Study abroad

Andrew Donohue

By sending their tuition checks to the Global Campus, University students assume they have bought a dream quarter studying abroad.
For the more than 100 University students annually traveling to Cuernavaca, Mexico, that dream is gently sprinkled with hot sun, thirst for a new culture and hours of language instruction.
But some students believe they got a startling wake-up call when they arrived: Expecting abundant authentic meals, some ate only peanut butter sandwiches and Tang for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Those students believe reality is even worse for some host families in the metropolis nestled just south of Mexico City.
Global Campus, the University’s program that coordinates students studying abroad, runs its student exchange with Cemanahuac Educational School, a language school in Cuernavaca, who in turn pairs the students with local families.
Some students who attended the program claim that not all of the $17 per day they pay for room and board winds up in the hands of host families.
In fact, some host families only receive $8 a day, and in some cases, families are not getting paid at all for weekends, students said.
The discrepancy might not be a glaring financial burden to the richer host families, but to some families in Cuernavaca, with its tenuous middle class, the difference can alter the gap between comfort and poverty. And for most host families, the money is a vital supplemental income.
But Cemanahuac and Global Campus officials refute the students’ claims, saying the cultural changes blur students’ vision.
“The students are comparing Mexico to the U.S.,” said Holly Zimmerman, program director for the Global Campus. “It’s hard for an American to go to Mexico and see the families make so little money. They are not realizing financial matters in Mexico.”
From the first day of the program, students are strictly instructed by Cemanahuac not to discuss financial matters.
“Word is out that if the families talk to the kids or anybody (about money), they will get taken off of the list as a host family,” said Chris Knight, who studied in Cuernavaca in fall 1996 and graduated with a political science degree from the University in the summer.
Because some families desperately need the money, they are willing to settle for the meager amount rather than nothing at all, Knight said.
Members of some host families said they are issued the same warning.
Specifically, they said they should never ask the students how much they pay for housing or tell the students how much the school pays them in return, said one host mother, who wished to remain anonymous.
The family’s anonymity is protected because of their fear of being dropped from the program.
Cemanahuac officials discredit the claims; Global Campus officials said no family has ever been dropped for such disclosure.
“When you pay college tuition, your professor doesn’t get all your money,” said Harriet Guerrero, a director at Cemanahuac. “When you pay a package deal your money gets split up.”
Guerrero said the students’ money is divided among a copious amount of expenses, from extra course costs to maintenance and security.
She also said the tuition money goes to other “overhead fees and hidden costs.”
The only thing the students are promised concerning the host families, Guerrero said, is room and board.
Divine intervention
From the moment students arrived in the heat-drenched city of more than one million people, money was an important issue with Cemanahuac.
Elizabeth Mooney, who at the time of her trip was an undeclared major at the University, said one of the first things Cemanahuac tells the students is not to talk to the host families about money at all.
“Instantly a light bulb went off in my head,” Mooney said. “I wondered, ‘What is the big deal?’ The families were supplying us not only culturally and socially, but with a house and food; and we weren’t supposed to talk about money?”
But as the quarter rolled on, Mooney forgot about the unusual request — until conversation between the students began.
Kelly Keating, a studio arts major, was first tipped off by a nun living with her host family as part of a separate program halfway through the quarter.
“She knew of the scandals and she paid the family directly,” Keating said.
The nun told Keating the host families were only receiving half of the students’ money that the school’s literature had promised them.
However, Zimmerman refutes the claims.
She said Cemanahuac offers a contract to the families, stating how much they will receive, and they can choose to enter the program or, if the money isn’t good enough, look for other options.
“I think the families are well-paid,” Zimmerman said. “No one forces the families to take students. It’s not like they lose money on this.”
While some students felt the need to do something, they struggled to find an avenue for their complaints.
“We knew if it was not done tactfully or correct we feared there could be retaliation (to the host families),” Knight said.
Originally, the students had the idea to write a joint letter to the school, figuring that no host family could be singled out. But they feared it was too risky.
They also sought the help of their University teaching assistant, who assured them he was looking into the situation.
Knight then began his own investigation, confronting a Cemanahuac teacher. He asked her where the excess money was going, wondering if it was distributed to the teachers.
Knight said the teacher made it explicitly clear that the teachers saw none of the money. Knight also said the teacher told him the money went to two program directors.
This made perfect sense to the students, Knight said, as the directors were never around. He said the students learned the directors were gone on frequent shopping sprees with their families in the United States.
Also, while the host families struggled to get along, aesthetics at the school flourished, students said.
Students described the school buildings as beautiful. Knight added the school had two pools, one of which was getting re-tiled, though he said it appeared as if the existing tiles were in good repair.
Guerrero said the pool was not being re-tiled, but instead was being converted into a water storage system. With a dry season of seven months, she said the school decided to cover the second pool and use it for reserve drinking water.
Zimmerman also said the pools were for student use, not for the personal use of school directors.
