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Security concerns lead Cal State officials to bar students from program in Mexico

For Joseph Hall, the chance to participate in a teacher education program in the southwest Mexican city of Oaxaca was to be the highlight of his pursuit of a bilingual teaching credential.

The Cal State Sacramento graduate student had given notice at his job in preparation for the five-month study abroad program that was to begin in July.

But Hall and students from several other campuses may not get the chance after California State University system Chancellor Charles B. Reed declined to lift a ban on university-sponsored research and study in Mexico. The ban was ordered last year because of drug war violence and U.S. State Department warnings against travel, primarily in northern Mexican border towns such as Ciudad Juarez and Tijuana.

Last year, Reed granted an exception for the Oaxaca program, but this year he has rejected appeals from students, faculty, the Mexican consulate in Sacramento and even state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, who argue that Mexican travel restrictions should be evaluated on a regional basis.

They point to other universities, including the University of California, that permit study in Oaxaca and say they will continue to try to get the Cal State ban lifted.

"I put all my eggs in this basket, planning on this program, and it's very disappointing," Hall, 31, said Thursday.

The Bilingual-Binational Teacher Education Program is funded through a multi-year $1.4-million grant from the U.S. Department of Education and has drawn students from several Cal State campuses, including Sacramento, San Bernardino, San Francisco, Fresno, the East Bay and San Jose.

Students, who receive a $7,500 stipend, live with host families, take intensive language classes, teach in Mexican elementary schools and gain cultural insights that are valuable in California classrooms, officials said.

"Students come back with deeper understanding of the cultural context of our students who have immigrated from Mexico," said program administrator Nadeen T. Ruiz. "So we don't understand the chancellor's position. We've got one of the two major public university systems saying, 'Nope, no one's going to Mexico.'"

The government's most recent travel warning for Mexico was issued April 22 but did not mention Oaxaca.

But based on the warning and continued volatility of the area, "student safety and security comes first," said Cal State spokesman Michael Uhlenkamp.

Cal State Sacramento associate professor Peter J. Baird, who directs the bilingual program in Mexico, said detailed security procedures are employed and that last year's session, with 17 students, was completed with no incidents. He said students and faculty haven't given up hope.

"We're preparing for the worst but hoping for the best," Baird said. "When you look at the whole picture, logic seems to be on our side, and we're hoping that we can share enough information with the chancellor."

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