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by Matias Ramos

In June of this year, I had the opportunity to visit the Universidad Veracruzana (UV) and see a wide array of community engagement, entrepreneurship, and research programs. This visit was endorsed by the Youth Economic Participation Initiative (YEPI), a Talloires Network program dedicated to supporting university programs tackling youth unemployment in critical regions of the world. Along with me were YEPI Director Jennifer Catalano and Carol Carrier of the University of Minnesota, YEPI’s learning partner.

The university, located in Veracruz, Mexico, is a stalwart of civic engagement, committed to ensuring every student participates in activities that link their studies in the classroom to the surrounding communities, outside the ivory tower. UV enrolls more than 62,000 students in 304 degree programs. They attend classes in five campuses spread throughout the state. In addition, more than 12,000 others participate in at least one of the many extension programs in topics such as foreign languages, music, art, and education.

Veracruz is a fascinating and active city. It’s zócalo, or main plaza, is visited by locals and tourists alike until the late hours of the night. Along its shoreline, runners and walkers exercise on the beach, where the local government has installed soccer goals and gym equipment. The region is one of the most historical areas in all of North America. This is the place that the oldest civilization in the continent, the Olmecs, called home. It’s where the first Catholic church in Latin America was erected, following the arrival of Hernan Cortes and his conquistadores. Spanish, French, and American troops came here looking to conquer Mexico, making the city the first line of defense and earning it the epithet of “Heroica Veracruz

But for all its history, Veracruz leaders are focused on the present. Unemployment has been on the rise over the last couple of years, as has poverty. The average registered worker in Veracruz makes $22 per day, but many workers are part of the underground economy and their pay is usually lower than that. Nonetheless, the city is growing in population and notoriety. Later this year, for example, it will be the host to the 2014 Central American and Caribbean Games, a steppingstone for Olympic qualification in many disciplines. It boasts of a critical port that’s a huge part of its economy and a main point of connection between Mexico and the outside world.

During a seminar meant to train academics on the importance of fostering student entrepreneurship and innovation, a representative from the Secretary of Economic Development was present. He spoke of how critical it is to ensure that new economic alliances help strengthen youth employment in the region.

If the Emprende UV and other student programs are an indication, young people in Veracruz are ready to take the helm. We met thirty students from the latest iteration of Emprende UV, a classroom-style program that aims to foster UV students from various disciplines to develop innovative ideas and business from an experiential methodology. They were curious about the concepts and eager to answer questions. We engaged them on their desire to be there. We asked what brought them there, and what effects entrepreneurship training had in their overall university experience. They spoke of losing their fear of starting something new, and about the need to have a solid plan and a cohesive team. “This is not only a project towards employability, but also towards the innovative attitudes that foster entrepreneurship,” said Rebeca Hernandez Aramburo, director of Engagement at the university.

fruit-infused coffee at UVSome of these students are already involved in business projects, taking their work from a theoretical to a practical level. One group, for example, is working on a sustainable fruit drying machine. Their machine is special for several reasons. First, it uses solar energy, which is environmentally friendly. It’s also cost-effective, saving money for the small producers who are the target population that will use the machine. Another student has developed his own brand of chips called Dashitos, produced with taro, a tuber also known as malanga in Mexico. Elias Becerra, the young entrepreneur behind Dashitos, told us that his small business has grown from one to fifteen points of sale in the last two years. Becerra hopes to study in a post-graduate agricultural business program in the United States. Another group, pictured above, created a brand of fruit-infused iced coffee.

Our visit also took us to different areas of the state, far outside from the campuses, where the university works. At the so-called “UV houses”, students live and work in under-resourced communities. They provide basic dental, medical, and nutrition services for those in need who can’t afford care or can’t get to a hospital. At the “Universidad Veracruzana Intercultural”, students from indigenous communities participate in programs that help them establish local businesses and support existing ones. These students, coming from bilingual communities where Spanish is often limited, were exemplary demonstrators of young people committed to local growth and sustainable development.

In all, the Universidad Veracruzana, with its vast reach and focused commitment to engagement, stands out as an example to other universities seeking to reach out and positively engage with their surrounding communities. There is a lot of work to be done, but UV is ready to make it happen.