Kamilla Shaikhattarova, a second-year Bachelor in Management program's student at Graduate School of Management of St. Petersburg University (GSOM SPbU), spent an exchange semester at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM).
We asked Kamilla about her experience and what she learned from it, why it's better not to use public transportation too much in Mexico City, not to walk alone at night, what to do to avoid failing courses, and what to pay attention to before traveling. She also told us why Mexico is a country of art.
What would be useful to know before the trip?
First of all, ITAM turned out to be more of a polytechnic university. I knew this before the trip, but I didn't realize to what extent because often polytechnic universities have a full-fledged management program. It turned out that they do not have my major, marketing, and therefore, I had to choose economic and financial courses, which I am not strong in. As a result, studying was quite difficult. I would advise being prepared for this: ITAM seems to be more suitable for students with a financial background.
Secondly, there is another unexpected moment — it is not as warm in Mexico City as it seems. During the day, the temperature is 25-30°C, but during my two-month stay, there was a rainy season and every evening there was a waterfall on the streets and everyone got wet all the time. At night in winter months, it was quite cold: if I had known, I would have taken more warm clothes.
Thirdly, in everyday life outside the university, people in Mexico City do not speak English very well. I would recommend learning numbers and basic phrases in Spanish.
I would also advise taking more medicine for sore throats and digestive problems because many students I knew were ill. And finally, I would have found ways to pay small bills for tuition and housing deposits in advance because it's complicated right now.
So, did you not like it?
No, on the contrary, I liked it! Mexico is a very diverse country, home to more than 200 ethnic groups. It is warmer than Russia – of course, I exaggerated, it didn't rain all the time, and I wasn't cold all the time. But most importantly for me is the cultural exchange.
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México is a truly international school. I met a lot of students who also came on exchange – more than 120 people from different countries: France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands. I met many students from Colombia, El Salvador, and other Latin American countries. By the way, many young people from the US study in Mexico not just for an exchange program but also for an extended period. From Russia, from the St. Petersburg State University of Economics and from the GSOM SPbU, I met about 7-8 people. I became friends with a large international student company, and we went to museums and traveled around Mexico together.
I am also passionate about art, and Mexico is an excellent fit for people interested in history and art, and I think not everyone knows this. There are a vast number of galleries, museums, and art spaces in the city. Moreover, some acquaintances of mine who also came on an exchange program agreed to intern in design agencies and art studios in Mexico City. Mexicans are open to collaborating with foreigners, especially if you know Spanish.
What did you understand about Mexico and its people?
To better understand this country, I took a course in the history of Mexico. We studied not only history but also how different historical moments influenced the residents and culture of the country. This helped me understand Mexico better.
In Mexico, the residents are very friendly, especially if you communicate with them in Spanish. But people, like everywhere, are different. In my opinion, Mexican culture is a culture of warm people. People were open enough, and there was no shock from encountering strange behavior.
And I also personally noted many similarities with our culture.
How did you overcome the language barrier?
I started learning Spanish somewhere around five months before the trip: I attended courses and studied with a tutor. I had a vocabulary and understanding of the language, so I had no problem making purchases, getting around the country, and some simple communication.
In addition, I attended Spanish courses all the time while living in Mexico and spoke a lot with Mexican students. They are very open to foreigners; they are interested in communicating with people from other countries, and they helped me a lot. If a person does not know Spanish at all, locals will always come to help.
Tell me about the education; what were the main differences?
I chose one course in the history of Mexico, two economic courses, and three management courses. The economics courses turned out to be very difficult. Honestly, I admit that I failed them: I should have looked more carefully at the description, requirements for preparation, and direction of study. My direction is marketing. The guys from the financial direction spoke very well of these courses, but I just didn't have the necessary economic base.
These courses heavily relied on economic theory: we always started with theoretical models and only then moved on to case studies.
In management and business strategy courses, on the contrary, we were given very little theory and in every session we delved into case studies. There were few interesting tasks related to local producers; the focus was mainly on large international companies such as Amazon, Apple, and so on. Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México is a prestigious university whose graduates are geared towards working in international business, and many plan to move to the United States after graduation.
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México has a different grading system: you need to pass a mandatory exam with a score of 60% to pass the subject. There are many homework assignments, more than at GSOM SPbU, but there is less group work: the emphasis is on independent study of subjects and cases. During and after lectures, we also talked more with professors who were always ready to help.
What was the most useful thing you took away from this trip?
This was my first offline semester after online education. I learned how to communicate with people and speak in public again. I made many useful connections and did a lot of networking.
Although I failed some of the economics subjects, I improved my foundation which has been helpful for my thesis. Moreover, after the trip, my motivation increased - I wanted to learn more, work more, and communicate more. Immediately after returning, I started looking for an internship.
Tell us about your living arrangements and where you stayed.
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México does not have its own dormitories. Before the trip, they offered a catalog of private dormitories located near the campus - my buddy helped me choose the one that suited me.
