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SDSU Imperial Valley Campus students abroad

Imperial Valley Campus students broadening their horizons abroad

By Michael Klitzing

CALEXICO, Calif. — Hop on Interstate 8 from SDSU’s main campus, head east and put the city in your rearview mirror. Endure white-knuckled driving as you battle sharp turns and strong gusts through the Laguna Mountains. Then, abruptly and dramatically, descend into the stunningly barren Colorado Desert.

Now watch as something incredible happens: The parched earth gives way to a seemingly-endless expanse of productive farmland stretching all the way to the Colorado River— a testament to modern irrigation and the hearty, hardworking people who call this place home.

Welcome to the Imperial Valley.

Pass through El Centro – the county’s biggest city – and you soon reach a place called Holtville. The sun-baked town has 6,000 residents, making it the sixth largest of the small agricultural communities that dot the Valley. But it’s hard to call it big by any standard.

“It’s so small that you get used to doing the same things over and over again,” said Holtville native Olivia Silva, a 2016 graduate of San Diego State’s Imperial Valley Campus (IVC). “A lot of people here will end up working in their own family’s business.”

It’s a familiar experience for most of the roughly 1,000 students who seek degrees at IVC, whether they come from Holtville, El Centro, Brawley, Calexico, Salton City or anywhere in between. All IVC students are commuters. Most still live at home with their parents. Many have never been on a plane or traveled further than Los Angeles.

“For a lot of the students here, they’ve only been here,” said psychology senior Hector Teran of El Centro. “They only go to the Valley, or maybe they go to San Diego every other week.”

Out here – where even San Diego can feel like a world away – the monuments of medieval Spain or the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel might as well be on another world entirely. But thanks to efforts at IVC to send more students abroad, that’s all changing.

More and more IVC students are seizing these international opportunities. And as a result, the perspectives and ambitions of the young people who seize these opportunities are changing too.

Brett Kofford and students

Tears of joy

IVC fulltime lecturer Brett Kofford has led month-long study abroad programs for five years, taking Imperial Valley students to destinations such as Argentina, Spain and Italy. This summer, he travelled with a cohort of 24 students to Valencia, Spain.

He says the impact study abroad makes on his students is as plain as the tears of joy on their faces.

“I always give my students some free time at the end of our programs to travel on their own, and one of my students went to Paris,” Kofford recalls. “When she saw the Eiffel Tower, she started crying. She couldn’t believe this small-town kid from Calexico, who grew up lower-middle class, was doing these kinds of things.”

Miriam Castañón, Director of Student Affairs at IVC, is working to ensure that similar students start to believe that they can. Born in Mexicali, Mexico – a city located a mere six blocks from IVC’s Calexico campus, where she now works – Castañón began commuting to study in the U.S. when she was 5. So she understands first-hand the challenges IVC students face and the opportunity study abroad presents.

Castañón said the overwhelming majority of students here come from close-knit Mexican-American families, where young adults are often encouraged – even expected – to stay at home. That means study abroad is a first chance to both experience another culture and taste independence.

“It opens the world to them,” Castañón said. “Providing them with these opportunities exposes them to other cultures and languages and makes their academic experience more diverse. And if they don’t go abroad through the school on a study abroad program, they will probably not be able to go abroad at all.

“Studying abroad makes a huge impact on our students' lives.”

For the 2015-16 academic year, 59 IVC students studied in seven different countries – England, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Belize, Spain, Italy and China –  in programs ranging from short summer or spring experiences to a full semester. And they’re coming back with more than just fond memories.

IVC students in Barcelona

Taking the plunge

Cassandra Garcia says she was often deemed “the quiet one” by professors at IVC because of her reluctance to speak up in class. The El Centro native had always dreamed about the possibility of studying abroad, she just hadn’t yet worked up the nerve to take the plunge.

Last year, needing only one class to earn her history degree, she finally decided to act. Garcia finished her San Diego State degree last fall while studying abroad for a semester in Leeds, England. On her first day of class, one of her professors singled her out to participate.

She learned quickly that in England, being the quiet one wasn’t going to cut it.

“It changed me because I guess I’m more willing to take risks now,” Garcia said. “Before I was so unwilling to leave home, which is why I stayed here for university rather than going to the main campus. I think now I’d be willing to study somewhere else for a graduate program.”

Teran, who travelled to Italy last summer with Kofford’s program, also believes his summer abroad changed him – in ways not limited to the strong affinity for espresso he picked up. While soaking in the artistic masterpieces of Florence and reveling in the chicness of Milan, he was experiencing something even more unfamiliar and profound – life somewhere other than under his parents’ roof.

“Since I still live at home, I kind of had to learn to become more self-sufficient and independent,” Teran said. “I became more willing to learn about everything. I’m more fearless.”

Olivia Silva in Barcelona

A new world


Living in Holtville, Silva never dreamed study abroad was an option for someone like her. In fact, it wasn’t until looking at her course catalog that she realized it was a requirement for her major – and even then she was unsure. She recalls timidly approaching her father with a question: Can I really do this?

“When I talked to my dad, he told me, ‘You chose to stay here, you’re saving money and you’re doing the right thing by going to school,’” Silva said with a smile. “I think that was kind of his way to let me go.”

And so she did – twice. Silva was so enthusiastic about her experience with Kofford’s program in Spain that she went to Italy the following summer. By senior year, she had become a full-fledged study abroad advocate, serving as president of the campus study abroad club, Aztecs Around the World.

“Being in another country was just mind-blowing,” Silva said. “There are no lanes in the streets, people are on mopeds in suits – I was like, ‘What in the world?’ Nothing you see here can compare. Every time I try to explain it to someone I tell them you have to see it.”

More and more IVC students are – and the benefits are obvious to educators like Kofford.

“They don’t lead life with blinders on anymore,” he said. “A lot of the students here, they’re into their friends, their family, Facebook and Instagram, those kind of things. Then all of the sudden those blinders come off and there’s a whole new world open to them.”

It’s a world that exists beyond the familiar towns of this fertile valley. Beyond the winding stretch of a mountain highway. Beyond the bright lights of San Diego.

It’s a world of endless possibilities.

“It makes you more of a well-rounded individual,” Silva said. “It makes you feel whole.”

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