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Bethel and UNICACH look toward exchanges

April 16th, 2018

by Melanie Zuercher

NORTH NEWTON, KAN. – It might not seem as if a small college in the middle of the United States and one of the two major universities in Mexico’s southern-most state would have much to cooperate on.

However, Bethel College and Universidad de Ciencias y Artes de Chiapas (UNICACH), or the Chiapas University of Arts and Sciences, earlier this month signed a formal cooperation agreement that administrators and faculty from the two hope will lead to a rich exchange for both institutions.

Robert Milliman, Bethel vice president for academic affairs, traveled to the UNICACH main campus in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Chiapas, for a signing ceremony along with UNICACH’s equivalent of a college president, Rector José Rodolfo Calvo Fonseca.

Bethel’s connection to UNICACH originated with Francisca Méndez-Harclerode, associate professor of biology.

Méndez-Harclerode spent her sabbatical in 2016 developing a biology field and travel course. That course ran for the first time during the January 2018 interterm, and Méndez-Harclerode, her husband Jerry Harclerode, and the six Bethel students were present for the signing ceremony.

A native of Mexico, Méndez-Harclerode’s desire is to find a setting in which not only will students learn science and biology in natural settings that can’t be found in the United States, but also experience the complexity and variety of Mexico that most U.S. citizens miss.

To that end, Mendez-Harclerode calls her course “Biological and Cultural Richness of Mexico.”

As she worked on developing the class, Méndez-Harclerode looked for contacts in Mexico. She found some from her graduate school days at Texas Tech University, in particular Eduardo Espinoza Medinilla, whom she had known as a Ph.D. student and who is now a professor at UNICACH.

Last spring, UNICACH faculty Sergio Lopez, professor of evolutionary ecology, and Juan Carlos Nájera, a professor of public health, visited Bethel. After that, Bethel senior biology major Ben Wiens, Goessel, decided he would like to spend his summer at UNICACH, which he did in 2017.

Wiens says he appreciated being able to take advantage of the wider array of labs and equipment at UNICACH, which offers graduate programs like any state university, as well as the biodiversity to be found in the cloud forests and ocean eco-systems of Chiapas.

The students currently spending interterm in Chiapas (part of which involves an exchange with UNICACH biology undergraduates) seem to echo Wiens.

When it was her turn to write for the interterm blog, Naomi Epp of North Newton reflected on the tour the group took of two of the UNICACH campuses, including the general science labs and marine biology labs.

“I think is safe to say that after the tour all six of us Bethel students began to seriously consider what life would be like on the campus of UNICACH,” Epp wrote.

On the other hand, what does Bethel have to offer UNICACH?

Its own unique ecosystems for student study, for one – the tallgrass prairie and the lesser-known sand prairie, both of which comprise different study sites at Bethel.

“Sergio Lopez is very interested in having his students study the prairie ecosystems,” Milliman says. “He’s intrigued with [Bethel Professor of Biology] Jon Piper’s interest and expertise in that area.”

And UNICACH faculty welcome additional opportunities for their students to study and practice their English in an English-speaking country and a setting that offers science study.

“I spoke with many people when I was at UNICACH, but especially with biology faculty and the director of international education, Jorge Marengo,” Milliman said. “They are eager to get going as quickly as possible, before we lose momentum, with some student and faculty exchanges.

“These exchanges only work if there’s interest at the faculty level,” Milliman went on, “so this is ideal. Because of the strong interest [of faculty on both sides], that gives the exchange a good chance of success.

“I give a lot of credit to Francisca, with her enthusiasm and her willingness to be a liaison for us, and to Sergio as the key person for UNICACH.”

Milliman continued, “They [UNICACH] know we’re tiny, but they like our values. Even though they are a public university, they hold values similar to ours, of social justice and environmental sustainability.”

Bethel College ranks at No. 1 in College Consensus’ ranking of Kansas colleges and universities, and is the only Kansas private college listed in the analysis of top colleges and universities, the Washington Monthly National Universities-Liberal Arts section and the National Liberal Arts College category of U.S. News & World Report, all for 2017-18. The four-year liberal arts college is affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. For more information, see

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As the first Mennonite college founded in North America, Bethel College celebrates a tradition of progressive Christian liberal arts education, diversity within community, and lifelong learning.