“I didn’t tell anybody – I just did it. I made the decision on my own,” Kyon Benally said of his decision to get a passport, travel outside of the United States for the first time in his life, and represent his Navajo heritage, UNM, New Mexico and an American Indian perspective of life and culture at an indigenous youth leadership conference in Mexico City, Mexico recently. Benally is from the Navajo community of Iyanbito, NM.
Hosted by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, the Foro Nacional de la Juventud Indígena (Indigenous Youth Regional Forum) conference inspires young leaders to imagine a world that improves the lives of their local communities and the collective whole by leveraging relationships and opportunities where there are commonalities across boundaries, borders and ideologies.
Laura Dogu, deputy chief of mission for the U.S. Embassy in Mexico, said, “As we work to build bright futures in both our countries, we must understand each other, and that’s what our Embassy’s public diplomacy, or people’s diplomacy, is all about. It’s about making connections, especially between our young people, who are our future leaders."
“The University of New Mexico is honored to receive an invitation from the U.S. Embassy to participate in this important forum at a time in history when both countries are making a strong effort to connect our people in significant ways. I am proud of our student ambassadors who did an outstanding job representing their heritages, the University and New Mexico," UNM President Robert Frank said.
Benally, an undergraduate student in engineering, attended the conference alongside another UNM student, Melodie Cruz. Cruz, a member of the Ohkay Owingeh pueblo, is an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in nursing and public health.
Frank said indigenous New Mexican and Mexican students alike can gain a lot from learning about both the similarities and differences among cultures – the challenges, distinctive qualities and occasions of shared history. “Indigenous communities preserve unique traditions, histories and knowledge, which when shared – especially with other indigenous communities – can further inspire understanding, collaboration and innovation.”
Prior to going on the trip, Benally and Cruz let their families know of their decisions. Their families were apprehensive, but ultimately supportive.
“My parents really helped me a lot. They had a lot of questions and concerns, which put me in the position to really educate myself before I go somewhere. They were really excited for me,” said Cruz.
“Once I told my family I feel like they wanted to be happy for me, but they were concerned because of what they were hearing on the news about Mexico. It was nothing like what the media described. Actually going there and experiencing it made me realize how much the media distorts information. The experience makes me want to go back and wish I had studied abroad for a semester," Benally said.
Concern from family members is not unusual, but may be greater for New Mexican students.
Mary Anne Saunders, special assistant to the president for global initiatives, said, “Some of our students face unique challenges when it comes to studying abroad. In addition to the standard considerations, many of our students must take into account family and community responsibilities.”
Saunders says it can be even more challenging for students to study abroad if family members have not previously traveled outside of the U.S. “It’s unknown territory for many families. It can be a sensitive family discussion and an even more daunting independent decision.”
Helping students overcome obstacles to study abroad and foreign travel is a key element of the UNM Global Education Office (GEO) Education Abroad unit. GEO focuses on educating students on the opportunities and possibilities, while assisting with logistics through weekly Study Abroad 101 sessions and one-on-one advisement.
“When students have the desire and courage to get outside of their comfort zone and experience a new culture, they not only learn more about the world and what it means to be a global citizen, but they learn a lot about themselves,” Saunders said.
And that’s exactly what happened to Benally and Cruz. Benally said the experience opened him up to “a whole different paradigm of thinking.” Cruz added that the experience inspired her to “embrace the ability I have to make positive change in my community.” Both students said the experience helped them to understand how important their cultures are and to develop a greater appreciation for their heritages.
The conference featured approximately 40 young leaders from indigenous communities throughout Mexico. Representatives from Oklahoma and Texas also attended at the invitation of the U.S. Embassy. Topics of discussion included how to maintain and preserve culture and language and the challenges of pursuing education and creating healthy communities. Students also shared aspects of their specific heritages and traditions.
Cruz said, "The challenges they face we face, too.”
“The thing I was surprised about most was how closely their major issues were 95 percent similar to the things that we face here in our communities. I could really understand where they were coming from because of that,” Benally said.
The pair was surprised by the commonalities in their experiences and equally surprised at the difference in the meaning of certain concepts.
“When I think of indigenous I think – or thought – of someone who is rich in their culture. You know – involved. In Mexico they were discussing the fact that indigenous has become a word associated with low income and lack of education. It really opened my eyes about what they are trying to do to ignite change,” Cruz said.
Benally and Cruz also found it interesting to discuss the idea of sovereign nations and reservations with their Mexican counterparts. “It was difficult for them to understand that idea because they didn’t grow up with it like we did,” Benally said.
The pair have been invited to apply to attend another U.S. Embassy conference this summer for young indigenous leaders in Puebla, Mexico.
Benally and Cruz were sponsored by the U.S. Embassy in Mexico and GEO to serve as ambassadors for UNM. The opportunity was cultivated through GEO’s new initiative in Mexico City designed to increase bilateral student and faculty mobility and collaboration. As a result of their participation, the U.S. Embassy and other agencies in Mexico are interested in collaborating with UNM on additional projects that address commonalities across borders and ideologies within indigenous communities.