Colorful mariachi bands play on side streets, taco stands fill every corner, and parades celebrating their independence echo throughout neighborhoods. Mexico is rich in culture, but these tourist attractions are not the country Catie Prechtel ’14 has come to know.
“It’s not everyday life,” she said.
“There are so many different things you hear about Mexico, but once you get there you’re like, ‘Oh my God, everyone is just like us in the U.S.’ I felt like I was in Spanish-speaking Oregon,” Prechtel said. “I think it’s important for people to understand that a lot of the people there are just like you and me.”
After graduating from Pacific University, Prechtel received a Fulbright award to work as an English assistant in Mexico. The U.S. Fulbright Student award is a grant given to recent college graduates, allowing them to travel to abroad for research, teaching, volunteering or community involvement.
She gives a special thanks to Pacific University professors, especially Nancy Christoph, for pushing her to apply during her senior year.
“She was a shining star from the very beginning,” said Christoph, a Spanish professor at Pacific. “She was one of the few students who really cared about grammar; she was clearly into the language and, beyond trying to get a good grade, she was deeply passionate about the Spanish language.”
Prechtel was born in Talent, a small town in southern Oregon. She chose Pacific from among a pool of 17 colleges where she applied.
“I felt very welcomed when I visited, Pacific felt like home,” Prechtel said. “I felt like I really hit the jackpot.”
During her time at Pacific, Prechtel double majored in anthropology and Spanish. She was co-president of the anthropology club with Charlotte Basch ’14 during her last two years of college and tried to get the club more involved with events and field trips. She remembers going to an annual dinner with anthropology faculty at Marrakesh, a Moroccan restaurant she grew to love. She also enjoyed the seminar Basch’s mom gave on traditional healing methods using herbs and plants from the Pacific Northwest, because she wanted people to realize that anthropology applies to everything.
“It’s all cultures and all people,” she said.
During her junior and senior years, Prechtel also worked closely with Adelante Mujeres, an organization that provides education and empowerment opportunities to low-income Latina women and their families in Forest Grove. The women would come to the university to learn literature, and Prechtel led a poetry class as part of a GED program for the women.
She also volunteered at Centro Cultural in Cornelius, during her sophomore year as part of a 30-hour requirement for Christoph’s Mexican-American Cultural Exploration class. Prechtel taught a basic-level English class to adults, and the experience sparked her passion for helping people from Mexico.
“It showed me that there really are opportunities to do this,” Prechtel said. “I am really grateful for those opportunities.”
Prechtel applied for the Fulbright program to Mexico during her senior year, and three months after graduation, she embarked on her nine-month trip. She was an English assistant at the Universidad Tecnológica de León, a technological university in León, Guanajuato.
Every morning she got up at 5 a.m. to catch a bus and be ready to teach at 7 a.m. Fulbright requirements limited her to 25 hours a week in the classrooms where she led activities, taught grammar and role-played with English students.
“I love working with students, especially in the college age. I think it’s so fun to teach them language,” Prechtel said. “They understand that education is super important, and they try to make it a priority, plus all the schools demand a lot from them, which I think is important, so hopefully all the students come out of here feeling like they got their money’s worth.”
When she was not in the classroom, Prechtel found herself joking and sharing ideas with other teachers, grabbing a cup of coffee with friends, and taking sculpture classes in the city center in León.
She returned from her academic year abroad in May 2015 with a clear desire to continue teaching English. So in June, she returned to Mexico for another year teaching English.
“I think it really gave me direction for what I want to do with my career,” Prechtel said. “I realized working there, that I love working with students.”
In her future she hopes to eventually obtain a master’s or doctorate in Spanish to teach in the United States. She also wants to work with the community.
“Because I’ve been given this opportunity, I feel like I really need to be able to give back,” Prechtel said. “You can really make a difference if you want.”