Max Nguyen - 2014 Program Participant

What inspired you to go abroad?

I was an international student from Vietnam, so by virtue of studying in an American college I was already studying abroad. I wanted to do "double" study abroad because I had set my sights on acquiring a third language and was pretty serious about it. I was studying political science with an international focus, which made it important to be fluent in more than just two languages.

Besides this, I had never traveled to Latin America before, so to me there was an air of mystery surrounding this region. As Mexico was one of the political and economic powerhouses in this area, and I had a number of friends with Mexican roots, I decided to check it out. The next task was to examine what program to choose from a large pool of high-quality candidates.

Students on spring break in Oaxaca, Mexico

In Oaxaca for Spring Break (aka La Semana Santa)

Why did you choose CGEE’s program in Cuernavaca?

Initially I heard about CGEE Cuernavaca from my international student adviser. He sung the program's praises and encouraged me to contact the fellow student who had done the program. Then I went to talk to this friend of mine, who spoke of CGEE's high level of professionalism and care for its students. I was impressed by the extent to which the program flexibly customized the curriculum to each student, thanks to the fact that it often involved between only 10 and 15 students per semester.

I was also attracted to the idea of completing an internship with a local organization and getting credit for it. My goal was to interact as much as possible with local Mexicans to understand their mindset and to hone my language skills, so this internship perfectly fit my plan. After talking to this friend for about an hour, I thought that CGEE was the best choice for me. I decided to enroll in it and have never regretted that decision ever since.

What was your favorite part about Cuernavaca?

Cuernavaca is known as the "City of Eternal Spring." Many people from the surrounding region flocked there over the weekend for a short, refreshing vacation break. This was not a surprise to me as I stood in the downtown area witnessing the beauty of colonial architecture and the vibrant but calm activities of everyday Mexicans. As a strong eater, I was glad to see a huge selection of street food and open markets.

What made your experience studying in Mexico different from studying in the U.S.? 

When I first came to the States, I had already been decent enough in English to be able to communicate with everyone, so the first few days in Mexico was probably the first time I experienced a true language barrier. I had known just enough Spanish to convey simple messages, but I wanted to do more than just that. As a result, I found myself lost in translation many times as I tried to express myself in more complicated phrases. I think I was out of my comfort zone more often than the time I lived in the States. Anyhow, I was occasionally frustrated by my own limitations, but always strove to improve my Spanish the next day.

Foreign students making tortillas in Amatián, Mexico

Making tortillas in my host family's house in Amatlán

How did local staff support you throughout your program?

I think that saying that the staff was supportive doesn't give them enough credits. They went above and beyond to make sure that the students felt comfortable and set to achieve their academic goals. Frankly, I had zero complaints about them so this answer is pretty short.

Describe a typical day in the life of your program.

On the weekdays, I got up pretty early at around 8 a.m. to head to Spanish class. Sometimes it was a bit of a struggle because I was not used to waking up that early. Later, I went to a local organization for my internship at noon. I attempted to speak to the people there as much as possible to better understand Mexican social situation. Sometimes I had no idea what they were saying; sometimes I probably comprehended 30 percent of what they said, which at the time was a feat. The day concluded with dinner with everyone from the program and a quiet evening of homework. On the weekend, we typically hung out together downtown, going to bars and dance clubs.

What did you enjoy doing in your free time?

Checking out the nearby taco stand was probably the best thing. The owner was a man in his late 50s and was quite friendly. We talked about the gringo students that lived around there and perhaps every other mundane aspect of life.

What was your accommodation like? What did you like best about it?

Honestly, accommodation was adequate; students shared bedrooms and bathrooms. I think that was the fun aspect of communal living. We learned to coexist and had fun with one another.

What is one thing every participant should know before studying abroad in Cuernavaca?

Not many people in Cuerna speak English, so it's important for participants to be linguistically and culturally prepared. I recommend that they take a few courses in Spanish before coming to this program. They will get a lot more out of it if they know the language a bit. Otherwise, they will find themselves constantly relying on the staff for interpretation. Plus, don't expect to be fluent in Spanish in one semester, unless you're at a very advanced level of the language. The road to language mastery is one of patience and frustration. But at the end of the day, you'll be glad to have walked it.

Now that you're home, how has your time abroad impacted your life?

CGEE Mexico was a break from the traditional classroom study. We not only learned with professors in a classroom, but also met various guest speakers that gave us first-hand account of their experience. Furthermore, my time there significantly fostered my language skills. I was not fluent in four months, but I was good enough to communicate more than simple ideas.

Would you recommend CGEE’s program in Cuernavaca to others? Why?

Certainly, if you value a program with a strong focus on social justice and small-sized classroom, CGEE Mexico is for you. In addition, you will be satisfied with the staff's professionalism and moderate level of academic workload.

What's one thing you wish you could change about your program? 

I wish that CGEE had partnered with a local university to create more interactions between us and local Mexican students. I know that some programs in Mexico send their students to a university, elevating the level of cultural and language exchange between students from the two countries. I tried to take advantage of the brief occasions of meeting Mexican peers as much as possible, but think that it would have benefited me a lot more if there had been more opportunities.