I lived in a quiet neighborhood, a 15-minute walk from the university. Not only students lived in the dormitory: there were hospitals nearby, and many doctors and nurses rented rooms there. Mexico City is a very large city, and if work starts early, it can be difficult to get there, so it is more convenient to move to such a dormitory.
The dormitory had a shared kitchen, and each person had their own bathroom. There was enough personal space. There were other dormitories nearby, but I advise you to contact someone who has already been there - the information in the catalog is not sufficient. The cost of the room was around three hundred dollars per month. It is far from the city center, but I do not recommend renting accommodation in the center, as it takes a lot of time to get there, and it is not very safe on public transport - thefts are common.
Tell us about your Buddy.
Buddy is a student at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, studying economics. She helped us choose our dormitory, courses, picked us up from the airport, gave us a tour of the university, took us to cafes, and told us about all the important things. Her mother is a Russian to Spanish translator. Buddy herself didn't know Russian, but we spoke English fluently, and she tried to help the Russian students first and foremost.
In general, everyone had a different experience with their Buddy: some students didn't receive responses from their Buddy, while others became good friends. But it's important to say that having Buddy's help is very useful in a country like Mexico.
How dangerous is it to live in Mexico?
There is no danger to life, but the level of criminal activity is high, and there are often thefts in the metro, so it's better to be careful. You can get robbed on the street in the evening, so my friends and I always escorted each other. It was a cultural shock for me because I wasn't used to being so alert. But it's very easy to find a company to travel with or just go for a walk, go somewhere or go to a cafe.
Also, if they see that you are a foreigner and don't understand Spanish well, they often add extra items to the bill or change something, so we had to constantly recount and double-check.
Did you cook or eat in cafes there?
Usually, I cooked breakfasts and lunches myself. There is a market near the university where you can buy almost any product inexpensively. 4-5 kg of vegetables and fruits, including mangoes and avocados, cost about 300 rubles. Sometimes I had breakfast in the university cafeteria, and for dinner, I usually went to a cafe or restaurant with my friends. A dinner of one dish and a drink costs about 70 pesos, which is about 300 rubles (as of early April 2023).
How was extracurricular life organized?
When we arrived, an orientation day was arranged for us, where all the new exchange students were gathered and told about studying, schedules, and given contacts of those to whom we could address various questions. The university has its own psychological service, medical and international offices, and so on. Also, on campus, there are many student clubs that, like ours, often organize various activities: sports, cultural, business, conferences, career days — there were plenty of events. The events were open to all students, and anyone could participate without any problems.
I played table tennis. On Mexico's Independence Day, a large celebration was held at the university: Mariachi played - these are musical groups in traditional dress and sombrero, national food could be bought, and everyone danced. I also went to salsa classes — it is very popular in Mexico. Boys and girls learn to dance, and in general, a salsa club is the best place to meet someone. There were often master classes and parties there.
Where else have you been besides Mexico City?
I visited the Museum of Anthropology, Frida Kahlo's house, the main art museum in Mexico - Soumaya, and saw Trotsky's grave... I can't list everything! On the Day of the Dead, on the advice of our buddies, we went to Oaxaca - a neighboring state. Oaxaca is a town like in the movie Coco: small houses, cozy streets. We went to the cemetery (this is customary on the Day of the Dead) and talked to the locals there. It turned out that they are very happy that people are interested in their traditions and not just come to have fun. Many are open to conversation and ready to answer questions about traditions and culture.
I also went to Chiapas - a southern state that is closer to Guatemala. There are real tropics, coffee and cocoa are grown there. You can buy locally made chocolate there. Chiapas has a very beautiful canyon and waterfalls - now it is one of my favorite places in Mexico. We also saw wild crocodiles and monkeys in their natural habitat.
In Mexico, there are cities called Pueblos magicos - they represent a special historical and cultural value and are under the protection of the state. Usually, they are cleaner and safer than some other cities.
How did you find the time to travel?
The studies lasted from Monday to Thursday, and during these days, I had almost no time for anything else. I made myself such a schedule that I studied all day, and there were also many exams. The opportunity to travel was on weekends and national holidays.
Another interesting thing is that you cannot retake exams at ITAM. I don't know what this is related to, perhaps with the desire to maintain the status of a prestigious university, which requires a serious approach to studying. It's good that everything I didn't pass there, I can retake in Russia.
Did you calculate how much the whole trip cost you?
I think I spent a lot of money: bought a new phone, brought a bunch of souvenirs, so my budget is not indicative. It cost me around $9000.
Did you have any unexpected expenses?
I had to pay a fine of a thousand pesos, and it could only be done by card. Luckily, my Mexican friend was with me and he had a card.
The thing is, when I arrived, I was given a sheet with a stamp, and I didn't know that I needed to keep it until the end of my trip, so I lost it. To leave the country, I had to pay the fine and get it again.
As far as I know, this procedure has now been eliminated, and the document is no longer given to incoming travelers, but it's better to check.