It is incredible to come to a place where you feel you are held so beautifully, ways that you did not know were possible for a higher education system. This is about how the university I am attending can be a possible example to reframe higher education in our current times, and a call to those who need this shift in their lives.
The Universidad del Medio Ambiente - UMA - (university of the environment) is nestled in the rolling hills of Valle de Bravo, a rural town by a lake and a lush pine forest in central Mexico. Founded 10 years ago, it was a dream of a small team of inspired and inspiring people, who wanted to create a space for those who were conducting environmental projects but lacked connections, the skills and the wider systemic knowledge to do so.
©Veneranda Mora – Taking classes in the outdoors amphitheatre.
The dream grew until it became the university it is now, offering seven officially recognised Masters spanning from regenerative agriculture, environmental law, to education and architecture, with many other courses in between. The ethics of this place can be found in the ground. The campus is built to be an essential part of the thriving ecosystem of the land it resides in, where the water management is circular and reconnects to the forest garden and many other species planted with the students to regenerate its once eroded fields. The buildings were designed by architect Oscar Hagerman, who is not only famous for designing beautiful buildings with natural materials, but also incorporating native knowledge and needs to his works. Dora Ruíz Galindo, Oscars’ wife, was the inspiration for the education model of the university.
©Eliza Colin Hodges - back from a field trip in the nearby woods
Dora is known nationally and internationally for being a pioneer in challenging conventional educational structures in Mexico and being an ally and fighter of many of its battles, most notably in indigenous and multi-cultural settings. She was not content with seeing a school as a structure of ‘educating’ colonial modes of thinking and organising, but seeks to create a place to make meaning that is useful to people's lives and for justice and equality. Dora saw that schools, could be places to destroy agency, cooperation and alternative models to capitalism that were thriving before in much of Mexico. She went into communities with her learnings from other popular education path-setters to really understand together with the participants what the needs were. Acknowledging how we produce knowledge and power in higher education is at the forefront of this institution, to challenge, redefine, and thoroughly examine through theory and practice what it means and for what ends one teaches and learns.
©Dessiré Abúndez - a view over the campus with outdoor activities.
At UMA, how we interact, thread theory into practice, and how we create something in our tangible existence that promotes regeneration, is at the heart of every lesson. Our classes aim at being non-hierarchical, we all come with responsibility and as bearers of ideas, to share, debate, and construct meaning together. The UMA provides a radical approach as we are not even really following the ‘university’ model, but rather creating a ‘community of learning’: teachers, invitees, other members of staff are as responsible for making learning happen as are the students. The UMA is not interested in producing people divorced from the reality of life. On the contrary: you cannot graduate until you have properly designed and started to implement (with rigorous questioning into your purpose and ethics) a project that will not only sustain, but regenerate the systems you are part of.
©Ygal Maya Bardavid - a view from above, design of the campus by Oscar Hagerman
Before UMA, I studied at Durham (UK), and because I lived abroad, I was not aware of quite how elitist it was until I saw its culture and value system for myself. Although it tried to deny it, there was a deeply racist, classist, ableist and generally aggressive direction to the institution, both to its students and local community. Despite the fact that the university kept saying it was putting in place schemes or ‘awareness campaigns’ to fight the problem, being on the outside and in UMA now highlights just how much my last university and most from neo-imperialistic countries just don’t care, because the implicit goal of the imperial university was to uphold dominant and extractivist power structures and relations it directly benefits from.
With accepting and rewarding students that performed well in past elite education structures, designed to funnel them into deeply problematic job sectors, the best it can do in the branches of ‘help’ and ‘charity work’ it promotes is always at best tokenistic and never attempted to challenge the structures it was embedded into. At UMA not only does the model attract and accept people who are actually on the ground, in their local communities already trying to make a systemic change, but its ethics and direction makes evident just how much could be done if a university actually cared and made sure the rest of its system acted accordingly.
In my 10 months here, I have seen students and staff practice with real passion and bravery, skills and modes of thinking that are barely touched upon in ‘usual’ universities. The barriers between our classes and degrees are broken down, as we all interact, exchange and debate in our ‘common classes’ on how to think systemically, critically, ethically and sustainably together about what we are doing, pushing the perceived boundaries between people with the need to feed the knowledge from our personal masters into our collective pool of understanding.
Talks and readings span from the decolonisation of knowledge and project based systems, our relationship to nature, our bodies, minds and collective wellbeing, as well as different ways of thinking and acting that break the paradigms I observed in my past education system. In my short time here, we have already started to plan together how we want to respond to what is happening in the world, with every apparent rank collaborating to make this happen.
But the thing I want to end on and that has touched me the most, is the level of real, human, and complex interdependent care systems this university fosters. Not because it has ‘good mental health services’, but because it believes that we need each other healthy and happy in order to create hope and change. Actual learning is (surprisingly) more important than grades. In many of our classes, pressure is taken off our grading system, but is replaced with rigorous feedback that really challenges us to take leaps that I would have previously shrugged off in my old university.
Our teachers also get to know us properly, through gatherings, story telling by campfires and pizza, our (numerous) Whatsapp groups where laughs and help are always a phone call away, and because they ask, offer guidance, and are committed to the idea that we are a collective and the wellbeing of its individuals is the wellbeing of all. For that, the university has also dedicated a whole module to talk in small groups about our connecting to something more than our ego and strengthening our personal and interpersonal resilience and care systems with trained facilitators that follow us through our personal process. We learn to observe our patterns, connect to passion and joy as a source of energy and de-glorify hustle culture, with a goal of creating strong and loving individuals to both ourselves and the world. We care, ask each other how we are at the start of our lessons, sometimes cry and then laugh a lot.
The UMA is not a utopia, we fight and argue just as any community does, and it still exists in a world of capitalism. But how I can speak so positively about it in general is because not only does it face these topics with bravery and belief it can change, but because it has in place ways to better itself that other ‘usual’ universities do not. The full and partial grants are an example where students can exchange such ideas of betterment that is usually done for free at other universities, for their course time, making the ecosystem keep adapting to the current times and accessible to all backgrounds.
This is also a call to all those who may be thinking of taking a radically different approach to their studies; the university is opening up a first undergraduate degree next year, pushing us to design and run our own socio-ecologial projects. This is a call to decentralise knowledge creation in anglophone and western counties such as the UK, to take a leap of faith and come to Mexico if you are a young person seeking to broaden your horizon, to sharpen our abilities to cooperate internationally in such transformative spaces and see what else is being done abroad, that I promise is way above expectations.