Inbound students Study Abroad and Exchange at the University of Melbourne
Semester 1, 2009
Bachelor of Arts/Bachelor of Laws
In 2008, as I wrapped up the last of my law subjects and contemplated finishing off my Spanish major the following year, I decided to end my degree with a bang and dive headlong into an exchange to Mexico. I chose Mexico for a number of reasons: firstly, I had heard from friends that it was a fun and vibrant place to visit, and was obviously a gateway to post-exchange travel through Central and South America; secondly, I was advised from a language perspective that the accent was less difficult to master than that spoken in Chile (another Spanish-speaking exchange destination); and thirdly, I thought that an exchange to Mexico would open my eyes from both a cultural and political perspective to life in a completely different part of the world.
ITESM and the Guadalajara campus
I elected to study at the Guadalajara campus of ITESM in Mexico. ITESM is a prestigious university with campuses of varying sizes dotted all over the country. Guadalajara is one of the largest and offers a spacious campus with modern facilities. The Mexican students there generally have excellent English skills and are friendly and welcoming to exchange students. Guadalajara is located around six hours drive northwest of Mexico City and offers an extremely convenient starting point in terms of travel around the country. As Guadalajara is also considered to be amongst the ‘most Mexican’ of Mexican cities (most notably, as the birthplace of mariachi music), it provides a fantastic insight into Mexican culture.
While Guadalajara is a sprawling city of approximately six million people, it is easy enough to navigate once you get the hang of it. The campus is situated on the outskirts of the city and many exchange students choose to live in a number of neighbourhoods that sit between the campus and the city. The University does offer student accommodation, but in my experience most exchange students lived offsite in share house arrangements. This is attributable in part to the fact that the campus is somewhat ‘in the middle of nowhere’ and the popular neighbourhoods for share house living offer bars, restaurants and shopping (much like the popular suburbs at home), not to mention the sense of community of having friends living nearby. To get myself started, I, along with lots of other exchange students, stayed in a hostel in the city before moving into an apartment with new friends shortly after orientation week. However, if you would prefer the security and greater comfort of guaranteed campus accommodation, either in the longer term or simply while getting yourself set up to move out, this is definitely open to you.
While the Guadalajara campus does offer classes in English, I would advise checking ahead with the exchange office at the campus if you need to be guaranteed classes in English (that is, if you need credit towards a major other than Spanish and don’t feel comfortable taking the necessary subjects in Spanish). The campus does a great job of steering you through subject selection during orientation week, but obviously it is too late at that stage if you realise that the particular subjects you need are not on offer. The exchange office staff members are a great resource throughout your exchange and have plenty of helpful tips around subject credits, housing and visa requirements.
La vida en México
Chaotic and colourful, cheap and cheerful, life in Mexico was everything I had hoped for and more. Firstly, the exchange offered the opportunity to meet and make friends with both Mexican students and students from all over the world. When my exchange drew to a close, it was very sad to say goodbye to the many wonderful people I had encountered during my exchange. It was also sad to farewell the way of life to which I had grown accustomed. Hair-raising bus rides to uni, street-stall tacos, whirlwind weekends away, insanely cheap margaritas and salsa clubs had all become a normal part of daily life.
One of the greatest aspects of my exchange was undoubtedly the opportunity to travel. As previously mentioned, Guadalajara is centrally located within Mexico and thus offers an abundance of travel options. Another positive is that your money goes further in Mexico than it might in other exchange destinations, so it is possible to see and do a huge range of things. In my time, I travelled to seaside La Paz to go snorkelling with sea lions, to colourful Mazatlán to revel in the festival of Carnaval, to the forests of Morelia to witness the world famous migration of the Monarch butterfly, to touristy Puerto Vallarta to lie on the beach at a resort hot spot, to picturesque Guanajuato to explore a beautifully preserved Spanish colonial city, to the sunny Yucatán Peninsula to go swimming with whale sharks, to majestic Palenque to visit the rainforest-shrouded Mayan ruins… right down to the buzzing party island of Isla Mujeres where you can get about in a golf buggy.
We travelled mostly via inexpensive short and long haul bus services (there isn’t a national passenger train system in Mexico). We sometimes hired rental cars (if we happened to have willing left-side drivers amongst our group), booked cheap flights or were driven by generous Mexican friends. Many exchange students also took the opportunity after the semester had finished to travel through Central America, South America and/or the Caribbean. I personally managed to see some of Central America as well as Cuba, which added an entirely new dimension to my exchange experience – and is another story in itself!
Last but not least, my exchange brought the Spanish language to life in the most vivid way possible and cemented what I am now certain will be a lifelong commitment to and love for learning Spanish. I should note that Mexico is certainly not generally listed amongst the safest places in the world and undoubtedly, as with most travel, it pays to have your wits about you. However, I found the Mexicans I met to be extremely friendly and helpful. Particularly when travelling, you will earn their respect by seeking to engage with them in their own language. You will be rewarded with a very personal insight into their lives and culture which is truly humbling.
Walter Mangold Trust Fund
On that note, I would like to make you all aware of a remarkable funding opportunity available to certain language exchange students. The Walter Mangold Trust Fund provides scholarships for Victorian students to study particular languages abroad in the belief that the study of languages bridges cultural divides and lessens the risk of conflict. I was fortunate enough to be the recipient of a scholarship from the Trust. The goals of the Trust gave me food for thought as I made my way through Mexico, Central America and Cuba, speaking Spanish and gaining a fascinating perspective on life on the other side of the world in a way that would simply not be possible for an exclusively English-speaking traveller. I encourage you to check out the Trust as a source of funding for your exchange – further information can be found on the Other Funding Opportunities webpage and at www.mangoldtrust.org.au.
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