An Interview with Diana Arízaga, Director of IFSA Mexico Programs
September 18, 2019
How long have you lived in Mexico? Tell us more about your story.
I have lived in Mexico for 16 years. I moved to Mérida from Lansing, MI, where I was working at MSU’s international programs office. I started in International Education at 21 in Madrid, working for the CSU-system. There is nowhere a 21 year-old would rather be than in Madrid in the early 90s. After this experience, I knew I wanted more. I honestly think, I am the result of study abroad. Started as an exchange student when I was 16 in HS going from Quito, EC to New Orleans, LA. Did not have the best experience, but thinking back, a lot of it had to do with my own inability to put a name to the different processes I was going through. The following year, I was in Concord, CA, then it was Ecuador, Madrid-Spain, Illinois, Granada-Spain, California, Michigan and finally Mérida. Thinking back, I think I stayed in this field because reentry was too difficult. When I started to work in this field, all of a sudden I did not feel “weird or strange” again. I guess doing this was the excuse I needed to make sense of my life. Now I know there is nothing else I could have done, I am grateful every day for this. I can say I am a happy person and I owe this to this amazing field.
What brought you to IFSA?
My love for Latin America and my identity. After more than 17 years living in the US and Europe, I realized as an adult I had never “worked” professionally in Latin America, but I could never be from any other place. I left Ecuador when I was 16 -went back briefly– but I was never my own person there. Ironically, I had rented houses, opened programs, provided jobs for others, bought and sold my own house all outside my country, and every time I went back to Ecuador I felt like I was 5 years old again. The worst was that others around me also had in their mind the image of Diana as a kid. It was just too much to try to prove myself at every conversation, every comment, every choice. Additionally, I realized that and my love for my language, and for Latin America, was really becoming abstract. I had strong relationships, knew cities well, well established networks all outside Latin America. I approached my former boss and said, you need a program in Latin America, I think it should be in Mérida and this is why… In 2003 I was hired at IFSA as a consultant to open the current program and by 2004 we received the first group of students.
What do the IFSA programs in Mexico provide that other study abroad programs in Mexico do not?
Our network capability in the Yucatan and other parts of Mexico. I feel like thanks to these relationships we could connect our students with many of their interests and almost provide a personalized program within our larger program. Relationships and networks is the only way to function in many places in Latin America, but in Mexico is a way of life and you cannot do anything unless you are well established. We are able to do this through various channels: our Academic Director is a full professor of Anthropology and former Dean of the college, his grandfather was the President of UADY for 16 years, his academic network is huge. The host families we have, have been working with us from day one. The internship and volunteer placements have all come out of recommendations from faculty and close friends. This, combined with our absolute love and respect for Mexico´s people, traditions, food, diversity as well as the US’s is what helps us give a program different from any other. I could say we try to work with students´attitudes, to let them discover that their attitude is very important. It is what will help them have an amazing experience and get to know this country below the surface.
Give us an example of a time that you saw a student’s future tangibly implacted by studying in Mexico? What happened and how did they change?
I will only share a name and a website. Ferron Salniker, she is is a former year long student who came during the first year of the program. Her life, her work and herself changed so much. Every decision made afterwards was a product of having had a wonderful experience here. She now has a Food / Travel blog. Although now she writes about many places in the world, it all started here in Mérida.
How do you stay abreast to developments in the field of international education?
Through reading and through my students. They are the best “cases” of what is happening. I talk to them, listen to them, see how they are approaching life, we have long conversations, we try to stay curious and are cognizant that we need to give them the benefit of the doubt. They are amazing, smart, young people. Sure they are millennials, or whatever the new term is, but they are also brothers, sisters, friends, daughters, sons and they are complex and interesting. They deserve our patience and our time in their search of trying to find and define themselves. They are brave for being here and they need to know this. Also, everything is connected, our students are a result of our societies, what happens around the world impacts them, so you want to know what are the latest developments in international education, read current affairs.
In addition to this, a great source of finding out what is happening is through IFSA, our own organization. The different departments are a great source of information: the Academic Affairs Department, Inclusive Excellency, PMD, etc.
What is your favorite program or excursions to show students?
Chiapas for the Day of the Dead. This to me represents Mexico! Everything is there, arts, traditions, rituals, music, color, sound and amazing people. This celebration means approaching death like everything is done in this beautiful country, with love for life!
What students are saying:
“The program director is truly amazing. Diana Arízaga has a wonderful way about her that makes you feel comfortable, as if you were part of a family. As an administrator, she demonstrates the ability to maintain a professional, yet intimate bond with all her students.” – A review left by a student on Abroad101 regarding IFSA’s Mérida Universities Program.