A trip of a lifetime: WWU student and professors reflect on study abroad trip to Mexico

On Jan. 17, a group of six Western Washington University students and two professors embarked on a seven-week-long faculty-led study abroad trip to Todos Santos, Baja California Sur, Mexico.

The trip primarily aimed to deepen students’ learning in regards to multilingual education practices. The group returned to Bellingham on March 2, bringing back invaluable lessons and memories from their time abroad.

The trip was offered through a course in the Woodring College of Education called MLE (or Multilingual Education) 437. During the first two weeks of the quarter, students participated in online courses led by professors that covered basic policies and practices of multilingual education, according to one of the students from the trip, Abi Loihl.

Abi Loihl with a gray whale while on a boat ride in Baja California Sur.

Loihl is a third-year student from Hood River, Oregon. Her self-designed major is “Critical Epistemology: Storytelling, Marginalization, and Liberation” through Western’s Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and her minors are in Spanish and ESJ (Education and Social Justice).

Loihl said that decided she wanted to go abroad for several reasons.

“Part of what I am studying is asking the question of, ‘How do you make education more just and inclusive for different people?’” Loihl said. “I wanted to do the trip because it applied to my ESJ minor because the program is pretty flexible with credits, but also because it was such a cool opportunity.”

After their two weeks of online courses, the group flew down to Baja California Sur, where they spent the next seven weeks studying, teaching, and exploring Todos Santos.

“We spent time in a high school class there. Part of it was observing students who were native Spanish speakers taking English classes, so we were kind of looking at how that looked versus what we had studied the first two weeks of the quarter,” Loihl said.

Loihl said that the next step was to begin lesson planning for the group of local students. She and the rest of the group worked through the process of analyzing how to create lesson plans with differing levels of language abilities present.

At the same time, the group took Spanish classes and participated in adult English classes offered to community members in the area.

“For the first couple of weeks of those classes, we were just a part of it. We were there participating in the activities and conversing with them since it was a conversation class,” Loihl said. “That was really cool. And then the last two weeks, we paired off into groups and we made lesson plans for the adult class, and that went really well. It was super fun.”

Maria Timmons Flores, one of the faculty members that went on the trip and a professor of education at Western, showed her appreciation for the people in the communities they visited by explaining how the people of Todos Santos impacted the group.

“We met so many people who are actively working to sustain their culture and the place they live in the face of rapid environmental and cultural change,” she said. “They openly shared their knowledge and respect for the place and people while helping us understand the roles they play in protecting it. Learning from people who are knowledgeable and passionate about protecting what they love helped us reflect on what is important to sustain and fight for in our own communities.”

“A big part of it was also learning about culture. Maria wanted us to learn about it because a big part of bilingual education is making sure that it is culturally relevant and sustains aspects of the student’s culture,” Loihl said. “So you’re not just forcing them to learn English and participate in school in the way that you would expect.”

The other faculty member on the trip, SMATE Professor Don Burgess, said that spending time in the community helped the group gain a better understanding of the experiences of the people living there.

“Because we lived and worked experientially in the local communities, we all came to better understand the lived experience, language and indigenous knowledge of the school, ranching, farming, recycling, fishing, artisan and business communities,” Burgess said.

Outside of their work, the group had some free time. They spent time camping and going on a number of trips, as well as exploring the area close to where they were staying.

Before going on the trip, Loihl said she was anxious about going away from home: She had never been abroad without her family or friends before, and was nervous about adjusting to the switch. When she got to Mexico, however, and began to spend more time there, she said that the socially-oriented culture helped her adjust.

Loihl said that through this, she gained one of the important lessons from the trip.

“That was an important lesson, I think, for all of us. If we are going to be bilingual specialists or teachers, then we would have to understand that our students might come from a culture where it is really important that you are personable and friendly, and that you care about each other,” Loihl said.

Flores reflected on the impact the Western students who went abroad had on her as she returned back to Bellingham.

“It was a joy to work with them, learn with them, it reminded me why I became a teacher long ago: the joy of learning.”

To learn more about study abroad opportunities at Western, visit the Study Abroad website.