Ver MAS, Ser MAS
Mexico, the Americas, and Spain program is transforming Trinity students
Tuesday, November 17, 2020
header image of ceramic skull art

It’s entirely possible to spend four years at Trinity and still be a stranger to the vibrant Hispanic and Latinx world surrounding campus. 

Wondering what you’re missing out on? Think “MAS.”

Trinity’s Mexico, the Americas, and Spain program (MAS), founded 15 years ago, connects the University to the cultures, experiences, academics, and growth opportunities within this dynamic field.

“This program opens students up to new majors and interests, to perspectives and opportunities they wouldn’t have considered before,” says Spanish professor and MAS director Dania-Abreu Torres. “This is about more than academics or programming; it’s about service, international engagement, and community.”

Being part of MAS is best explained not by what you study or where you go, but rather by what you do. Students discover new worlds thanks to 30 interdisciplinary faculty who teach subjects ranging from film studies to international business. Students connect with business opportunities in Madrid, Spain, and ecology field work in Costa Rica, thanks to MAS’s groundbreaking series of international study programs. Students intern with nonprofits and NGOs working to advocate for issues that affect Latinx peoples. Students attend the Álvarez seminar, which brings artists, activists, and visionaries to campus for a dynamic lecture collection.

“Trinity is a natural place for a program like MAS to happen,” Abreu-Torres says. “Not just because of our location in San Antonio, but also because we are smaller, because we are a liberal arts institution. We work directly with students on their personal and professional interests, so when they go out into this world, it’s not just about building skills or looking for a job—it’s about finding a meaning, a purpose.”

Thomás Peña (right) found his voice through a MAS internship.

“What I say is what I mean.”

When MAS first led Thomás Peña ’22 out into the world, he had trouble finding the right words.

In his second year at Trinity, Peña—a Roma, Texas, native who is majoring in finance as well as business analytics and technology—began a MAS-funded internship for the Esperanza Peace and Justice Center, one of the many community nonprofits and NGOs that partner with MAS students. The Esperanza, a local nonprofit and hub for social justice activism, assigned Peña as a canvasser on San Antonio’s largely Spanish-speaking West Side. 

Peña worked as part of The Esperanza Center’s anti-gentrification coalition, “Mi Barrio no se Vende” (“My neighborhood is not for sale”). He went door-to-door, informing citizens on how they could address rising rent prices in their area.

“The first time I went to someone’s door, it was nerve-wracking,” Peña says. “I’m stuttering, I can’t even roll my r’s. The people can sense how nervous I was, and that made it worse. But after the fourth or fifth time, it became natural. It became a privilege for me to be able to be part of these conversations.”

Thomás Peña (center) with the Esperanza team.

Just months before, Peña had been oblivious to this line of work. “I had no experience working in politics, community organizing, and talking about issues such as gentrification, but this MAS internship opened me up to an entire field. I told my boss, ‘Look, I’m a business kid, I do excel spreadsheets and math, but I want to learn more about San Antonio.’”

Peña came to Trinity from a town that sits just adjacent the Mexico-U.S. border. In San Antonio, just minutes from Trinity’s campus, he found an array of sights that reminded him of these colliding cultures.

“Through a few months, you can learn so much about San Antonio. On the West Side, there’s this richness of Mexican culture I had no idea existed. I go there and I get this sense of...being; of being in Mexico, of being in the [Rio Grande] Valley,” Peña says. “There’s this environment where it’s okay to be Mexican-American. There are these historias, these stores where they sell herbs and magic spices; there are influences of Catholicism; you see the street art, the landmarks. It’s not a sense of division but a sense of difference, almost directly when you cross neighborhood lines.”

Peña connected to these various communities and has brought these ties back to campus with him. Now, when Peña talks, campus takes note.

“I am an active member in the classroom, sharing my knowledge,” Peña says. “I’m not nervous anymore. I can just go up to people and have a conversation. My professors, my friends, they’ve told me I’ve become more confident—but I think a better way of describing that is, now, what I say is what I mean.”

Maria Arteaga discovered a new side of herself in Spain.

“I fell in love with myself.”

Maria Arteaga ’22 had never seen anyone visibly excited to learn she is Mexican—that is, until she spent a semester with the people in Madrid, Spain.

“I’d be walking down the street, or eating in a restaurant, or just talking to people, and they’d stop me like, ‘You’re Mexican, aren’t you? That’s so amazing! Teach me this phrase,’ and then they would try to learn or mimic the way I said things. It was so interesting to see this whole love they had for my culture,” Arteaga says. “Being in the United States, somewhere along the way I lost that.”

For Arteaga, a human communication and Spanish double major from McAllen, Texas, it’s a love her Mexican American parents had told her she would discover in Spain. “But I didn’t expect to actually experience this,” she says. “The fact that people would actually stop me and say, ‘Oh, you’re Mexican?’ And they’d take pride in being able to learn from me, and to see the excitement of these these two cultures crashing.’”

“You start to think,” Arteaga says, “Hey, if someone else loves my culture this much, I can love it too.”

