By Tomás M. Creamer
Dr Maria Luisa López Segura, from the University of Monterrey, Mexico, visited the Institute for Lifecourse and Society, located in the Northern area of the NUI Galway campus, on 27 March, 2015.
As part of the institute's Community Knowledge Initiative (CKI), Dr Segura was invited to the institute to give a talk about her experience in promoting civic professionalism knowledge and initiatives, among faculty and colleagues in the University of Monterrey.
Dr. Segura spearheaded the ITESM Citizenship and Ethics Program in the University, as part of an effort to promote and develop a culture of "civic professionalism", where students are encouraged to utilise and combine their knowledge and skills, in an ethical and responsible manner, for the benefit of wider society.
This was important, as she explained later, as only around 5% of Mexican students progress to Third level education (compared to over 50% in Ireland), and many of the students that do often come from relatively wealthy backgrounds. Because of this, many University students may not be aware of the problems and challenges of the many millions of Mexicans that live in relatively poor, remote areas, and hence not be aware of the problems of wider society.
Dr Segura talked in particular about a project that she oversaw, involving three small communities in the Jimulco National Ecological Reserve in the Coahuila state, located in Northern Mexico. Jimulco is a remote, protected area where the standards of living, and the level of access to education and healthcare, are poor. Around 47 students took part in the project, which saw them visiting these remote communities, finding out what particular, practical problems they faced, and then collaborated with each other to find a workable solution.
Due to a lack of financial support from the University, there was a heavy reliance on personal resources. For example, they had only managed to get a bus to bring them down to Jimulco, because the father of one of the students involved ran a bus company. Despite these challenges, however, they set off to Jimulco, where they shared a traditional breakfast with the local community, before they were then shown around the communities.
There were potential small-scale industries that were possible to develop. This included the production of beauty products made from local herbs, which the local community had been trying to develop, but were held back due to a lack of equipment, expertise, and in some cases, illiteracy and age. There was also a broken irrigation system in a greenhouse that had the potential to grow tomatoes, among others.
After they returned to the University of Monterrey, the students, who were mainly from the science and engineering departments, proceeded to work on several projects to help make the lives of the people of Jimulco easier. This included the development of new products from traditional herbs found in the area, such as an extract from the citronella plant, which could be used for insect repellent, and even the development of a new library for children, which was important, due to the barrier to education in the area.
Other students helped the locals to improvise measuring systems and equipment, as well as the development of a home-made sunscreen product and shelf life testing, also helped the area to produce more beauty products, based off traditional herbs.
Dr Segura emphasised the relationship that she and other teachers worked to build up with the local communities before the project itself. There had been many attempts before where "outsiders" visit such remote communities in Mexico, and start giving out "advice" and help to the locals that often turned out to be ineffective, and sometimes counterproductive.
As a result, it was vital that she and others involved in the University Citizenship and Ethics program first work to build up trust with the community leaders, before the project could begin properly. Dr. Segura in particular stressed the important contribution of an old woman from the community in this feat, who turned out to have been a good partner with which to work with the communities.
After the project had concluded, she conducted a survey of the 47 students who were involved in the project. She found that around 60% of the students had never participated in a civic citizenship project before, and that 75% had not participated in civic society outside of school, up until that point. 28% of the students indicated that their families had been involved in such civic activities, mainly in charity and altruistic relative sectors.
Dr Segura also talked about the difficulties that the project faced in the University - despite support for the project among some members of staff, there was no specific curricular activates on campus to promote civic citizenship, and there was no funding provided by the University. She also talked about how it was still a challenge to convince some members of staff of the importance of Civic Professionalism for students.