Angelica Ruppe, (masters ’86) did not speak English when she arrived at Southern Oregon University from Mexico in 1984 to participate in the Amistad student exchange program. Ruppe had earned a degree in accounting at Universidad de Guanajuato and was taking part in the exchange program to earn a graduate degree from SOU.
“I took English classes as well as graduate classes such as accounting and law,” she said. “I studied English every chance I got and within three months, I could handle it. My dictionary was my best friend.”
Ruppe eventually would serve 23 years the CFO of La Clinica in Medford, before leaving in 2017 to visit Africa on a humanitarian mission. A strong believer in serving her community – in the Rogue Valley, Guanajuato and elsewhere – Ruppe served on the boards of the Community Health Advocates for Oregon, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and the Ashland Rotary.
Ruppe is among about 1,000 students and others who have participated in the 50-year-old exchange between SOU and the University of Guanajuato. The program is still going strong after five decades, bridging cultures and changing lives.
“The connections between the two universities are so rich and so strong. I don’t know of many programs like this that have lasted so long,” said Mary Gardiner, currently the interim director of SOU’s Office of International Programs.
Professors and administrators also have participated in the exchange program. Ashland’s sister-city relationship with Guanajuato has encouraged cultural and professional exchanges that have led to long-time friendships.
One reason the exchange has continued so long is because of the efforts of Ashland’s Amigo Club, an organization composed of community members and alumni who support the Amistad program. The Amigo Club has even endowed a scholarship to encourage the student exchanges.
“We are really delighted to have formed the Amigo Club Scholarship to support the exchange program,” said Amigo Club President Mina Turner. “It’s one of the Amigo Club’s great achievements since it became a nonprofit.”
Turner said she cannot overstate the importance of the program to both schools.
“The exchange helps make life-long bonds and educates people in a way that goes beyond academics,” she said. “Students get a great vision of a different culture, language, tradition and friendship.”
A driving force behind the program has been Graciela Tapp-Kocks, a professor emerita of Spanish at SOU who is known in Ashland and Guanajuato simply as “Señora Chela.” She pursued the sister-city relationship after a painful incident with her son in his Ashland elementary school.
“I thought if people could really experience Mexico and its culture, it would open up their worlds and change some of their misconceptions,” she said.
At the time, the city of Ashland was looking for a sister city, and it was considering partnering with a town in England.
“I knew that a relationship with Guanajuato, Mexico, would bring together two countries, two communities and two peoples in a civil, cultural and academic manner,” Señora Chela said.
She poured her energy into creating a relationship with Guanajuato. She spoke with representatives from both cities and both universities, and through sheer determination brought the schools together.
Over the ensuing years, Señora Chela has been among the most vocal supporters of the exchange program, and she has been a visible symbol of the enduring power of friendship. An equal number of students from each school participate in the exchanges, and students can study just about any subject the schools offer.
“The experience and the social connections they make are priceless,” Señora Chela said.
Brenda Johnson (’95) is currently the CEO of La Clinica, and she said her time in Guanajuato inspired her career choices and helped shape her life.
“I went to Guanajuato with the intention of becoming bilingual, but I got so much more out of it,” she said. “Education is not all intellectual. Some of the greatest and most transformational educational experiences happen when people really catapult themselves into an unfamiliar environment.
“When you trust yourself and immerse yourself in a new experience, the rewards can be phenomenal.”
Johnson, who graduated from SOU with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish, said that one experience in particular inspired her to go into the medical profession.
“While I was in Guanajuato, I got sick, and I had to communicate my health needs and get treatment in a language I didn’t fully understand,” she said. “It made me think about migrant workers and how they access health care in the United States.”
Johnson works at La Clinica making sure people have access to health care regardless of language differences.
“We target a host of community needs but focus on low-income and migrant-worker communities,” she said. “My experiences, seeing the poverty and the resilience of people in Mexico, forever informs my professional choices.”
Mexico Sen. Juan Carlos Romero Hicks (masters ’79 and ’81) was among the earliest students to participate in the exchange program and is among SOU’s most accomplished alums.
“The Amistad program changed my life,” he said.
Romero Hicks came to SOU in 1978, after receiving a bachelor’s degree in industrial relations from Universidad de Guanajuato. His first child was born in Ashland the day before he started classes.
He has gone on to serve as president of the University of Guanajuato, director general of the Mexican National Science and Technology Council, governor of the State of Guanajuato and now is a federal senator. He said his time at SOU helped shape him and influence his path of service and politics.
“When I became president of the University of Guanajuato, I said none of that would have happened if it weren’t for my experiences with the exchange program,” Romero Hicks said. “The time I was there, I wouldn’t change for anything in my life. It gave me the education and the global perspective that shaped who I am.”
He said the positive experiences of living and learning abroad stay with a person forever.
“When I look back, I see four areas of growth during that period of my life – personal growth, language, cultural growth and academic,” he said. “Being bi-cultural is especially important to me. I think of being bilingual as like having two hands, but being bi-cultural is like playing the piano.”
The exchange program is filled with possibility for current and recent students. Kyanna Kuriyama participated in the exchange in 2014 and said it was an unforgettable experience.
“I actually chose SOU because of the Amistad program,” Kuriyama said. “I went on one of the trips to Guanajuato with Señora Chela when I was in high school, and it was so magical. I knew I wanted to return and study there.”
Kuriyama, a Spanish major, stayed with a host family while she attended classes.
“Staying with a family was great,” she said. “They were so nice, and it gave me even more opportunity to practice Spanish.
“People have a lot of misconceptions about Mexico, but if you go you’ll feel comfortable, you’ll make friends and you will learn more than you imagine.”
Señora Chela concurs.
“University exchange programs like La Amistad are hard work,” she said. “They thrive when they are supported by the administration and faculty.
“When I was teaching at SOU, I pushed the program. I would tell students to plan on going to Guanajuato, to come back and share their experience. I would encourage faculty exchanges and share stories about the program with anyone who was interested.”
Gardiner said the hard work has been worth it.
“Students who have participated in the exchange almost unanimously say that the experience has changed them in some way,” she said. “Their experiences in Guanajuato stay with them long after they have left school.”
Reposted from the Fall 2016 issue of The Raider, SOU’s Alumni Association magazine