Before visiting Madrid, Arteaga had already started feeling the love from the MAS program. After completing the First-Year Experience Summer Bridge, “A Successful Life,” she was invited to join the MAS program’s Latinx leadership academy, where she connected with a community of Trinity students who shared many of her same experiences, goals, and struggles. “MAS is definitely one of the pushers that got me where I am,” Arteaga explains. “In a certain way, I wouldn’t have been able to stay at Trinity if it wasn’t for the support they provided.” 

And if not for MAS, Arteaga wouldn’t have heard about Trinity’s connection to Madrid.

“These women who went [abroad] a semester before would not stop talking about this study abroad opportunity in Spain,” Arteaga says. “First I said, ‘No thanks, I’ve got too much to figure out; I’m so busy here already.’ But all the MAS professors and staff said, ‘No, you’re doing this.’ And MAS was able to offer me a scholarship, so I went.”

Through MAS, Arteaga got a scholarship that let her spend a semester studying in Madrid, in classes led by MAS faculty. She explored Spanish culture in Madrid and surrounding sites, lived with a host family, and interned for a NGO with a cause that aligned with her individual interests.

Arteaga is also a teaching minor at Trinity, so she decided to work with public elementary Colegio El Olivo, creating lesson plans for students ages 4-10. Here, she was surprised to see echoes of her own experience as a native Spanish speaker who learned English at a young age.

“Even though I went through this same process of Spanish to English, I didn’t realize how much work it took to get there from the teacher’s perspective,” Arteaga says. “That meant everything.”

Returning to Trinity, Arteaga’s greatest shift in perspective hasn’t even been about the MAS world or her potential career in education: It’s been the way she sees herself.

“That’s what that study abroad experience was about: pushing my own boundaries, my beliefs, my perspectives: everything about who I am,” Arteaga says. “It’s complicated to see how I lived such a different life just a couple of months ago, but I’m the complete opposite now.”

And Arteaga is excited for other students to discover this love, too.

“Give yourself the opportunity to get out of the bubble that can form when you just hang out with other Americans,” she urges others who might follow in her footsteps. “You’ve traveled so far, you’ve left a community behind, the friends you know, but you will go back to them. You’ve got to push yourself, because you never know what you’ll fall in love with. I fell in love with the city of Madrid, but I also fell in love with my culture. I fell in love with myself.”

Camilla Acosta was Trinity’s first Global LatinX studies major.

“A study of us.”

Camila Acosta ’20, helped redefine what makes a “classic” during her time at Trinity.

A San Antonio native who studied Spanish and international studies, Acosta was the first Trinity student to major in Trinity’s new global LatinX studies major. For Acosta, a classic is a tie to deep, rich history and culture.

“Trinity has long since had opportunities to study the classics: you have so much history to cover across the ancient world,” Acosta says. “But to Latinx peoples, our world is classical. Our countries have history, our countries have culture and language and people who are valid and wonderful. And that's what this global Latinx studies major is—a validation, a recognition, a love for these people, for these cultures.”

Global Latinx studies encompasses interdisciplinary course topics such as history, diversity and social justice, and arts and culture, all through the lens of the Latinx experience. The creation of this new major, built on the foundations of MAS, represents a breakthrough for students like Acosta, according to Spanish professor Rita Urquijo-Ruiz, one of Acosta’s most treasured mentors.

Camila Acosta and Rita Urquijo-Ruiz (right) discuss the MAS world.

“The global Latinx studies major is important for Camila because this brings together all her passions, and we're hoping that's exactly what this major does for other students as well, whether they're in business, social sciences, STEM, or the humanities,” Urquijo-Ruiz says. “It's really designed so that anyone across any major on campus can pick that up. Students do not necessarily need to be bilingual in Spanish or in Portuguese; they can do this major in English. What matters is that they’re interested in opening doors into this world.”

Urquijo-Ruiz knows a few things about opening doors, especially through her work teaching and researching global Latinx studies and LGBTQ studies. Now in her 16th year at Trinity, Urquijo-Ruiz arrived in 2004 as an assistant professor and rose through the ranks to full professor. “I am,” she explains, “actually the very first one in the 151 years of this institution as a Latina to rise through the ranks and become a full professor at Trinity.”

Urquijo-Ruiz sees that same enterprising spirit in students like Acosta, who are heralding a changing set of demographics in higher education.

“Camila is the representation of that 2020 graduate that is going to continue to put the name of Trinity University up high on the international marquee,” Urquijo-Ruiz says. “We know that our numbers are changing. Trinity is hoping to become a Hispanic-serving institution or a Latinx-serving institution at some point. And the idea is that we must include all of these other stories, right? We cannot go with just one single story of what Trinity is. An institution that is thriving is an institution that is transforming itself to incorporate as many people as possible into its communities.”

Acosta has already felt some early effects of this transformation at Trinity.

“I think the community at Trinity has been changed by the creation of this major because suddenly there is a validation for everything that we love and we appreciate. To see it around campus,  to see it all over the majors, to see it as a possibility to learn to study these cultures, is wonderful because suddenly, we have the privilege, the opportunity to learn what generations past have not been able to. When I talk about it with my friends, they get excited too. This is their history. This is their, their language. This is what they love.

“It's a study of our people, our culture, our history,” Acosta adds. “It's a study of us.”

Jeremiah Gerlach is the brand journalist for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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