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San Diego State University


Diana Rosa Mesa

Photo: Diana Rosa Mesa on graduation daySummer Immersion Reflections

Spring 2016

I’ve been on 3 immersions, and I’ve been to Oaxaca twice. There’s so much going on that you have to wait until it’s over to really process everything. I think this past year was the most empowering because of it being my third year. I understood things at a deeper level and was able to look at things from a more critical perspective.

Chinantla, remote and beautiful

For me, the highlight of the 2015 trip was when we went for 4 days to stay in Chinantla, a community up in the mountains. They’re pretty isolated. It was a 6-hour drive up into the mountains, and if there’s too much rain, then there’s no access to them at all. So it really was remote. Once you’re there, you really feel like you’re in a painting. It’s just amazing, it’s so beautiful.

The community was so united — everything they did was centered around the school. The community was very involved, and the school was run by the leaders of the community. It was very rural. Everything they ate was from their own land, and there was a lot of awareness of how to cultivate properly so the soil wouldn’t lose its nutrients. They live a very simple lifestyle, but at the same time it’s very complex, they understand how to be part of the earth by taking care of the land, so the lands takes care of them.

I guess it reminded me of home. My community in Cuba is small, and we all helped each other. For every birthday party, everyone pitched in. My school was across the street from my house, and all the parents were really involved. They supported the school and did lots of activities centered around culture, with music, dance and literature, for example, poems. So for me, it felt like being part of the Chinantla community for a few days was like being back home in Cuba.


Photo: Diana interacts with a child in Chinantla

Diana interacts with a child in Chinantla.

We spent our time learning from the community, being able to share a bit of their lives, like having a meal with a family. At first they might have been hesitant, because we were strangers to them coming from a whole different country that is known to have many resources, while they live with such minimal resources. There, they are able to live off what the land gives them, while here (US) we taking things for granted, such as throwing food away. Maybe they were feeling like there might be some kind of judgment at first, but then they could see that we were there to really understand how their community and culture works, and they were very open to sharing their lifestyle and stories with us. I could see how they are so humble and sincere in everything they did.


Indigenous language

Their indigenous language is Chinanteco, and Spanish is their second language. They teach their children to speak both. They were very proud of their indigenous language, which it’s not valued like that in other places. I realized that even though we have students who come from Mexico and they speak Spanish, we should remember that Spanish may be their second language. That’s something we need to take into consideration. It’s not that they’re not educated, but it may be that they were educated in their native language, from a rural, indigenous area and bring a different type of knowledge then what we are use to measuring in schools in the U.S.

Kids here don’t know how to plant a seed, but those kids know so much about the land. But it’s not recognized. Their knowledge is based more on functional and daily living skills, which is not necessarily part of our standardized assessments. The immersion made me aware of these differences. We need to be aware that they bring so much with them that we can build on – we can use vocabulary words of plants and animals that they’re acquainted with instead of technology. We can use an area of existing strength to build on, instead of focusing on their areas of need.


Daily experiences

When you’re on immersion, you work in a school from Monday through Thursday. You study Spanish in the afternoon for 3 hours, to enhance your level of academic Spanish and communication. Everyone’s at a different level of Spanish fluency. On the weekends, you visit different areas. It’s not for sightseeing, but to learn more about the culture. We’ll have a guide who tells us the context of historical ruins, or we’ll immerse ourselves in some local market to learn about fruits, foods, textiles that are unique to the area.

In the classrooms, we work with the teacher to identify students who might need support in a particular area like math or literature. We do classroom assessments and get teacher input and we create an intervention – and we work with a small group of students every day.

You build this bond of experiences with a small group of students, and you learn so much about them. You work with them every day, and they show you so much love. They make you little things like bracelets and cards. And it’s so hard to leave after one short month. It’s a very valuable experience, but it’s not easy to say goodbye to the students and the teachers.



I didn’t really have expectations of the immersion experience. I really wanted to just be open to the experience. My first immersion in Oaxaca was actually quite tough. The family I stayed with was great, but there’s this system where kids from the rural areas will work in homes in the cities. These young students work in the home where they’re staying. They do cleaning, cooking, laundry in the daytime and go to school at night, and do their homework at night, too. They’re kids from middle school age up to college.

Students who were local went to the school in the morning. The working students go to school from 4 to 9 pm. It’s very common. One girl, Esther, was undergoing testing to get into college. My friend Nancy and I would help her with math and English from around 11 pm to 1 am. She had to be up at 5 a.m. to make breakfast! These kids might stay in this situation for a couple of years, moving around to different families or staying with the same one. They get to visit their own family maybe once or twice a year for a week or two. Seeing this was hard for me because I felt like it was a form of child labor. For me, no child should have to do that kind of work to be able to access education. But they saw it as an opportunity to better themselves and their family. And so I had to see it that way. But it was really hard.

I became close to Esther — we’re still friends, and we stay in touch on Facebook. I was excited to see her again when I returned to Oaxaca this year and catch up. To this day we still stay in touch pretty often. Esther did get into college and she’s studying nursing. She has her own apartment now, so it was nice to see that. It’s been good to see her life journey after we met almost 4 years ago. Its’ one of those friendships you don’t really expect to happen but you cherish forever. I was blessed to be able to see her again this year.


