evaluation of this trip comes from your attitude, your embracement of the culture, your willingness to expand yourself and also your respect both for being an American in another country and also representing the University of La Verne.”
Roy admitted she drank when, “We were invited in to people’s homes and they offered us beer. We were told that that was OK because that was drinking responsibly, and you’re being polite.”
Roberts wanted to avoid the stereotypical image of American people. “The United States has a reputation of being loud and loose and arrogant,” she said, “and that’s the kind of reputation you don’t want to have play out when go on a trip like this.”
However, to Contreras, that did not seem to be really important. “Who really cares what we’re doing as far as image goes? In Cuernavaca there are so many Americans,” she said.
“I’m more embarrassed about our political image,” Roy said.
In order t o help prevent confusion over behavior for future trips, Dr. Gingrich suggested “that she [Roberts] have a frank discussion with all of the participants before the trip and perhaps even have them sign a contract about the behavioral expectations.”
“The issue of drinking and inappropriate behavior is secondary to the primary effect of the trip,” Casarez said, “which I think most students will agree it really helped to broaden their horizons and understanding complex issues in terms of international relations and human rights struggle.”
Nonetheless Román wrote they will “establish more strict rules.”
As for Dowell’s letter, Dr. Gingrich said, “I thought both Lehi’s letter was professionally done and I think that Debbie’s response was very professional, too.
“I’m an optimist about the fact that two people who have different perspectives maybe can have a good relationship if they talk this through,” he said.
“I would say that Debbie probably has learned some things about organizing a trip that would be helpful to her for future trips,” said Dr. Gingrich. “I also think that what she provided was an excellent educational experience for the students who went with her.”
“I think the trip was what you personally made it. I had a great time,” Muñoz said. “I learned a lot.”
Roy agreed and said, “It was the best three weeks of my life.”
“The trip was by far more beneficial than harmful,” Casarez said.
For now, other instructors are preparing for upcoming trips.
Catholic Campus Minister Elena Cardeña and Anthropology Professor Dr. Kimberly Martin will take their human condition class to Mexican territory during spring break.
Cardeña said they will be “more careful and much more clear” in order to avoid such misunderstandings.
Cardeña said sometimes people don’t say things because they consider them to be obvious, but that she will make sure to say everything she needs to say regardless if students know.
“There are some things you wouldn’t do in downtown L.A.,” Cardeña said, “much less in Mexico City. That’s common sense, but we’ll go over it.”