“I fell in love with the idea of going to Mexico City. I strongly desired to learn about my roots, to touch that warm soil that distinguishes México from the rest of the world, and to explore my identity in ways I had never done before. ”
I wanted to explore the world. I started looking at study abroad programs because I had the lifelong dream of visiting Paris. That shifted when one of my close friends told me he was planning to study abroad in Mexico City. He honestly got me very excited about México. I had never pictured myself studying at UNAM (even though I had known about its world renowned prestige for the longest time) until my friend told me all about his study abroad program. I fell in love with the idea of going to Mexico City. I had not visited my parent's home country in over 10 years and just thinking about having the opportunity to go back elevated my heart in the most beautiful way. I strongly desired to learn about my roots, to touch that warm soil that distinguishes México from the rest of the world, and to explore my identity in ways I had never done before.
México is all culture and all extremely beautiful too. I don’t think I’ve ever had a cultural experience like the one I had when I went to see a Ballet Folclórico performance in Palacio de Bellas Artes with the entire UCEAP group. That was a day of excursion for us. We had explored the historic center of Mexico City, rich with culture. We ended the night by attending the critically acclaimed show, and no words can express the overwhelming sense of awe I felt during the entire performance. The entire performance showcased some of the most traditional and colorful dances native to México. Tears flooded my eyes. I had never seen such cultural beauty in my life. I felt beautiful because that was my culture. I felt conflicted because it was not my culture. The performance was aesthetic and felt detached from the true dance traditions in indigenous communities that continue to be marginalized. This cultural experience aroused a range of mixed emotions for me which makes it one of the most unforgettable experiences I've ever had.
There were many challenges, but I think the biggest concern for me was not losing myself. I was struggling with my identity. I felt that I could not recognize myself anymore because I was undergoing so many personal changes, from being afraid of new experiences to being more spontaneous and risky at times. I also struggled to keep in touch with my loved ones back home. I felt like I was becoming more and more selfish, focusing all of my energy in building the new relationships I was establishing in Mexico and almost completely forgetting about my home in California. This clashed with the random feelings of homesickness I'd get. Even so, I'd call home less often despite always having been very attached to home to the extent that I had accustomed my family to video calls from me every week since I first left home for Cal. I struggled to balance my growing sense of independence and exploration with the growing sense of abandonment my family was feeling as a result. My cultural identity was also shifting while I was abroad as I deconstructed and redefined what it meant to be Mexican and American. My self-concept cracked and crumbled, but in that process, I was growing and changing. For the first time, I was open to that change and turmoil.
A typical day, once you get into the groove of school, resembles a typical day at Cal. I'd go to class daily and go to my lab three times a week. After classes I'd hang out with my Mexican friends or head to my dance classes (Bachata, Cumbia, and Salsa) or just head home to decompress and study. Some weekdays would be filled with adventure as I'd explore the city's museums, historic streets, or bustling avenues alone, with UCEAP peers, or with Mexican friends.
As a part of the UNAM immersive program, I was able to take classes alongside my Mexican peers in two renowned colleges: La Facultad de Psicología and La Facultad de Filosofía y Letras. In Psicología, I studied social and cultural psychology in Professor Rogelio Flores’ Cultura, Tecnología y Diversidad course, and I explored child psychopathology through hands-on experience in Dr. Laura Hernandez’s laboratory on campus. In this lab, I was able to confirm my interest in learning more about mental health in children, especially children of color. This interest intensified as I studied, in Filosofía y Letras, about the challenges and accommodations necessary for students with differing abilities in the education system. Beyond this, UNAM gave me the most unique opportunity of studying Nahuatl, one of many native Mexican languages. Berkeley does not offer courses in Native American languages and having had studied a rich tongue in México was both empowering and healing.
I built some of the most beautiful relationships while in México. I had always struggled to make friends, and after a month or two of being abroad, I was wrapped in the warmth so characteristic of Mexican people. As I built my relationships, I realized that people cared about me as a whole person. They were genuinely interested in everything about me not just the pile of accomplishments or positions or abilities I have. I felt appreciated and loved, and I had rarely felt this at Cal in a way that felt warm and genuine. The people I met, from classmates to roommates, made my time abroad one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had.
I changed so much while abroad! I was able to gain a lot of self-confidence and a lot of independence. I truly broke out of my very rough shell. I was more open than I had ever been in my entire life. I stepped out of my comfort zone to the uncomfortable degree, and I welcomed that. I was shy and very socially anxious, but I was able to adapt and evolve in ways I never imagined. For example, I had always detested dancing, but for some reason, I took three dance classes while abroad. If that's not growth I don't know what is!
All I can say is do it. You will hear from almost everyone that you should not study abroad in México because it's dangerous. People can make you feel uneasy and even ashamed about the country you wish to visit. I say, block all of that out. México is going through a lot of turmoil but so is the entire world right now. If you dream of studying in México, do it. If you dream of being an UNAM student, go for it. México is such a beautiful and wildly complex place. Challenge the negative sentiments by going to México and showing everyone the beauty they are too scared to see.