The Mole Diaries: Mexico (Volume 2)
When you tell people you’re going to study in Mexico they’ll probably tell you that you’re going to get mugged, kidnapped, chopped up and sent to your mum in the post etc. etc. Hearing this soon gets pretty old and for the most part it’s not true; personally I don’t feel any less safe in Mexico City than I did living in London. But, this said, it’s never a bad idea to take some sensible precautions such as keeping an eye on your bag on public transport and not hailing a taxi off the street in the middle of the night. Travel guides such as Lonely Planet and Rough Guide are good sources of information on safety, and the British Foreign Office website can give you up to date advice on travelling in Mexico.
In order to study in Mexico for longer than 180 days, you will need to get a ‘residente temporal estudiante’ (student temporary resident) visa. This process is relatively simple if you know what you’re doing, but due to infamous Mexican bureaucracy you probably don’t! First of all, you will need to go the Mexican embassy to apply for the visa; you have to take a number of documents with you (your passport and a photocopy, proof of funds, the visa application form, a passport sized photo, and your acceptance letter from a Mexican university) as well as the consular fees (which was about £25 when I went, but changes all the time). You can find this information of the Mexican embassy’s website. Your visit to the embassy should be short and straightforward but this depends on you having all the required documents and also the number of people also visiting the embassy that day (you don’t need to make an appointment). The embassy will take your passport in order to process your visa and it should be ready in a couple of days.
So far, so good. This has all been pretty easy and your feel sorry for your friends who had to wait for hours at the American embassy or paid over a grand for their visa for Chile. Of course, it’s not that simple! When you arrive in Mexico you have to visit the immigration office within 30 days of your arrival to receive your residents card that will allow multiple entries into the country. You need to take your passport, your FMM form (the form you get when you arrive in Mexico), and three small pictures (2.5x3cm- two of your face from the front and one of your right profile), as well as filling in an electronic form (on www.inm.gob.mx) and a paper form which they will give you. Once you have given all these things to the immigration office, they will give you a code so that you can check the status of your visa online. Once it tells you that you need to go back to finish processing the visa, you go back to the office, fill in some more forms and they will take your fingerprints. Your temporary resident card should be available the same day, but in some cases you need to wait.
Flights- Depending on where you are studying, flights can be expensive: generally about £800 return to Mexico City, but less if you chose to fly to a tourist destination such as Cancún or Puerta Vallarta and then get a domestic flight to your destination. However, it’s worth bearing in mind that whilst companies like Thomas Cook’s flights look very cheap, they don’t include baggage, food or departure tax and unless you’re studying in one of the beach locations they fly to, you will need another flight. Also, if you have a stopover in the United States on your way, you’ll need to apply for the visa waiver (or ESTA). Luckily, unlike the Mexican visa application, this is a very simple form that can be filled in online and costs about $14, it lasts 2 years and allows your to visit the United States for up to 90 days for tourism.
Mexico has a very varied climate so it’s worth packing a range of clothes, especially if you plan to travel. Throughout most of the year in most of the country the weather is warm so it’s a good idea to pack t-shirts, light trousers and long skirts and dresses for the girls. Mexican people don’t really wear shorts except at the beach, so you might want to do the same unless you want to look like a tourist! And ladies, if you wear revealing clothing you will probably get more attention that you already do for being a foreigner. A light jumper or hoodie is also a good idea for cooler days and evenings. But, in general, I would advise to pack light as lugging two large suitcases to and from airports isn’t fun and I don’t think it’s necessary either. I brought enough clothes for about two weeks so that I wouldn’t have to do laundry all the time, but there are some enormous shopping centres in Mexico that have everything from Adidas to Armani. You can also find most popular cosmetic brands here but if there is anything that you particularly love from home, then bring it just in case. It probably goes without saying that you can’t buy decent English breakfast tea here!
Insurance and health
It’s really important that you buy travel health insurance before you leave for your year abroad as, although it’s unlikely, if you become ill abroad doctor and hospital fees can be extremely expensive. These policies often also cover your possessions and legal costs. Travel insurance policy wording documents are very long and very boring but it’s a good idea to read them through thoroughly before buying the policy to see what’s included and what isn’t, and how much you’re insured for (£10 million is a good amount for health insurance). You may also want to travel to another country or go home during your year abroad, so check if this is possible because many insurance policies will become void if you leave your chosen area for a certain amount of time.
When you arrive in Mexico it may take you a while to adjust to the climate and food (as well as the altitude if you’re in Mexico City), so for a few weeks it’s best to avoid street food that may not be subject to the same hygiene standards that food at home is. The water in Mexico is not drinkable so you will need to buy bottled water and avoid drinks and ice that may have been made with tap water. If you do become a bit poorly (as opposed to really ill) it’s worth noting that many pharmacies, such as Farmacia Benavides, have doctors who you can see without an appointment for the equivalent to £2 or so.
Life at a Mexican university
There is a lot of variety in the Mexican university system and so it’s difficult to give any universal information or advice. However one common factor throughout the variety of pubic and private universities in Mexico is that the terms will probably be a lot longer than those you are used to if you study in the UK, with the first semester starting in August and finishing in December and the second semester running January through June. I study at the UNAM which is one of the biggest universities in Latin America, and have found life at university to be very different to what I’m used to. The whole university is considered to be a very liberal university, especially the faculty of ‘filosofía y letras’ where students will get fully involved in Mexican political and social issues.
I am required to take the equivalent of 15 credits per semester, which translates as about 3 classes or 9 hours a week (however unlike most modules at UK universities which are either worth 15 or sometimes 30 credits, classes at UNAM are worth a varying amount of credits depending on how many hours a week they are etc.) The assessment for these classes can be in the form of presentations, essays, a project or an exam and this assessment is usually spread throughout the semester and feels quite a lot more casual than assessment in the UK as, for example, the exams are taken sitting in a classroom rather than an exam hall. The marking system (which I believe in the same in all Mexican schools and universities) is out of 10, 6 being a pass. Day to day classes also feel very casual as people are always late to class, openly use their phone and eat and also go out in the middle of the lesson to buy a drink or some food. This took me by surprise at first, but it seems that this is typical in Mexico.
In order to enrol I had to provide a copy of my visa, proof of address and a Mexican phone number. I could pick any modules that I wanted from either the school of ‘Letras Hispánicas’ or ‘Estudios Latinoamericanos’ (my home institution required me to study subjects related to my course), and then I had to submit these choices to the school in order for them to see if they were suitable (i.e. You can’t study 8th semester Latin if you have never studied Latin before!). Once my classes were sorted out, I was given a stamped copy of my timetable and had to submit this along with a photo of myself in order to enrol and receive my college ID.