Notre Dame students participate in virtual internships in Mexico

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Mary Zakowski participated in the vGPE program in the Huejotzingo province.

Anne Plecki is currently a senior and is double-majoring in English and Spanish. She recently completed the Virtual Global Professional Experience (VGPE) program during the winter break at the Mexico City Global Center. She writes about the new program and highlights the experience of two students. 

This past year, one of the many challenges and disappointments faced by students and faculty alike was the sudden inability to travel the globe in pursuit of scholarly and professional development. Under normal circumstances, the fall and spring semesters would see hundreds of students traveling across international borders to live, study, and work abroad.

Although the pandemic prevented these experiences from occurring in person, it didn’t halt collaboration between Notre Dame faculty and local partners all around the world. Over the course of the newly-introduced winter session, nearly a hundred Notre Dame students participated in a unique opportunity to work remotely alongside 34 organizations in 13 different countries. The program, called the Virtual Professional Global Experience (VGPE), adapted a model previously used for an in-person program known as the Global Professional Experience.

Several of the Notre Dame VGPE students were placed with partners in the municipal government of Huejotzingo, a small town in the Mexican state of Puebla. These students made the best of an unprecedented semester, learned more about Mexico, and provided advanced critical local projects.

Notre Dame students first began working with the government of Huejotzingo following the groundbreaking election of Mtra. Angelica Alvarado as mayor in 2018. According to Lisette Monterroso, the program coordinator of Notre Dame’s Puebla Study Abroad Program, Mtra. Alvarado saw great potential in the natural resources of Huejotzingo as well as the diverse knowledge of its people. In the spring semester of 2020, six Notre Dame students studying abroad in Puebla began working with teams in Huejotzingo on several of the mayor’s initiatives. The pandemic interrupted these projects as students were evacuated from their study abroad locations, but the students remained committed and finished their work online.

The winter term and the VGPE program provided a unique opportunity to continue the partnership and grow the relationship between the Mexico Global Gateway and the municipal government of Huejotzingo. Mary Zakowski, a senior double-majoring in the program of liberal studies and Spanish, finished her VGPE in Huejotzingo on January 27th. Over the course of December and January, Zakowski met with her advisor via Zoom once a week to touch base and discuss objectives.

“Huejotzingo is a UNESCO learning city, meaning it’s part of a network of about 170 cities around the world. As a learning city, it’s dedicated to fostering lifelong learning for all citizens. As such, I worked on a project regarding education,” Zakowski explains.

“I had to try to find a way to incentivize and motivate kids to stay in school longer and get their high school diplomas. I developed a mentorship program between middle school students and local university students that will be administered through the local government and participating schools. Through the mentorship program, we hope that mentors and participating companies will feel a greater sense of involvement in the local community,” Zakowski says.

In addition to responsibilities garnered from the projects she worked on, Zakowski also attended online class twice a week to discuss her experiences with her peers at other global locations. Carefully structured to act as a supplement to the professional experiences, the class focused on career development and problem solving skills that were transferable to the virtual work environment. The class also encouraged students to think critically about how their experiences expanded their cultural competence.

“It was great to put the abilities I cultivated in Spanish classes and in the vGPE class to use in a professional environment," she says.

"Participating in this internship helped me appreciate how my Spanish major has made me grow as a Spanish speaker and global citizen,” Zakowski reflects.

Similarly to Zakowski, fellow VGPE participant Chris Russo found his work in Huejotzingo challenging and rewarding. A sophomore majoring in political science and minoring in journalism, Russo spent December and January focusing on the state of social cohesion in Huejotzingo.

“I developed a proposal for bettering community safety through police reform and improving citizen participation through a municipal service program, modeled after national service frameworks from other countries,” Russo explains.

He found that he gained new perspectives as a result of his time working on his project with officials in Huejotzingo.

“My work with the Municipal Government of Huejotzingo has offered a valuable look into the social cohesion of a foreign location while allowing me to evaluate the social fabric of my community within the United States,” he reflects.

Although the VGPE ended in January, it is clear that the experience will leave lasting impressions on the students involved.

Originally published by Anne Plecki at on February 22, 2021.