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Looking to Expand International Programs, UT-Austin Eyes Mexico

One of University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves' top priorities in his first year in office is to expand UT-Austin’s international presence. And a key part of that mission will be Mexico, which Fenves will visit this week.

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When he was a kid, University of Texas at Austin President Greg Fenves treasured spending summers in Mexico City, where he visited the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, his favorite museum in the world, and studied Spanish. His grasp of the language has since slipped away, but he says the trips broadened his horizons and nurtured his curiosity. 

Now, he wants his students and faculty to experience something similar. Fenves has made growing UT-Austin’s international programs one of his top priorities in his first year in office. And no country will receive more attention than Mexico, where this week Fenves will take his first international trip as UT-Austin president.  

“We want our graduates to be successful not just in Austin, not just Texas but as leaders not even just in the United States,” Fenves said. “Almost everything that is important has international implications.”

Mexico presents plentiful opportunities for UT-Austin and its students, Fenves said. The country’s economy has expanded significantly in the past decade, especially its fast-rising middle class. Companies seeking to gain a share of the Mexican market will probably be interested in students who have experience there.

That’s especially true in the energy sector, where the country is allowing private investment in its state-owned oil monopoly. Now, oil companies from across the world are looking to invest there. That’s a huge opportunity for students and professors in the engineering and geosciences fields.

Fenves will meet with federal officials, local Longhorn alumni and the leaders of five Mexican universities during the four-day trip to Mexico City. On the docket will be finding more ways to send UT-Austin students to study abroad in Mexico and bring Mexican students to Austin. He’ll also look to open channels for more research collaboration, especially in energy and cultural studies. 

He'll will be joined by eight of the university’s deans and dozens of other staffers. The size of the group shows how serious he is about growing the university’s relationship with Texas’ southern neighbor, he said.

“This is not just a goodwill tour,” he said. 

One thing that wont be discussed: football. UT-Austin has publicly pondered playing a game in Mexico City in the near future, but Fenves said athletics will not be a focus of the trip. 

Colleges across the country are similarly trying to find ways to send student and researchers abroad. Texas A&M University has a branch campus in Qatar and is working on a research station in Israel. Texas Tech has considered a teaching center in Costa Rica. Fenves says he has no plan to open a campus in Mexico — or anywhere else — but would like to see more students spend some time there. 

In the 2013-14 school year, more than 1,600 UT-Austin students studied abroad, according to the university’s international office. But only about 90 of those studied in Mexico. Some students might have felt the country was too dangerous, while others might have found trips to Asia or Europe more adventurous. 

“A Texas student thinks, ‘Oh, study abroad. I want to go to a Spanish-speaking country, let’s go to Spain,’” said Janet Ellzey, UT-Austin's vice provost of international programs.

The UT-Austin delegation also hopes to find new opportunities for its cultural and anthropological researchers and centers like the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies.

Ellzey said the university hopes to double the number of UT-Austin students studying in Latin America to 1,200 by 2020. Most of that growth will probably be in Mexico, she said, meaning the number of students studying there would have to increase by as much as six times its current total. 

If that happens, UT-Austin and its students will benefit, officials said. 

"There are benefits to any student having some type of exposure that opens up their view of the world," he said. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Austin, Texas A&M University and Texas Tech University are corporate sponsors of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

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