Growing up close to the California-Mexico border gave Laura Montgomery an early interest in other cultures. During college, she spent nine months in Guatemala researching the nutritional habits and status of a Mayan village. “That opportunity to study abroad was a turning point in my intellectual, personal and spiritual growth,” she says. She went on to earn a doctorate in anthropology and become a college professor, joining the Westmont faculty in 1990.
Her passion for off-campus programs led Montgomery to co-develop Westmont in Mexico with Mary Docter. Students from all majors take classes in Spanish at a university in Querétaro for a semester, live with a host family and fulfill general education requirements. “It’s a very stimulating experience,” Montgomery says. “What students learn in the classroom relates directly to what they live day to day. For example, they may read an article about a cultural issue and then hear their host family discuss it over dinner.” Just by walking outside, students can see a religious procession, visit a museum, taste the local cuisine or enjoy a fiesta.
Querétaro, a charming colonial city on Mexico’s high, central plateau, includes a broad cross section of society. The place where the Mexican constitution was written and Maximilian I was executed, it’s an ideal location to study history and culture.
Montgomery and the other faculty who lead the program each fall teach a seminar on engaging culture. But this discussion actually begins the semester before students depart and continues after they return. Westmont is one of the few colleges that offer a re-entry program for students coming back to campus.
“It’s not easy to negotiate a different culture, and it’s rewarding to help students develop this ability with grace,” Montgomery says.“Living off-campus changes students. They need to deal with the reverse culture shock of returning to a familiar place where they may feel they no longer belong. It’s easy for them to disengage by moving into an apartment or enrolling in another off-campus program. But we want them to re-engage and enrich the campus with their cross-cultural experiences. We help them have a home to come home to.”
Montgomery understands how difficult the transition can be after living abroad. She spent two years in the Mexicali Valley in northwest Mexico studying how a rural community coped with ecological problems that threatened their agricultural productivity. Working with both U.S. and Mexican col-leagues, she continues to do research in Mexico. “Westmont in Mexico has given me a great opportunity to use my training in anthropology and introduce students to a place that has been the focus of my professional career,” she says.
In 2004, the first year Montgomery led the program, her two teenage daughters joined her, developing cross-cultural skills and a second language. Her younger daughter returned with her in 2007; her older daughter is a senior in high school who plans to study international relations in college. “The perspective they’ve gained on the world and poverty and wealth is one that isn’t available in Santa Barbara,” Montgomery says.