Bienvenidos a Guadalajara
USD's flagship study abroad program celebrates 45th year
by Nathan Dinsdale

If one was prone to turning airline terminals into metaphors, the Don Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla International Airport — equal parts sleek modernity and weathered practicality — neatly juxtaposes the lofty aspirations and humble realities of Mexico.

Then again, maybe it’s just an airport. Besides, there’s a more fitting homage to Hidalgo — a Catholic priest credited with fathering Mexican independence before being dispatched by a Spanish firing squad — found in a stairwell, of all places.

The artist José Clemente Orozco — peer to Diego Rivera, David Siqueiros and Frida Kahlo — immortalized the birth of his nation in a vast mural that adorns the walls and ceiling above a staircase in the Palacio de Gobierno in central Guadalajara.

The portrait is epic, both in size and scope. It depicts Hidalgo — left hand thrust upwards in a fist, right hand swinging a flaming torch — rising above a chaotic, clustered menagerie of defiant and agonizing images.

This mural is one of the first enduring sights taken in by the University of San Diego students who arrive in Guadalajara each summer for six weeks of study and cultural immersion. Orozco’s artistry also garnishes the official 2008 USD Guadalajara Summer Program information pamphlet — the program’s program, if you will — with “Man of Fire” on the back cover and “The People and Its Leaders” on the front.

Like Orozco’s murals, the Guadalajara program represents a series of overarching themes, but each individual component — every intricate detail and determined brushstroke — also tells its own story.

• • •

“There’s this rumor that USD students have more money than God,” Carl Jubran says with a wry smile. “In reality, most of the kids are just normal college students who can’t spend a ton of money on study abroad programs — but they still want the experience.”

Accessibility was what first drew Jubran to Guadalajara in 1991. Back then, he was entering his junior year at USD as a triple-major in Spanish, French and philosophy. Now he’s the associate provost for internationalization, discussing the Guadalajara program over cervezas in the lobby bar of the Hotel Sevilla Palace in Mexico City.

“I want the student who never even considered spending a summer studying abroad,” Jubran says. “We try to make the program as accessible as we can to as many students as possible. I guarantee, if we can get them here, they’ll be a changed person when they go back.”

The late professor Gilbert Oddo made the first 1,200-mile trek to Guadalajara with a small group of USD political science students in 1963. But the choice of locale wasn’t only about academia and altruism; in part, Jubran says, the location came about because Oddo wanted to spend time with his daughter, who lived there.

What began with a delicate thread has since inextricably bound the two cities together for thousands of USD students and faculty over the last 45 years, making Guadalajara the university’s first — and now largest — study abroad program in addition to being the blueprint for all USD international studies that have followed.

“It began very small,” Jubran says. “Dr. Oddo brought seven students that first trip. The following summer there were something like 30 kids. The program just grew from there.”

More than 200 students now participate every year. Add faculty, administrative staff and Mexican students taking USD classes and the numbers swell above 300. Most students live with host families and are bused to the Instituto Tecnológico y de Estudios Superiores de Occidente (ITESO) from the surrounding neighborhoods. In addition, there are planned excursions to different parts of the country every weekend, making the coordination of the entire experience a Herculean task.

“It’s taking a piece of USD and transplanting it in a different country. In order to do that, you need to have a rather sophisticated infrastructure,” Jubran says. “I’d love to take credit for everything, but there are a lot of great people who make it happen.”

Still, Jubran has definitely been a key architect of the program’s evolution: One of the first significant changes he made when he took over as director of the Guadalajara program in 1997 was to move operations from a rented commercial building to ITESO’s leafy suburban campus.

“We needed to be at a real university with a real university feel,” Jubran says. “I wanted students to feel like they weren’t just coming to a USD enclave, but to a campus that’s alive, where they could be as immersed as possible.”

That first summer, Oddo taught one political science class for seven students in a rented house. Now, the program boasts more than 40 different courses taught by more than 30 professors in more than two dozen classrooms.

One of the first to kick off the 2008 session is the international relations course taught by USD professor David Shirk. The class is, naturally, an international mixture of U.S. and Mexican students, but it’s not hard to pick out which is which. The standard fashion accoutrement — baggy shorts, band/brand/ironic T-shirt, flip-flops — at USD applies to our students in Guadalajara as well. The Mexican students, in contrast, tend to dress in business casual.

Shirk begins by asking Ryan Harbour, a 19-year-old sophomore from Hinsdale, Ill., to draw a map of Central America on the chalkboard. Harbour does a serviceable job, even if his rough outline looks more like a tuba than a geographic region.

