13:09 PM

Innovative UST-Mexico Exchange Program Combines Distance Learning, Service Learning and Social Justice themes on Food Scarcity

logoTo increase participation in study abroad by underrepresented student populations, the University of St. Thomas at Houston and Universidad Ibero-Puebla, are joining forces to get funding for an engaging exchange program. Professors Ulyses Balderas and Jo Meier-Marquis submitted an innovative grant proposal to 100,000 Strong in Americas Innovation Fund and received the grant. Their proposal embedded global mobility in the form of an exchange program between the two universities. It includes service learning and an exploration of social justice themes related to food scarcity.

The Innovation Fund inspires U.S. higher education institutions (HEIs) to partner with HEIs in Latin America to create academic exchange programs that will:

  • provide more students with critical access to new models of training at their home and host institutions
  • encourage them to work in teams
  • position them to solve real-world problems
  • allow them to gain technical, linguistic and intercultural skills

Balderas is an associate professor in the Center for International Studies and director of UST’s Study Abroad Program. Meier Marquis is an associate professor and chair of psychology and director of Freshman Symposium. She also recruits volunteers to serve from the UST community at the monthly Mobile Food Distributions in partnership with the Houston Food Bank.

Innovation Grant and Partnership Successfully Funded

Their 100,000 Strong in Americas innovation grant gives 10 students from each institution the opportunity to participate in both virtual and in-person training, starting with an eight-week virtual class followed by a four-week exchange program.

The program's goals are to:

  •  increase exposure to linguistic, cross-cultural and service-learning opportunities through a series of interactive activities, lectures, service projects, team projects and excursions to each host country;
  • increase students’ knowledge of social justice, food insecurity and those programs intended to eradicate food insecurity, including agricultural, farming and community programs;
  • create opportunities for students to work together in diverse teams to create viable solutions to the pressing social issue of food insecurity that is endemic in each country.

Innovative Aspects of Program

“What makes this program truly innovative is the ability for students in each of the cohorts (Ibero Puebla and UST) to visit each country and participate in the program, not as separate cohorts, but as an integrated group,” Balderas said. “The program is intentional in its efforts to bring students from the two countries together. This integration will happen from the very first day of the program in a series of interactive and collaborative virtual and online activities that will build camaraderie, shared learning and a sense of connection that transcends borders.”

Balderas noted, “Distance education traditionally has been used with non-traditional populations or military, but in this program, distance education literally will be used as the bridge to begin the exchange program and build relationships between the two partner schools. Students will be hosted at each university housing, and will have the opportunity to share accommodations with one another during the travel portion of the program in an effort to create a true immersion experience.”

Travel expenses for students in these underrepresented populations will be supplemented by the grant.

Background on 100,000 Strong in Americas Innovation Fund

The 100,000 Strong in the Americas Innovation Fund is the hemisphere-wide education initiative between the U.S. Department of State, U.S. Embassies and Partners of the Americas in collaboration with regional private sector foundations and academic networks to stimulate and support higher education partnerships between the United States and the rest of the Western Hemisphere.

Currently, Mexico is the leading country in this initiative to form partnerships and innovative student exchange programs with U.S. universities and colleges. As of July 2021, there were 20 Mexican states and 27 U.S. states that benefitting from 71 Innovation Fund awards, which directly impact hundreds of students and faculty in both countries.

Balderas and Meier-Marquis will serve as co-directors of the one-year grant.