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Students venture abroad to work, learn and play in Mexico

Chemeketa students touring the Monte Albán Mayan ruins.
Photo provided by Cecelia Monto

For the seventh year in a row, Chemeketa will be sending a group of students to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a service-oriented study abroad program. 

This capstone experience of the Humanities 120 course is an opportunity to live and work in another country. To students who have journeyed across the border, the trip was life-altering. 

Gail Sanchez, a past participant in the program, said, “Being there was completely transformative. It just really has shaped me and how I see things in education and in my own community.” 

Cecelia Monto, Dean of Humanities, has led this program for 30 years and believes strongly in the fruits of intercultural communication and development. “The intent of the class is to become a global citizen — think differently, [and] think about the larger context of your world.”

Student participants attend six class meetings from the end of March to early June and then depart for Mexico on June 11. Between then and June 21, students participate in many enriching activities from working with community members to building and refurbishing schools, to taking applied-level Spanish courses, to even experiencing the local culture, said Monto.

A central component of the trip is a construction project based on the needs of the community in Oaxaca. 

“The project is conceived by the community, and we come to walk alongside with the community. It’s either building a new school or adding on to an existing school that is overloaded. Remember, they have nothing with a capital ‘N,’ meaning there’s no chairs and no desks, so you might actually make the desks along with the walls, along with the roof, along with the whole shebang,” Monto said.

In addition to the various service projects, a big part of the program is centered around language education. After a half-day of construction work, student participants go to the local university to engage in Spanish classes that are targeted towards the individual’s previous experience and knowledge. 

“We have about four levels, usually. Everything from basic total beginner to maybe an intermediate-beginner, intermediate-advanced and then we have an advanced level for native speakers,” said Monto. “Students say, ‘Oh my God, I learned as much in a week as I do in a whole term!’ ”

After a long day of work, students can relax. Sanchez said, “We do so much in a day that by the time you have your downtime, you just want to chill.” 

“We go up on the roof, and we talk and eat microwave popcorn,” said Monto. “That’s the bonding time.”

Students who participate in this trip are also treated to the sightseeing experiences such as the Mayan ruins of Monte Albán and hubs of cultural art and craftsmanship, like the rug village and the black pottery village, said Monto. 

Having been by the sides of students who have gone on this trip for so many years, Monto observed, “Students often come away with a sense of purpose or a sense of how they want to contribute. Often, [they] then become more academic. They become more interested in their studies, and they almost seem to become more empowered as an adult. You’re not a kid on this trip — you’re a grown-up.” 

“If you’ve ever thought about traveling and have been either unsure about it or scared, this is the perfect trip for a beginner traveler,” Sanchez said. “It’s so inexpensive, and it’s so doable. It can be the start of your journey of traveling. It’s worth the experience. It’s worth the money.”

The trip is around $2,300, which includes tuition, airfare, lodging, most meals, project fees and insurance. Students can utilize scholarships like the Chemeketa Foundation; the program requires a down payment to hold the ticket, but the rest of the cost can be offset with a monthly payment plan, said Teter Kapan, Director of the International program at Chemeketa. 

“[The trip] catapults you into a new phase of your life,” said Monto. “A phase where you’re empowered to see opportunity and take it.”

The deadline for the application for the Oaxaca trip is March 2. For more information, visit International programs, Bldg. 2, Rm. 174, or visit their website:

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