Upset that their money might be going to support the lifestyles of school directors and, what was in their minds, unnecessary remodeling, the students approached the school and requested an itemized list of where their money was going.
They never received the list.
Knight said when he spoke to one of the directors of the school, the response they gave him was “they needed to do this (keep the extra money) to pay for added expenses within the school and they should probably change their literature.”
However, school officials believe the students are not aware of the extra costs the fee absorbs.
“I hear a lot of bitching and complaining,” Guerrero said. “It’s easy when you don’t realize what you are paying for.”
“The students are adults and they can act like it,” she added.
The last morning
With her host sister ill and her host family struggling to scrape by on their modest income, Mooney said she had to do something.
After all other attempts were thwarted, Mooney went to the school requesting she pay her host family the $17 per day directly.
Keating said Mooney would often complain of hunger, living on peanut butter sandwiches and Tang — even for breakfast.
Finally the school agreed to let Mooney pay her host family directly.
Mooney thought she had bettered the situation until the last night she spent in Cuernavaca.
Away at a wedding, Mooney returned to her host family’s house at about 4 a.m. or 5 a.m. to collect her belongings and catch a taxi to the airport.
Waiting for her at the door was her host mother, sobbing. The family had been removed from the program.
“Why did you do this to our family? How could you do this to us?” Mooney recalled her host mother questioning between tears.
Late for her ride to the airport, Mooney grabbed her bags and left.
“I turned my back, and I haven’t looked back,” Mooney said.
But she has since questioned herself.
“Was I being ignorant, or was I doing the right thing?” she said.
Whatever the case, the students believed their suspicions had been confirmed on that final day.
“The rumors we had heard were true,” Knight said. “If they dare to speak, they’ll get axed.”
However, both Cemanahuac and the Global Campus claim no family has ever been removed for speaking of financial issues.
“We get the same list of host families every quarter,” Zimmerman said, “and no family has ever been taken off for speaking of financial issues.”
A veteran host
Guerrero said despite student concerns, it is an unethical practice for the families to speak to the students about financial obligations.
“Ethically, I wouldn’t discuss my salary with the students,” Guerrero said.
When the host mother, who remains anonymous, first began the program nearly two decades ago, she said students would pay the families directly in U.S. dollars.
Now the school pays the families in pesos. She said the rate basically remains the same, though the peso’s value is known for rapid fluctuation.
She said the families receive just enough to support the student, plus a small amount to pocket.
Fortunately for her family, the expenses do not get too high, but she said it does become burdensome on some area families.
In her years in the program, she has heard student complaints ranging from lack of space to being forced to eat nothing but cheese and black beans for every meal.
Each year, a representative from the Global Campus visits Cuernavaca; Zimmerman has personally interviewed three to four host families per trip to ensure the program’s success.
Zimmerman said she decides which families to speak with and they are not chosen by Cemanahuac. The families never complain and seem very satisfied, she said.
The Global Campus also runs student evaluations at the end of each trip. Zimmerman said 95 percent of the students report a positive experience.
This quarter, the veteran host mother is without a student, but she doesn’t know why.
She said she doesn’t like to ask the school why she didn’t receive students this time, nor does she ever ask for money from them. She simply takes what they give her.
Though she admits the money still helps, she said, through an interpreter: “For me, this (hosting students) is not a good business.”
Both the students and the host mother said they knew of numerous other language schools within the city that ran study abroad programs.
The host mother said she knew of at least two programs that paid the families much more. Knight said he wondered why the University didn’t explore those options.
One of these programs was through the Cuauhnahuac Spanish language school, which runs programs with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and New Mexico State University, among others.
While the students at Cemanahuac were denied an itemized list of where their money went, Cuauhnahuac provides a list of their fees on its World Wide Web page, which states the school collects $18 a day per student for a shared room and $25 a day for a single room.
Rebecca Troy, public relations director for Cuauhnahuac, said “most” of the money students pay for room and board directly goes to the family, however she said it was against the private company’s policy to discuss such issues over the phone.
She said Cuauhnahuac also discourages host families and students from speaking of financial issues. American students often see poverty in Mexico and are shocked and uncomfortable speaking about money, Troy said.
The Global Campus did a survey of the 20 language schools in Cuernavaca, and Zimmerman said Cemanahuac pays the best to host families “from what they are telling us.”
Back in the United States
When the students returned to the brisk Minnesota winter, many of them left the past quarter’s events behind them with the scorching sun and foreign customs.
But Keating decided to take the issue up with Global Campus, knowing that the University and Ohio State University were the only two schools who ran programs through Cemanahuac.
Keating said a meeting with a Global Campus administrator left her with more questions instead of answers.
“I’d like to get more information; I could get a free trip down to Mexico,” was the administrator’s playful comment, Keating said.
She told Keating the situation was out of the University’s jurisdiction and the University simply gives the students’ money to Cemanahuac.
“I think the U could be playing dumb,” Keating said. “It sounded like she didn’t care.”

–Staff Reporter Douglas Rojas Sosa contributed to this report