The Oaxaca Exchange

In just over one calendar year beginning in late 1990, a small group of faculty members, working with the Office of International Programs and several committees on campus, successfully established a unique study abroad option for undergraduates in Oaxaca, Mexico. Hosted by the Instituto Cultural, one of Oaxaca's principal educational institutions, the program provides a highly individualized learning environment characterized by small classes, research opportunities using primary sources, and extensive contact with community resources. The interdisciplinary curriculum includes subject matter from anthropology, archaeology, environmental studies, history, and politics.

Oaxaca lies some 250 miles southeast of Mexico City in a highland valley, 5,000 feet above sea level. A charming provincial capital, it is friendly and informal without the congestion of many metropolitan environments. Close to the city are the archaeological remains of Monte Alban, a Zapotec urban and religious center which thrived from 500 B.C. to A.D. 1500 and which represents one of the most advanced indigenous civilizations the Spanish explorers encountered. Today Mixtecs and Zapotecs, as well as members of a number of other indigenous groups, live in the Oaxacan valley. Students on the Penn program have the opportunity to visit communities an hour and a half from Oaxaca where Spanish is rarely spoken and people live much as they did 300 years ago.

The Oaxaca program grew out the research activities of Nancy Farriss, a Penn ethno-historian specializing in the Colonial period in Mexico. Recognizing the rich resources offered by the region, the Instituto Cultural, and the resident research faculty, Farriss worked with a small group of Penn faculty to lay the groundwork for an undergraduate study abroad program. Following an initial site visit, representatives from Oaxaca came to Penn to present proposed syllabi, which then went through a full approval process with the relevant departments. The final step toward establishment of the program took place in January of 1992, when Professor Jorge Salessi went to Oaxaca as Resident Director, serving as a resource for Oaxaca faculty as well as the program's first group of eleven students, setting up microcomputer and library facilities, and establishing an administrative infrastructure to ensure the program's continued smooth operation.

The Oaxaca program is offered every year during the spring semester.

To index for Penn's International Dimensions.


January 12, 1993
Volume 39 Number 17

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