“Good,” Shirk says. “Now can you draw each of the countries?”

Harbour looks stricken. “I have no idea.”

Shirk delineates the eight countries from Mexico to Panama and then initiates a lecture from the first assigned textbook reading from chapter — whoops. Not everyone has the text. Apparently the “book store” (a converted classroom operated by the administrative staff) has run out of hard copies. As Shirk ponders the conundrum, International Studies Abroad executive assistant Rebecca Deedman appears at the door.

“Speak of the devil and you shall hear the rattle of his tail,” Shirk quips.

Deedman has brought photocopies of the text in question and the students line up, clutching their pesos to purchase one of their own.

“That’s one of the great lessons of the Guadalajara program,” Shirk tells his students. “You have to be able to adapt to ever-changing circumstance.”

• • •

The biggest hurdle for most students is the logistics of linguistics. Prior academic experience in Spanish is recommended, but not required for the Guadalajara program, so as to accommodate more students. For the novices, the trial by fuego starts in John Fendrick’s “Elementary Spanish I” class where a phonetic walk through the ABCs is in progress.

Ah … Beh … Cey … Deh … Effa … Fendrick — who also oversees the program’s University Ministry and Community Service-Learning components — has taught in Guadalajara for 13 consecutive summers. He laments that he hasn’t spent a Fourth of July in the United States since 1995, but says, “every time I come back here, I never regret it.”

It’s unseasonably cool outside the second-floor classroom as Fendrick explains the difference between the tilde and the eñe, the pronunciation of gato (got-oh) and general (hen-uh-ral) and the proper way to roll a double “r” off the tongue.

Perrrrrrrrrrro, the students trill in unison.

Fendrick tells the class about how he first learned Spanish (his specialties are Greek and Latin) while studying at a Catholic seminary. He also relays how, during a previous summer session, an otherwise innocuous night at a Mexico City pub earned him the name “Dr. Lager.”

“You have to have at least one vice,” Fendrick grins, “otherwise you’re not a believer.”

• • •

The man who bestowed “Dr. Lager” upon Fendrick has a nickname — and legend — of his own. Manuel Aguilar is affectionately known as “The Jaguar,” but the reason for the moniker isn’t readily apparent until the program’s first official weekend excursion. Like Jubran and professor Ruben Arroyo, Aguilar serves as a semi-official tour guide during field trips. Soon after the caravan of buses pulls away from ITESO on its way to Mexico City, Aguilar grabs his tour guide microphone.

“Roaaarrrrrrrrrrrrrr,” Aguilar screeches, his right hand clawing the air. “This is our sign, for ‘we are the jaguars.’ You should know this is quite an honor to be on this bus.”

Aguilar displays similar charisma in the classroom. The first day of his “History of Mexico” class, Aguilar encourages his students to pace their workload by equating homework to eating green chilies.

“Some people, they just want to eat all the green chilies at once,” he says, “but you need to do it gradually or you’ll get sick. And it doesn’t hurt to try some red sauce every now and then either.”

In Aguilar’s first class, he initiates a discussion of “America” and “Americans” and how cultural sensitivities can be aggravated by their usage.

“Are you all Americans?” he posits to the class.

The USD students nod their heads.

“Ah, but a Chilean is also from America,” Aguilar says. “A Mexican is from America. A Canadian is from America and so is a Brazilian. It is ingrained in many minds that there is America and the Americas. But this is not so. Everyone in this room is an American.”

Not everyone in room 215 can dance. Then again, that’s kind of the point. “Latin Dance: Salsa and Merengue” is one of three single-unit recreational courses offered in the Guadalajara program (the others being “Mexican Guitar” and “Introduction to Mexican Dance”). But the instructor, Mariana Olmedo Flores, isn’t shy about shoving her students — including Shirk — onto the dance floor.

“Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis,” Flores says, shouting out the cadence to her fledgling salseros. “Otra vez!”

The gender balance is decidedly tipped, but the disparity doesn’t seem to cause any grievances among the happily outnumbered male students who were bold — and perhaps shrewd — enough to join the class.

Flores hits the pause button on the iPod stereo fueling this maelstrom of wriggling hips, arms and legs with caliente salsa music. If Crayola made a color called “embarrassed,” it would shade the cheeks of graduating senior Gabe DeAnda as Flores instructs the former USD football player on how to best avoid crushing the toes of his dancing partner. Flores offers a few more pointers then returns to the stereo and presses “play.”

