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For Poorest in Mexico, Two Colleges Teach Hope for the Future

Like the thousands of young men who have left this poor, rocky corner of southern Mexico to find work in the United States, Jorge Ceballes Gonzlez once thought his future lay in making the same trek north.

But then someone planted a small technical university on a hillside above his town, and the young man whose goal is to become Mexico's Bill Gates found his dreams turning in a new direction.

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"Eventually our goal is to create software that fills the special needs of businesses in Mexico," says Mr. Ceballes, who along with classmate Martn Ramrez started a storefront computer consulting company in this town of 120,000 in Oaxaca state. "A few years ago I would have said I had no choice but to follow my family" - parents and four brothers and sisters - "to work in California. But because of the university, I've already got a small start in my own town."

The school Ceballes refers to is the Universidad Tecnologica de la Mixteca, where he is a fourth- year computer science student. La Mixteca University is a small school with a big order: to serve as an instrument of development for a poverty-ridden region of southern Mexico. Along with its sister Universidad del Mar (UMar) on Oaxaca's Pacific coast, la Mixteca aims to bring higher learning to a poorly educated and increasingly unstable part of Mexico.

Although one might not guess it, the stakes are high for both Mexico and the US, as well as for la Mixteca's and UMar's 800-odd students.

"These two universities can be very important stabilizing factors for this state," says Modesto Seara Vasquez, a long-time educator who developed the schools and serves as their rector. Noting that Oaxaca has one of Mexico's highest migratory rates and is home to Mexico's newest guerrilla group - the Popular Revolutionary Army, Mr. Seara says, "Without this kind of alternative, the young people from here will either migrate - or ...find themselves drawn to extremes."

At a time when rural Mexico is unsettled by the effects of modernization and globalized agricultural trade, the two schools could serve as a model to keep young people from leaving for Mexico's cities or the US. One of the schools' innovations: a pre-entrance course, which in some cases prepares promising but academically lagging students. In other cases, the idea is simply to keep in the area young people who might leave before school started - and never come back.

Through Mixteca's emphasis on computer sciences, electronics, and biotechnology, and UMar's focus on marine ecology, aquaculture, and tourism, the two schools aim to create young professionals and work with the local population on projects designed to add value to local products and create jobs.

Students and university researchers work with farmers to slow the state's severe erosion and are introducing intensive vegetable gardening to villages that before only herded goats. UMar's labs have developed a tangy, fish-based snack served at hotels in the posh sea resort of Huatulco. The labs raise tens of thousands of shrimp to feed the area's nascent fish-farming industry.

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But the two schools also stand apart from other Mexican public universities because they put into practice the educational theories of Seara, who calls Mexico's public higher education system a "disaster" and a "failure."

A Spaniard with 30 years' experience, Seara states his case succinctly: "With the telecommunications revolution, schools are no longer the primary source of information," he says. "Television, remote classrooms, the Internet can convey information. The role of schools now, and universities especially, should be to impart the morals and principles we want for our society."

Even though these are technical schools, all students must take philosophy courses and read one novel a month - to be selected from an approved reading list. Professors must spend at least eight hours a day on campus, and students must attend at least 80 percent of classes to qualify to pass final exams. Politics, either in the form of rallies or student organizations, are banned.

"I oppose the university as [social] critic," says Seara. "You end up with absurdities like students critiquing a professor's lesson plan, when they know little about the topic being taught."

He also opposes free education - although 90 percent of students are on scholarship, and the poorest receive a daily food allowance. "The wealthy should pay for what is a very expensive service," he says, "while the poor should be paid to improve their condition."

Students say the atmosphere can be spartan, but many seem to appreciate it. "It's a relief to attend a place that doesn't have all the political problems of most of the other universities I know about," says Francisco Bentez, a marine biology major.

Yet while faculty members frequently refer to the two schools as a "little miracle" - the two operate on a little more than $3 million annually between them - the jury is still out on how successful they will be at bringing real change to the region.

Mixteca English teacher Patrick Rafferty says resistance to change will be stiff. "Most of the local businesses are very content with the status quo," he says, pointing out that businesses have learned to do quite well on dollars sent back by migrants in the US. "They aren't going to want to see any change in what for them is a sure bet."

What the region needs, observers say, is new industry to keep the educated population at home. "It's important that a project like [these schools] focus not only on education, but on drawing employers who can put these newly developed talents to good use on the spot," says Carlos Campusano, director of the electronics department at the Autonomous University of Puebla.

Seara couldn't agree more. La Mixteca has already set aside 84 acres for an industrial park, and the school is in contact with many Mexican and American companies. But the park still has no takers: Poor infrastructure and the site's isolated location make the task difficult.

But Seara is still confident of success. "Yes there are problems, but we have already planted the seed" of change, he says. "If just 10 percent of our graduates stay here, the groundwork will have been done for a revolutionary change in the region."

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