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The Baja Challenge : Glendale Students Find Enthusiasm, Awareness and Joy of Learning in Tiny Mexican Town

July 07, 1988|ESTHER SCHRADER | Times Staff Writer

BAHIA DE LOS ANGELES, Mexico — Jose Mercade spends three months a year in this tiny Mexican town. The Glendale Community College instructor knows every family here. He would like to see just one of the American students he brings each summer develop the same kind of intimacy with these people and their land.

On the shores of the Sea of Cortez halfway down the Baja peninsula, Bahia de Los Angeles is a remote community of 65 poor Mexican families. Under Mercade's guidance, it has doubled for the past 15 summers as the unlikely second home for groups of faculty and students from Glendale Community College.

Every summer about 100 Glendale College students spend a few weeks in Bahia on a series of foreign study programs Mercade directs. They come to study marine biology, history, Spanish, ecology and art. But Mercade, who coordinates the programs taught by a number of Glendale College professors, says he also has a grander scheme in mind.

"Maybe when they go back to Glendale and they see a Mexican-American digging a ditch, they won't be such harsh judges," he says over tortillas at one of two restaurants in town. "They can see down here that the Mexicans have to live and struggle and love and carry on their daily lives too."

Rich Sea Life Off Coast

The Glendale College field station, where students are introduced to the life--marine and otherwise--of this desert place, is one of only two of its kind on the Baja peninsula. A number of other California schools bring students to Baja on various programs, and universities around the country have advanced research facilities which take advantage of the rich sea life in the waters off Baja's eastern coast. But only Glendale and MiraCosta community colleges maintain permanent student study facilities there.

Bahia de Los Angeles is no Club Med. It can be challenging. The drive takes 12 hours. There are no phones in town, and electricity, provided by a local generator, frequently fails during the day and is turned off at 10 every night. Fresh water is scarce, and so are showers. There is no escape from the stunning heat.

But there are also dolphins and whales and the chance to sleep on the beach beneath the stars. Outside the squat, sand-colored field station, laughingly dubbed "Casablanca de Glendale College," students play volleyball and other sports after class while listening to reggae music.

The marine biology program, the first of a series of five courses offered at the field station this summer, is rigorous. In three weeks, 16 students complete the equivalent of a semester's work--and get the same number of college credits it would normally take them months to acquire. Days typically blend four hours of classroom lectures with field trips to islands and reefs. A thick text and an exam at the end of each week assure that students spend much of the balmy evenings studying.

The experience, instructors say, instills students with enthusiasm rarely found in the classroom. After only four days on the program, students who didn't know a mussel from a clam back in Glendale spoke animatedly about things such as red coral, sea cucumber and segmented worms.

Way of Bridging the Gap

Mercade, a counselor at Glendale College and director of the Baja program, is a Cuban native who came to the United States when he was 13. He says his mission is to expose public college students to the kind of foreign study available at private universities. He also says he sees the program as a small but important way of bridging the gap between America and its poorer neighbor.

"It seems to me that public education has become a rotten way to teach people about the world," he says as he drives his Jeep over the town's bumpy roads. "In private schools they give students a chance to experience the joy of more than just learning, of being students of life. There is no sense of joy in learning when you sit in a classroom and that's it."

Private colleges around the country offer experiences as varied as working with the Peace Corps in Thailand or studying the environment in Kenya. But few community colleges have programs in third world countries.

"I see no reason why public colleges, where after all, the majority of Americans go to school, shouldn't give Americans an understanding of the world," Mercade says.

'Paradise by the Sea'

Glendale College provides full financial aid for one student in each of the five courses every summer, and posters hanging from the campus center of the college on Mountain Street in Glendale exhort students to come and enjoy "Our Paradise by the Sea."

But the Baja program is open to anyone, and students from colleges throughout Southern California take advantage of it. Only six of the 16 students on the marine biology program, which ends this week, attend Glendale College. The others are from private schools, including USC, and public institutions. They said they come to take a good course and have a good time.

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