By TYLER ELLYSON
KEARNEY – It started with a casual conversation among childhood friends.
Juan Guzman, director of the University of Nebraska at Kearney’s Office of Student Diversity and Inclusion, had recently reconnected with an old pal through Facebook and they got to talking about college.
“His son wanted to come to a school in the United States and learn the English language,” said Guzman, who grew up in Tepic, Nayarit, Mexico.
Of course, Guzman recommended UNK and its English Language Institute, which provides English language training for international students and prepares them for admission into a degree program.
Although his friend’s son never enrolled in classes at UNK, that conversation led to a much larger initiative that opens the door for far more students to study here.
Since September 2018, Guzman has worked with UNK’s Office of International Education to develop new relationships with higher education institutions in his home country, as well as other Latin American nations.
“I realized we weren’t doing that much with Latin America and Mexico, and that needed to change,” said Guzman, who dedicates about 20% of his time to international recruitment and relationship-building.
The collaborative effort between the two offices has paid big dividends in a short amount of time.
DELFIN RESEARCH PROGRAM
In 2019, UNK became the first U.S. institution to join DELFIN, a program that includes more than 200 academic institutions and research centers in Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Peru and Nicaragua.
DELFIN’s main objective is to connect undergraduate students with faculty researchers from other member institutions, either abroad or within the same country. These students spend seven weeks at the host institution while working on a faculty-led summer research project.
UNK hosted its first two students, both from Mexico, in 2019. They lived on campus, paying room and board, and worked alongside chemistry professor Hector Palencia on a project addressing antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Omar Lozano Ramos, one of the students who worked with Palencia, plans to enroll in a UNK master’s program in biology next fall.
Around 20 students were expected to conduct research at UNK last summer before COVID-19 suspended international travel.
More than 6,700 researchers are also part of DELFIN, allowing UNK faculty to pursue collaborations and promote their work internationally. DELFIN publishes a journal showcasing faculty research and hosts an annual conference in Nuevo Vallarta, Mexico, where students present their projects and member institutions promote their programs.
“The DELFIN research program has put UNK on the map. It’s a great opportunity to let people from Latin American countries know who we are as an institution,” said Guzman, who hopes to see the research partnerships resume either in-person or online this summer.
That’s not the only way UNK is establishing new connections in Mexico.
In November 2019, UNK finalized a partnership agreement with the Autonomous University of Nayarit, a public university in the city of Tepic that offers undergraduate and graduate degrees, as well as secondary education through preparatory schools located across the state. This agreement created a host of opportunities for both schools, including faculty and student exchange programs, collaborative research, cultural programming and professional development.
It also piqued the interest of several other institutions in the region.
Last month, with special approval from University of Nebraska President Ted Carter, Guzman and Traci Gunderson from the Office of International Education traveled to Mexico to sign similar agreements with four more universities.
“It was kind of like a domino effect,” Guzman said.
The newest pacts are with the University Institute of Medical and Humanistic Sciences of Nayarit, a private institution that specializes in health care and medicine, and three schools from another system – Technological University of the Sierra, Technological University of the Coast and Technological University of Nayarit – that focus on areas such as science, technology, engineering, agribusiness, culinary arts, fisheries management and tourism and hospitality.
All five partner institutions are located in Guzman’s home state of Nayarit, which sits along the Pacific Ocean. They are the only active collaboration agreements UNK has in Mexico.
Gunderson, assistant director of international recruitment, marketing and the English Language Institute, is pleased to see UNK’s progress in the country.
“Mexico is a very important market for us,” she said, noting its close proximity and a strong interest in English language training and U.S. education among residents there.
She’s also keenly aware of the need to expand UNK’s international footprint, which relies heavily on students from Asia.
“We need to diversify where our international students are coming from, and Mexico needs to be a part of that,” Gunderson said.
That being said, these agreements extend well beyond enrollment numbers.
“Oftentimes, when people think about international education and the partnerships we’re creating, they think our goal is simply to bring students to UNK. But our job is much bigger than that. Yes, we want students to come to UNK, but it’s more about the internationalization of our campus,” Gunderson said.
For example, students from the Autonomous University of Nayarit and a professor of Indigenous background have presented during the Nebraska Cultural Unity Conference hosted by UNK. Gunderson envisions similar interactions at events such as the annual International Food Festival.
International students bring cultural awareness and diversity to campus and the Kearney community, and UNK students are able to develop a global perspective by studying abroad.
“We’re always looking for new opportunities – opportunities to give back to other communities and opportunities to enrich UNK,” Gunderson said.
In addition to offering international students a quality, affordable education in a safe and welcoming environment, UNK has many resources that benefit its partner institutions.
Last semester, UNK eCampus conducted a free presentation for faculty members in Mexico demonstrating ways to teach online courses more effectively. This training, and another presentation that will focus on integrating technology in the classroom, became increasingly important during the COVID-19 pandemic. A third seminar will offer tips on how to get research published in academic journals.
The English Language Institute also altered its Campus Conversation Tables program because of COVID-19, allowing students in Mexico to participate in the virtual sessions via Zoom. This program, which is usually face-to-face, gives international students a chance to practice their English skills in a casual setting.
“We’re just being creative and trying to find ways to nurture these relationships, regardless of the pandemic,” said Gunderson, noting that there are students who are ready to come to UNK for the full English Language Institute program this summer.
Other possibilities include a dual degree that allows students to split their time between UNK and the Autonomous University of Nayarit and an English program that combines online classes with a short, in-person experience at UNK.
“This is just the beginning of these partnerships and the things we can do together,” Gunderson said.