About the Program

Dr. Marco Tavanti, Director of the Sustainable Chiapas Program, explains its educational purpose for students in international public service.

M.tra Marina Patricia Jimenez Ramirez, Coordinator of the Sustainable Chiapas Program, explains the impact of the DePaul University program in Chiapas, with the students of international public service (in Spanish)

An International Program on Sustainable Development and Indigenous Rights

Chiapas is located in the second most
bio-diverse region in the world

Since 2004, DePaul University’s School of Public Service (SPS) has been offering an annual short-term study abroad program in Chiapas. The study centers on sustainable development through a carefully planned immersion experience in Mexico during the University’s spring break. While many American college students choose to spend their time vacationing in Cancun, these study-abroad students choose to participate in a difficult and challenging experience among impoverished Mayan indigenous populations. Thanks to the accompaniment of well-known leaders and trusted organizations, students come to recognize a different face of Mexico. They meet with internally displaced people (IDPs), survivors of a massacre in Acteal, and with Zapatista communities in resistance. They learn about the ambiguities of globalization, the contradictions of development.

Not the First Program in Chiapas, Mexico

DePaul University has two academic programs in Chiapas: The Law School Chiapas Practicum focused on human rights and the Public Service Study Abroad Program focused on sustainable development and the role of nongovernmental organizations. Harvard Chiapas Project, just to mention the most famous program, has been sending fieldwork researchers in Chiapas since 1957.

Why Chiapas?

Chiapas, the southernmost and poorest state of Mexico, is an appropriate place for the study of globalization, sustainable development, nongovernmental organizations, resistance movements, indigenous rights and fair trade. DePaul University, particularly through the School of Public Service, the Study Abroad Program, the Office for International Programs and the Steans Center for Community Based Service Learning have been very supportive of the Chiapas program as they reflect Vincentian concerns for poverty alleviation and the promotion of social justice. Although outside of the mainstream media, Chiapas remains a popular site for students interested in learning about the trends and effects of globalization from above v. globalization from below.

Learning About Systems

The SPS Chiapas program is carefully designed to expose students to the contradictory effects of free trade and present the necessity for true alternatives through a development that is sustainable, fair, just and respectful of cultural and human dignity. It begins with the assumption that system thinking is essential for promoting systemic change. System thinking offers fundamental tools for analyzing society and interpreting our experience by focusing on the relationships between elements rather than within the content of the elements.The Chiapas exposure challenges students to not make assumptions about the current system while at the same time inviting them to think anew. Rather than only exposing students to alternative ideologies such as those expressed by the utopian realities of Zapatista autonomous community and NGOs clearly motivated by their Zapatista agenda, the preparation readings, program orientations, visit of organizations and activities during the immersion week in Chiapas are carefully designed to demonstrate the complexity of problems but also the variety of possible solutions.

Developing Engaged Leaders for Sustainability

Dr. Tavanti and students at Kinal Antzetik, A.C. 
Tierra de Mujeres (Land of Women)

The student perspective has also promoted some best practices in regards to the experience of the Chiapas program. The success and popularity of the program is due in large part to the enthusiasm and commitment of retuning students who describe the Chiapas program “a life changing experience.” What often emerges in the students’ feedback and program evaluations is how the Chiapas Program helped them to open their eyes, challenge their personal convictions and redirect their studies and career paths.

1. Student Engagement: While students are encouraged to come to the Chiapas experience from their own unique perspectives, teamwork and engagement with others on the trip and in the communities is a critical component. Students work in teams of two and assigned different areas of “work” for the trip including note-taking, gathering contacts and photography. By assigning responsibility, it makes the students more engaged and accountable to not only the people we meet with, but also to the Chiapas experience as a whole

2. Readings and Assignments: The readings and assignments, as noted above, not only serve to ground students in the history of the region, but also serve to actively engage the participants in reflection of the challenges facing the communities and the variety of solutions available. Students are encouraged to share information gathered and to ask questions regarding the readings, films and research conducted before, during and after the trip to Chiapas.

3. Follow-Up Work:
Participants recognize that their work does not end upon their return to the United States. In most cases, the experience of Chiapas affects students’ coursework and engagement with Latino and Chicano populations in our own communities. In the past, students have developed websites and written articles to communicate and share their experiences, held fundraisers to benefit communities visited in Chiapas, and some have even returned to the region to continue their personal work and foster partnerships.

4. Risk-Taking and Innovative:
The Chiapas program takes the students from the classroom to a real world experience. The people in books come to life and a bridge is built both literally and figuratively from Chicago to Chiapas via this program. Every educational experience should have the potential to be blessed with the opportunity to do something different that takes participants outside their comfort zone and forces them to re-think the ways in which they dialogue with others. A program like this one is risky. It is risky for the communities and organizations that open their doors and hearts; it is risky for the students embarking on this journey; it is risky for the faculty and organizers who attempt (and succeed) in creating a comprehensive experience; and, it is risky for the University to move beyond its immediate concerns of time, space and money and into the global community.

5. Diversity: This program is not about exposing one side to the other, it is about a sharing of history, ideas, and experiences. The program does not strive to offer students a one-sided view of events that occur in the region. The makeup of the syllabus means that we visit Zincantan, Oventic, Acteal, Palenque, different organizations who specialize in everything from health care to women’s issues. Participants in the program not only get to visit, but are given the opportunity to ask questions related to what we are most interested in – that in and of itself is encouraged, fostered and permits the diversity of opinions and experience to shine through.

6. Vincentian Ideals: Individuals, groups, departments, institutions, communities, cities and societies have a social responsibility in achieving this goal of poverty reduction. All of us have the capacity to be value-driven; connected to our communities – DePaul, our neighborhoods, our city of Chicago; supportive of diversity; risk taking; innovative; and pragmatic. These six elements are just the basics and can lead us down a path of compassion and understanding in the work we do, the ways in which we approach one another and how we communicate with those living abroad. The study abroad program to Chiapas, Mexico is not just an opportunity to take a trip across a border; rather, the trip serves to influence the individuals through the relationships and connections made on academic, emotional, personal and professional levels. Students are engaged in a continued process of transformation because of the experiences in Chiapas – from encountering language and cultural barriers, dealing with personal beliefs and assumptions about life in Chiapas as well as the challenges each student presented to one another in the sharing of interpretations of events. The Chiapas Program touches students deeply and provokes us to rethink our assumptions. It shocks our personal and professional foundation forcing us to rethink our career and engagement in society. In this vein, it requires us to reposition ourselves and our ways of thinking in regards to the work we do and the ways in which we study and dialogue with others in our University, city and global communities.

For more information about the Program contact Dr. Marco Tavanti, Director of the Sustainable Chiapas Program