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Connecting Communities Across Borders

January 23, 2018

The following blog was written by Micah Peterson-Brandt, a Project Success facilitator who traveled to Mexico with 10 students from Anwatin Middle School in December.

There were plenty of reasons to be excited about a Project Success trip to Mexico in December: escaping the Minnesota winter for a week, practicing my Spanish language skills, immersing myself in another culture, attending the CIMMA environmental conference… But, for me, nothing was as meaningful as sharing the experience with ten amazing students from Anwatin Middle School. I was excited to get to know them as individuals, hear their stories, and for us to share in this great opportunity.

Our journey started with a bright and early meeting at the airport. The students arrived one by one, luggage and passports in hand. They had been  selected for the trip based on their Spanish language skills and interest in S.T.E.M. fields. For several students it was their first time out of the country, and for others, it was even their first time on a plane.

Day One: Mexico City

We began with a day in Mexico City exploring the famous Templo Mayor and learning the history of the ancient Aztecs, before driving south to the state of Morelos for the CIMMA environmental conference. The conference would last three days, and then we would return for one final dinner in Mexico City before coming home. Our students – the first Minnesotan students to ever attend CIMMA — would branch out, meet new people, practice their Spanish in an immersive setting, and participate in an exciting, international environmental conference.

We quickly began to bond and become a team on our first day exploring Mexico City together. The students had tons of questions and were learning how to order meals in Spanish.

Day Two: On to Cuernavaca!

On Sunday we drove to Cuernavaca. There was time for a quick dip in the pool before the main event of the day: reunion dinner with families of our students. Four of the ten students on our trip had family, (cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents, brothers and sisters and a father) who lived in the state of Morelos. Part of the reasoning behind our trip was a close connection and relationship between the sister cities of Minneapolis and Cuernavaca. Many Mexican students who go to school in Minneapolis are from the relatively small state of Morelos.

The night was amazing. There were reunions all around as we shared a delicious meal together. It was such a wonderful sight to see our students reunited with family that they hadn’t seen in years, and in a few cases, meeting family for the first time. There were hugs, smiles and plenty of laughs. Again: people making connections with one another. Our reunion lasted well after the plates had been cleared.

Project Success has built a unique and strong connection to Cuernavaca through many previous visits, including a trip focused on cultural competency for Project Success facilitators, as well as an opportunity for nine high school students to perform their self-created musical for students in Mexico. Each trip to Mexico helps us further build our intercultural competencies and a better understanding of these students’ life experiences.

Day Three: Settling in at CIMMA

Our next day was very exciting because it was the start of the main reason for our trip to Mexico —attending the CIMMA conference. As we pulled up, we were surrounded by students and teachers who would become our neighbors for the next three days, including ten Mexican students who had a special connection to Minneapolis.

These ten students were either born in, or lived in Minnesota for part of their lives. One had even attended Anwatin Middle School for a year. We  brought backpacks with us as a gift to our newly made friends. We made our first connections at the conference, and we had barely stepped out of our van.

After we checked in, the students were put into groups. It was an exciting time as our students were, for the first time, separated from each other and immersed into an experience that necessitated meeting new people and sometimes speaking Spanish exclusively. They were each in a group with roughly 15 other students who were attending the conference from different schools all over Mexico. That night was full of field games that  helped make connections between people from all different walks of life.

Day Four: Immersed in CIMMA

On our full day at the CIMMA conference, the student groups adventured through a beautiful park. There were grassy areas, plenty of wooded forest, and a river running through the middle of the park. Throughout the day I was able to walk from group to group and watch as our students interacted with the nature and environment around them.

They learned about mushrooms, plants and herbs in their natural habitat, reptiles and insects indigenous to Mexico, and how we all can better take care of our planet. Through it all, they were making friends and having life experiences with peers they hadn’t known a day before.  The late afternoon was spent swapping the day’s stories of excitement and friendship.

That night we celebrated our comradery with an evening filled with dancing. Time like this was integral throughout the trip. It allowed us to truly experience a different culture: the music, the food, the games and activities. All of this contributed to a more full understanding of our new friends and their daily life in Mexico. We danced the night away, and as they say, dance is a universal language.

Day Five: Lasting Connections

The conference ended the next day with each group reflecting on what we had learned over the course of our time together. Each group created a poster outlining all of the new experiences and lessons about how we can better care for our environment and planet. It helped us realize that when we recycle, put efforts into renewable energy, or clean up our lakes and rivers, it helps not only us, but develops a global good that helps those in Mexico and all around the world.

As we returned to Mexico City, and the rest of the way back to Minnesota, the students all shared favorite memories, things they had learned — both about the environment and about living in a global age — and each student talked about how they could not wait to go back next year.

I had the exact same feelings. When you have an amazing opportunity to experience another culture and truly immerse yourself in the lives of others, it really does enrich every aspect of your life and makes it that much harder to want to return to your daily life. However, that is exactly why experiences like these are so important. It allows us to spread what we have learned and share these experiences and life lessons further and widen our own circles, to an entirely different, and yet closely connected, community.