(Ashland, Ore.) — Southern Oregon University is hosting nine business students this week from Universidad de Guanajuato, and will send nine SOU students to the Mexican university next month as the two longtime sister campuses launch a new collaboration on multicultural business development as part of a far-reaching program under the U.S. Department of State’s umbrella.
The 18 total students from SOU and UG are working together this week on development plans for three local businesses – Irvine Roberts Family Vineyards, Indigo Creek Outfitters and Northwest Pizza and Pasta – and will do the same for three Guanajuato businesses during the May exchange. The program also includes international, online coursework for participating students during this year’s winter and spring terms, and the opportunity for immersive social and cultural experiences.
“This program is so valuable and unique,” said Dee Fretwell, the SOU business instructor who proposed the project along with UG business professor and SOU alumnus Martin Pantoja. “We push the boundaries of an exchange program, blending cultural experiences with hands-on business development for live, operating businesses. I’m not sure we as a society are even grasping how valuable this is to our students and businesses alike.”
The collaboration between SOU and UG – which have maintained a steady stream of exchange and cooperative projects since 1969 – is part of the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” program, sponsored by the State Department, the U.S. Embassies and the nonprofit organization Partners for the Americas. The SOU-UG partnership applied for and received a $25,000, one-year grant from the 100,000 Strong program, which now serves 534 higher education institutions in 25 Western Hemisphere countries and 49 U.S. states. There is hope that a funding source will be found to continue the new program beyond its inaugural year.
A unique link between SOU and UG has led more than 1,000 students, faculty members and others to participate in exchanges, and has resulted in more than 80 marriages tying people from Ashland and Guanajuato over three generations. In fact, the current SOU-UG project grew out of a previous partnership between the two schools – the Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) program, which brought together classes of upper-division business students to work on the development of international business relationships.
The collaborative relationship that Fretwell and Pantoja formed through that program provided a natural segue to the “100,000 Strong in the Americas” grant application.
SOU student RJ Henry, who is participating in this week’s events and will be among the nine from the Ashland campus who visit Guanajuato next month, called the program an “extraordinary opportunity” that will build cooperative skills and provide valuable real-life lessons.
“The 100K Strong program offers a remarkably exciting opportunity to embark on a life experience that combines business education with cultural immersion, while making new friends along the way,” Henry said. “The benefits are the various academic, travel, cultural and social activities, which include the development of business-related critical thinking skills within group work settings, and the experience of unique cultural perspectives.”
The Guanajuato exchange students arrived in the Rogue Valley last Saturday night. They have toured the community and SOU campus in the days since, and have had meetings or events with SOU President Rick Bailey, state Rep. Pam Marsh, Ashland Mayor Julie Akins, SOU’s Faculty Advisory Board, the university’s Small Business Development Center in Medford and Ashland’s Amigo Club – an organization of community members and alumni who support the Amistad exchange program and have created an endowed scholarship fund for participants.
The SOU and UG students have visited the three local businesses that are receiving development advice, and will present their business plans at a Friday event in SOU’s Stevenson Union. They will tour Lithia Park and go on a rafting excursion on Saturday before returning to Mexico on Sunday.
The students and participating faculty members from Guanajuato were welcomed to southern Oregon by Vincent Smith, director of SOU’s Division of Business, Communication and the Environment, and a faculty leader for the project. He told the visitors that we face many problems in common as a global society, from the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters, to environmental destruction and political conflict.
“You are here this week to assist three businesses in planning,” Smith told the SOU and UG students as this week’s field work began. “That is important work. It is practice for the many problems you will need to solve in your lives.
“Unfortunately, the problems you will need to solve are complex. They cannot easily be solved without collaboration and cooperation. In fact, unless we work together to solve these problems we will fail.”
Smith told students from the two universities that working together, developing friendships and building trust will provide their greatest strengths.
“We are more alike than we are different, but it is our differences that will help us solve the most complex problems,” he said.