“Uno, dos, tres, quatro, cinco, seis … ”

• • •

The rhythm of the “Latin American Poetry” class down the hall is less a sizzling nightclub scene from Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights and more a Norman Rockwell portrait of a grandfather telling stories beside a crackling fireplace.

Victor Cuellar — a diminutive, gentle man with a warm smile — has taught USD students (Jubran among them) in the Guadalajara program for 39 years. It quickly becomes clear that he has his delivery down to a science as he reads from Rubén Darío’s “Sonatina.”

The poem revolves around a princess pining inside her castle, waiting for a prince to rescue her from despair and/or boredom. But it sounds much better when Cuellar says it.

“La princesa está tristeQué tendrá la princesa?” he begins, peering over his glasses to engage his audience. “Los suspiros se escapan de su boca de fresa …”

The room is silent except for Cuellar’s voice rising to a passionate tremor and falling just as suddenly to a soft whisper, as the students listen intently, waiting to learn what will become of the princess.

• • •

Patricia Plovanich needs another 38 years to catch up to Cuellar’s tenure in the Guadalajara program. But she does hold claim to the most intriguing course title of the 2008 summer session with her theology and religious studies class, called “The Problem of God.” Judging by the sizable number of students in attendance, it appears that her creative syntax has sparked the desired interest.

“They take the class for the provocative title,” Plovanich says with a devilish twinkle, “but they learn to regret it.”

The class is challenging on multiple levels. For starters, it’s a three-week seminar, necessitating three-hour classes. But any course that begins with a discussion of theism, deism, atheism, polytheism, monotheism, paganism and secular humanism isn’t going to be a cakewalk.

“I happen to be Catholic, and I’m happy to be one,” Plavonich tells the class, “but if you don’t explore new ideas about how we think about and understand religion, religion will simply become a religion of the elders.”

Guadalajara isn’t exactly her natural academic habitat. Plavonich, who’s fluent in German but speaks little Spanish, would be more likely found conducting research at the University of Tübingen near Stuttgart than discussing the “cosmological ontological era” in Central Mexico. But, as Jubran explains, the Guadalajara program has as much to do with invigorating faculty as it does stimulating students.

“I think a lot of professors don’t have many opportunities to connect with students on a different level,” Jubran says. “But being with students abroad allows the faculty to share a unique experience with students. That has an impact on everything from their syllabi to their classroom presentations to how they connect with students once they return to USD.”

Plavonich was initially reluctant when the opportunity to teach in Guadalajara first arose, but that wariness had washed away by the time she joined the excursion to Mexico City after the first week of classes.

Her eyes well with joyful tears upon entering the vast complex housing the Basilica de Guadalupe, one of the most important religious sites in all of Catholicism, where it’s believed the peasant Juan Diego was visited on multiple occasions by an apparition of the Virgin of Guadalupe in 1531.

“If you come to Mexico City and you do not visit the Basilica you did not come to Mexico City,” Aguilar explained earlier. “It is an icon at the heart of the country that helped to unite the Mexican people as a nation. Whether or not you believe there was an apparition, the real miracle was this unification of many different people under the same idea.”

• • •

José Clemente Orozco is used to the quizzical looks and double-take glances. It comes with the territory when you teach an “Art in Public Spaces” class where several of the works in question bear your name. In fact, he is the grandson of the other José Clemente Orozco.

“When the students begin to learn about who Orozco was they get taken by surprise sometimes,” the professor smiles. “But I think it just increases the experience for them.”

A genial man sporting a scruffy beard, Orozco does his best to expand the horizons of his U.S. students, frequently taking them on field trips to places like El Palacio de Las Vacas (“Palace of the Cows”) a 19th century mansion that fell into disrepair for decades, until a former University of Alabama professor named John Davis purchased the building and began painstakingly restoring its former glory.

“I try to keep the students out of the classroom as much as possible,” Orozco says. “I think it’s of great benefit for them to get immersed in the culture and see a different aspect of Mexico other than what they might find on the border.”

“When I first heard about the program, I didn’t know what to expect,” Ryan Harbour, the sophomore from Shirk’s class, says. “But it’s been really interesting. I’ve been to Tijuana and Cancun, but I’ve never really had a chance to be active in the culture. This is nothing like what I’ve experienced before.”

• • •

“If you had seen what is was like before,” Dr. Fendrick says, shaking his head. “This is just amazing.”

Fendrick is standing in the courtyard of the Casa Hogar Nacidos Para Triunfar (or “Born to Triumph”) orphanage. This is the ninth summer that USD has been involved at the orphanage but it’s the first time Fendrick has been to the new facility, which was built, in part, with funds raised by USD students.

