Mission in Mexico – The Ultimate in Learning from Experience

July 7, 2018 at 9:33 PM
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Mission in Mexico – The Ultimate in Learning from Experience


Stephanie Ortiz QC’13 and Jim Stellar


We were together at Queens College, CUNY, and we wrote a blog together about her interest in starting a student club to address issues of human suffering such as trafficking. She was a psychology major and I was interested in learning from experience and how such passion for a cause helps students to grow.  Now about 6 years later, while she was working as a teacher at a Montessori School in Miami, we have gotten back in touch and I want her to reflect for you on what she did in Mexico following the recent earthquake that comes from the same passion.  It is rare that we get to follow up like this with our former students.


This past September, I had the opportunity to visit Mexico in wake of the 8.1 earthquake that devastated the entire country, particularly Mexico City and nearby villages. The aftermath of such natural disaster and heartbreak compelled me to travel with a few close friends, independent of any organization, to go serve the people of Mexico in any way deemed possible.  


Therefore, with the collaborative help of friends, family and the Tri-State community we raised a total of $4K dollars in donations that aided the Mexican community, in this mission of humanitarian relief. All in all, we were able to provide 100 care packages containing a weekly family grocery, 75 blankets, 200 fresh hot meals, clothing, dog food, candy for children, along with roofing sheets to restore the homes of 42 families. And although we were all extremely grateful for the amount of support received considering the short amount of time in which everything was organized. It is also important to note that social media greatly contributed to the possibility of sharing this mission close to our hearts within a matter of seconds.

Nonetheless, regardless of all the support we received for our trip to Mexico, this was certainly an unforgettable experience, both beautiful and heart-wrenching and in essence difficult to process. We soon realized that there are no amount books, news or documentaries, that can ultimately prepare us for an experience so raw and intense that can only be learned in the aftermath of each passing hour. Even for all of us on this trip the experiences and feelings stirred in our hearts were all so personal, that it varied from person to person, depending our own backgrounds and life experiences.


As for myself, I went on this trip, not because I am Mexican; although that is often the first question I am asked, considering my fluency in Spanish. I went to Mexico, because I empathize with the Mexican community and their feelings of pain, suffering and loss in mist of this tragedy. Ultimately, I’ve been blessed to find joy in my own trials and tragedies, along with the strength to give back to others and share that message of hope, love and compassion.          


I believe we are one universal human family, bounded together by similar emotions and experiences, often more alike than different, regardless of ethnicity, race, culture, and religion.  And as I walked amongst the poorest of villages in Mexico delivering these material goods to families in need. I was affirmed once more, to a universal truth we often surpass and that is the strength of a simple act of kindness. The small gesture of a warm greeting, smile or hug is truly an act that comforts the soul and lifts the spirt beyond belief.


All in all, as I reflect on this journey to Mexico, my heart is flooded with immense gratitude and humility; ultimately shifting my life into even a greater perspective outside the comfort of any classroom walls.


That is an impressive story.  The schools in New York with which I have been affiliated, including Queens College, CUNY, and the University at Albany, SUNY, are reacting to the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and it is more than just that oddly we share the same FEMA region (#2).  There is something about the resonance between people in need and young people.  Could you say a few words more about how we build that into our training of young people at all levels of education.


I believe my upbringing as a second-generation Colombian-American living in Queens, New York (one of the most ethnically diverse urban area in the world) has ultimately affected my perspective of the world and my surroundings. I have not only been exposed to multiple cultures and languages, but I’ve been taught valuable lessons about living in harmony in midst of all our exterior differences and cultures. Therefore, my desire to be so involved in helping others, not only in my community, but anywhere around the world in which I deemed called to, fundamentally stems from my deep love and compassion for all humanity. Living in Queens and attending such a multi-international campus, such as Queens College definitely contributed to my love for various cultures.


However, on a personal note my intentions are more deeply rooted and definitely linked to my own personal experiences, hardships and troubling life encounters that has increased my level of empathy in unimaginable ways! Unfortunately, I can’t generalize and say this is the case for all second-generation youth. However, I do believe that there is a possible link between second-generation youth and their need to give back and help others, considering all that our parents sacrificed and worked hard for when migrating to the United States. And therefore, it could very well be a sense of humility that grounds us all in our desire to give back and help others in need.


The role of diversity of an undergraduate population is often debated in higher education (which Queens College, CUNY has naturally from its most diverse borough, and the University at Albany, SUNY, attracts upState from NYC and the region).  Sometimes the debate on diversity is about educating the full population of Americans and not just the ones with a professional head start on college due to various advantages.  To us a most interesting part of the debate is about retention of students particularly from diverse or economically disadvantaged populations and sometimes it is based on having a campus that looks like them. All of these debates are important.

Here in this blog we wanted to finish by focusing on a topic we often discuss – the unconscious decision-making processes in the minds of our students as famously discussed in economics in the 2011 book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Here he points out that some supposedly rational decisions, like stock purchases at a particular price, are accompanied by heuristic short-cuts that derive from a different more emotional decision-making process that we neuroscientists would call the “limbic system.”

In this diversity debate, we believe that these reasons are at play, or should be.  They are both part of the important social community that surrounds the student and the personal history of the student create for themselves.  They often are represented in experiential educational opportunities that universities might create themselves (e.g. study abroad or internships) which have a characteristic open-ended real-world student-centered set of characteristics that can be missing in a classic syllabus-drive lecture course, particularly when the courses are large.  Then there are the experiences students create themselves that SO and JS wrote about in the first blog when she was still a student and writes about here as an alum who is still learning from experiences. (Aren’t we all?)

In the modern world of such possibilities, colleges and universities would do well to create more of these experiences for their students and let students create them for themselves.  Then, in addition to better serving the fundamental teaching mission, higher education could leverage such experiences for what some call “employable skills” and others call maturity or personal growth that often spikes in the college years and should lead to a powerful impact on their lives.

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