Photo: Diana Rosa Mesa, Esther, and friends at baseball game

Diana, Esther, and friends at a local baseball game.


Classroom styles

I think the way classrooms are structured in the U.S., and the expectations of learning are very different. We want the student to be quiet, raise hand to share an answer, and look at the teacher. But in Mexico, kids shout out the answers, and talk to their peers, and sit in circles or maybe move around their desks. The teacher does a lot of walking around, too, so it’s not lecture style. Also, they get their classwork and homework dictated to them – there are no handouts. So they get to practice different skills. In immersions, we don’t want to go into the classrooms and say to ourselves, “There’s disruption, disorder.” Even though it’s different, the kids are able to engage and learn. Everyone participates, and it’s refreshing to see that difference of instruction.

When they come to the U.S., they’re expected to act a very different way and often their behavior is seen as disrespectful, interrupting, when that’s just the way they were taught to learn. We need to really come to an awareness of the different styles of education. When these kids come here, there’s culture clash, more people, bigger cities, a different language – plus, they have to learn a whole different style of education. We expect a lot from these kids, who have little guidance and support.


Understanding differences

I work at a middle school in City Heights, Mann Middle. It’s very diverse. We have lots refugees and immigrant student from around the world. I’m always aware of these differences, and I think about the experiences or even the lack of education they might have had. So it makes me think outside the box, and I make an effort to talk to the families to really understand how they view life and how they do things. This helps me understand how their student is learning in the classroom.

One student came from a refugee camp and was 12 years old, she had no schooling before then. She just wanted to be outside by a tree — she would just sit there and play with the dirt and the sticks. It was hard for her teacher, because she wouldn’t stay in the classroom, but this is what felt more like home to her. Now, understanding that it’s part of a process, she gets to go spend some time outside as a way to reward her. Thinking about these issues and factors that could be playing a role for a child– I’m really aware that students bring their differences into the school and we can use them to help them succeed. The biggest piece is working with the families to ask what their experience is, collaborating with them to gain understanding of the student.


Photo: Nature walk in Chinantla

On a nature walk with a local guide in Chinantla.


Immersion brings personal growth

One of the things that impacted me the most is realizing the changes all this makes on you, personally. I think you grow a lot as a person, as a human being. If you fully immerse yourself and open up to the experiences, it changes you for the better. You think more openly, it makes you think about your values and where they come from, and your own family and background and makes you question certain things you were raised with and how you might have been different if you were raised somewhere else.

It’s such a short amount of time and we do so much work that we often don’t think about the impact it creates in us, ourselves. You’re living the moment, so you don’t really see that impact until after. Once you return, you do a paper where you talk about your experience. Immersion takes half of your summer, and there’s no time to get everyone back together at home, immediately after immersion. But some of us have these conversations — we hang out and talk about the things that made such a big impact, processing our experiences.



I still stay in touch with both of the families I stayed with in Oaxaca. You really get to be part of their family for that month. They share their way of living with you — you talk about the educational system, politics. Having breakfast and dinner with them, you get the opportunity to talk during a meal. Lunches we had outside, but breakfast and dinner was always with the family. That’s when we really got to know each other. Sometimes, the family would take us to the local market or to different areas of the city. They have all the best inside info, of course, so they’d tell you, Go see this museum.” So you get the local view, not just the touristy aspect.


Outside the comfort zone

Photo: Oaxaca paradeMy best advice is to truly be open to the immersion experience. Be mentally prepared to step out of your comfort zone, because that’s when you’ll see the growth in yourself. Fear of the unknown makes us stay in our comfort zone, and not fully embrace what’s happening in the moment, and later you may regret that you didn’t let yourself be present to your experience. On immersion, you also need to be prepared to be disconnected from technology, to embrace the culture you’re in by leaving everything you know behind.

Remember it’s a short month, and it goes by really quick. Step away from technology and you’ll have more time to really observe and be part of meaningful interactions. For instance, I’d go to the park and just watch people interact, how they pass their time, it gives you an insight of the culture and colloquial costumes.

People go to the park on some afternoons and free music is provided by the city for free for people to dance. You often see grandparents dancing with their grandkids. If you take your phone or technology everywhere because you want to connect to the free wifi at the park, you will miss out on all of these amazing experiences.


The future

After graduation, I want to stay in San Diego. I love the community. I’ve been here 10 years, and this is my home now. I’ve been working in City Heights for a long time, and I’m hoping I can stay there. If not, I’m also applying in Palm Springs area where my family currently resides.

My cohort is definitely tight; I have very close friendships — people who are very dear to me. When you make that kind of friendship, they become family. I call them my sisters and brothers. We’ve shared so much. They’ve been there for me and as I have for them. We’re going to be in each other’s lives for a long time. We’re about to graduate now, and some of us are moving away. It will be hard, as we get closer to graduating in May.



Learning from all angles

"I’m really blessed to have been part of tis grant because this program is very focused on understanding diversity and culture. We apply what we learn.

"Spanish is part of it, but it’s more than language, it’s understanding culture. You have to understand the student and their ecosystem. We learned from reading and research, but the grant lets us learn from real-life experience.

"In local San Diego communities, at Rosa Parks, but also being immersed in Mexico, staying with families from the city and also in rural areas. This makes it a very comprehensive. We are able to experience learning from all angles."