The former site was a two-story house where more than 100 children were crammed into a few rooms. There were only two showers (one for boys, one for girls), the children slept on mattresses on the floor and they ate in shifts because the dining area was too small to accommodate them all at once.

“It was very primitive compared to what you see now,” Fendrick says.

The new orphanage is sprawling, with a central courtyard, a large playground area, dorms with bunk beds, an infirmary, library, laundry room, cafeteria and dozens of showers. The altar of the orphanage’s “chapel” is still located in a large walk-in closet in the cafeteria. But it’s a big improvement.

“It’s gratifying to know that we’ve had an effect on peoples’ lives,” Fendrick says. “It’s amazing to think how far this has come in the last nine years. Our efforts helped make it a reality.”

Incorporating a service-learning facet to the program was another addition initiated by Jubran that further distinguishes Guadalajara as the university’s flagship study abroad experience.

“It’s something that I thought was lacking,” Jubran says. “There is a lot of service-learning on campus, but I felt that, as far as the study abroad programs were concerned, USD was talking the talk but we weren’t walking the walk.”

Each year, students hold fundraisers — including organizing events like student/faculty volleyball games — that tally around $2,000 each summer in addition to other donations like toys, clothing, food and computers for the library.

Upon arriving for the first visit of 2008, the USD students stand in the courtyard holding coloring books, jump rope and plastic beach balls. Then the door to one of the dorms opens and the orphans stream out. Pandemonium ensues as the children and students run and laugh, kick balls, jump rope, color and give piggy-back rides. There are smiles everywhere.

“The effort of our students is just so touching,” Fendrick says. “As a teacher, you see a different side to them, different behavior in different contexts, than you might in the classroom. Watching them interact with the children and seeing certain qualities that come out is very gratifying.”

A light rain doesn’t seem to dampen the collective spirit. And, even when it starts raining gatos y perros, the students and children happily splash about in the rain. Gabe DeAnda — former USD football player and fledgling salsa dancer — catches his breath beneath an overhang. For an hour straight, the offensive lineman has been a one-man jungle gym with at least one or two kids hanging on him at any given moment.

“Yeah, they’ve been crawling all over me,” DeAnda grins. “But it’s the least I can do.” Solemnity only returns when it’s time for the students to leave.

“It can be hard on the students, but it’s also good for them — this is life,” Fendrick says. “And they can’t come here and not be touched in some way.”

• • •

If the original José Clemente Orozco drew a mural of the Guadalajara program, his central Miguel Hidalgo figure could easily be Alexandra Gardner. The senior Spanish and Communication Studies major from Grand Junction, Colo., has spent three summer sessions with the USD program and one semester as an ITESO exchange student.

“I’m completely in love with Guadalajara,” Gardner says, somewhat unnecessarily. “Some of my friends back in San Diego don’t really understand it. They’re like ‘Why do you go there every summer’ but each time has been different for me — except for the fact that I never want to leave when it’s over.”

As she speaks, Gardner barely seems to notice that she’s being pelted with torrents of rainwater dripping through the leaky roof of a bus leaving the orphanage. Of course, this wasn’t her first visit.

Even back in San Diego, Gardner regularly calls her señora and papí, the elderly couple who hosted her during her first visit to Guadalajara. By now, she has a host of ITESO friends (who affectionately call her Blanca Nieves or “Snow White”), knows the names of the cafeteria ladies at ITESO and talks fondly of a little boy, Abraham, whom she befriended during another summer session.

Gardner had accidentally locked herself out of the house where she was staying when Abraham, who lived next door, came to her aid by bringing some toys the two could play with to pass the time until her roommates returned. She subsequently invited Abraham over for dinner and took him to watch his favorite soccer team, Las Chivas.

“You can only learn so much in school, and the rest is life experience,” Gardner says. “I learned more from my little 6-year-old neighbor than I did from classes.”

Gardner’s experiences in Guadalajara sparked a wanderlust, evidenced by the multiple bracelets — each representing different countries, experiences and people who’ve impacted her life — that ring both of her arms.

A kaleidoscope of Mexican life whizzes past outside the window beyond her left shoulder. There are lush, green parks, four-star hotels and businessmen in suits. There are also crumbling brick houses covered in graffiti, improvised mountains of trash and several military transports — carrying soldiers with their automatic rifles poised — zooming past the bus. Gardner sees none of this. She isn’t blind to the reality, but what she’s learned in Guadalajara has simply changed how she sees.

“Coming here and going through the program changed how I thought about the world,” Gardner says. “It completely changed my life.”